Our reading today begins with the martyrdom of the Apostle James at the hands of Herod (12:1-2). We see that because this pleased the unbelieving Jews, Herod also arrested Peter (v. 3). Luke is sure to point out that Peter was guarded by four squads of soldiers (v. 4). These “squads” consisted of four soldiers each. So Peter was watched by 16 soldiers. He was actually bound to two of them by chains (v. 6). And again Christ sends an angel. He wakes Peter up and the chains fall off (v. 7), then he leads Peter out of the prison (vv. 8-9). The outer gate opens on its own (v. 10), and as they are walking down the street, the angel disappears (v. 10).
Peter winds up at the home of the mother of John Mark (the Mark that wrote the Gospel account at Peter’s direction) where the church is praying (v. 12 – see v. 5). This likely means that this home was the regular meeting place of the Jerusalem church. That the reaction of the church is that it must be Peter’s “angel” at the door (v. 15) does not mean the early church believed that we become angels when we die. They believed that everyone had a guardian angel (see Matt 18:10, Heb 1:14), and they must have thought Peter to be dead if his angel left him. It may be that the angel that appeared to Peter was his guardian angel. Peter tells them what happened, and instructs them to tell James and the brothers, and then he goes into hiding (v. 17) This would be James the brother of Jesus (who wrote the letter bearing his name). We see that he has already become a leader in the Jerusalem church (where he would be the pastor for some years).
Note that Herod had all of the soldiers put to death because of Peter’s escape (v. 19). This, and his anger and pride (vv. 20-23), reveal his character to us. He exalted himself, and God humbled him (v. 23). Herod was proven to be no god. We see that the church continued to grow (v. 24), and that Saul and Barnabas returned to Antioch from delivering the famine relief to Jerusalem, bringing John Mark back with them (v. 25).
While in Antioch, the Holy Spirit through some prophets set apart Saul and Barnabas for missionary work (13:1-3). Again in verse 4 Luke is careful to point out that it is the Spirit doing the work. So the missionaries (Saul, Barnabas, and John Mark) sail to the island of Cyprus (Salamis being the eastern port of the island) (v. 4-5). Note that the preaching is still directed towards Jews, even in foreign lands. Paphos is the western port of the island (v. 6), meaning they traversed the whole island preaching the Gospel.
While in Paphos, they run across a magician names Bar-Jesus, Aramaic for “son of Jesus” (v. 6) who wants to deter faith in the Gospel (v. 8) In verse 9 we see that Saul was now called Paul. In the power of the Spirit, here in a foreign land, preaching to a Gentile governor, Paul rebukes the powers of darkness. This “son of Jesus” is really a son of the devil (v. 10). The magician is stricken blind (v 11), and the governor believes because of the works and the words of Paul (v. 12).
The missionaries then sail to Pamphylia, the southern coast of modern-day Turkey (v. 13). We see that John Mark goes home at this point (see below). Paul and Barnabas go to Antioch in Pisidia (not the same Antioch that sent them as missionaries – that is in Syria). During Sabbath worship, Paul is asked if he has anything to say (v. 15), and he preaches the Gospel. He focuses on Jesus as the greater Son of David (vv. 22-23, 36-37) and the fact that the Gospel is first for the Jews (v. 26). He says that the Jews in Jerusalem rejected Christ (v. 27) and killed Him (vv. 28-29). But Jesus rose from the dead (v. 30, 37) fulfilling the promises God made to Israel (vv. 32-35). It is in the name of the resurrected Christ that Paul preaches to them the forgiveness of sins (v. 38). What the law could not do – justify man – faith in Christ does (v. 39). He implores them not to join the Jerusalem Jews in rejecting Jesus (vv. 40-41).
We see that many are converted (vv. 42-43). When Paul preaches the following week (v. 44), unbelieving Jews are jealous (v. 45 – see 5:17) and begin to speak against him and the Gospel. Paul explains that the Gospel had to come to them (the Jews) first, but because of their rejection of it, the Gospel will go to the nations (v. 46 – this is an important part of Paul’s reasoning in Romans 9-11). At this word, many of the Gentiles believe (v. 48). Notice that those who believe were those appointed to eternal life. And though the missionaries were forced out of the city by persecution (v. 50), God would use it to spread the Word to more Gentiles (v. 51).
In Iconium, the preaching of Paul and Barnabas convert both Jews and Gentiles (14:1). And again, unbelieving Jews cause trouble (v. 2). Note that miraculous works accompanied the preaching as it spread to new areas (v. 3). Also note that in verse 4, the term “apostles” is used of Paul and Barnabas. The term is used in multiple ways in the Bible. Here, it speaks not of the Twelve, but of those sent as ambassadors of Christ. Once again, persecution (v. 5) leads to the spread of the Gospel (vv. 6-7).
While in Lystra, Paul heals a crippled man (vv. 8-10). The pagans there believe Paul and Barnabas to be Greek gods (vv. 11-12). The priest of the temple of Zeus (who they believed Barnabas to be) hurries to offer sacrifices to Barnabas (v. 13). Paul and Barnabas encourage the people to turn from these “vain things” to the true God (v. 15). There is spiritual warfare happening here! Note that Paul explains that God had disinherited the nations (v. 16 – see Deut 32:8), yet continued to bear witness to Himself through nature (v. 17 – see Rom 1:19-20).
The Jews from Antioch and Iconium had followed Paul and Barnabas, and took advantage of the situation. Paul is stoned almost to the point of death (v. 19), but the persecution again leads to the spread of the Gospel (vv. 20-21). The missionaries then return to the cities where they had already made converts to warn of the persecution they will face (vv. 21-22) and they establish church leadership (v. 23). Paul and Barnabas then return to Antioch (v. 26) and tell how God was converting the nations (v. 27). Thus ends the first missionary journey of Paul.
In chapter 15, we have the famous “Jerusalem Council.” Now that the nations are being brought into the fold of God, some of the Jewish believers (from Judea) insisted that people must first be Jews (including circumcision) in order to be Christians (15:1). They said you have to first be part of the Old Covenant before you can be part of the New Covenant. Paul and Barnabas, having seen firsthand the grace of God being poured out on the nations, disagree (v. 2). So they go to Jerusalem, passing through Phoenicia (Gentile territory) and Samaria, where there are already believers (v. 3). Luke is making a point here. He is saying the Judaizers are wrong!
Note that this is an in-house debate. The Judaizers were believers (v. 5). As the discussion is happening, Peter (apparently no longer in hiding) reminds everyone of his encounter with Cornelius and what it means (vv. 7-9). Why would they want to add requirements of the Law to God’s grace, especially considering they (the Jews) weren’t ever able to meet the requirements (v. 10)? Both Jew and Gentile are saved by grace alone (v. 11).
Paul and Barnabas then recount their missionary journey (v. 12). Then James (the Lord’s brother, pastor of the Jerusalem church) explains that the Gentile inclusion in the people of God was predicted by the prophets (v. 15). He quotes Amos 9:11-12 as proof (vv. 16-17)1. Since God told them the Gentiles were part of His salvation, James advises that they should not place the yoke of the Law on Gentiles (v. 19). The four abstinences (v. 20) suggested by James are not requirements of the Law, they are elements of pagan worship. The point is that the Gentiles have to give up their false gods.
The decision of the council is written as the decision of the Holy Spirit (v. 28). Paul and Barnabas are sent back to Antioch with men named Judas and Silas (v. 22). There is great joy over the decision (v. 31). After preaching, Judas and Silas are sent back to Jerusalem (v. 33). Some manuscripts here insert “but it seemed good to Silas to stay there.” Though not attested by a majority of manuscripts, verse 40 seems to confirm that Silas did, in fact, stay behind.
Paul and Barnabas want to visit the churches they established on their first missionary journey (v. 36). When Barnabas wants to give John Mark another shot at joining them (v. 37), Paul thinks it to be a bad idea (v. 38). That it is because he “had not gone with them to the work” can mean that Paul does not trust John Mark to stick it out, or it could simply be that Paul’s preference would be not to take someone with them that the Christians of Asia Minor would not know. Sadly, no agreement could be reached, and Barnabas takes Mark on his missionary journey (v. 39), and Paul now selects Silas to be his traveling companion (v. 40). Barnabas sails back to Cyprus, but Paul stays on land going north through Syria, then west into Cilicia (modern-day southeast Turkey).
1 You may notice a difference between your translation of Amos 9:12 and James’s quote. Why? Because the original Hebrew did not include vowel markings. A simple vowel change, and “Edom” becomes “Adam” (which means “man” or “mankind”). James would have been quoting the Septuagint.