Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Acts: a Book Report (part 2)

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

To read Acts: a Book Report (part 1) click HERE.

After Jesus flies back to heaven, the disciples return to Jerusalem, and they choose a new disciple to replace Judas, who had betrayed Jesus.  Acts tells the terrible fate of Judas.  He was standing in a field and his intestines burst out!  In Matthew, Judas hangs himself.  Either way, Judas paid for his betrayal.  So the disciples choose a guy named Matthias to replace Judas as the new 12th apostle.

This painting, called "The Suicide of Judas" combines both traditions--that he hung himself, and that his intestines were blown out.  Also, Satan is shown stealing his baby-soul!  Satan kind of reminds me of Salacious Crumb, the little side-kick of Jabba the Hut from Star Wars.

A bit later, during a Jewish harvest festival called Shavout (or Pentecost), the apostles are hanging out when suddenly the Holy Spirit comes down upon them with strong wind and "tongues of fire."  It's sort of like that scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Nazis open the Ark and peoples' faces start melting off.  Except, instead of peoples' faces melting off, the disciples start miraculously speaking in different languages that they'd never before learned.  This is where the expression "speaking in tongues" comes from.

Pentecost and the "Tongues of Fire"

As you might expect, a crowd gathers around this bizarre display, and it turns out that the disciples are speaking about God and Jesus in the listeners' native languages.  It's like a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel, when the languages were confused.  The apostles are apparently being equipped by the Spirit to tell about Jesus in foreign lands and languages.  Some of the onlookers think that the disciples are drunk, but Peter is like, "We're not drunk.  We're filled with the Holy Spirit!" Then Peter explains to them that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah, that he'd been resurrected, and that people should "repent" and be baptized in Jesus' name.  So, some of them are baptized.  These are the first "converts." 

As time goes on, more people are converted, and believe in Jesus.  The followers of Jesus create a community and basically live like communists.  Acts says, "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need...Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common...There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold."  That's right, the first Christians were commies!  If they were "filled with the Holy Spirit" I guess that means God and Jesus are also commies!

After their encounter with the Holy Spirit, the disciples get special powers.  They can heal people's diseases and cast out demons, just like Jesus did.  As the Jesus movement grows in Jerusalem, these early Christians come into conflict with Jewish leaders who find the teachings about Jesus to be blasphemous and deeply offensive.  Heated arguments ensue, and both sides get pretty nasty.  Peter keeps insisting that "the Jews" killed Jesus, even though it was really the Romans.  There's a deepening division between the Jewish leaders like the Pharisees and the early Christians, who are also Jews.  Peter is arrested by the temple police a couple times, but escapes prison and keeps on preaching.

The community of Christians continues to grow and spread, and more leaders emerge.  One early leader is a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian (at that time, this was totally common) named Stephen, who actually becomes the first Christian "martyr."  He gets into a disagreement and is stoned to death for blasphemy by "the Jews."  One of these Jewish "bad guys" is a Pharisee named Saul, who seeks out Christian "blasphemers" and punishes them.  Because of the persecution they face in Jerusalem, many Christians flee to other cities and areas.  Ironically, the persecution helps spread Christianity.

"The Stoning of Saint Stephen" by Rembrandt Van Rijn

On their travels, these early Christians encounter some interesting characters, like a magician named Simon Magus, who thinks he can buy the Holy Spirit.  Silly Simon Magus, you can't buy God!  Some disciples, like Philip, go to Africa and make converts in Ethiopia.  In fact, some of the earliest surviving Christian communities are in Ethiopia.

Philip Baptizes an Ethiopian man

Meanwhile, Saul is still persecuting Christians like crazy.  He's a real zealot.  But then something amazing happens.  While traveling to Damascus (in Syria) to lay the smack down on some Christians, a great light shines on him and the voice of Jesus booms at him, "Enough with the persecution!  I'm gonna blind you!"  So Saul is blinded (temporarily) and his friends help him to Damascus, where he becomes a follower of Jesus and re-gains his sight.  Saul the "bad guy" is about to become Paul the "good guy"!  Stay tuned for the amazing adventures of Paul, early Christian superstar!

"The Conversion of Saul" by Caravaggio

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