I think I first heard the term pericope during my studies to become a deacon. I may have heard it before then, but it’s a technical term usually heard in formal theological studies and not one that commonly comes up in conversation with friends, even at church.
It means “cut out” and refers to the short excerpts or parts of a story that highlight a single thought or event within the story. Church services that include Bible readings from a lectionary read pericopes taken from different passages. Most of the sermons I’ve heard limit their scope to these short numbers of verses in order to closely examine them — quickly.
Lately I have been writing commentaries on entire books of the Bible. To my surprise I keep catching sight of patterns and designs that only come into view by taking larger views, long stretches, even several chapters at a time, into consideration. This has happened most recently for me as I have been making my way through St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. I draw your attention to Chapter 16, where Paul is early in his second missionary journey.
This trip famously got started with an argument. His mentor, Barnabas, wanted to invite young John Mark to go with them. Paul still held a bad attitude over Mark abandoning them on their first mission trip. Barnabas, ever the encourager, refused to back down and started off without Paul and with Mark.
Paul, having come to depend on having a wise, elder believer along side to minister with him, sent a call to Jerusalem for Silas, the prophet. Silas had been sent by the great Jerusalem Council to Antioch to confirm the gracious letter of fellowship sent to this Gentile community where Paul and Barnabas had been ministering for years. When Silas arrived, he and Paul hit the road to revisit the believers that had been reached during Paul’s and Barnabas’ first trip.
Everywhere they went, Paul read out the Letter from Jerusalem which welcomed Gentiles who were putting their faith in Jesus without demanding that they become Jews first.
Perhaps reading the gracious tone of the Letter over and over worked on Paul’s conscience. He had broken with Barnabas through his own lack of graciousness toward Mark. As Chapter 16 begins, Paul meets Timothy, a young believer well spoken of by the brothers of Lystra and Iconium. Perhaps Barnabas’ example of wanting to mentor younger men who could eventually carry on the work weighed on Paul’s mind. He invited Timothy to join the team as they continued their mission to the Gentiles.
But first he commanded that Timothy (who had a Gentile father) be circumcised because of the Jews — precisely the rite the Jerusalem Council had refrained from demanding of their new brothers, the Gentiles that Paul wanted to reach.
I had missed that irony when I read only about Paul taking Timothy along.
In the context of Paul learning to be more gracious while mentoring new believers, the next pericope in Luke’s narrative is also interesting. Having decided not to travel with Barnabas over the same route as their previous trip, Paul has to decide where he will go instead. And the Holy Spirit blocks him twice in the directions he tries to go. Paul ends up going to his third choice, Troas.
Luke doesn’t say so directly, but this is where he met Paul and joined the team. Thereafter in his account, Luke stops writing in the third person and adopts “we” as his description of the team. God has sent Paul an observant, intelligent Gentile to accompany him. Silas, Paul’s first choice, will receive co-writer credit on two of Paul’s letters (to the Thessalonians). But Mark will write the first Gospel summary. Luke will write a longer, more detailed Gospel and the only account we have of the early years of the Church (indeed the only explanation we have of how one of its most violent early critics became the most important missionary the early Church ever had).
If you just went with pericopes of this story, you might miss how patient God was in training and shaping Paul, bringing him slowly along to the honored place he would finally have in Church history.
The first Gentile convert in Europe was a woman, Lydia, a rich businesswoman in Philippi. She heard Paul because there was no synagogue in town for him to visit. And so the team gathered at the river and spoke with people washing their clothes. Soon Lydia and her whole household were washed with baptism in that river. And Paul’s team had an invitation to lodge at her house.
The fact that Lydia was rich enough to own a house suggests her status in the community. She was the contact enabling Paul to reach the upper crust of this city. But keep reading. When God had gathered up this important woman for His Church, Satan sent one of his own women to try to block the threat.
Until now Satan’s attacks had all been direct and violent. Stephen, the deacon, was dead. John’s brother, James, was dead. Paul had already suffered beatings after directing some attacks of his own just a few years before. None of that had stopped the advance of the Gospel. So now Satan tried a new tactic.
People had already seen miracle signs and healing when Paul preached. It was no use denying them. So Satan had a local demon-possessed girl admit it instead of disputing it. The subtlety of this approach is lost in many modern English translations of Luke’s Greek. The majority of popular English Bibles quote the girl as telling everybody, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”
The way. Well, aren’t they proclaiming that? Yes. But she isn’t saying “the way” as if there were no other. The Greek text does not have the definite, singular article “the” here. She is actually saying the men are proclaiming “A way,” as in “just another way like all the others.” (The International Standard Version, the World English Bible, and Young’s Literal Translation all show this.) There’s nothing to get excited about. You folks already have plenty of other choices and— yawn — this is just one more. Let’s all just get along. There’s nothing to see… (you’ve seen the Coexist bumper sticker, haven’t you?)
As soon as Paul cast out the deceiving spirit, the slave girl’s owners lost their fortune telling business. They were in no mood to coexist with these tourist strangers now! In no time they have gotten the lazy civic leaders, who only want to quietly draw a nice salary without trouble, to arrest Paul and Silas and throw them in jail.
You’ve heard the pericope about the earthquake that sprang all the prison doors open that night. But think about the big picture. This is the town where God has given Paul a contact with the upper class. Now God is providing Paul and Silas a chance to preach to the town’s lowest class of people — and they’re a captive audience.
Furthermore, the fact that Paul calmly stays put when he could run away provides an impressive testimony to the other prisoners that this Messiah Paul is talking about must be the real deal. Paul is a stranger in town and already has high class friends among the rich folks. Paul is so persuaded Jesus is taking care of him that he doesn’t have to worry about little things like being in jail.
Is that the only reason Paul refused to walk away when he could? Take another look beyond the pericope.
This was the first jail break Luke personally witnessed, but he reports on two others that took place earlier. Paul (then Saul) would have been in Jerusalem the first time God got Peter out of jail. (Luke tells the story briefly in Acts 5) The second story was one Paul may have overheard as Barnabas caught up on the news with his friends when he and Paul came down from Antioch to meet with the Jerusalem Council. In that one, King Herod executed the soldiers who were supposed to be guarding Peter. (Acts 12)
The guards were innocent of wrongdoing. So was the Philippian jailer. But he was so terrified of being held responsible for any prisoners getting away in the chaos of the earthquake that he was ready to kill himself. Paul did not want a repeat of the fallout from Peter’s escape. In both of those earlier cases, angels had specifically told Peter to get out. Paul had gotten no such instructions or messengers. By staying in his cell he saved the jailer’s life and had the opportunity to lead his whole household to Christ and baptize them. That was why Paul was on his missionary journey to begin with.
And there was that final meeting with the city officials the next morning. By staying in jail, Paul was able to demand an official apology for his wrongful imprisonment and leave the new Christian community in a display of public honor and respect from the town leaders. He took time for one more visit at Lydia’s house. And it was all one more great backfire in Satan’s face.
Luke told more stories about this town than any other among all the places he visited in Paul’s company. Small wonder that this introduction to the new adventure of proclaiming Christ to the world made an impression on him. And small wonder that of all the letters Paul later wrote to churches he started, the letter to the Philippians is the most joyful.
The individual moments of the visit to Philippi are wonderful. Taken all together against the larger story, it is awesome to see all the dots God was connecting there.