Conversion in the Book of Acts – Part Six

Posted on November 14, 2010 by

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River by Ancient Philippia

In Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church, he writes about the basic elements of the Gospel message he preaches (1 Cor. 15.1-11); let us enumerate them: (1) the death of Jesus, (2) the redemptive nature of Jesus’ death, (3) the burial of Jesus, (4) the resurrection of Jesus on the third day, (5) his post-mortem appearances, and (6) these events understood as fulfillments of the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Testament (see, “in accordance with the Scriptures” 15.3-4).

And finally, (7) through a penitent response to the grace God offers through the preaching of the Gospel (15.10-11). Paul describes this response with a comprehensive term: “believe” (Grk, pisteuo). Likewise, Luke uses the word “believe” many times in a comprehensive sense. The final conversion stories below are of this type of description.

The Conversion of Lydia (Acts 16.11-15)

Paul and his missionary company travel into Macedonia, and arrive in Philippi, where they find a group gathering by the river for prayer, and there taught the Gospel. Luke, an eye-witness participant chronicles the event:

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia […] The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well […]. (16.14-15a)

Lydia then invites the missionaries to her home. Why? In her own words, “you had judged me to be faithful to the Lord” (Acts 16.15 emphasis added). We are not told of the providential means by which the Lord made her heart receptive, but this heart motivated her and her house to be baptized.

This conversion story cannot be understood well without expanding a few words at this point. The term “judged” (Grk, krino) has a wide meaning (“to separate, select, choose”), and may mean “to judge, pronounce judgment”.[1] Here, the tense of the verb krino is best explained as having its feet placed both in the past and in the present (= the Greek perfect tense).

In other words, a pronouncement stands to have been made in the past (by Paul and company), while at the same time circumstances in the present continue to support that pronouncement. Lydia’s faithfulness (Grk, pistos) is key to understanding this. As in other places in the book of Acts, this term is used for “believers” (Acts 10.45); similarly, here, what has been pronounced is her new relationship with the Lord, she is now a Christian believer – “faithful to the Lord.” Lydia’s baptism brought about her new situation.

The Conversion of the Philippian Jailor (Acts 16.25-34)

Paul, Silas, and the Philippian Jailor

Paul and Silas were arrested and placed in a local prison. While they were in the midst of worship, an earthquake devastates the prison leaving the guard in a suicidal panic (16.25-27). Paul calms him down, but the guard wants to know, “what must I do to be saved?” (16.30). Perhaps he heard enough of the Gospel message from Paul and Silas’ “worship service” that he knew this was a pertinent question.

The missionaries said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved and your household” (16.31). The narrative does not conclude here with the jailor saying, “I believe is Jesus is Lord”; instead, note the follow words:

And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. (16.32-33 emphasis added)

The jailor heard the “word of the Lord”, demonstrated compassion – perhaps regret for their ill-treatment as ministers of God, and then was subsequently baptized. A new life started that night, reflected in the words of Luke, “he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God” (Acts 16.34 emphasis added). We see belief encompassing more than mere mental assent, but is used in a comprehensive way including various faith driven actions.

The Thessalonian Converts (Acts 17.1-9) 

Passing along into the synagogue of Thessalonica and preaching from the Scriptures the Gospel message (17.2-3). Luke uses two passive verbs (example of passive, “Bill was hit”) to describe the receptive response of those who believed the message of Paul and Silas and became Christians:

And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. (17.4 emphasis added)

The verb “persuaded” (Grk, peitho) carries the force to allow oneself to be a follower (Acts 5.36-37).[2] In other words, they did not fight the persuasive arguments of Paul, as he reasoned to them from God’s Scriptures (Acts 17.3); contrast the jealous hearts of the Thessalonians Jews (Acts 17.5ff).

The other verb “joined” (Grk, proskleroo), in the passive voice as well, means “be attached to, join”,[3] and so should see that they were attached to Paul and Silas. Hence, many feel the best word to translate proskleroo here is “were joined”, but both amount to the same idea: they identified with the Christian missionaries, so that they were identified with the Christian movement (Acts 17.6-7).

In these two words then, we find through their openness to the Gospel message they became Christians (= the persuasion), and through that God attached them to Paul and Silas as icons of the Christian movement. Later, Paul would write about the conversion of the Thessalonians, and say that they “turned” from idols to serve a living and true God (1 Thess. 1.9-10).

The above cases of conversion inform us that conversion includes an open heart which allows God’s Word to inform and persuade a person to faithful action. This culminating action of faith and belief, and remorse for past sins is baptism for salvation. This is what is clearly revealed in the book of Acts regarding these conversion narratives.

Sources

  1. Vine, W. E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville: Nelson, 1984. 2.336.
  2. Newman, Barclay M., Jr. A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament. Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993; p. 138.
  3. Earle, Ralph. Word Meanings in the New Testament. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998; p. 113.
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