The Book of Acts – An Overview


As Christians living in the 21st Century, and familiar with the many and varied forms of communication that bombard us daily, we are all too familiar with the concept of the “sequel”. “Despicable Me” becomes “Despicable Me 2”, and then “Despicable Me 3” in quick succession, and almost as fast as the studios can churn them out. Fortunately, these particular sequels have proven to be at least as good as the original, but this has not always been the case. Who can forget “Ocean’s Twelve” the follow up to “Ocean’s Eleven”, and who has even heard of “Oliver’s Story” the sequel to “Love Story”?

The Book of Acts can be thought of as a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, first of all because it was written by the same author. In addition, a comparison of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts shows some remarkable similarities – especially in the ordering of events:

Luk 1:3 NIV  … I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  Both books are addressed to “Theophilus” Act 1:1 NIV  In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote … 
Luk 3:21-22 NIV  … Jesus was baptized too. …  (22)  and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. Close to the start of both books, the empowering anointing of the Holy Spirit is emphasized. Act 2:4 NIV  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Luk 4:18-19 NIV  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,  (19)  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Early in both books Luke shows how first Jesus and then His Apostles are fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.
Jesus quotes Is. 61:1 – 2;
Peter quotes Joel 2:28ff.
Both quotes concern the work of the Holy Spirit.
Both books are all about the extension of God’s Kingdom.

Act 2:17ff NIV  “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.  (18)  Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 
Luk 5:17-26 NIV  One day Jesus was teaching, … And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick.  (18)    (24)  So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”  First miracle – healing of a man paralysed. Act 3:1-10 NIV  One day Peter and John were going up to the temple …  (2)  Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate … (4)  Peter looked straight at him, as did John. … (6)  Then Peter said, “… In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

… and so we could go on …

Finally, the fact that Acts is a sequel is seen very clearly when the end of the Gospel is compared to the beginning of Acts:

  • Luke ends with the resurrected Jesus telling His disciples to stay in Jerusalem until “you have been clothed with power from on high” (24:49). He then ascends into heaven (24:50ff).
  • Acts begins by summarizing this ending (1:1-2), and by repeating Jesus’ command to wait in Jerusalem “for the gift my Father promised” (1:4). Then Luke retells Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Acts 1:4-11).

Acts is very definitely a sequel – a triumphant sequel – and a more than worthy continuation of the story of the advancement of God’s Kingdom that began in the Gospel of Luke. This sequel is no disappointment – if anything, the stories it relates take things to a whole new level of supernatural triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition. Acts describes one victory after another as Jesus’ followers (the Church) march unstoppably all over the Mediterranean world of the 1st century. Yes, there are setbacks, but nothing stands in the way for too long – Christ is triumphant in and through His faithful witnesses!

Title of the Book

We have come to know Luke’s sequel as the “Acts of the Apostles”, but this isn’t really a true reflection of its contents. The very earliest manuscripts (written in Greek of course) don’t give it a name at all; the title as we have it today was added later, probably in the late 2nd century, as a way of quickly identifying it from other books in the New Testament. Although it does describe the acts of some of the Apostles, notably Peter, John and Paul, other key players such as Barnabas, John-Mark, Stephen and Philip appear at certain points. It would be more accurate to refer to it as the “The Acts of God through His Spirit-Anointed People”, or perhaps “The Acts of the Holy Spirit in the Early Church”.


There have been a number of attempts to produce a structure for Acts, and the majority of scholars recognize that it divides into three overlapping sections as shown below.

It is useful to keep this three-part division in mind, as it makes the following, more detailed structure diagram easier to understand and engage with:

The Highlights – the Trailer

Imagine that you were the Director of a blockbuster film telling the story of Acts (not a bad idea actually …). What bits of the film would you put into the trailer? I suggest the following events might make the shortlist:

  • The Day of Pentecost – baptism with Holy Spirit (2:1 – 13);
  • Peter’s Sermon at Pentecost – 3,000 Jewish believers added (2:14 – 41);
  • A lame beggar gets healed (3:1 – 10);
  • Ananias and Sapphira – lying to the Holy Spirit (5:1 – 11);
  • The Martyrdom of Stephen (6:1 – 7:60);
  • The Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip (8:26 – 40);
  • Saul’s Conversion on the road to Damascus (9:1 – 31);
  • Peter’s vision of the unclean animals – he baptizes Cornelius, a Gentile (10:1 – 48);
  • Peter’s miraculous escape from prison (12:6 – 19);
  • 2nd lame man (in Lystra) gets healed – during Paul’s 1st missionary journey – Paul stoned (14:8 – 23);
  • The Jerusalem Council recognizes Gentiles as equal believers (15:1 – 35);
  • Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man – 2nd missionary journey (16:6 – 10);
  • Paul and Silas in prison at Philippi – the conversion of the jailer & his family (16:16 – 40);
  • Paul in Athens – the “unknown god” (17:16 – 34);
  • Paul in Corinth (18:1 – 17);
  • Paul in Ephesus – 3rd missionary journey – the riot of the silver smiths (19:1 – 41);
  • Paul arrested in the Jerusalem temple (21:27 – 22:30);
  • The plot of kill Paul – Romans take him to Caesarea (23:12 – 24:21);
  • Paul sails for Rome – storm and shipwreck on Malta (27:1 – 28:10);
  • Paul arrives in Rome (28:11 – 28:31)

OK – so maybe it’s a long list. Can you imagine the immense difficulty the director would have in choosing which scenes to include and which to leave out?


The book of Acts is chock full of dramatic incidents – all of which have been carefully chosen and compiled by Luke to demonstrate:

  • The power of the Holy Spirit to transform, direct and motivate the followers of Christ to spread the Gospel;
  • God’s purpose and plan to extend the Gospel – His plan of salvation – to Gentiles as well as Jews;
  • God’s pattern for becoming a Christian – the fivefold elements (Acts 2:38-42)
  1. Repentance from sin;
  2. Water baptism;
  3. Receiving (and accepting) forgiveness for sin – past, present and future;
  4. Receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit – both indwelling and infilling;
  5. Becoming joined to and united with the body of Christ – the local family of God, the local Church;
    “This pattern keeps reappearing in Acts, not always in the same sequence as in 2:38-42, but with the same elements present (e.g., 8:12-17; 10:44-48; 19:1-20)” (Walton, 2008 p. 80)
  • The present reality of Old Testament promises. “Luke presents the church’s growth as fulfilling Scripture, with a particular stress on Isaiah and the Psalms (e.g., ‘fulfilment’ language is prominent in the key speech in 13:27, 29, 33-35, 41, citing Psalms, Isaiah, and Habakkuk)” (Walton, 2008 p. 76)
  • The persecution that is the inevitable result of this expansion of the Kingdom of God into all corners of the earth (cf. Jesus’ “High Priestly prayer” in John 17);
  • God’s provision to those undergoing persecution for His sake. His Father did not “take this cup” from Jesus, His unique Son (Lk. 22:42), but enabled Him to obey, even to death on the cross. So too we can expect God to enable us to persevere in the midst of our painful experiences, and thus be blessed (Mt. 5:10-12);
  • Pastoral difficulties – people problems and problem people – Luke is above all honest in his portrayal of the growing pains of the early Church. Down through the centuries, the Church has always had to deal with people who just “don’t get it”. This is both an encouragement and a warning – when God moves, expect resistance from within and opposition from without – but don’t give up – keep believing in God and His power and purposes. Acts clearly shows that we, the Church, are an unstoppable force, because …;
  • God’s people empowered by His Spirit are irresistible – God will conquer hearts and minds in and through His anointed people!
  • God’s prescription (or model) for Church life, discipline and mission. If we learn to follow the original methods, albeit adapted for 21st century realities, we will bear much fruit, just as we were intended to from the beginning.

Historical Setting

It can be helpful to see how the book of Acts aligns with events taking place elsewhere in the Roman Empire at the time. The following timeline diagram comes from (Galan, 2017 p. 188).

The Apostle Paul in Acts

Arguably the 2nd most influential person1 in the whole of the New Testament is the man born Saul of Tarsus, who became the Apostle Paul. Saul was born in about 5 or 6 A.D. as a fully-fledged Roman citizen – a relatively rare status for that time – many had to purchase their citizenship or else remain non-citizens. We know relatively little about his early life apart from what he himself revealed. He tells us that he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel” (22:3 lit. trans.), who was a highly respected teacher in Jerusalem between 22 and 55 A.D. He also tells us that he was proud to be a “Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee” (23:6), which meant that he adhered to the strictest interpretation of Jewish Law (26:5; Php. 3:5). We know that he was an extremist in his views, because of the way in which he attempted to stamp out those who began to turn away from Judaism and give their lives to following Jesus. However, as we know, Jesus had other plans for Paul, and he met him in the most powerful of ways as he journeyed to Damascus intent on rooting out more of the early Church.

The following table attempts to summarize the rest of Paul’s life and ministry, including some indication of when evangelical scholars believe that he wrote most of his letters to the churches that he founded.

Paul’s Missionary Journeys

Rather than reproduce annotated maps showing the route of Paul’s various journeys here, I’m going to direct you to an excellent website that displays them in animated form:


Acts is an extremely valuable, vibrant and vital sequel to Jesus’ ministry on earth. In fact can be viewed as His continuing Acts in and through His Spirit-anointed people, orchestrated from His position of supreme authority sat at the right hand of His Father in Heaven. Acts is a glorious story of the early Church and should be read and studied by all Christians in every age.

As we read this wonderful book, we should be asking the following questions of ourselves continually:

  1. How does our church experience match up to that of the early church? If there are marked differences, perhaps we need to re-evaluate and re-position ourselves to become more like them? Is God or man at the centre of our Church, and if it isn’t God, why not?
  2. Are we expecting God to move missionally within our locality and nation? Does prayer play a sufficiently large part in our walk with God? Are we open to hearing and obeying the voice of God in the way that we observe in the early church? What obstacles do we need to remove to enable Him to transform, direct and motivate us?
  3. Are we sufficiently evangelistic in our stance – both corporately and individually? If we learn nothing else from studying the book of Acts, we should learn to be willing at all times and in all places to present God’s plan of salvation to those around us (1 Pet. 3:15). We do well to remember and reflect upon the fact that during the first few centuries, believers were prepared to lay down their lives in order that some might hear and be saved.


Galan, Benjamin. 2017. Bible Overview. Torrance, CA : Rose Publishing, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1596365698.
Walton, Steve. 2008. Acts. [book auth.] K. J., Treier, D., Wright, N. T. (Eds.) Vanhoozer. Theological Interpretation of the New Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey . Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic , 2008.


  1. Jesus (of course) was THE most influential person in the New Testament
  2. All dates are approximate. Some evangelical scholars place the dates at one or two years variance from the ones shown here.
  3. 3 + 10 + 1 equals the fourteen years that Paul mentions in Gal. 2:1, but the timings can only be approximate.
  4. Accessed on 28 Jul 2017


Gordon Smyrell (August 2017)

Posts on the Book of Ephesians – contents

o   Grace

o   Baptism

o   Church – review of New Testament (mainly Paul’s) metaphors –

  • Army – {Eph. 6}
  • Bride – “marriage union”[1] {Eph. 5:31, cf. Gen. 2:24}, include “bride of Christ” perhaps
  • Body – “body of Christ”, {Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12}
  • Building – “house/household/temple of God”, “living stones”, etc. {Eph. 2:20-21}
  • “kingdom of God”,
  • “family” (including “adoption” and “sonship”), {Gal. 6; Eph. 2; 1 Pet. 2}
  • a “new race”, a “new humanity”, a “Holy nation” {Gal. 6; Eph. 2; 1 Pet. 2; Rev. 1; 5}
  • a “city” {Php. 3; Heb. 12; Rev. 21-22}
  • “vineyard of the Lord” {Jn. 15},
  • “God’s field” {1 Cor. 3}
  • a “Holy Priesthood” {1 Pet. 2: Rev. 1; 5}

[1] See the article by John Piper for example:, accessed on 11 Feb 2017

Ephesus in the First century

Curetes Street – one of the 3 main streets of Ephesus between The Hercules Gate and the Library of Celus. The street was lined with shops and homes for the rich. Under the houses were colonnaded galleries which protected shoppers from the sun.

Its importance

Ephesus was the most important city in Western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in New Testament times. In fact, it was called ’the mother city’ of Asia. It had an estimated population of around 200,000 – 250,000, which was huge for those days, and it rivalled Antioch, Corinth, Alexandria and even Rome itself. Its wealth and importance came from its location. It was situated on an inland harbour linked by a canal to the River Cayster which flowed into the Aegean Sea; and it was at the crossroads of major trade routes. So it was an extremely important commercial centre-in fact, the largest trading centre in Asia Minor, attracting people from all over the world. Strabo, the Greek philosopher, historian and geographer, called it ‘the greatest emporium in the province of Asia Minor’.  So when Paul chose to plant a church here, he was choosing the key city in the region, from which he planned for the new church to reach out.

Countryside surrounding Ephesus

Its buildings

As befitted a leading regional city, Ephesus had many fine buildings, as its ruins still testify to today. It had at least two public squares or ‘agoras’, linked by Curetes Street with its monuments to leading citizens. One agora, designated for civic use, had a stoa, basilica and town hall; the other was designated for commercial use. The city had gymnasiums, theatres (one of them seating 25,000), a triumphal arch and a fabulous library (though this was only built after New Testament times). It had won the right to house the Temple of the Divine Julius (Caesar) and the goddess Roma, and had a huge temple to the Emperor Domitian (AD81-96). It had public baths and latrines, and many upper-class homes with beautiful frescoes. But the city’s greatest claim to fame didn’t lie in the realm of business or economics, but religion.

The Library of Celsus (left) and the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates (right). The Library was built by Gaius Julius Aquila to honour his father Julius Celsus Polemaenus, Governor General of the Roman province of Asia in 135 AD. It was one of the largest libraries of the ancient world with over 12,000 scrolls.  The Gate was built by two slaves to honour the Emperor Augustus who freed them. It was used as the south gate of the Commercial Agora

The temple of Artemis

“Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28). This solitary pillar is all that remains of the once fabulous Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the world. It had been 115 metres long and 55 metres wide, with a double row of columns on each long side and a triple row on each short side – 127 columns in all, each measuring 1.2 metres diameter and 19 metres tall.

The most important structure in Ephesus was a major temple to the Greek goddess Artemis (known in Rome as Diana), which was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world and which people came from far and wide to see.  It was 425 feet (130m) long and 220 feet (67m) wide, with white marble columns 62 feet (19m) high and just 4 feet (1.2m) apart. The temple was founded when her image-probably a meteorite-’fell from heaven’ (Acts 19:35). Initially this was marked with an idol carved from an oak tree, which a small village grew up around. But as Artemis became more and more popular, the site was marked with increasingly bigger temples dedicated to her, with her image standing in the inner sanctuary. Ephesus became known as ‘the guardian of the Temple of the great Artemis and her image which fell from heaven.’ It was a sacred site for over 1200 years.

Reconstruction model of Temple of Artemis, Miniatürk Park, Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo: Zee Prime at cs.wikipedia

The cult of Artemis

In Greek and Roman mythology Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and the twin sister of Apollo. She was the goddess of the hunt and wild animals, as well as the goddess of women. She protected women in childbirth, protected young girls, especially their virginity, and brought relief to women in need. The Greek travel writer Pausanias said that she was the most worshipped goddess in private devotions in the Mediterranean world. Statues of Artemis had a stiff, long body with her legs bound (rather like an Egyptian mummy), and with many breasts, reflecting the fact that Artemis worship was a fertility religion, particularly as it was practised at Ephesus. She wore a necklace of acorns and a high crown, often topped with the turrets of the city of Ephesus. Her skirt was decorated with rows of animals, symbolic of her fertility. A eunuch priest served Artemis, assisted by virgin priestesses. This heavily-women-dominated religion may be part of the reason why Paul insists so much on women keeping their proper place in the church, and on men rising up to play their proper role in worship (1 Timothy 2:8-15). (Remember that, by the time Paul write to Timothy, Timothy was leading the church in Ephesus.)

As a fertility goddess, ritual prostitution played an important part in the worship of Artemis. So, from a Christian point of view, the temple was an exceedingly immoral.  Worship also included many secret rituals or ‘mysteries’, portraying birth and death-hence Paul’s repeated use of the word ‘mystery’ in his letter (Ephesians 1:9; 3:3, 4, 6, 9; 5:32; 6:19). The difference was that whereas their ‘mystery’ was hidden and secret, revealed only to the special few, Paul says that God’s ‘mystery’ has now been made fully known in Jesus-to everyone!

Religion and economics

But the temple wasn’t just about religion; it was also about business–big business! There was a guild of silversmiths who made little silver shrines and copies of the stone that fell from heaven. Clearly they made a good living out of it; because when Paul began to preach about Jesus and people started responding to the gospel, they were afraid that it might affect business and so stirred up a riot (Acts 19:23-41).

But Artemis affected more than the livelihood of a guild of silversmiths. She affected the whole of the city’s life. In fact, her temple served as the city’s main bank, and thousands of temple servants were entrusted with looking after the fortunes that people entrusted to them. Artemis’ image was also on their coins, and festivals and games held in her honour. So to challenge Artemis, like Paul did, was to challenge the whole social and economic order. But that is what the gospel is meant to do!

Ephesus and the church

Paul saw Ephesus as such a key city that he spent three years there, with the result that ‘all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord’ (Acts 19:10, 26). He established Ephesus as his regional apostolic base, and it became a major centre of the Christian faith. Sadly, it seemed to sit back on its laurels eventually, and the first love and passion of the church had waned by the late first century AD (Revelation 2:1-7).

The Church of the Virgin Mary According to church tradition (confirmed at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431) Mary, the mother of Jesus, spent her later years in Ephesus, under the care of John to whom Jesus had entrusted her (John 19:25-27). The site of this church was the first ever dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Early church tradition links John the Apostle with Ephesus and it is said that he spent his final years here. When he wrote Revelation, he was in exile on Patmos (Revelation 1:9), which was a tiny island some 50 miles south-west of Ephesus, so it is entirely possible. According to other early church traditions, Jesus’ mother Mary also ended up here, having been entrusted to John’s care by Jesus (John 19:25-27).

Ruins of the Basilica of Saint John who spent three years in Ephesus, accompanied by Mary. Tradition says he wrote his gospel here. Excavations show that if the Basilica were reconstructed it would be the seventh largest cathedral in the world.

Several church councils were held here in the first five centuries AD, including the important Council of Ephesus of AD 431. But as the River Cayster silted up, Ephesus ceased to be a port and its importance diminished. Several earthquakes led to the city being gradually abandoned, and its stones were gradually taken away for buildings elsewhere, leaving only the ruins that are there today. It seems Artemis wasn’t so great after all!

Recommended book

Schneider, Eugenia Equini  (2010) Ephesus and Pergamon – Past and Present, Hollandaca, ISBN-13: 978-8881622436

a good book that includes artists’ impressions showing what the original structures may have looked like.


Mike Beaumont (April 2017)

All photographs used in this article are copyright © Mike Beaumont, unless otherwise stated. No photograph attributed to Mike Beaumont may be used in any written or electronic publication without prior written permission.

Appendix – More Photos

View from the top of The Great Theatre with Arcadian Street running away from it. The Theatre’s 66 rows of stone seats could accommodate 25,000 spectators. It was destoyed by an earthquake in 4th century BC and only part of it repaired.
Through the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates (left) lay the Agora or commercial market. There were two other large gates into it. Built in the third century BC, it was in the form of a square, each side 110 metres long, lined with columns (see next photo). The north side was left open, but the other three sides were surrounded by a portico with two rows of shops in it. In the centre of the Agora was a fountain and a water clock.

The latrines – the public toilets of Ephesus, part of the Scolastica Baths. The gutter in from of the benches had flowing water for cleaning yourself with. And yes- the toilets were open to one another just like this!
The Greeks got there before Lego!
The Temple of Domitian – constructed on the second floor of a terrace with shops and warehouses underneath and consisting of 13 columns on its long sides by 8 columns on its short sides. More recent research suggests that, despite its name, it was in fact constructed for the Emperor Titus.
Trajan’s Fountain – built on the north side of Curetes Street and dedicated to the Emperor Trajan. A huge statue of Trajan was erected over the pool, with water flowing from the pedestal of his statue to the fountain.
Bull’s head decoration
The Basilica – a 160 metre long arcade used for commerce and as the stock exchange. The ionic columns, adorned with bulls heads, divided the arcade into three naves. It was constructed during the reign of the Emperor Augusts.
Wherever sailors could be found, so could The Brothel. This building, located at the corner of Curetes Street and Marble Street, was on two floors. The ground floor housed the reception area, salon and baths. Everyone had to wash their hands and feet before entering the building. The upper floor housed the rooms the prostitutes used. The salon was adorned with statues of Aphrodite, to whom the house was dedicated.
A view of The Great Theatre from Arcadian Street, showing how the theatre dominated the city.
Arcadian Street ran between the harbour on the Oronotes River (now dried up) and the Great Theatre. The street was 530 metres long and 11 metres wide, lined with shops and galleries on both sides. Fifty streetlights lit it up at night (unusual for those days). At the port end of the street were public baths, build in AD 2. AT 160 metres wide, 170 metres long and 28 metres high, the baths were one of the biggest buildings in Ephesus, reflecting how bust the port was. Sailors were not a lowed to enter the city until they had used the baths!


Slavery in the 1st century world of the New Testament

What picture comes into your mind when you think of slavery?

Pickin’ cotton in Georgia (c. 1860)

No doubt, many of you will think of slaves picking cotton in the American South over a hundred years ago.  You may even have seen the TV series “Roots” and formed the impression that being a slave was worse than terrible.  Working up to 18 hours a day, without weekend breaks, many died within a decade of arriving on the plantation[i].  Marriages and families were often split up when one partner was sold.  Punishment for slaves who were re-captured after escaping was brutal.

How does this apply to the way we think about slavery in the New Testament?  In the first place, it wasn’t restricted to black people; all races, including Europeans might be held as slaves!  But the more important question is “was it the same, better or worse”?  Well the short answer is “it depends”[ii].  If you were captured in battle and forced into slavery, life under Roman rule could be just as brutal as that of the American slave.  A criminal punished with slavery in the mines fared in much the same way.

On the other hand,

“The lot of the urban slaves was generally easier than that of their rural counterparts.  Their work was lighter, and the conditions under which they lived and worked were incomparably better.  …  Some controlled large sums of money … and apparently were able to call much of that money their own.  Greek and Roman authors complained constantly about high-flying slaves who were richer than they were.  …  There are a number of other examples,  …  of slaves who made money.  For them in particular, as for most urban slaves, freedom was always a possibility.  In most cases this was not so for rural slaves.”[iii]

From all the evidence that can be gleaned from ancient documents, life as a 1st century slave –

1)      didn’t happen to people from just one race or nation;

2)      could be as harsh as that of a black African slave in 18th century America, if you were a convict or a prisoner of war;

3)      could be relatively less harsh if

a) you lived in a city rather than in the countryside;

b) your master was kind and/or rich;

4)      meant that you had no legal status – you were worse off than a prisoner who had served their time;

5)      meant a lifetime of service, unless you could buy your freedom, or unless your master freed you;

6)      meant that your master had total control over every aspect of your life – including the right to have sexual intercourse;

7)      meant that you might be branded on the forehead with your master’s mark;

8)      meant that you could be bought and sold at will;

9)      meant crucifixion if you were caught running away, or if you committed all sorts of crimes, including ones that would today be considered minor.

When referring to slaves, the New Testament writers make no mention of whether they were urban or rural.  However, the majority of New Testament churches were based in medium to large cities.  Hence we might conclude that Paul and his fellow Apostles only knew Christian slaves whose lives were relatively stress-free.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t tally with some of the things we find in Scripture.

The Apostle Paul used some of the brutal facts of slavery to illustrate some of the truths of our life as Christians.  However, and most importantly, the New Testament does NOT condone slavery, even though some, mostly non-Christians, maintain that it does.

To “dig deeper”, CLICK HERE to download the full article.

[i] Source :, accessed 14 Feb. 17

[ii] “Slavery was diverse in practice and ideology from nation to nation.  It was diverse even within the Roman Empire itself.  Those who were enslaved in an urban setting experienced a better (or at least improved) quality of life than those who worked on large farms or in the mines.  A slave’s quality of life depended upon their function, relation to the master and the degree of responsibility carried by the slave.”  John Byron (2004) “Paul And The Background of Slavery: The Status Quaestionis in New Testament Scholarship,” Currents in Biblical Research, 3.1, p 133

[iii] Williams, David, J. (1999) Paul’s Metaphors: Their Context and Character, Hendrickson Publishers Inc, ISBN-13: 978-1565632875, p 112

Roman Soldiers of the 1st Century – Armour and Tactics

Roman Soldiers of the 1st Century – Armour and Tactics

Photo 1 – A typical battle formation of the 1st century B.C.[1]


When attempting to discover the background to Paul’s analogy of “The Armour of God” in Ephesians chapter 6, we encounter a number of challenges.  In the first place, written records describing what soldiers wore are relatively rare.  Historians often have to rely upon archaeological excavations, statues and inscriptions on Roman civic sculptures such as the one shown here[2].

Photo 2 – Section of Trajan’s Column, Rome, showing the spiral friezes that represent the best surviving evidence of the equipment of imperial Roman soldiers

The second challenge we face concerns the fact that the precise details of armour worn changed over time and from one province to another.  Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians whilst imprisoned in Rome, around 62 A.D.  Although he was continuously guarded by soldiers we have no idea if his armour analogy was based solely upon their equipment, entirely drawn from Old Testament imagery or (most likely) consisted of a mixture of both.

For example, consider the following passage from Isaiah:

Isa 59:17 NIV  He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.

Here, Isaiah describes the armour that God puts on when he can find no justice, righteousness or truth amongst his covenant people.  Clearly, Paul has based at least some of his “Armour of God” imagery on the Old Testament (OT).

The armour worn by a Legionary of the 1st century

Most scholars believe that Paul would have been most familiar with the kind of armour shown in the following images.

Photo 3 – Historical re-enactor wearing replica equipment of a Roman legionary about AD 75, standing in front of his contubernia’s tent. Note the one-piece, short-sleeved tunic, Imperial Gallic G helmet, Corbridge A body armour, Pompeii-Type Gladius, pugio (dagger) on left hip and scutum or rectangular shield[3]

Photo 4 – Historical re-enactor wearing replica equipment of a late 1st-century centurion.[4]

However, some caution is required when transferring these shiny, re-enactment examples onto the Biblical text.  Modern materials may not properly represent the condition of clothing and metalwork of the 1st century Roman army.  Although polished, metalwork was more probably bronze or iron, though probably quite as shiny.

“Very shiny metalware was their [Legionaries] pride and joy, giving them status in front of their peers and even providing a sort of protection in battle: As you stood eye to eye with your enemy, a soldier with very expensive looking equipment would seem to have a lot of experience (to be able to pay for all his expensive kit – they owned it themselves).  So the enemy would perhaps try to avoid this soldier and go for his neighbour.”[5]

I strongly recommend the following video as an introduction to the armour of a Roman Legionary:

Gordon Smyrell (April 2017)

To view the full article click here.


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[1] Taken from which operates under a Creative Commons licence {Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)} , no changes made

[2] Photo of Trajan’s column taken by Radomił Binek (  It was found at (accessed on 22 Mar 2017) which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; no changes were made to the photo.

[3] Photo 3 is a self-published work by Medium69, CC BY-SA 3.0,  Found at, accessed on 22 Mar 2017

[4] Photo 4 is a self-published work by Medium69, CC BY-SA 3.0,  Found at, accessed on 22 Mar 2017

[5] From a private email exchange with Stephanie Hoss, University of Cologne, Institute of Archaeology dated 03 Mar 2017

The Book of Ephesians – An Overview


2Ti 3:16 NIV  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

All of Scripture has the power to breathe God’s life into each and every one of us.  However, there are some books, such as Ephesians, that seem to have greater relevance to our present situation than others.  There is a strong sense in which it could have been written to a 21st century church rather than a 1st century one.  Ephesians is about us!  Paul seems to be speaking directly to me when he says that out of His love God chose us before time began (1:4).  And even more to the point, God has lavished (yes – lavished!) His grace upon us and forgiven us through the blood Jesus the Christ (1:7-8).

It’s almost as if Paul knew everything about the current condition of our Church culture, and the problems we are facing today.  When John Stott wrote his classic commentary on Ephesians in 1979, the title he gave it was “God’s New Society”.  Not only does Ephesians address the individual Christian, but Paul is at pains to show how we must change our attitudes to one another and modify our behaviour as a body of believers.  If ever there was a time when the church needed to give the lead in ushering in the kind of society that God envisions, surely now is that time.  In just about every sphere, Western civilisation is in a total mess, and is in need of hearing the message that the Apostle Paul delivers in his letter to the Ephesians.

Schematic Outline:

Background [i]:

In 1 Cor. 16:9, Paul says that he will stay in Ephesus “because a great door for effective work has opened to me” (NIV).  This tells us where first Corinthians was written, probably during his first year in Ephesus, but before the riot described in Acts 19:21-41.  Paul spent three full years in Ephesus (Acts 20:31; probably c. 52 – 55 A.D.) and founded its thriving church.

After leaving Ephesus in 55 A.D., Paul went back to Corinth and wintered there.  (There, he wrote the letter to the Romans, in which he stated that Priscilla and Aquila risked their own necks for his life.  Apparently, this took place at Ephesus.  There is a tradition, found in several traces, that Paul had an encounter with a lion at Ephesus.  This tradition dates from the mid-second century A.D.  Yet, Acts is silent about any of these things.)  He then headed for Jerusalem by boat, where he was taken captive by the Romans because the Jews rioted when they saw him in the Temple.  He then appealed to Caesar and was brought to Rome in around 59 or 60 A.D.


Some scholars have tried to cast doubt on the “to God’s holy people in Ephesus” found in verse 1.  However, “the words ‘To Ephesus’ are clearly at the top on the oldest manuscript, p. 46, contained at the University of Michigan Library”[ii].  In addition, the majority of the early church affirmed that the letter was written to the church in Ephesus.

That said, there is also the strong possibility that this letter would have been circulated to the churches at Laodicea, Colossae and over the whole of modern-day Turkey.  In turn, Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the letter to the Laodiceans (now lost but mentioned in Col. 4:16) would have been read in Ephesus.  Hence we can state that this letter was read more widely than “to God’s holy people in Ephesus” might suggest.

To “dig deeper”, CLICK HERE to download the full article.

[i] Adapted from

[ii] ibid.

An Introduction to Letters (Epistles) in the New Testament


35% of the New Testament is comprised of letters.

Today, if you want to communicate with a friend, work colleague or government department, you can use one of many channels – you could

  • pick up the phone and speak to them or text them;
  • video message them, if you have an iPad or similar;
  • email them or send a message via Facebook; or
  • hand-write a letter (perish the thought!).

In the ancient world of the New Testament, the only option available was to write a letter. However, we mustn’t assume that letter writing 2,000 years ago was anything like writing a letter today.

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (1620) by Valentin de Boulogne.  In public domain.

Consider this painting – the Apostle Paul is shown sitting at a desk with a quill in his hand and sheets of paper in front of him.  In addition, there’s an open Bible on the table, ready to be consulted – no doubt it contains the New Testament – it’s certainly thick enough!  And is that a deck of cards that I see on the table?


Paper wasn’t invented in China until well after 100 A.D., by which time all of the New Testament had been written.

The painter has drawn from the way in which letters were written in his day to construct this portrait, but he has made some clear mistakes.  Hence, the obvious first question to be asked is – how were the New Testament letters produced?  A number of points need to be made:

    1. SCRIBES. The normal practice was for the author to dictate the letter’s contents to a scribe – a professional skilled in the use of the writing materials in use at that time (cf. Rom. 16:22 & 1Co 16:21);
    2. TIME CONSUMING and COSTLY. Have you ever tried to read right through one of the Epistles of Paul, such as 1 or 2 Corinthians?  Imagine how long it would have taken to dictate it.  The whole process was long and expensive;
    3. SITUATIONAL. Most New Testament letters were written to address specific problems or situations;
    4. COOPERATIVE EFFORT. 1st century letter writing was a social event.  Scholars believe that the NT authors dictated many of their letters in the company of their trusted associates.  No doubt they would have discussed the topics to be included in the letter in much the same way that eldership teams talk about problems today;
    5. FORM and STYLE.

When we write letters we make use of the forms of address and styles of letter writing (“templates” in other words) that are in common use today. The one shown here is a template for a formal, business letter; for a personal letter, we might omit the company address at the left side and use “Yours truly” at the end.

The Apostles who wrote (dictated) the letters we have in the New Testament used the letter forms that were common in their day.  There are normally four or five segments [i]

    1. 1st. Opening (sender and any co-senders, addressee[s], greeting);
    2. 2nd. Thanksgiving (often including an intercessory prayer and possibly a reference to the end-times and our hope in Christ);
    3. 3rd. Body of the letter (formal opening, background, followed by the reason for writing the letter and often some Theological explanations of the principles needed to address it);
    4. 4th. Paraenesis, i.e., exhortation and/or admonition, correction and disciplinary pronouncements;
    5. 5th. Closing (greetings, sometimes with the author’s own hand being added, doxology and benediction)

The 3rd and 4th segments are sometimes repeated, so that a letter might look like this: 1 – 2 – 3a – 4a – 3b – 4b – 3c – 4c – 5.  Alternatively, especially in Paul’s letters, repetitions of segments 3 & 4 may be interwoven so that the boundaries between them are almost impossible to discern;

  1. POSTAL ARRANGEMENTS. There was no Postal Service in the 1st century.  Instead the author would have to arrange for the letter to be sent with a traveller who was going in the right direction;
  2. TRANSMISSION of CONTENTS. The normal practice was for the letter to be read aloud at a church meeting;
  3. COMBINATION and EDITING.  In some cases, such as Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, a number of smaller letters have been combined into one.  There is also evidence that an editing process took place in some cases, though not to change the message in any way.  Rather, as time went on, some older terms and references needed to be explained if they were to be understood by the current generation.

The second question to be asked is – who wrote all of these letters?

Paul John Peter
1 Thessalonians – 50-51 AD

2 Thessalonians – 52-53

Galatians     – 53-55

1 Corinthians   – 54

2 Corinthians – 55-56

Romans        – 57-58

Philippians   – 60-62

Colossians   – 60-61

Philemon     – 60-61

Ephesians    – 60-61

1 Timothy    – 60-62

Titus             – 62-64

2 Timothy    – 64-67

1 John – early 90s AD

2 John – early 90s AD

3 John – early 90s AD

1 Peter – early 60s A.D.

2 Peter – 63-65

James Jude ??
James – 60s A.D. Jude – 64-68 A.D. Hebrews – 64-68 A.D.

The above tables list the letters of the New Testament beneath the name of the person generally credited by evangelicals with writing the letter.  The dates of writing, (shown thus – 55) are uncertain, but these are the best estimates as shown in the Zondervan Study Bible.

The final question that needs to be answered has to do with how we may best understand them in our modern context.  I suggest the following strategy as a “starter for 10”[ii]:

  • Read the entire letter in one sitting. Then continue doing so over a few days to allow it to “sink in”
  • Reconstruct the historical context. (see full article)
  • Identify the literary context. (see full article)

Read the text again – more carefully.  Observe!!!  Pray!!!  Observe!!!  Make notes!!!   Pray!!!   Apply!!!


To “dig deeper”, CLICK HERE to download the full article.

[i] See chapter 7 – “The Ancient Letter Genre” of An Introduction to the New Testament, (2nd Edition), by Charles B. Puskas and C. Michael Robbins, published by The Lutterworth Press in December 2013, ISBN: 9780718840877, pp 134-143.  A pdf version can be found at, accessed on 3 March 2017

[ii] Taken from Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, published by Zondervan in May 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0310492573

Hebrews 11 – The Heroes of Faith

When trying to get to grips with a passage, and understand it’s meaning, it can be helpful to look at how it is divided up into sections, and I shall use this structure:

A 11:1-3 Introduction: the ancients commended for their faith – but they did not see [its fulfilment – implied]
  B   11:4-12 Examples of men and women of faith – Abel to Abraham
    C     11:13-16 Interlude: Pilgrim faith sees beyond the grave
  B’   11:17-38 Examples of men and women of faith – Abraham to Maccabean revolt
A’ 11:39-40 Conclusion: these men and women were commended for their faith – but did not see the fruit of it

Straightaway this structure tells us something important about the central message of this chapter – faith is not based upon what we can see, i.e., it’s not based on experience.  As we shall see, faith is focussed on the person who makes the promise – Jesus the Christ.

Continue reading Hebrews 11 – The Heroes of Faith