Acts Lesson Nineteen

Acts Lesson Nineteen: 9:1-31 – The Commissioning of Saul (Paul)

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he traveled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” “Who are You, Lord?” he said. 

“I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting,” He replied. “But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 

The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the sound but seeing no one. Then Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. He was unable to see for three days and did not eat or drink. 

10 There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. And the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!” 

“Here I am, Lord!” he said. 

11 “Get up and go to the street called Straight,” the Lord said to him, “to the house of Judas, and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, since he is praying there. 12 In a vision  he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and placing his hands on him so he can regain his sight.” 

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has authority here from the chief priests to arrest all who call on Your name.” 

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go! For this man is My chosen instrument to take My name to Gentiles, kings, and the Israelites. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for My name!” 

17 So Ananias left and entered the house. Then he placed his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road you were traveling, has sent me so that you can regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 

18 At once something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19 And after taking some food, he regained his strength. 

Saul was with the disciples in Damascus for some days. 20 Immediately he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “He is the Son of God.” 

21 But all who heard him were astounded and said, “Isn’t this the man who, in Jerusalem, was destroying those who called on this name and then came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 

22 But Saul grew more capable and kept confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that this One is the Messiah. 

23 After many days had passed, the Jews conspired to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. So they were watching the gates day and night intending to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and lowered him in a large basket through an opening in the wall. 26 When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to associate with the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple. 27 Barnabas, however, took him and brought him to the apostles and explained to them how Saul had seen the Lord on the road and that He had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 Saul was coming and going with them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He conversed and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they attempted to kill him. 30 When the brothers found out, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. 31 So the church  throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace, being built up and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, and it increased in numbers. (HCSB)

Acts Lesson Nineteen: 9:1-25 – The Commissioning of Saul (Paul)

The narrative now switches from the mission work among the Samaritans and Gentiles by Philip to Saul, who I will call Paul from this point forward. Paul was a witness to the execution of Stephen and was likely aware of the evangelism efforts of the early church. Paul was so incensed by what he perceived as the blasphemous conduct of the Christian church that he became a one-man wrecking crew, trying to destroy the church by rounding up every believer he could find. However, on his way to Damascus to arrest any Christian he might find there, Paul had a one-on-one encounter with Jesus. I’ll break this lesson into three parts.

  • Paul’s encounter with Jesus, verses 1-9.
  • Paul’s encounter with Ananias, verses 10-19.
  • Paul’s in Damascus, verses 20-25.
  • Paul in Jerusalem, verses 26-31.

Paul’s encounter with Jesus – verses 1-9.

Before we dig into this passage, it can be neatly summarized in three points.

  • Paul saw a light.
  • Paul heard a voice.
  • Paul obeyed a call.

Every sinner lives in a world of darkness until the light of Jesus illuminates them to the truth of who Jesus is and how Jesus can take away their sins and restore their fellowship with God.

There is another interesting point regarding Paul and what would eventually be his calling to bring the Gospel to the lost. The church of Jesus is one united body made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Paul was both Jewish and Gentile. He was a Jew by birth but a Gentile by citizenship. Paul was trained in Old Testament scripture, well versed in Greek philosophy, and knowledgeable in Roman law. Paul was the ideal choice to bring the Gospel message as his life was an example of both Jew and Gentile being equal in Christ. 

Now let’s return to the passage. There is some debate about whether or not the Sanhedrin would have jurisdiction in this case, which involved individuals living outside of the Jewish nation. Historical records do indicate that the high priest had been given rights of extradition in earlier times. Therefore, it is possible that the Roman government still granted the high priest this same right. Paul also speaks, in 2 Corinthians 11:24, of receiving scourgings from synagogues. Regardless, Paul left Jerusalem with authorization letters from the Sanhedrin to arrest any believers he may find. The very idea that Paul would make that journey illustrates the level of zeal he possessed in rooting out the members of the young church. The distance between the two cities is approximately 150 miles, requiring a journey of around 10-14 days to complete. 

Historical records indicate that, at the time, Damascus had a sizeable Jewish population, with as many as 30-40 synagogues in the city. Since there were already believers there, it is apparent that the church was being effective in its evangelism efforts. It is also likely that some of the believers fled the persecution that was occurring in Jerusalem, which may have also factored into Paul’s desire to go to Damascus and bring the believers back.  

From the point that Paul experienced the blinding light, he is a broken man. Here is why he was broken.

  • Paul had relentlessly persecuted the followers of Christ.
  • Paul now has a one-on-one encounter with Christ, confirming His resurrection.
  • In persecuting the followers of Jesus, Paul now understands that he was persecuting the risen Lord.
  • Persecution against any believer is persecution against the church of Jesus.
  • In persecuting the risen Lord, Paul was an enemy of God.
  • The realization that he was an enemy of God completely flips his world. What he thought he was doing for God, he now realizes he was doing against God.

Jesus then instructs Paul to go into the city and wait for further instructions. Without even questioning what was asked of him, he obeys the command. 

Paul’s companion travelers were a witness to what occurred even though they didn’t receive the same revelation.

  • They could verify that a heavenly manifestation occurred.
  • However, they were not the recipients of it, but they could attest to the change that happened to Paul after the event.

There could be several reasons for Paul not eating or drinking for three days.

  • It could be an expression of repentance.
  • It could be because of shock and confusion.
  • It could be because of his broken spirit upon realizing what he had done against God.
  • It could be a combination of all of the above.

Paul’s encounter with Ananias – verses 10-19a.

The narrative now switches to a disciple named Ananias. Not only does Jesus appear to Ananias in a vision, but He also appears in a vision to Paul that Ananias would come to him, lay hands on him, and that he would regain his sight.

One has to wonder what went through Ananias’ mind as he was told to seek out the, at that time, biggest threat to the church, Paul. I believe it also gives a glimpse to Ananias’ standing within the Christian community in Damascus. Although it is possible that any believer could have been called to perform this task, it would make Paul’s acceptance into the Damascus Christian church easier if Paul’s advocate was a well-respected member, or possibly even someone in a leadership position.

Evidence of Ananias’ doubt and concern is evidenced by his statement that he’s heard how much damage Paul has inflicted on the church and that the purpose of Paul’s visit is known within the Christian community. 

There is a linkage between verses 15 and 16. Paul, once the persecutor, was now to become the persecuted as he shared the Gospel. 

From Ananias’ greeting to Paul, “brother,” it is clear that Paul was now part of the body of Christ. His spiritual conversion had occurred somewhere between the initial meeting with Jesus and his period of reflection while he waited for Ananias to lay hands on him. Ananias informs Paul that Jesus sent him, verifying the vision that Paul received, and Paul regained his sight. Ananias then baptized Paul and Paul began to eat and regain his strength. 

Paul in Damascus – verses 19b-25.

If there were any doubts about the validity of Paul’s conversion, his actions in proclaiming the Gospel in the synagogues would have dispelled those doubts. Still, his astounding conversion amazed the believers in Damascus. It would appear that his zeal in evangelism far surpassed his previous zeal in trying to arrest and kill Christians.

In verse 24, the Greek word that was translated into “proving” means to join or put together. From the context of the passage, it appears that what Paul was joining was Old Testament passages that pointed to Jesus and then explained how Jesus fulfilled them. Paul’s previous schooling under Gamaliel now bears fruit as Paul is able to articulate how Jesus is the fulfillment of numerous Old Testament prophecies and skillfully deflect any attempts by the Jews to prove otherwise. 

Eventually, this led to the Jews in Damascus hatching a plot to kill Paul. The phrase “after many days” is somewhat misleading, as Luke underplays the amount of time. We know from Galatians 1:17-18 that the time Paul spent in Damascus was three years. Once the plan to kill Paul was known, his disciples came up with a plan to ensure his escape.

Since the Jews were watching the gates, they had to come up with a plan that would avoid the use of the gates. Paul also mentions this event in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33. There he says that the governor under King Aretas, a Nabatean king, was guarding the city. Why would an Arabian king be looking for Paul? It is quite possible that during his time in Damascus, he also embarked on a mission trip to the surrounding Arab areas. The Jews likely joined forces with the Nabateans to capture Paul, with the Jews watching the gates and the Nabatean forces watching the surrounding areas. Regardless of the forces arrayed against Paul, he was able to make good his escape from Damascus and made his way to Jerusalem.

Paul in Jerusalem, verses 26-31.

Although Paul had been evangelizing in Damascus for approximately three years, he still wasn’t trusted or accepted in Jerusalem. The memory of what he had done to the believers previously in Jerusalem was still fresh in their minds. Undoubtedly, they believed that his “conversion” was a ploy to infiltrate and then crush the Jerusalem church. A few points about their rejection of Paul.

  • It would be reasonable to believe that the church in Damascus would have relayed the news about Paul’s work there. Therefore, their rejection is somewhat strange.
  • Possibly Paul’s disappearance for almost three years lent a feeling of suspicion to the validity of his conversion.
    • Where did he go?
    • What did he do?
    • Why did he wait so long to contact the elders in Jerusalem?
    • What right did he have to call himself an apostle?

It was the efforts of Barnabas that led to a breakthrough in the Jerusalem’s church acceptance of Paul. This is the same Barnabas from Acts 4:36-37, known as the “son of encouragement” to those around him. Because of Barnabas’ reputation, there is no reason to find a hidden meaning behind his support of Paul. It was through the effort of Barnabas that Paul was accepted into the Jerusalem Christian community. 

Paul now begins his preaching of the Gospel in Jerusalem. We don’t know how long it took, but eventually, the Hellenistic Jews plotted to kill Paul. Let’s look at this topic in more detail.

  • The Hellenistic Jews were the same ones plotted against Stephen, leading to his martyrdom.
  • Paul was a Hellenistic Jew and likely felt an obligation or responsibility to take up the mantle left by Stephen. Paul makes a reference to this in Acts 22:20.
  • The Hellenists were not going to let Paul become the new Stephen. 
  • To understand more fully what transpired, read Acts 22:17-21, where Paul gives a more detailed account of this event.
    • Jesus appears to Paul in a vision and tells him to leave.
    • The church leaders help Paul to leave Jerusalem and go to Tarsus.
    • The fact that they believed Paul’s vision demonstrates proof that the Jerusalem church had fully accepted and trusted Paul by this point.
  • Paul doesn’t appear in Acts again until Acts 11:25 when Barnabas brings Paul to the church at Antioch.
    • That places Acts 11:25 about seven to ten years after Paul left Jerusalem and ten to thirteen years after his conversion.
    • It is safe to believe that Paul used Tarsus as a base for reaching the Gentiles with the Gospel.
    • It is possible that some of the trials listed in 2 Corinthians 11:24-26 occurred during the seven years in question.
      • Only one Roman beating is recorded in Acts (16:22), with two others unaccounted for.
      • The five Jewish beatings are not recorded anywhere.
      • Only one shipwreck is recorded in Acts 27. leaving two unaccounted for.
    • Although Paul doesn’t appear for about seven years, it seems he was far from idle during that time.

Luke now inserts a summary verse.

  • The Gospel was being spread just as Jesus commanded.
  • The center would shift from Jerusalem to Antioch.
  • The key leader would shift from Peter to Paul.
  • The Gospel would be taken to the ends of the earth.
  • Although it was a time of peace for the church, it wasn’t a time of complacency.
    • They grew spiritually.
    • They grew in numbers.

Applications

  • If you have a clear word or instruction from God, are you obedient even when it may not make sense? Both Paul and Ananias were obedient even though Paul had to do a 180, and Ananias was called to go visit the very person he should’ve been avoiding.
  • Do you make an active effort to share the Gospel? Regardless of our spiritual gifting, Jesus commands all of us to bring the Gospel to the lost.
  • When you come in contact with others who are either sharing a false message, either purposely or because of lack of understanding, do you attempt to correct them? We should never condone false teaching in the church, even if our actions could harm us.

Acts Lesson Eighteen

Acts Lesson Eighteen: Acts 8:26-40 Philip Evangelizes an Ethiopian Eunuch

26 An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip: “Get up and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is the desert road.) 27 So he got up and went. There was an Ethiopian man, a eunuch and high official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians,  who was in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to worship in Jerusalem 28 and was sitting in his chariot on his way home, reading the prophet Isaiah aloud. 

29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go and join that chariot.” 

30 When Philip ran up to it, he heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” 

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the Scripture passage he was reading was this: 

He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, 

and as a lamb is silent before its shearer, 

so He does not open His mouth. 

33 In His humiliation justice was denied Him. 

Who will describe His generation? 

For His life is taken from the earth.

34 The eunuch replied to Philip, “I ask you, who is the prophet saying this about—himself or another person?” 35 So Philip proceeded to tell him the good news about Jesus, beginning from that Scripture. 

36 As they were traveling down the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, “Look, there’s water! What would keep me from being baptized?” [37And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] 38 Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any longer. But he went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip appeared in Azotus, and he was traveling and evangelizing all the towns until he came to Caesarea. (HCSB)

In the previous lesson, Philip was being successful as an evangelist in the region of Samaria. Now, he is told by an angel to go to an area southwest of Jerusalem for another evangelistic mission, this time to an important Ethiopian eunuch. As we go through this passage, we’ll see three critical requirements for a successful missions trip or evangelistic outreach.

  • A man of God. In this example, it is Philip. God uses people to reach the lost with the gospel message.
  • The Spirit of God. The Spirit led Philip to the eunuch. The Spirit opened the heart of the eunuch to receive the message. When the Spirit brings an obedient messenger into contact with a softened heart, a harvest occurs.
  • The Word of God. Scripture reveals the truth about Jesus and leads to understanding and submission to the truth.

A couple of other facts to remember as we go through this passage.

  • In the minds of the Greeks and Romans at the time this occurred, Ethiopia was considered the “end of the earth” and illustrated part of the completion of Jesus’ Great Commission, to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
  • The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch may very well be the first conversion of a Gentile.

Verse 27

There are a few critical points to know regarding this unnamed Ethiopian official.

  • Since he was in charge of Candace’s treasury, his official title was likely equivalent to a modern country’s Minister of Finance.
  • Eunuchs were considered trustworthy and loyal to their rulers, making them particularly suited for a financial role.
  • He had finished a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was heading home.
  • He was likely a God-fearing Gentile who believed in Yahweh but had not become a complete convert to Judaism.
  • Since he was a eunuch, he would not be able to become a full member of a Jewish congregation.

Verses 28-29

It was likely no accident that the eunuch was reading from Isaiah. Of all the Old Testament writings, Isaiah is the one that holds the greatest hope for the eunuch in the picture of God’s ideal future. Isaiah 56:3-8 No foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord should say, “The Lord will exclude me from His people”; and the eunuch should not say, “Look, I am a dried-up tree.” For the Lord says this: “For the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold firmly to My covenant, I will give them, in My house and within My walls, a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give each of them an everlasting name that will never be cut off.And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord minister to Him, love the name of Yahweh and become His servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold firmly to My covenant— I will bring them to My holy mountain and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar, for My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This is the declaration of the Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel: “I will gather to them still others besides those already gathered.”

Verses 30-33

Philip now runs up to the chariot and asks the eunuch if he understands what he is reading. When the eunuch replies that he doesn’t, the opportunity to evangelize presents itself. The passage that the eunuch is reading is Isaiah 53:7-8, but it’s from the Greek Septuagint and one of the most difficult of the servant texts to interpret. Here is a list of the basic pattern of suffering, humiliation, and exaltation of Jesus.

  • The image of the slaughtered lamb is Jesus’ crucifixion.
  • The silent lamb is Jesus’ silence before those who accuse Him.
  • The justice that was denied to Jesus reminds us of the false accusations of blasphemy and the failure of Pilate to release Jesus.
  • The phrase “describe His generation” is a difficult one to interpret. This may be a reference to all of Jesus’ disciples through the generations (years).
  • The phrase “taken from the earth” is a reference to Jesus ascending in His glory and being exalted to the right hand of the Father.

Verses 34-35

The eunuch is curious to learn more about the passage, and this presents an opportunity for Philip to explain what the prophet is saying and point to the fulfillment in Jesus. In the same way, we need to be sensitive to those around us who are curious to learn more about God and be a faithful witness of the Gospel message.

Verses 36-38

Although the passage doesn’t explicitly state that Philip ended his explanation of the Gospel message with an invitation to commit his life to Jesus, it is obvious that an invitation occurred. This invitation led to the eunuch asking to be baptized as they passed by some water. Philip follows up this request for baptism with a question to confirm that the eunuch understood the Gospel and was willing to commit to Jesus. When the eunuch confirms his belief in the Gospel message, Philip tells the chariot to stop, and he baptizes the eunuch.

Verses 39-40

After the baptism, the two are separated. Philip is miraculously transported to Azotus, which is close to Gaza, and he then proceeds to Caesarea. During his journey up the coast, he was not idle but was faithful with his time, evangelizing in the towns as he went.

The eunuch continued his journey home, “rejoicing” as he went. It is likely that he shared his newfound joy with those around him and those that he met on the journey. There is no other confirmed information regarding him. Some of the later church fathers said he became a missionary to Ethiopia, but that is not confirmed through other sources. If nothing else, he would have shared what had happened to him with others.

As a summary, here are a few facts regarding this passage.

  • Barriers to the spread of the Gospel continue to fall.
  • The eunuch was a Gentile and black. His baptism into the fellowship of God’s people demonstrates that all are welcome, regardless of color or physical handicaps.
  • The first converted foreigner in Acts was an African, long before Paul brought the message of the Gospel to Europe.
  • Philip’s accomplishments were considerable.
    • He pioneered the Samaritan mission.
    • He opened the door for the Gentile mission.
    • Peter followed him in evangelism in both Samaria and Caesarea (the conversion of Cornelius).
    • Philip was a visionary in mission work outside of Israel and the Jews.

Applications

  • Are you sensitive and responsive to the leading of the Holy Spirit? In this passage, Philip’s submission to the Holy Spirit led to his obedience and the opportunity to share the Gospel leading to the eunuch’s salvation.
  • Are you ready in and out of season to share the Gospel? Philip had no plans to travel outside of Samaria. Still, he was ready when called upon.
  • Do you have the ability to discern whether someone has genuinely submitted to Jesus? Philip’s assessment was that the eunuch did understand and submit to the truth of the Gospel, allowing him to baptize the eunuch. This is in contrast to the previous passage where Simon the Sorcerer was able to fool Philip. We won’t always get it right, but we need to make a determination before baptizing someone.  

Acts Lesson Seventeen

Acts Lesson Seventeen: Acts 8:1-25 The Gospel Spreads

Saul agreed with putting him to death. 

On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him. Saul, however, was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison. 

So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds paid attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the signs he was performing. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed, and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city. 

A man named Simon had previously practiced sorcery in that city and astounded the Samaritan people, while claiming to be somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least of them to the greatest, and they said, “This man is called the Great Power of God!” 11 They were attentive to him because he had astounded them with his sorceries for a long time. 12 But when they believed Philip, as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. 13 Then even Simon himself believed. And after he was baptized, he went around constantly with Philip and was astounded as he observed the signs and great miracles  that were being performed. 

14 When the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had welcomed God’s message, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 After they went down there, they prayed for them, so the Samaritans might receive the Holy Spirit. 16 For He had not yet come down on  any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 

18 When Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power too, so that anyone I lay hands on may receive the Holy Spirit.” 

20 But Peter told him, “May your silver be destroyed with you, because you thought the gift of God could be obtained with money! 21 You have no part or share in this matter, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.” 

24 “Please pray to the Lord for me,” Simon replied, “so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

25 Then, after they had testified and spoken the message of the Lord, they traveled back to Jerusalem, evangelizing many villages of the Samaritans. (HCSB)

Today’s lesson can be divided into three parts.

  • The introduction of Saul as the main persecutor of the church.
  • Philip’s evangelism in Samaria.
  • The story of Simon the Sorcerer.

Verses 1-3

Luke introduced Saul at the end of the previous chapter. Now, he introduces Saul as the main antagonist of the early church. Before moving on, let’s get a detailed picture of Saul from various sections of Scripture.

  • Born in Tarsus of Cilicia – Acts 22:3.
  • A Hebrew of Hebrews – Philippians 3:5.
  • The son of a Pharisee – Acts 23:6.
  • A Roman citizen – Acts 16:37.
  • Educated in Jerusalem by Gamaliel – Acts 22:3.
  • A devoted Pharisee – Acts 26:4-5.
  • A blameless life when measured against the Law – Philippians 3:6.
  • On the path to becoming a great leader in the Jewish faith – Galatians 1:14.
  • Zealous for the Law leading him to persecute the church – Galatians 1:13-14.
  • Served God with a clear conscience – 2 Timothy 1:3.
  • Persecuted both men and women to death – Acts 22:4.
  • Entered synagogues to arrest, imprison, and beat believers – Acts 22:19.
  • A blasphemer against Jesus – 1 Timothy 1:13.

When considering the background and characteristics of Saul, it is only by the grace of God that such a man could be used to be the greatest evangelist and church planter, as well as writing 28% of the New Testament.

A couple of points to consider over these first few verses.

  • The scattering mentioned likely pertains to the Hellenistic believers as the apostles were not scattered. The Hellenistic view that God was not bound to a place or nation would have rubbed the religious leaders of Judaism the wrong way. In contrast, the Aramaic-speaking Christians had remained faithful to some Jewish institutions. However, this led to the following actions.
    • The persecution and scattering led to the Gospel being spread quicker and further.
    • The second phase of the Great Commission began; the witness to all Judea and Samaria.
  • Saul began to “ravage” the church. 
    • The Greek word used here would denote wild beasts such as lions, bears, or leopards tearing at the flesh.
    • He went from house to house, attacking both men and women. 

Verses 4-8

Instead of being distraught by the turn of events from Saul’s persecution, the believers took the message of the Gospel to new fields.

A quick historical reminder about Samaritans; they were a mixture of Jewish and Gentile heritage. The region was formed when the Assyrians invaded and captured the ten northern tribes of Israel in 732 B.C., deporting some and resettling Gentiles into the region to intermarry with the Jews. The Samaritans had their own temple, priesthood, and both Jew and Samaritans opposed interaction with the other. 

Now, let’s identify the essential points from these verses.

  • The Christians scattered from Jerusalem were faithful in proclaiming the Gospel in the areas where they went.
  • Philip was chosen as a deacon, Acts 6:5, but like Stephen, he grew into an influential evangelist, Acts 21:8.
    • In verse four, the word “preaching” means to evangelize.
    • In verse five, the word “proclaim” means to announce as a herald.
    • Philip was God’s chosen herald to spread the Gospel in Samaria.
    • To reject the messenger would mean to reject the message and the one who commissioned the herald to deliver it, God.
  • Philip not only shared the Gospel, but he also performed miracles among them.
    • Many who were demon-possessed were healed.
    • Many who had physical ailments were healed.
    • However, the emphasis is on the Gospel. 
    • They believed in the Gospel because they saw the miracles. 
      • In believing the Gospel, they were saved. 
      • The miracles didn’t save them.
    • There was great joy among the inhabitants because of the work of Philip.
  • The Gospel had now begun its outward arc from Jerusalem.
    • Samaritans were part Jew and part Gentile.
    • God built a bridge between the two enemies and united them in Christ.
    • Soon the bridge would extend to the Gentiles in an ever-widening arc.
    • In the Gospel, there are no unacceptable people, no physical rejects, and no place for prejudice.

Verses 9-25

A basic biblical principle is that whenever there is a movement of God’s work, Satan will try and hijack that movement with false teachers or false doctrine. It happened in the Old Testament, and it continues now in the church age. The enemy doesn’t want the church to advance and win souls, so he will try anything to derail the work of the church. 

Let’s further break this section down into two parts. Verses 9-13 and 14-25.

Verses 9-13

We see here a contrast between true holy work done through the power of the Holy Spirit and work that is done through other forces, often demonic or dark in nature. There are times that seemingly good works are, in fact, not done through holy power. Jesus warns of this in Matthew 7:21-23, even going so far as to say that some who do works in His name are deceivers. Let’s look at some details of this section of the passage.

  • Because the people were astounded and amazed at Simon’s tricks, they believed the things he said. 
    • Scripture doesn’t say precisely what he said, but it does say that the people called him “the Great Power of God,” which he didn’t deny.
    • This was not only misleading the people as to where his “power” came from but was blasphemy since it wasn’t the work of God.
    • Simon was an example of those who practice “lawlessness” as described in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12.
  • He was popular and recognized by the people.
    • They all paid attention to him.
    • He had been working among them for a long time.
    • He enjoyed the attention and adulation.
  • The work of the Holy Spirit through Philip now began to shift people from Simon to Philip.
    • The people saw the work of Philip.
      • People were healed.
      • Demons were cast out.
    • The people heard the Gospel message.
      • They became followers of Jesus.
      • They were baptized.
    • Simon was likely afraid he would lose all or most of his following.
      • He “believed.” 
        • It was a false belief.
        • Jesus spoke about how the demons even believed in Him. Believing doesn’t mean following.
        • Simon’s belief was based on wanting to acquire the power he saw manifested in Philip.
      • Simon fooled Philip with his false belief.
        • Although Philip was doing work through the power of the Holy Spirit, Simon was able to fool him. 
        • Both Jesus and Paul warn about false believers and/or teachers infiltrating the church and causing harm. 
        • We must always be on guard against those who would harm the church from the inside. 
          • Enemies from the outside are often easy to spot.
          • Enemies on the inside are much harder to see but often do more significant damage.
      • We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible the reason Simon followed Philip everywhere was to try and learn the “secret” behind Philip’s miracles.

Verses 14-25

Before we jump into the issue of Simon in this section of the passage, two other points need to be discussed.

  • The apostles sent Peter and John to Samaria. Why did this occur?
    • From a historical standpoint, we know that there was a deep and long divide between the Jews and the Samaritans. The two groups had their own view of Judaism and even a somewhat different Pentateuch. Unity is a critical factor in the church.
    • The Holy Spirit had fallen on them yet. This brings up point number two.
  • Why didn’t the Holy Spirit fall on them at conversion?
    • Just as the Jewish church had their Pentecost moment, now the Samaritan church will have theirs. 
    • By having Peter and John go to them, lay hands on them, and for them to receive the Holy Spirit would demonstrate that they were no longer two separate people groups in Jesus’ church. They were now one. 
    • Peter was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven by Jesus in Matthew 16:19.
      • Peter opened the door to the Jews at Pentecost.
      • He now opened the doors to the Samaritans.
      • He would later open the doors to the Gentiles in Acts 10.
  • The first ten chapters in Acts show a transition from Jew to Samaritan to Gentile. 

Now let’s move on to the conclusion of the narrative addressing Simon’s prideful heart.

Just as in Simon’s following Philip around to see if he could discover the secret behind the power of Philip’s ministry, he now sees Peter and John lay hands on the people and wants the same ability. However, he views it as a commodity and thinks he can purchase it from the apostles. We can draw a few conclusions from the final section of this passage.

  • Simon was never truly converted.
    • May your silver be destroyed with you.
    • You have no share in this matter.
    • Your heart is not right before God.
    • Repent of your wickedness. This phrase is usually reserved for unbelievers.
    • He was poisoned by bitterness.
    • He was bound by iniquity.
    • All of these factors lead to an overwhelming conclusion that Simon was never saved.
  • Simon’s response is also telling.
    • He seems more concerned about avoiding the consequences that Peter pronounced.
    • Instead of offering a prayer of repentance, he asks Peter to pray for him.
      • We shouldn’t confuse this with asking others to pray for our needs.
      • However, only the individual can repent and pray for forgiveness.
      • Those who won’t pray a prayer of repentance for themselves won’t enter God’s kingdom.
  • This narrative shows how close a person can get to salvation and still not cross the threshold.
    • Simon heard the Gospel.
    • Simon saw the miracles. 
    • He made a verbal profession of faith.
    • He was baptized.
    • He was never born again.
    • He was a clever counterfeit. 
    • If he was not discovered, he could have caused untold damage from inside the church.
  • Peter and John then make their way back to Jerusalem.
    • As they passed through Samaria on the return journey, they shared the Gospel.
    • They didn’t waste an opportunity to reach the lost.
    • Through the efforts of Philip, Peter, and John, the Gospel was now spreading throughout Samaria.

Applications

  • Ministry must be done in the power of the Holy Spirit. Successful ministry is never done in our strength. It may appear to work for a time, but eventually, it will crumble, and nothing will be left.
  • We must always be on the lookout for counterfeit Christians who would undermine the church from within. These same people would also cause the church to look foolish to those on the outside who need to hear the Gospel and come to salvation. 
  • Don’t let pride and jealousy stand between you and salvation. Simon had an unhealthy desire for the power that he saw demonstrated, and instead of submitting to Christ and being used for kingdom work, he tried a shortcut. No matter where God places you, no matter your spiritual gifting, be joyful as you contribute to the kingdom. 
  • Always look for opportunities to share the Gospel, even when you aren’t planning on sharing. Peter and John didn’t waste the opportunities on the trip back to Jerusalem. We run into people every day who are on the path to hell. Don’t miss those chances to share.

Acts Lesson Sixteen

Acts Lesson Sixteen: Acts 7:44-60 – Stephen’s Sermon Part 3

44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses commanded him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn received it and with Joshua brought it in when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers, until the days of David. 46 He found favor in God’s sight and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built Him a house. 48 However, the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands, as the prophet says: 

49 Heaven is My throne, 

and earth My footstool. 

What sort of house will you build for Me? 

says the Lord, 

or what is My resting place? 

50 Did not My hand make all these things?

51 “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your ancestors did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. 53 You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.” 

54 When they heard these things, they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, 56 “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 

57 Then they screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. 58 They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They were stoning Stephen as he called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!” And saying this, he fell asleep. (HCSB)

In this lesson, we conclude Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin and his subsequent martyrdom. I’ll be breaking this passage into three sections.

  • God’s real tabernacle – verses 44-50.
  • Resisting the Holy Spirit – verses 51-53.
  • The First Christian martyr – verses 54-60.

God’s Real Tabernacle – 44-50

This section begins with reference to the “tabernacle of the testimony,” which may seem out of place but is connected back to the quote from Amos regarding the tent and star worship. The closer connection revolves around the ideas of the rejection of God, idolatry, and false worship, the primary themes in the wilderness section of the sermon. Those themes are still present here, but Stephen focuses on the object that has resulted in false worship and rejection, the temple.

While Israel lived in the wilderness, the tabernacle was the place of worship. The term “testimony” referred to the stone tablets of the law that were kept in the ark. The tabernacle was provided by God, to His precise guidelines, and the pattern given to Moses. The tabernacle was the place of worship from the time of Moses until the time of David. A change in fortunes occurs once David desired to build a “dwelling place” for God. We know that David didn’t build the temple; he only made known his desire to build it. We read in 2 Samuel 7:1-17 that God didn’t want a dwelling place; He was perfectly content with the tabernacle. Solomon built the temple, and the trouble began as Stephen states in verse 48, “However, the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands.” Stephen follows it with a quote from Isaiah 66:1-2. The passage from Isaiah shows that it is folly to build a house for the creator of the universe since God made all things.

Theologians have debated whether Stephen was rejecting the temple or offering a critique of what the temple had become due to the religious leaders’ failed leadership. From a contextual analysis of Stephen’s entire sermon, it seems he is critiquing the practices and not the location. Stephen is not rejecting the temple as a place of worship. Instead, he is pointing out the abuse of the temple by making it into something other than a location to worship God. By stating in verse 48 that the temple was “made with hands,” he was connecting it to the golden calf in the wilderness. The temple had become an idol to the Jewish religious leaders, and in so doing, the temple had become a replacement for a living relationship with God; the man-made house is worshipped, not God. 

We know from Scripture that God is not confined to a specific location.

  • God revealed Himself to Abraham in Mesopotamia.
  • God revealed Himself to Moses in the wilderness by Mt. Sinai.
  • God delivered the people from Egypt.

The tabernacle was a representation of what true worship should look like. God was with His people wherever they might be; He was not tied down to a parcel of land or a place. In contrast, the temple was intended to be a house in Israel, a place for them to express their devotion and submission to God. Stephen points out that it had become not a house for worship but a house for God. A place where Israel attempted to imprison God and manipulate Him according to their desires and concerns. At this point in Israel’s history, the temple had become a symbol of Jewish exclusivism and a rallying point for nationalism. 

His point was ignored, and the nationalistic movement became so strong that it eventually led to the temple being destroyed in A.D. 70. The warnings issued by both Jesus and Stephen had been ignored.

Resisting the Holy Spirit – 51-53

In these verses, Stephen applies a classic rhetorical methodology where the speaker applies the lessons from the previous sections of his speech in a direct and often emotional appeal to the listeners in an attempt for them to act. In the case of Stephen’s speech, the purpose was not to “beat up” his Jewish audience; it was an attempt to move them to repentance.

  • He accused them of being “stiff-necked…, with uncircumcised hearts and ears.”
  • They were behaving like pagans.
  • They were always resisting the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • They resisted and, in some cases, killed the prophets who brought God’s messages.
  • The prophets they resisted were the ones who brought the message of the coming Messiah.
  • They were responsible for killing the Messiah.

The purpose of Stephen’s speech becomes more apparent. The historical presentation illustrated Israel’s continuous rejection of the leaders God appointed. 

  • Moses – rejected.
  • Stephen – rejected.
  • Prophets – rejected or killed.
  • Theoretically, it would seem that Israel had learned some painful lessons through their struggles over the years. Stephen points out that no lesson had been learned; they were still just as stubborn and rebellious as ever.
  • Jesus – killed.

It is quite possible that Stephen realized his trial was hopeless without him compromising the faith. Therefore, Stephen used this one last chance to share his beliefs in the hope that the religious leaders would finally repent and submit to the lordship of Jesus. Stephen’s speech was a defense. It was one final chance to share the truth of the Gospel message.

The First Christian martyr – verses 54-60.

The directness of Stephen’s speech in the preceding three verses set off the Sanhedrin. The terms “enraged” and “gnashed” in modern interpretation fall short of the depth of the emotions that fill the Sanhedrin. In their minds, the person on trial, Stephen, had attempted to flip the table and accuse them of acting against God. In addition, Stephen’s response in verse 56 infuriated the Sanhedrin even further. One point needs to be discussed regarding the term “standing” in verses 55 and 56.

  • Is it just a variation in expression instead of saying Jesus was seated at the right hand of God?
  • Does it represent Jesus rising from His seat to welcome the martyr?
  • Does it represent Jesus as the defense counsel, indicating that Stephen is innocent?
  • Is it a connection to Daniel 7:13-14, where the Son of Man stands before the Ancient of Days?
  • Does it represent Jesus in the role of the judge in the case?

Any or all of the options are possible.

The ramifications of the vision were not lost on the Sanhedrin. In the Sanhedrin’s mind, there were only two conclusions to the vision.

  • If it was true, they were condemned.
  • If it was false, Stephen was committing blasphemy.

The result is that mob-like action now occurred. The irony is that to complete their unholy actions, they took Stephen outside Jerusalem to preserve its sanctity, to execute the stoning. There is strong debate about whether Stephen was the victim of a “lynch mob” or a formal verdict from the Sanhedrin. 

  • Formal verdict.
    • Stephen was on trial before the Sanhedrin.
    • He was killed by stoning.
  • Lynch mob.
    • The Sanhedrin didn’t have the legal right to carry out executions during the Roman occupation; John 18:31.
    • The stoning didn’t fit the pattern of Jewish execution by stoning outlined in the Mishna.
      • Stoning was conducted outside the city.
      • The stoning was done by those who were witnesses against the condemned person.
    • A formal stoning followed specific procedures.
      • Victims were stripped.
      • They were pushed over a 10 to 12-foot cliff.
      • They were then rolled over on their chests.
      • The first witness would push as large a stone as they could over the cliff onto the condemned.
      • If the condemned survived the first stone, the second witness repeats the stoning. This would be repeated as long as necessary, but often the condemned didn’t survive the first stone.
    • The picture of Stephen’s stoning doesn’t fit this pattern.
      • Stephen wasn’t stripped.
      • The witnesses were partially stripped.
      • It is doubtful that Stephen could’ve knelt or offered prayers if a large stone fell on him from ten feet above.
      • The picture here is of an angry mob throwing any stones they could find at Stephen. 
      • Instead of his death being swift, it was likely a long, drawn-out, and horrifying experience. 

Stephen appears to follow the same pattern as Jesus as he faced death. His words “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” echo what Jesus prayed as He was on the cross. Those words are also part of an ancient Jewish prayer based on Psalm 31:5. Stephen then became the first Jewish martyr.

Finally, the next main character appears on the scene, Saul. We can only speculate whether Saul played an active role in the stoning or was an observer to the proceedings. 

Applications

  • Do we understand what true worship is and is not? The Sanhedrin tied it to a thing (temple) instead of a relationship. Christian worship is not confined to certain times of the week or a specific location. Worship is how we live our lives and how we shine the light of Jesus. When we make worship anything other than our relationship with God, we are engaging in some form of idolatry.
  • We should live in the power and control of the Holy Spirit. It is evident from chapter seven that Stephen was empowered and calmed by the Holy Spirit. This is in stark contrast with the actions of the Sanhedrin, who acted like an out-of-control mob and disregarded their own doctrinal instructions.
  • Some of us may be called to be a martyr. This is a sobering reality of being a Christian. In some locations, it may be a bigger reality than in others. Not only should we prepare ourselves for the possibility, but we should also pray for our brothers and sisters in those parts of the world; first, that their faith does not waver, and second, for their protection. 

Acts Lesson Twelve

Acts 6:1-7  Chosen for Service

In those days, as the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters. Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.” The proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch. They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 

So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith. (HCSB)

Before we look at this short passage in detail, it will be helpful to try and determine a timeline for the events that have taken place so far in Acts. There are various interpretations and positions on when these events took place, and it is impossible to know the dates exactly. However, a reasonable estimate is that the events that occurred at the beginning of chapter six took place anywhere from two to five years after Pentecost. This indicates is that the church had been in existence for a period of time now, was continuing to grow, and was starting to exhibit growing pains as the number of believers increased. Still, the leadership team, or at least the organizational structure, had not changed. We now see the church adapting and growing to meet the needs of the people.

Verse 1

The first thing to note in this verse is that the church was experiencing rapid growth. The Greek used here is plethyno. The Greek-English Lexicon defines it as: to increase greatly in number or extent—‘to grow, to increase greatly, to multiply. Whatever the number of believers was at this point, we can only estimate what that would be; the church had experienced significant growth. As with any organization, growth presents both opportunities and challenges. One of the biggest challenges is organizational structure. A similar situation occurs in Exodus, with Moses trying to administer to the entire nation of Israel as they travel to the promised land. Moses’ father-in-law advised him to set up a hierarchy to meet the needs of the people effectively. Although the circumstances surrounding the events here in chapter six are not on the same scale, they do represent a situation where more structure and workers are needed.

The second thing to note is there was a danger of a division occurring within the church. 

  • Hellenistic Jews were the Greek-speaking Jews who had moved to Palestine from other countries in the region. They may have spoken Aramaic as a second language, but it is reasonable to believe that many didn’t speak Aramaic. 
  • Hebraic Jews were the people who grew up in Israel and spoke both Aramaic and Greek. 

A few points to remember as we read this verse.

  • The Hellenistic Jews could be viewed as the “outsiders” in the young community of believers.
  • Those that were being overlooked were the “outsiders.”
  • The vast majority of believers were likely Jews. The exceptions would be the proselytes, Gentiles who converted to Judaism such as Nicolaus, but they were few in number as the mission to the Gentiles had not begun yet. The church could be viewed as a Jewish Christian community.
  • As with any large group, it is easy for “cliques” to develop. In this case, it is highly probable that Hellenistic Jews tended to meet with others from their cultural group, while the Hebraic Jews met with others from their group. This doesn’t mean there was disunity in the church, only the separation that is normal due to language and cultural differences.
  • This separation now became evident in how the charity was being practiced within the community. The Hellenistic widows were being overlooked in this. It is possible that there were a significant number of Hellenistic widows, as is alluded to in 1 Timothy 5.
  • There were two types of charity practiced by the Jews, and the early church probably followed the same practices.
    • Guppah – this was a weekly allowance for needy residents. It was given out every Friday and consisted of enough money to buy fourteen meals.
    • Tamhuy – this was a daily distribution for nonresidents and transient people. It consisted of food and drink delivered house-to-house where the needy were known to dwell.
    • It seems that the early church combined elements of both practices with a daily distribution to those in need.
  • From Acts 2:44f and 4:32f, it is apparent that the early church firmly believed that there should be no needy people in the family of Christ.

The Apostles were presented with a challenge to the unity of the church. How would they react to this potential threat?

Verse 2

They acted promptly to address the unintended slight to the Hellenistic Jewish community. They also understand that they had dropped the ball on this and needed to take responsibility to correct the situation.

A few points to note here.

  • The entire group of Apostles, all twelve, convened a meeting of all the believers. 
  • They wanted the entire community of believers to be aware of the situation and be involved in the solution to the problem. 
    • This would remove any perception of disunity or discrimination between the two groups of believers. They were equal in the eyes of the church’s leadership.
    • The voice of every believer was important in the decision the church would make regarding the situation.
  • The Apostles were not sending the message that taking care of the needy was beneath them. They were sending a very clear message that this was an essential part of ministry, but as leaders of the church, they were responsible for teaching and shepherding the flock.

Verses 3-4

The first question that begs to be asked is, “why seven men?” Here a historical/cultural review reveals that there’s nothing mysterious about this number. Jewish courts typically consisted of seven members. The early church was following what an accepted cultural practice was. The same reason applies for choosing only men; this would be the standard cultural practice. 

Next, the Apostles outline the requirements for those that would serve the community.

  • They needed to have a good reputation. This would be important for both serving those in the community as well as demonstrating a faithful witness to those outside the community.
  • They needed to be full of the Spirit. Being filled and led by the Holy Spirit was an integral component of the early church, especially those in leadership. The Spirit would need to work in and through them to carry out the ministry the Apostles were expecting of them.
  • They needed to be full of wisdom. Wisdom is essential when administering funds and ensuring that financial matters are handled above reproach.

Just as choosing the Apostles was a pivotal moment, choosing these seven men would also be a key moment. If mistakes were made in choosing one or more of them, it could potentially seriously harm the members of the church as well as tarnish their high standing within the local community. This could have given a timely opportunity for Satan to damage the church from within. However, this didn’t occur.

The result of appointing seven men to carry out this ministry function would enable the Apostles to continue concentrating on their primary task; evangelism, teaching, and shepherding the church.

Verse 5

There are two important points in this verse. 

  • First, the proposal from the Apostles to the congregation was pleasing to the “whole” company. It wasn’t a majority decision; it was a unanimous decision to support the proposal.
  • Second, the congregation chose the seven who would serve. Although the Apostles set out the requirements to fill the function, it was the members who would make the decision on who would fill them.

We could speculate as to why the seven men were all Hellenistic Christians, but there is nothing significant to be gained by that discussion. It could be as simple as the problem involved the Hellenistic widows, the Hellenistic Christians wanted to serve them, and the Hebraic Christians saw no reason not to let them serve in this manner.

Although we have some further information on several of the men chosen, others are never mentioned again.

  • Stephen – being listed first is really not a surprise as he will be the primary character in chapters six through eight.
  • Philip – he would also play a significant role in the story of the expanding Christian witness as outlined in Acts 8:5-40.
  • Prochorus – early tradition connects him with the Apostle John. In particular, it is thought that he was the writer who took dictation from John when the fourth Gospel was written. He later became the bishop of Nicomedia in Bithynia and was martyred in Antioch.
  • Nicanor/Timon/Parmenas – nothing further is known about these men.
  • Nicolaus – some scholars believe he may have been Luke’s primary source of information about the Hellenists, especially what is noted in Acts 11:19-21. It is also likely that the Gnostic sect known as the Nicolaitans borrowed his name to gain authority for their teaching. However, there is no evidence that Nicolaus himself had any connection to them.

Verse 6

The selection of the men to fulfill the responsibilities outlined earlier in the passage is now followed by a simple installation ceremony. The men were brought before the Apostles, who prayed over them and laid hands on them. This simple act signified that the Apostles confirmed the selections made by the congregation. 

The question begs to be asked as to whether the practice of laying on of hands is a prescriptive or descriptive practice for the church? The idea of a commissioning ceremony with the laying on of hands goes back to Old Testament practices in Exodus 18:13-27 (without laying on of hands) and Numbers 27:16-23 (with laying on of hands). Therefore, from a cultural standpoint, it was an accepted practice. Additionally, Luke uses the practice of laying on of hands to illustrate different concepts in the book of Acts.

  • 9:17 – healing.
  • 8:18 – giving of the Holy Spirit.
  • 13:3 – commissioning to a task.

The overwhelming emphasis is on the designation for a task and not for an appointment to an office.

Another issue that crops up with this passage is the assumption that this is the first designation of the office of deacon within the church. However, that is an incorrect understanding of the passage. The Greek word used in verse one (daily distribution) and verse four (preaching ministry) is diakonia. The proper understanding of this word in verse two is, “a procedure for taking care of the needs of people—‘provision for taking care of, arrangement for support.” In verse four, the meaning is “the role or position of serving—‘ministry, task.” In both cases, the emphasis is on the action, serving, and not an office. The Greek word for a deacon, diakonos, never occurs in this passage. However, it does occur in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, where deacons are explicitly discussed. Therefore, we should not understand this section of the passage as the inauguration of the office of deacon within the church. We should understand it as the selection of seven men to function as faithful servants for the needs of the church, which would free the Apostles to continue their responsibility as teachers and shepherds to the young church.

Verse 7

Luke continues the good news in verse seven. 

  • First, the Apostles could concentrate on evangelism, and the Gospel message was spreading because of their efforts. 
  • Second, the church continued to multiply in Jerusalem. The Greek word used for multiply is the same one that was used in 6:1. The was continuing to experience exciting growth.
  • Third, a large group of priests became followers of Jesus. Some clarification is needed on this point.
    • We should identify these “priests” with the members of the Sanhedrin from Acts 4:1.
    • Priests served in rotational “teams” throughout the year.
    • The service included all the tasks that were required to be completed, not just the function of the Sanhedrin and the high priests family.
    • At this particular point in history, it is estimated that there were as many as 8,000 priests and 10,000 Levites who were involved in temple functions.
    • The majority of these men were considerably poorer and likely practiced sincere piety and devotion to God.
    • The message of a risen Messiah would have attracted them.
    • We don’t have an estimate of how many priests became followers, but it would appear to be a significant number since Luke mentions it here.

As we review this passage, lets’ consider some characteristics that identified the early church.

  • They were able to synthesize the matters of spiritual and material concerns. It was not just an evangelism center; it was a congregation that recognized the genuine needs of its members and designed and implemented practical, biblical plans to take care of these needs.
  • They were flexible in being able to adjust their organizational structure to meet the needs. The modern church often can be inflexible in meeting needs if the structure doesn’t have a plan to address the need. In the New Testament church, structure only developed to meet needs.
  • They practiced positive attitudes of restraint. In this case, they didn’t place blame on anyone for the Hellenistic widows being overlooked. Also, the Apostles didn’t demonstrate autocratic leadership in the search for a solution.

Applications

  • Are the needs of everyone in your local body of Christ being met? If not, bring up your concern to leadership to address the issue. If you are in a leadership position, take action on the  problem.
  • Don’t point fingers when problems arise. Instead, work with a spirit of unity and humility to find a solution to the problems. Also, don’t seek after glory in the search for a solution. Only God deserves the glory.
  • Decisions within a church or ministry organization should be corporate in nature. Autocracy has no place in a biblical church. If you see that happening in your church, challenge those in charge with a humble but uncompromising spirit.
  • Regardless of our gifting or role in our church, we are all called to serve one another. Don’t be a consumer Christian, be a participating and serving Christian.

Acts Lesson Eleven

Acts Lesson Eleven: 5:17-42 – Truth and Consequences

17 Then the high priest took action. He and all his colleagues, those who belonged to the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 So they arrested the apostles and put them in the city jail. 19 But an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail during the night, brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple complex, and tell the people all about this life.” 21 In obedience to this, they entered the temple complex at daybreak and began to teach. 

When the high priest and those who were with him arrived, they convened the Sanhedrin—the full Senate of the sons of Israel—and sent orders to the jail to have them brought. 22 But when the temple police got there, they did not find them in the jail, so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing in front of the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside!” 24 As the commander of the temple police and the chief priests heard these things, they were baffled about them, as to what could come of this. 

25 Someone came and reported to them, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple complex and teaching the people.” 26 Then the commander went with the temple police and brought them in without force, because they were afraid the people might stone them. 27 After they brought them in, they had them stand before the Sanhedrin, and the high priest asked, 28 “Didn’t we strictly order you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!” 

29 But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had murdered by hanging Him on a tree. 31 God exalted this man to His right hand as ruler and Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.” 

33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered the men  to be taken outside for a little while. 35 He said to them, “Men of Israel, be careful about what you’re going to do to these men. 36 Not long ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about 400 men rallied to him. He was killed, and all his partisans were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After this man, Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and attracted a following. That man also perished, and all his partisans were scattered. 38 And now, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.” So they were persuaded by him. 40 After they called in the apostles and had them flogged, they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them. 41 Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be dishonored on behalf of the Name. 42 Every day in the temple complex, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. (HCSB)

In this lesson, we’ll see how the persecution against the church grows. Still, at the same time, the church stands firm in its beliefs and conviction, denying the religious establishment to continue proclaiming the Gospel.

Let’s do a quick summary of Acts to this point before diving further into this passage. After the events at Pentecost, the message of the resurrection of Jesus spread rapidly throughout Jerusalem, as well as the surrounding area. This led to many professing faith in Jesus. The Apostles not only preached the Gospel, but they also performed many signs and wonders. Their work left little doubt that God was behind this new movement. However, as is often the case, the established order was not happy with this new movement. The religious leaders had opposed Jesus, crucified Him, and were now starting to fight against the Apostles as they saw their grip on religious teaching and authority slipping. There is a quote by a Christian martyr, Hugh Latimer, who said, “Whenever you see persecution, there is more than a probability that truth is on the persecuted side.”

I will break this passage into four sections with corresponding themes.

  • The religious council was attacking the truth, 5:17-28.
  • The Apostles were affirming the truth, 5:29-32.
  • Gamaliel was avoiding the truth, 5:33-39.
  • The church was announcing the truth, 5:40-42.

Attacking the Truth: Acts 5:17-28

There were three reasons that the religious leaders, the Sadducees, arrested the Apostles.

  • Peter and John had not obeyed the official order to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. By refusing to obey, they were guilty of defying the law of the nation.
  • The message of the church was in direct conflict with the doctrine of the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in a resurrection, by teaching and giving evidence that Jesus had, in fact, been resurrected.
  • The religious leaders were filled with jealousy because of the success and acceptance of these uneducated and unauthorized men. 

This time it wasn’t just Peter and John who were arrested; it was all twelve of the Apostles. The passage indicates that they were put in a “city jail.” This would be a structure where those incarcerated would be visible to anyone passing by. The irony is that even while being detained in an openly visible structure, they would still be released by God’s hand. 

The faith displayed by the Apostles is an example to all of us. They knew that they had been ordered to stop teaching in Jesus’ name, they knew they had disobeyed the Sanhedrin’s order, they knew that this was a serious offense, but most importantly they knew that they were being obedient to God and Jesus’ command to go and make disciples. This knowledge gave them unshakeable faith and determination regardless of the consequences.

Their faith was rewarded as during the night, an angel set them free. This fact pours more irony on the already stoked fire. Not only don’t Sadducees believe in the resurrection, but they also don’t believe in angels (Acts 23:8). However, the angel didn’t just set the Apostles free; they were told to go right back to preaching the Gospel, the very act that put them in the jail they were just freed from. What did they do? They obediently went back to the same location and continued to preach the same message. How many of us would follow in their footsteps, going from freedom right back to the actions that got us jailed in the first place?

In the meantime, the Sanhedrin had convened and asked for the “prisoners” to be brought before the council. One can only imagine their astonishment as they went to the jail, with the guards on duty, in full view of everyone, and the Apostles were nowhere to be found. This astonishment was likely compounded when the situation was explained to the Sanhedrin. The religious leaders were trying to stop the Apostles from performing miracles, but another miracle had occurred because the religious leaders had put them in jail!

Let’s take a moment to contrast the two groups.

  • Sanhedrin.
    • Educated.
    • Ordained.
    • Approved.
    • Lacking in a ministry of power.
  • Apostles.
    • Ordinary laymen.
    • Uneducated.
    • Ministry powered by the Holy Spirit.

The religious council was desperately trying to protect themselves, their positions, and hold on to their dead traditions. The Apostles were risking their physical lives to share the Gospel. The church was proclaiming the new; the religious council was defending the old.

There are numerous emotions in this section.

  • Jealousy – verse 17.
  • Baffled – verse 24.
  • Fear – verse 26.

Still, the high priest accuses them of defying the law and stirring up trouble. The high priest wouldn’t even mention Jesus’ name, instead saying “in this name” and “this man’s blood.” However, even this was an admission that the church was growing. It’s possible that the high priest may have sensed a critical moment here. If the Apostles were correct, then the Sanhedrin was guilty of unjustly executing Jesus, and His blood was on their hands. As the trial progresses, the Apostles become the judges, and the council is on trial.

Affirming the Truth: Acts 5:29-32

The conviction of the Apostles didn’t waver from Peter had stated in Acts 4:19-20. They continued to obey God and trust Him, regardless of their circumstances or perceived danger. They stood firm in serving only one master, God. Diplomats try to reach an agreeable outcome for everyone; ambassadors faithfully represent those who sent them. The Apostles acted as faithful ambassadors to God; 2 Corinthians 5:20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” 

Paul restates the charges he made in chapters three and four and then declares other facts on the events happening in Jerusalem.

  • The Sanhedrin was responsible for the death of Jesus.
  • Jesus has been raised from the dead.
  • Not only was Jesus resurrected, but He also sits at God’s right hand.
    • The place of honor, power, and authority.
    • Stephen would see Jesus standing at God’s right hand.
  • The work of the Holy Spirit is evidence that Jesus kept His promise that He would send the Helper.

The statement that Jesus had been raised from the dead must have been particularly unsettling to the Sadducees as that was in direct conflict with their theology. 

Peter once again calls on the Sanhedrin to repent, submit to the lordship of Jesus, and receive salvation. Once again, the council ignores the very message that would lead to their eternal rescue. If we take a moment to reflect on the Apostle’s challenge to the Sanhedrin, it is really quite remarkable. The very organization that held the power of religious authority and religious punishment in Israel is being challenged to their face by a group of common folk. 

Avoiding the Truth: Acts 5:33-39

The main player in this section is Gamaliel, a highly respected Pharisee. Since the Pharisees and Sadducees were often at odds with each other, it is not a stretch to think Gamaliel’s position was at least partly motivated by a desire to see the Sadducees not accomplish what they had set out by arresting the Apostles and bringing them before the Sanhedrin. Let’s consider some facts regarding this man.

  • He was a scholar who was highly respected by the people.
  • He was rather liberal in his application of the Law.
  • He was moderate in how he approached problems, as evidence by this event.
  • He was Paul’s teacher (Acts 22:3).
  • He was the grandson of the famous rabbi, Hillel.
  • Rabbinic tradition stated he had the title of president of the high court.
  • His power within the Sanhedrin is evidenced by him and not the high priest, ordering the Apostles to be removed from the proceedings.
  • As a Pharisee, he would have at least had sympathy with the Apostles theologically.
    • A belief in the coming Messiah, resurrection, and life after death.
    • Oral tradition that gave them flexibility and openness to change.
  • When the Sadducees agreed to his advice, this was an indication of how well respected and distinguished he was in Jewish society.

We might think that what Gamaliel did was wise and helpful to the young church. However, there were several aspects of his advice that demonstrated a lack of wisdom and understanding.

  • He grouped Jesus together with two rebels. 
    • This is evidence that he had already rejected the evidence that the Apostles presented.
    • To him, Jesus was just another zealous Jew who was trying to free Israel from Rome.
    • Theudas and Judas never did the things attributed to Jesus. Neither were raised from the dead.
  • Gamaliel assumed that history would repeat itself.
    • Both Theudas and Judas had rebelled against the establishment.
      • Both were subdued.
      • Their followers abandoned the cause and fled.
    • If the Sanhedrin were patient, the same thing would happen again.
    • While it is true that cycles occur in history, the events taking place were breaking into new territory.
      • Ministry on the level of what Jesus accomplished had never occurred before. 
      • The events surrounding His crucifixion were new; darkness, earthquake, the veil being torn in two in the temple.
      • Jesus was resurrected and seen by hundreds before being seen ascending to heaven.
      • The events surrounding Pentecost were new.
      • God had visited the earth in the form of a man.
    • Gamaliel’s assumption is that if something is not from God, it must fail. This fails to take into account man’s sinful nature and the presence of Satan in the world.
      • Cults often grow faster than the church and cause many to be trapped in lies.
        • Mormons.
        • Jehovah’s Witnesses.
      • False religions.
        • Islam.
        • Buddhism.
        • Hinduism.
      • It is true that in the end, they will all fail. However, in the meantime, these false religions are leading millions to eternal damnation.
  • His motivation.
    • The council was facing an issue that demanded a decision, and he was promoting a position of neutrality.
      • However, neutrality is a decision.
      • Each person is either for or against God; there is no middle ground.
      • His vote could be interpreted as “no,” but maybe someday he would believe…if the movement persevered.
    • Jesus made it clear that one can’t be neutral about Him and His message. Matthew 12:30 Anyone who is not with Me is against Me, and anyone who does not gather with Me scatters. 
    • The council knew what Elijah said in 1 Kings 18:21 Then Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow Him. But if Baal, follow him.” But the people didn’t answer him a word.
    • Being neutral is often a quiet and cowardly decision to reject God. The first group destined for hell is the cowards. Revelation 21:8 But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars – their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.
  • If Gamaliel was really afraid of fighting against God, he should have honestly investigated the evidence presented, searched through Scripture, listened to the eyewitnesses, and asked God for wisdom. 
    • He was presented with the opportunity of eternal salvation but rejected it.
    • Daniel Defoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe, stated that nobody was born a coward. “Truth makes a man of courage and guilt makes that man of courage a coward.”
    • What some would call caution, God would call cowardice.
    • The Apostles were ambassadors.
    • Gamaliel was a religious politician.

Announcing the Truth: Acts 5:40-42

There were at least some in the Sanhedrin that wanted to kill the Apostles. However, Gamaliel’s speech tempered the flames, and they reached a compromise. The compromise was that they would receive a flogging, likely thirty-nine lashes, they were commanded to no longer speak in the name of Jesus, and they were released. 

  • Deuteronomy 25:1-3 “If there is a dispute between men, they are to go to court, and the judges will hear their case. They will clear the innocent and condemn the guilty. If the guilty party deserves to be flogged, the judge will make him lie down and be flogged in his presence with the number of lashes appropriate for his crime. He may be flogged with 40 lashes, but no more. Otherwise, if he is flogged with more lashes than these, your brother will be degraded in your sight. 
  • 2 Corinthians 11:24 Five times I received 39 lashes from Jews.
  • There were strict guidelines for carrying out this punishment.
    • Although Deuteronomy 25:3 states forty lashes, over time, the standard practice was to give thirty-nine in case of a miscount. 
    • Regardless of how many lashes were given, it was a severe punishment.
    • The recipient was placed in a kneeling position with their upper body bare.
    • The lash was a triple strap of calf hide.
    • Two lashes were given across the back and then one across the chest, with the cycle repeated as necessary to reach the number required by the punishment.
    • People had been known to die during the punishment.

As brutal as the punishment was, it still wasn’t enough to stop them from obeying God. Much to the contrary, they left the Sanhedrin rejoicing that they were worthy of sharing in the suffering of their Lord. Also, they continued to meet in homes and gather in the temple area, teaching and proclaiming the Gospel message.

Applications.

  • No matter how difficult your circumstances, do you trust that God is with you, and do you have faith to follow Him? There were numerous times that it would have been easier for the Apostles to fall away, yet they held firm. Have you taken the necessary spiritual steps to prepare yourself for persecution? Do you spend time in the Word daily, pray without ceasing, gather with other believers, and hold firm to obedience to God? Reassess these areas of your life and prepare yourself to face persecution. None of us desire it, many will not face it to the level in this passage, but some of us will.
  • When confronted with falsehood, stand firm in the truth. A practice of mine is that whenever I’m in a discussion with others about spiritual matters, usually unbelievers, but it can be with other believers over doctrinal issues, as much as possible, I let Scripture do the arguing/convincing. If I try and support a position with my words, it becomes an opinion. However, if I use Scripture, more weight is added to the discussion. Additionally, if the other parties in the conversation continue to reject what Scripture says, they are rejecting God. 
  • If you do face actual persecution, whatever the form, rejoice that you have been permitted to share this with Jesus, knowing that He is walking with you during the experience.
  • Don’t be neutral in your Christian walk. Your actions either align with or go against God. There are no gray areas. Be firm yet gentle in your actions, always letting the light of Christ shine through you, penetrating the darkness of this world and reaching the lost with the saving message of the Gospel.

Acts Lesson Ten

Acts 5:12-16 – Signs and Wonders

12 Many signs and wonders were being done among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they would all meet in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people praised them highly. 14 Believers were added to the Lord in increasing numbers—crowds of both men and women. 15 As a result, they would carry the sick out into the streets and lay them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16 In addition, a large group came together from the towns surrounding Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed. (HCSB)

After the sobering incident with Ananias and Sapphira, we see the church continue to grow and the Apostles performing many signs and wonders. Satan attempted to disrupt the work of the church, but if anything, the incident in the preceding passage brought attention to the power and work of the church resulting in more people hearing about it and increased curiosity with this new movement.

Verse 12

God gave the Apostles the power that allowed them to perform miracles (signs and wonders). Although the miracles were predominately done by the Apostles, there were other believers who were able to perform miracles through the power of the Spirit. Acts 6:8 Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 

The reason that the Apostles performed the majority of the miracles is that this was how their authority and the ministry of the church as authenticated.

  • Romans 15:18-19 For I would not dare say anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to make the Gentiles obedient by word and deed, 19 by the power of miraculous signs and wonders, and by the power of God’s Spirit. As a result, I have fully proclaimed the good news about the Messiah from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum.
  • 2 Corinthians 12:12 The signs of an apostle were performed with great endurance among you—not only signs but also wonders and miracles.
  • Hebrews 2:4  At the same time, God also testified by signs and wonders, various miracles, and distributions of gifts from the Holy Spirit according to His will.

When we look back through the Bible, we see miracles performed at the beginning of a new era.

  • Moses performed great signs and wonders a the beginning of the age of Law.
  • Elijah and Elisha performed miracles at the beginning of the era of the Prophets.
  • Jesus and the Apostles performed miracles when the New Covenant began.

In each case, God called our attention to the new era. It was His way of saying, “follow these leaders because I have sent them.”

These wonders were also the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that His followers would do greater works in answer to believing prayer. John 14:12-13 I assure you: The one who believes in Me  will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

When Jesus performed miracles, He has three purposes in mind.

  • To show compassion and meet human needs.
  • To present His credentials as the Son of God.
  • To convey spiritual truth.
  • An example would be when Jesus fed the 5,000. This miracle met their physical need, revealed that He was the Son of God, and presented an opportunity to preach a sermon about the Bread of Life.

The Apostolic miracles followed a similar pattern. An example is the healing of the crippled beggar.

  • Healing the crippled man met his need.
  • The healing proved to the people that Peter and John were servants of the living Christ, thus verifying their credentials to carry on Jesus’ work.
  • The Gospel message that Peter preached resulted in more people coming saving belief in Jesus.

Before we proceed, let’s quickly discuss the issue of the Apostolic age and the requirements to be an Apostle. The key requirement that can no longer be fulfilled is to have seen the risen Christ. The one exception was Paul. However, in his case, Jesus gave a direct commandment for Paul to preach the Gospel. Acts 9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go! For this man is My chosen instrument to take My name to Gentiles, kings, and the Israelites. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for My name!”

If anyone claims to be an Apostle today, I would be highly skeptical of that claim. The meaning of the Greek word for “Apostle” means “one who fulfills the role of being a special messenger (generally restricted to the immediate followers of Jesus Christ, but also extended, as in the case of Paul, to other early Christians active in proclaiming the message of the Gospel) of Jesus Christ. [Taken from the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains.]

When we consider the context of Acts and the New Testament church, it is not difficult to see that the original followers were, in effect, special messengers commissioned to spread the Gospel and birth the church. For someone to claim today that they were a “special messenger” would beg the question of what their specific commission from Jesus entailed. All followers of Christ are directed by the Great Commission to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Those who claim to be present-day Apostles would need to give justification for calling themselves an Apostle. I realize many may not agree with this. Still, it is important to highlight the requirements and definition of an Apostle since Satan utilizes many different methods to undermine the church, and false teachers often are very damaging.

Peter, and presumably the rest of the twelve Apostles, would gather in Solomon’s Colonnade to share the Gospel with those who were going to the temple. We need to remember that the temple in Jerusalem was not one single building. It covered a sizable area that contained various buildings, gates, and porches. What was likely occurring is that Jesus’ early followers would worship in the temple and then gather at Solomon’s Colonnade to preach. This would ensure a steady stream of people going to and from the temple. 

Verse 13

This verse can be confusing when connected to the following verse. Here it says, “none of the rest dared to join them,” but in the next verse, it says, “Believers were added to the Lord in increasing numbers.” How do we resolve this seeming contradiction? There are two resolutions to this question.

  • The first is that not all of the believers would gather at Solomon’s Colonnade since that seemed to be the focal point for the persecution from the religious leaders in their attempt to crush this new movement. However, given the power and zeal of the early church, it seems unreasonable that any true believer would be afraid of being arrested. 
  • The second is that all of the true believers in Jesus would gather, and those who hadn’t become fully committed followers were afraid to be associated with them. For many in countries with religious freedom or at least religious tolerance, this may not resonate. But for those in countries where persecution is real, it would hit home. Only fully committed followers of Jesus would have the courage and faith to gather with fellow believers, not worrying about the consequences. For those who live in persecuted countries or have met people from those countries, there is a rock-solid aspect of their faith in Jesus. I believe that this second possibility is the correct one.

There was a paradox at work here. First, there was no doubting the power of the Spirit, as demonstrated by the healings that were occurring. It is natural that the display of healing power would be attractive. Second, there was the judgmental power of the Spirit, as demonstrated by the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. This power demands commitment and responsibility from those who profess allegiance to the Spirit.

Another thing to note is that even among those who were not followers of Jesus, they praised them for the miracles that were being performed. 

Verse 14

Even though the power of the Spirit was both wondrous and terrifying, the number of those who believed in the Gospel continued to grow. This growth was an indication of the success of the evangelism of the early church as it was powered by the Spirit. This illustrates an important point as we share the Gospel. We should never try to hide the challenging aspects of living as a follower of Christ; facing persecution, not being popular, and being rejected are just a few. Even though it was widely known that Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying, the church continued to grow. It was this manifestation of power that leads directly into the final two verses in this passage.

Verses 15-16

The people of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas may have been fearful of the power on display in the early church, but that didn’t mean that they were afraid to tap into the benefits. We see that those who were sick or those who had sick family members or friends would move them into the streets so that even with the mere passing of Peter’s shadow would heal them. This aligns with an accepted cultural/historical belief regarding a person’s shadow. A shadow was viewed with superstition and was thought to be an extension of the person, representing their power and personality. A similar event is the woman who was healed by touching Jesus’ robe in Luke 8:44. Even though Luke doesn’t explicitly state that Peter’s shadow healed anyone, it does underline the healing reputation of the Apostles.

 Although the passage doesn’t mention any of the other Apostles by name, but considering the context of what has occurred so far in Acts, it is reasonable to think that this same belief would be manifested by the shadow of any of the twelve. One can only imagine what people were thinking and talking about as they witnessed this amazing display of healing power manifested through ordinary men. It is also easy to consider how the religious leaders felt about this display. The church was displaying the powerful work of the Spirit as the religious leaders were focused on stopping this very work. It would be interesting to know what the average citizen of Jerusalem felt regarding this dichotomy. The official religious leaders who weren’t able to perform these miracles and a group of uneducated laborers healing numerous people while standing up to and confronting those who were supposed to shepherd the people.

However, not were the residents of Jerusalem being healed, but people from all the towns around Jerusalem were bringing those who were sick as well as those who were tormented by evil spirits. This reminds us of what is recorded in Mark 6:53-56 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and beached the boat. 54 As they got out of the boat, people immediately recognized Him. 55 They hurried throughout that vicinity and began to carry the sick on mats to wherever they heard He was. 56 Wherever He would go, into villages, towns, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged Him that they might touch just the tassel  of His robe. And everyone who touched it was made well. 

The main difference at this point is, unlike Jesus, their ministry was confined to Jerusalem, and the people came to them instead of them going to the people. This would change by Acts 9 when the Apostles began to venture forth from Jerusalem to the surrounding areas.

The passage ends with the phrase, “and they were all healed.” It wasn’t just some of them or most of them…it was all of them.

On the heels of the shocking and frightening events of Acts 5:1-11, the young church continued to grow and to spread the life-giving message of the Gospel throughout Jerusalem, with the news reaching locations outside of the capital. There is a principle contained here which all believers should remember. A church that is firmly rooted in Jesus, has unshakeable faith, is characterized by holiness, lives out the call to evangelize the lost, and is unified in spirit and purpose is a church that can’t be stopped and one that has nothing to fear, regardless of the persecution that is hurled at it. 

Applications.

  • Are you a “closet Christian” or do people around you know that you are a follower of Christ? That doesn’t mean we should act in an overbearing manner, but it does mean that people around us should see a difference in how we act. If not, prayerfully consider why that is the case. Are you afraid of what others may think or do? Do you feel that you are lacking in some areas of your walk? Whatever it may be, ask for that area to be strengthened and let your light shine to those around you.
  • Meet with other believers on a regular basis. The absolute minimum is during the weekly worship service. But honestly, that isn’t what Christian fellowship is meant to be. Meet with others on a more frequent basis to encourage and pray for each other. Join a small group for Bible study and prayer. If you are comfortable and feel led, lead a small group and disciple others. 
  • Is your life something that others would praise or think highly of? Our goal should be to share the Gospel, shine the light, make Jesus known to those around us. All of this is done for His glory, not ours. 
  • We may not have a “healing touch” as described in this passage, but all of us can to pray for those in need around us. Make it a habit to pray for others. Think of one or two who don’t know Jesus and pray daily that they would come to know Christ. Pray for the sick that you know. Pray for the leaders in your church. Pray for opportunities to share the Gospel.

Acts Lesson Nine

Acts Lesson Nine – 5:1-11 Don’t Test the Spirit

1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. However, he kept back part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge, and brought a portion of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 

Then Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds from the field? Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal? Why is it that you planned this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God!” When he heard these words, Ananias dropped dead, and a great fear came on all who heard. The young men got up, wrapped his body, carried him out, and buried him. 

There was an interval of about three hours; then his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. “Tell me,” Peter asked her, “did you sell the field for this price?” 

“Yes,” she said, “for that price.” 

Then Peter said to her, “Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” 

10 Instantly she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men came in, they found her dead, carried her out, and buried her beside her husband. 11 Then great fear came on the whole church and on all who heard these things. (HCSB)

The last lesson ended with a display of generosity by Barnabas. In this lesson, we will see a polar opposite, greed, and jealousy by Ananias and Sapphira, which leads to their physical death. There are a couple of interesting points regarding their names; Ananias means “God is gracious” while Sapphira means “beautiful.” We may think that the punishment handed out to them was too severe for the crime. However, as we dig into this passage, we will see that our infinitely holy God was following a pattern of judgment that goes back to the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Here are some examples of divine judgment on seemingly minor offenses.

  • Nadab and Abihu were killed for presenting false fire in Leviticus 10.
  • Achan was killed for disobeying orders after Israel entered the Promised Land in Joshua 7.
  • Uzzah was touching the ark as it was being transported in 2 Samuel 6.

In each of these cases, it may seem that the punishment was too severe. However, judgment is passed according to an infinitely holy God’s standards and not ours. Another thing to note regarding each case above and the one in this passage is that God judges sin severely at the beginning of a new period in salvation history. 

Today’s passage will be broken into two parts. The first covering Ananias and background/general information, with the second part covering Sapphira and concluding thoughts.

Verses 1-6

In this section, we see that Satan was the culprit behind the couple’s actions. This doesn’t remove the guilt from them or us if we also follow Satan’s direction. But it does point to the issue of spiritual warfare that believers face. Up until this point, the young church was thriving and resisting the spiritual attacks from the outside, primarily from the Jewish religious leaders up to this point. Now, Satan changes his focus and decides to try and undermine the church from the inside by using members of the church to discredit it. If we fast-forward to Acts 20:28-31, we read where Paul warns the church leaders to be on the lookout for these attacks from the inside. Often these are the most difficult to see and the most damaging. Nothing discredits a church more than one of its leaders or prominent members involved in a public scandal. Believers need to read and apply Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 6:10-18 to continually put on our spiritual armor and be prepared for spiritual warfare.

As we look at the sin they committed, there are three distinct features.

  • It was energized and directed by Satan. 
  • It was motivated by pride.
    • They were possibly jealous of Barnabas’ gift at the conclusion of chapter four and wanted everyone to see that they were just as generous. We could call this religious “keeping up with the neighbor.”
    • God hates pride. Proverbs 8:13b I hate arrogant pride, evil conduct.
    • Jesus made it clear that how we give is essential. Is it for God’s glory or ours? See Matthew 6:1-4 and 19-34.
    • All that we have we have received from God. We are stewards of His possessions.
  • Their sin was directed against God’s church.
    • There is no reason to doubt that they were followers of Jesus.
      • The young church had such a high spiritual level that it is doubtful that a fake Christian could have invaded the church at this point.
      • They also lied to the Spirit (verse 3) and tested the Spirit (verse 9). This indicates that they had the Spirit living within them.
    • God loves His church and jealously guards it. The church was purchased by the blood of Jesus. The church has been put on the earth to glorify Him and complete His work. 
      • Satan wants to destroy and discredit the church. The easiest way is from the inside.
      • The church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” 1 Timothy 3:15.
      • The church is God’s temple in which He dwells. 1 Corinthians 3:16.
      • The church is God’s army. 2 Timothy 2:1-4.
      • The church is safe as long as Satan is attacking from the outside. When Satan gets a foothold within the church, that’s when danger is present.

Their sin was not withholding the money, essential robbing God. It was in lying to Him and robbing Him of the glory of selfless giving among the believers. There was no mandate that they had to sell the property; it was purely voluntary. Even after selling it, there was no stipulation that any or all of the money must be donated to the church. It was their overwhelming desire for recognition that contributed to their actions.

There are numerous interpretations of how Ananias died; zapped, heart attack, fear, overwhelming guilt. The how isn’t important when we look at this passage. What we can determine from the context of the passage is that it wasn’t an ordinary death; they saw God’s hand in his death. Otherwise, there would be no reason for great fear among the believers. The Greek word for fear in this passage means “great respect and awe for God.” 

The speed at which the burial was conducted also sheds some light on the circumstances. Burials were usually not lengthy affairs, but three hours or less would be considered fast in that culture. However, a hasty burial was the norm for deaths surrounded by unusual circumstances, such as suicides, executed criminals, and judgments from God.

Verses 7-11

We now move to the second participant in the conspiracy, Sapphira. There are several things to note in this section.

  • Sapphira was unaware of what had happened to Ananias. Although it wouldn’t accomplish anything, it is interesting to speculate what her actions would have been had she known what had happened a few hours earlier.
    • Would she have tried to continue the deception, thinking it couldn’t happen to her?
    • Would she have run away or disappeared out of fear?
    • Would she have come before the church with a repentant heart?
  • What we do know is that Peter gave her one last chance to come clean when he asked, “did you sell the field for this price?”
    • We need to note and follow Peter’s role in this encounter. Peter was not the judge; he was merely confronting both individuals with a question and allowing, at least with Sapphira, an opportunity to repent.
    • God was the judge, and swift consequences resulted from her refusal to repent.
  • There is great irony in this passage. First, Ananias laid the money at the feet of the Apostles. Second, both ended up dying at the feet of the Apostles. 
  • The church is intended to be a holy body, a place where the Spirit resides within the people who make up the church.
  • The church depicted at the beginning of Acts worked miracles, evangelized without fear, and was blessed with extraordinary growth. The Spirit was the power behind the unity and the unity as the power behind its witness.
  • This is the first time the Greek word for church, ekklesia, occurs in Acts. The word signifies the people of God gathered together as a religious community. It is probably no coincidence that it first appears in this passage. The church only thrives when it lives in the trust of its members, where there is unified trust the church flourishes in the power of the Spirit. When distrust appears, its witness fades.
  • Although Ananias and Sapphira experienced divine judgment, there is nothing to suggest their death was more than a physical one. 

Now let’s look at some general concepts and conclusions from this passage.

  • As strong, vibrant, and Spirit-filled as the early church was, it still was not a perfect church. We will never find a perfect church on this side of eternity. That doesn’t mean churches shouldn’t strive for that, but it’s unreasonable to expect it. Since there is no perfect church, we shouldn’t engage in “church shopping” once we’ve settled into a community of believers. The only exception to that is if the church, church leadership, or teaching becomes heretical and refuses to repent and return to being a biblically-based church.
  • The use of possessions and money. Using these in the wrong way or with the wrong intention is a serious sin in God’s sight. As we journey through Acts, we’ll see that there a quite a few instances where economic issues are dealt with in the Christian community. As we take a survey of churches today, we’d probably see quite a bit of the “health and wealth” or “prosperity gospel” heresy being proclaimed in churches. When we look at the New Testament, we’ll see an abundance of teaching on the dangers of wealth. Although wealth and possessions are not inherently wrong or evil, the proper biblical attitude is to understand that they are a blessing from God to be used to bless others.
  • Lying to make ourselves appear to be something that we aren’t. Ananias’s goal was to enhance his self-esteem and prestige within the church. How often do we see that in today’s church? This leads us to be dishonest with ourselves. A key component to receiving God’s grace is acknowledging our need for Him. Pride can slam shut the door that allows God’s grace to enter our lives.
  • A reverential fear of God and the consequences of sin. Sin and scandals will occur within the body of believers. How that is dealt with is an indicator of whether or not the church has a reverential fear of God. The early church dealt with the issue of sin quickly. In today’s world of tolerance and acceptance, the opposite often occurs. The example of Ananias and Sapphira’s behavior was a cancer that needed to be removed from the church for it to be healthy. We are all sinners, but the sin must be confronted and not condoned.
  • The demonization of believers. Although believers can’t be possessed by Satan, the Holy Spirit lives inside believers and is stronger than Satan; we can allow ourselves to be directed and used by Satan. It happened to Ananias and Sapphira. We’ve probably all read of Christian leaders who have had moral failures. Often it can start as an innocent mistake, but then it snowballs out of control. These moral failures aren’t limited to the area of sexual misconduct. It can also occur when we feel wronged and plan an appropriate response. It can happen in professional ambition. There are countless examples that could be listed here. We must never forget that we are engaged in spiritual warfare with an unseen enemy. This can lead us to become complacent and not consider the spiritual realm. 

Applications

  • As we bring our offerings, we need to stop and examine our hearts and our motivation for giving. Is there any selfish motivation behind our gift, or is our gift meant to glorify God? If there is any selfish motivation, we need to stop, repent, and prayerfully reconsider our giving. Once our motivations are pure, then we can continue with our giving.
  • If we knowingly or unknowingly have impure motivations and a Christian brother or sister confronts us, we need to repent. We should also thank them for holding us accountable to pure living. This is one example of why an accountability partner is essential for our spiritual health.
  • If we see a Christian brother or sister sinning, do we gracefully confront them in a timely manner, or do we avoid and condone the behavior? Scripture indicates that we need to take action for their benefit as well as the church’s benefit.
  • We need to have a reverent fear for God and His holiness. This reverence needs to be evident in our words, thoughts, and actions.

Acts Lesson Seven

Acts 4:13-31 – The Sanhedrin’s Dilemma

13 When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 And since they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in response. 15 After they had ordered them to leave the Sanhedrin, they conferred among themselves, 16 saying, “What should we do with these men? For an obvious sign, evident to all who live in Jerusalem, has been done through them, and we cannot deny it! 17 However, so this does not spread any further among the people, let’s threaten them against speaking to anyone in this name again.” 18 So they called for them and ordered them not to preach or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 

19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; 20 for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 

21 After threatening them further, they released them. They found no way to punish them, because the people were all giving glory to God over what had been done; 22 for this sign of healing had been performed on a man over 40 years old. 

23 After they were released, they went to their own people and reported everything the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they all raised their voices to God and said, “Master, You are the One who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You said through the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of our father David Your servant: 

Why did the Gentiles rage 

and the peoples plot futile things? 

26 The kings of the earth took their stand 

and the rulers assembled together 

against the Lord and against His Messiah.

27 “For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that Your slaves may speak Your message with complete boldness, 30 while You stretch out Your hand for healing, signs, and wonders to be performed through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak God’s message with boldness. (HCSB)

In the previous lesson, we covered Peter’s defense to the charges and how the Sanhedrin’s case contained no foundation. Now, the ball is firmly back in the Sanhedrin’s court. What were they going to do in response to the healing of the lame man and Peter’s defense of the situation?

Verses 13-14

The Sanhedrin faced a serious dilemma. Since they had publicly arrested Peter and John and placed them in jail the previous day, they now had to figure out how to proceed. However, the “trial” had not gone according to their plans. They probably expected these “uneducated” men to crumble after being brought before the council. Instead, Peter and John challenged the religious leaders. Here are some facts that the council needed to consider as they continued with this charade.

  • They couldn’t deny that a miracle had occurred. The man who had been lame since birth, a man who was easily recognized by many, possibly even some on the religious council, was standing before them with no physical disability.
  • How could uneducated and untrained men perform this miracle? They were ordinary fishermen, not scribes or authorized priests in the Jewish religious circle.
  • Peter and John were disciples of Jesus, but Jesus was dead.
  • The council was likely surprised by the courage and confidence that Peter and John displayed before them.
  • Miracles, by themself, are not proof of Jesus’ resurrection or the truth of Peter’s message.
  • Satan can perform miracles – 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10 The coming of the lawless one is based on Satan’s working, with all kinds of false miracles, signs, and wonders, 10 and with every unrighteous deception among those who are perishing. They perish because they did not accept the love of the truth in order to be saved.
  • False prophets can do wonders – Deuteronomy 13:1-5 If a prophet or someone who has dreams  arises among you and proclaims a sign or wonder to you, and that sign or wonder he has promised you comes about, but he says, ‘Let us follow other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us worship them,’ do not listen to that prophet’s words or to that dreamer. For the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul. You must follow the Lord your God and fear Him. You must keep His commands and listen to His voice; you must worship Him and remain faithful to Him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he has urged rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the place of slavery, to turn you from the way the Lord your God has commanded you to walk. You must purge the evil from you.
  • The miracle, the message, and the events that had occurred since Pentecost were all supporting evidence that Jesus was alive and the church was powered by the Holy Spirit.
  • Peter used the Old Testament in both sermons to support his claims. This is evidence of a true prophet, as shown above in Deuteronomy 13:1-5.
  • The Sanhedrin was left speechless after Peter’s defense and the healed man standing before them.

Verses 15-18

Asking Peter and John to leave the council was a standard procedure once all the evidence and arguments were finished. This allowed the council to have an open discussion among itself, with no outside distractions or interruptions. From the short narrative in these verses, we see the following facts.

  • With the statement “what should we do with these men,” it was clear that they were indecisive about how to proceed.
  • They acknowledged that a miracle had occurred.
  • The miracle was widely known. There was no way the council could cover it up or deny that it happened.
  • Jesus’ disciples were popular with the people, as witnessed by the explosive growth of the church and that people came to hear their message.
  • There was no charge the council could pin on Peter and John.
  • The only thing the council could do was use their position and power to threaten this new religious movement. They would forbid any teaching that referred to Jesus.

There is one other significant point to consider in this section. It’s contained in verse 17, and depending on your translation, it appears as “this” (HCSB), “it” (ESV), or “thing” (NIV). What is “this” referring to? Does the Sanhedrin want to stop the further spread of the knowledge of the miracle that occurred? That is not possible; that “cat was out of the bag.” What the council was concerned about was the Gospel, the preaching of Jesus, and His resurrection. The focus of their attention was stopping this fledgling movement in its infancy. 

Verses 19-22

Peter and John continue down the courageous road they started on when they presented the defense of their actions. They refused to accept the decision of the council. Their response made it clear that they would follow God and not what the council was telling them. There was no way that they would stop preaching about Jesus. We can all learn from the boldness of the Apostles in rejecting instruction from man that conflicted with what God or Scripture proclaimed. At the same time, we need to make sure that civil disobedience or our personal crusades are actions that don’t tarnish Jesus’ Kingdom. At this point, let’s take a short history lesson from Scripture on civil disobedience.

  • The Jewish midwives were disobeying the pharaoh and not killing the babies in Exodus 1.
  • Moses’ parents in Hebrews 11:23.
  • Daniel in chapters one and six.
  • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3.
  • In each of these cases, there was clear direction from God.
    • The midwives and Moses’ parents knew it was wrong to kill children.
    • Daniel and his friends knew it was wrong to eat food offered to idols or bow down to idols.
    • Peter and John knew that they were under orders to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
    • In each case, the people were following instructions from God and not a personal agenda.
  • In each case, they also acted with courtesy and respect even as they defied the instructions of man. It is possible to both respect and disobey authority when authority runs contrary to God’s instruction.
    • Romans 13.
    • Titus 3:1-2.
    • 1 Peter 2:13-25.

 The greatest example of unjust suffering is Jesus. In His suffering, Jesus taught us three things.

  • Righteous protest against injustice always involves suffering.
  • Righteous protest against injustice always requires sacrifice.
  • Righteous protest must be motivated by love.

As followers of Jesus, we need to be careful not to wrap our prejudice as righteous indignation and make ourselves look like courageous soldiers. We must always examine our hearts to ensure we are not starting a “holy war” to satisfy our inner frustrations.

Another way to look at this problem is to examine four possible courses of action that Christians can take. Only one of these is biblical.

  • Monastic – views the world and all governments as corrupt, and the only solution is to retreat from the world. 
  • Secular – the world is the only source of authority, and God is denied. This option is foolish as there is no counterbalance to an evil or tyrannical government.
  • Cowardly – authority rests in both the world and in God, but the world has the predominant position. Pilate chose this option when he handed Jesus over to be crucified.
  • Biblical – authority rests in the world and God, with God in the predominant position. The government has authority but is not independent from God. When the two conflict, we must follow God.

Christians with courage should be law-abiding citizens until that law contradicts the clearly written law of God, at which point the higher authority (God) takes over.

Verses 23-31

Peter and John go back to the rest of the disciples and report the details on what happened. After this, they all joined together in praise and prayer to God. They were united in prayer. There’s a lesson here on the early church that the modern church all too often forgets, the importance of prayer. The early church understood that prayer was necessary to defeat the plans of the enemy. Prayer meetings in modern churches, if they even have prayer meetings, often resemble a party or concert. The meeting contains little sense of urgency or the danger we face because most of us live a “comfortable” Christian walk. If followers of Jesus were more intentional about following the Great Commission and being bold, there would be more urgency and need for prayer.

As we examine their prayer, we notice that they didn’t ask for their circumstances to be changed or for the religious rulers who were hostile to the Gospel to be removed from their positions. Instead, they asked for power to make the best of their circumstances and accomplish what He had already predestined. They desired to glorify Jesus, not themselves.

Their prayer was based on Scripture; they used the beginning of Psalm 2 for their prayer. Through Scripture, God speaks to us and tells us what He wants us to do. In prayer, we talk to God and make ourselves available to do His will. Prayer is not telling God what to do or what we want; it is asking God to do His will through our lives. 

1 John 5:14-15 Now this is the confidence we have before Him: Whenever we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked Him for.

The contextual setting of Psalm 2 describes the revolt of the nations against Yahweh and the Messiah, but it originated in the crowning of an Israelite king and the subsequent refusal of some of the vassal leaders to pay homage and submit to the king. Now, the early church is applying this psalm to their situation with Herod, Pilate, the Romans, and some of the Jews as the disobedient vassal rulers.

In response, God shook the place where they had gathered, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, enabling them to boldly preach the Gospel. We mustn’t misunderstand the concept of them being filled again with the Holy Spirit. This was not another Pentecost. This demonstrates that believers must be continually filled with the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s work, and it is possible for our “tank to run dry” if we are not in right fellowship with God. If we are living in sin, if we are not reading Scripture, if we are not praying to God, if we are not using our gifts in service can all lead to our spiritual tank running dry. However, we see in this example the opposite. The believers were in a healthy and faithful relationship with God, and they were continually being filled with God’s power, the Holy Spirit.

Christian courage depends upon biblical praying grounded in the sovereignty of God.

A summary of this passage reveals several key points.

  • Strength to face suffering.
    • They were united in fellowship. This is a recurring theme in Acts, the united fellowship of believers. For those of us who live in individualistic countries, this theme often runs counter to our culture.
    • The sovereignty of God. Because God is in control of all things, we have nothing to fear if we walk in obedience.
    • Their united prayer was saturated with Scripture. We must spend time daily in God’s Word and let it soak into our innermost being. Psalm 119:11 I have treasured Your word in my heart so that I may not sin against you.
  • Fellowship helps in times of crisis.
    • When we gather with like-minded believers, we gain strength and encouragement, knowing we are not alone. 
    • When we share our situation with our support group, we unburden ourselves. We can receive wise counsel and not act on our emotions.
    • When we gather with our support group, we can spend time in prayer together. Being together helps us to focus on God and His sovereignty instead of being overwhelmed by our problems.
  • Acknowledging God’s sovereignty helps in times of crisis.
    • When we are experiencing a crisis, the enemy seems powerful and seem weak in comparison.
    • We may experience suffering, and some could be quite severe. But in the end, God will turn it into good.
    • Evil is a reality, but God is a deeper and more powerful reality.

Applications.

  • Don’t let a lack of formal seminary training prevent you from being a bold witness for Christ. Instead, submit and let the Holy Spirit fill and guide you each day. For those who do have formal seminary training, don’t let the education make you arrogant and forget that without the Holy Spirit, your words will ring hollow.
  • Be bold in the face of persecution. We serve the highest power in the universe, the living God, and we have nothing to fear when we walk in accordance with His will.
  • Gather together with other believers in unity. We desperately need each other for support, encouragement, and correction. Lone-ranger Christians are ineffective Christians. 
  • Pray. Pray together, pray alone, pray without ceasing. It is our most effective weapon in spiritual warfare. Nothing else stops the efforts of the enemy as much as prayer. 

Acts Lesson Six

Acts Lesson Six – 4:1-12: Persecution Begins

4 Now as they were speaking to the people, the priests, the commander of the temple police, and the Sadducees confronted them, because they were provoked that they were teaching the people and proclaiming the resurrection from the dead, using Jesus as the example. So they seized them and put them in custody until the next day, since it was already evening. But many of those who heard the message believed, and the number of the men came to about 5,000. 

The next day, their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John and Alexander, and all the members of the high-priestly family.  After they had Peter and John stand before them, they asked the question: “By what power or in what name have you done this?” 

Then Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders: If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a disabled man—by what means he was healed— 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead—by Him this man is standing here before you healthy. 11 This Jesus is 

the stone rejected by you builders, 

which has become the cornerstone. 

12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.” (HCSB)

In chapter four of Acts, the official persecution of the New Testament church begins, which Jesus had predicted would occur.

  • Matthew 10:17-20 – 17 Because people will hand you over to sanhedrins and flog you in their synagogues, beware of them.18 You will even be brought before governors and kings because of Me, to bear witness to them and to the nations. 19 But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you should speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour, 20 because you are not speaking, but the Spirit of your Father is speaking through you.
  • Luke 21:12-15 – 12 But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you. They will hand you over to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of My name. 13 It will lead to an opportunity for you to witness. 14 Therefore make up your minds not to prepare your defense ahead of time, 15 for I will give you such words and a wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.

Peter’s message produced two very different results.

  • Approximately 2,000 more came to faith in Jesus.
  • The religious leaders rejected the message and tried to silence the Apostles.

Now let’s look at each group that is referenced in the first verse. It would be easy to skim over this, but it speaks to the level of attention and persecution that is beginning.

  • Priests.
    • The priestly caste in general.
    • They were opposed to Jesus before His crucifixion.
    • They were now opposed to the witness of Jesus’ followers.
    • Their teaching was being undermined by the Apostle’s teaching.
  • Commander of the Temple Police.
    • Not Roman troops.
    • These were the people who arrested Jesus.
    • Apart from the Roman governor and the Roman army, he was the second most powerful person in Jerusalem.
      • Romans first.
      • High Priest second.
      • Commander of the Temple Police third.
  • Sadducees.
    • Not the numerically biggest group in the Sanhedrin.
    • Upper class.
    • Powerful in position and with significant financial backing.
    • They understood that to survive the Roman occupation; they would have to cooperate with the occupiers. Hence, they had established close ties with the Roman authorities and would do anything to keep that influence.

So we see that power-brokers in the Jewish religious system were united in an effort to crush this new religious movement which threatened the stability and the positions of power that they now occupied. Instead of pursuing the truth, they were more concerned with preserving their prestige, status, and wealth.

We see in verse two what it was that was really bothering the religious leaders.

  • The Apostles were teaching the people.
    • Religious teaching was reserved for the priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, rulers, elders, and teachers of the Law.
    • In their minds, teaching was reserved for those who had attended a rabbinical academy and received the approval to begin teaching independently.
      • This was a point about Jesus that had really bothered them.
      • Still, Jesus had intrinsic authority in His teaching.
        • The people marveled at His teaching and followed Him to hear more.
        • His teaching was so powerful that at one point, when the temple guards were sent to arrest Jesus, they returned to the religious leaders and explained their failure (John 7:46.
      • Now they didn’t have one man to deal with; they had a group who spoke with the same level of authority.
        • The Apostles never attended rabbinical schools.
        • They came from simple backgrounds.
          • Fishermen.
          • Tax-collectors.
          • Untaught people. 
        • But they were teaching like Jesus, with authority, and the people were listening.
  • The Apostles were teaching about Jesus and God the Father raising Him from the dead.
    • Teaching only about resurrection would likely not have resulted in the persecution that now starts.
      • The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection.
      • The Pharisees did believe in the resurrection.
        • This split in belief was later used by Paul to divide the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6-9).
    • The Apostles were teaching about a resurrection on the last day.
    • They were teaching about the resurrection of Jesus.
      • If true, this would lead to several conclusions.
        • It would validate Jesus’ identity.
        • It would prove His nature and the value of what He came to do.
        • It would indict the religious leaders in the murder of their Messiah.

The religious leaders now resorted to a common, worldly method of retaining control. They used power in an attempt to intimidate and control the Apostles.

  • Power.
    • Economic power.
    • Authoritarian power – courts, legal system, and military.
    • Positional power.
      • You can preach when we allow it.
      • We can stop you anytime we feel like it.
      • We can arrest you without just cause.
  • Intimidation.
    • Putting them in jail was not necessary.
    • The Apostles were preaching in the open and not hiding.
    • They could have had brought them before the Sanhedrin the following morning.

The following day, as the Sanhedrin met, reveals additional powerful forces brought against the fledgling church.

  • Rulers – most likely those in positions of authority within the Jewish government.
  • Elders – distinguished older men who lived in Jerusalem and wielding great influence.
  • Scribes – teachers of the Law.
  • Annas – the high priest.
    • Although the Romans had removed him from the official position years earlier, he was still the power behind the position of the high priest.
    • In Israel, the high priest occupied that position for life. The Jews would consider Annas the true high priest until he died.
    • He connived to have his five sons and one son-in-law become high priest after he was removed from the position.
  • Caiaphas – the son-in-law and acting high priest.
    • He conspired along with Annas to have Jesus killed.
    • They may have begun to devise a similar plot against Jesus’ followers.
  • John and Alexander – not much is known about them. Most likely, they were members of the priestly family.

As we consider what had taken place so far, we need to review the responsibility of the Sanhedrin in Jewish life.

  • They were responsible for protecting the Jewish faith.
  • They were required to examine any new teacher or teaching within Israel (Deuteronomy 13).
  • They had the right to investigate what the fledgling church was doing, but they didn’t have the right to arrest innocent men and refuse to examine the evidence that was presented honestly.

The council now asks by what power, authority, or name they had healed the lame man. They unwittingly presented Peter with an opportunity to witness, and he took full advantage of the opportunity.

Peter now begins his defense.

  • Peter demonstrates respect for the council as he explains how the lame man was healed.
  • There is also a not-so-subtle jab at the religious leaders regarding their arrest.
    • Since the question that they ask is about the healing of the lame man, Peter is implying that the only reason they could have been arrested was for healing him.
    • Healing the man is not a crime.
  • Peter then says it was through the name of Jesus that the lame man was healed. 
    • The religious council likely thought they had heard the last of Jesus after His crucifixion.
      • But the Apostles were teaching that Jesus was alive.
      • To the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection, this would have been tantamount to a heavy religious slap in the face.
  • Peter’s defense is guided by the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had told them.
    • Luke 21:15 For I will give you such words and a wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 
    • Peter quotes Psalm 118:22, a direct messianic reference that Jesus also quoted in Matthew 21:42.
    • Peter tells the council that they are the builder, but they rejected God’s stone, Jesus.
    • The image of a stone or rock is scattered throughout the Old Testament and is often symbolic of God. 
    • The stone can be a blessing or a stumbling block.
      • A blessing to those who place their faith in Jesus.
      • A stumbling block to those who reject Jesus.
  • Peter concludes his defense by stating that not only was the lame man healed in the name of Jesus but that Jesus is the only way to salvation and restoration with God.
  • In Peter’s short defense, we see a tactic that Paul would also use later. Not only did Peter speak in defense of their actions, but he also used it as an opportunity to witness to the truth of Jesus to the religious council, the very ones who should have already known who Jesus is.
  • Peter’s sermon can be summarized around four points.
    • The religious leaders were guilty of killing Jesus. 
    • Jesus rose from the dead; He was alive! The very God that the religious leaders worshiped is the God who raised Jesus and placed Him at His right hand, proving that Jesus is God the Son, the savior of the world.
    • God’s purpose was fulfilled despite the opposition of the religious leaders. 
    • Jesus is the only way to salvation.

A point to remember as we continue our journey through Acts, after chapter three, only three other chapters in total don’t mention persecution. This would imply that persecution, at some level, might be a necessary part of every believer’s life. Scripture would seem to confirm this.

  • 2 Timothy 3:12 In fact, all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
  • John 15:20 Remember the word I spoke to you: “A slave is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours.

There is an essential point for the modern church to consider here. How often did we/do we hear about suffering as being an expected part of the Christian life? I know that was never mentioned to me before I submitted to the Lordship of Jesus. I understand it now and don’t run from it. When we look at the shallowness of the modern church, especially in the affluent West, we need to consider whether the church’s neglect in this area has led to a significant number of shallow Christians who view salvation as a “get out of hell, free” card, but who otherwise don’t live as a faithful follower of Jesus. As Jesus said, we must count the cost.

Applications

  • The church must teach that persecution will occur. As we witness to the lost, we must talk about persecution. As we walk with Jesus, we must prepare ourselves for persecution. For many of us, persecution is something we read about. However, we have many brothers and sisters around the world who face persecution on a daily basis. And according to Scripture, those of us who don’t currently face persecution may soon find out circumstances rapidly changing, especially as we view what’s happening around the world.
  • We should never fear persecution. As followers of Jesus, we are to walk in His footsteps. Matthew 10:28 Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
  • Walk and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. The power behind the early church was the Holy Spirit. Ordinary, uneducated men were accomplishing remarkable things powered by God. The Holy Spirit is sometimes called the “forgotten God,” because the modern church often doesn’t rely on Him. 
  • No matter the circumstances or challenges we face, let the Holy Spirit lead you as you share the Gospel with the lost around you. Jesus is the only path to salvation.