Acts Lesson Twenty

Acts Lesson Twenty: Acts 9:32-43 – Peter Spreading the Gospel

32 As Peter was traveling from place to place, he also came down to the saints who lived in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years. 34 Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and make your bed,” and immediately he got up. 35 So all who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord. 

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. She was always doing good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became sick and died. After washing her, they placed her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples heard that Peter was there and sent two men to him who begged him, “Don’t delay in coming with us.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them. When he arrived, they led him to the room upstairs. And all the widows approached him, weeping and showing him the robes and clothes that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Then Peter sent them all out of the room. He knelt down, prayed, and turning toward the body said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her stand up. Then he called the saints and widows and presented her alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 And Peter stayed on many days in Joppa with Simon, a leather tanner. (HCSB)

Luke now switches the narrative from Paul back to Peter. It is clear from the beginning of this passage that Peter is now on an evangelism trip. This passage will focus on two significant events that occur during the journey. Accordingly, this passage will be split into two sections.

  • The healing of Aeneas in verses 32-35.
  • The raising of Tabitha in verses 36-43.

Verses 32-35

The setting for the healing of Aeneas is Lydda. This city, predominately Gentile, was located about twenty-five miles from Jerusalem. Historical records don’t indicate who the first evangelists were who visited the area, but there are several possibilities.

  • Believers who were converted at Pentecost and returned to the town.
  • Believers who were scattered during the persecution recorded earlier in Acts.
  • Philip, as he traveled north from Gaza, Azotus, and Caesarea.

The last possibility, Philip, is the least likely to have first evangelized. However, it is safe to say that he was involved in some type of ministry work as he traveled north.

Even less is known about Aeneas.

  • How old was he?
  • Was he a believer?
  • Was he a Jew or Gentile?

What we do know about Aeneas.

  • He had been paralyzed for eight years.
  • This meant he was crippled and unable to take care of himself.
  • He was a burden to himself and others.
  • There wasn’t any prospect of him being healed.

Let’s also make a quick comparison of the ministry of Peter and Paul.

  • Both healed crippled people.
  • Both were arrested and put in jail.
  • Both were delivered by divine intervention.
  • Both were treated like gods.
    • Peter – Acts 10:25-26.
    • Paul – Acts 14:8-18.
  • Both gave a bold witness before authorities.
  • Both confronted false prophets.
    • Peter – Acts 8:9-24.
    • Paul – Acts 13:6-12.
  • Both conducted their ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The last point is the most important. Outside of the power of the Spirit, ministry is meaningless.

Key points about the healing of Aeneas.

  • Aeneas didn’t ask to be healed.
  • Aeneas was healed in Jesus’ name.
  • It was instantaneous.
  • He immediately rose to his feet.
  • He made his bed. In the original Greek, this could mean one of two things.
    • It simply means that he got up and made his bed.
    • It could also mean preparing a meal for Peter. 
    • In the context, and in comparison where Jesus healed a paralytic, it seems the first possibility is the correct understanding.
  • The news of his healing spread rapidly. 
  • Those who saw Aeneas walking around became believers. A proper understanding of verse 35 is essential.
    • It doesn’t mean all those who lived in Lydda and Sharon became believers.
    • It does mean that all who saw Aeneas walking became believers. A similar situation occurred in John 12:10-11. 
    • Aeneas became a walking miracle and a testimony to the healing power of the resurrected Messiah.
    • The news of the healing spread to Joppa, where Tabitha died, leading to the residents of that town sending for Peter.

This passage in Acts doesn’t list any further work of Peter. However, from the context of Acts, it is safe to draw the conclusion that Peter was busy. He likely evangelized, taught, and encouraged the members of the church to grow in their faith. Peter was faithful to the commission that Jesus laid upon him in John 21:15-17.

Verses 36-43.

The city of Joppa is where modern-day Jaffa is located. It was on the coast, about ten miles away from Lydda. The city has a connection to the Old Testament. It was where Jonah boarded a boat to escape the call of going to the Gentiles. However, it is here that Peter received his call to go to the Gentiles, a call that he faithfully obeys.

It is clear from the passage that Tabitha was highly regarded in the community. Whether she made the clothes out of charity or if she was particularly skilled in that area and used that to bless others is unknown. We can learn from the context of the passage that she was respected and valued among the widows, a group that was particularly vulnerable in the ancient world.

The believers in Joppa heard that Peter was in the area and swiftly sent for him to come. There is no recorded incident in Acts of any of the Apostles raising the dead, yet their faith in Peter caused them to summon him. 

The standard Jewish custom regarding a dead body is the following:

  • The body was washed.
  • It was anointed with spices.
  • It was buried.

There are several events recorded in Scripture of the dead being raised to life.

  • Elijah raising the son of the widow Zarephath – 1 Kings 17:17-24.
  • Elisha raising the son of the Shunammite woman – 2 Kings 4:32-37.
  • Jesus raising the widow’s son – Luke 7:11-17.

However, the closest connection is found in Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5:35-43.

  • In both cases, the mourners were removed from the room where the dead body was.
  • The words spoken were almost identical.
    • Mark: talitha cumi – little girl, arise.
    • Acts: Tabitha cumi – Tabitha, arise.
  • Both touched the body.
    • Jesus took the girl’s hand before speaking, not being concerned about becoming ceremonially unclean.
    • Peter took Tabitha by the hand after she was raised from the dead.
  • In both cases, it was the power of God that raised the dead person.

Just as the healing of Aeneas attracted great attention, there is little doubt that Tabitha rising from the dead would have spread like wildfire throughout the region. We don’t know precisely how long “many days” equaled. We do know that it was long enough for Peter to evangelize the area and to create a firm foundational understanding of following Jesus entailed, as faith built on miracles alone is not a strong faith.

The fact that Peter would stay with Simon, a leather tanner, is in itself quite remarkable. Tanners were considered unclean by rabbinical standards (Leviticus 11:35-40). Here, we see a picture of Peter moving steadily from a Jewish legalistic mindset to one of freedom in God’s grace.

Applications

  • Do you go/do when the Spirit calls you? In this passage, Peter is obedient several times. He was faithful to take the Gospel to the lost, he healed Aeneas without being asked, and he quickly went to Joppa when called even though the situation would appear hopeless. We need to remember this was the first “raising from the dead” that happened in the new church. 
  • Are you selfless in serving others? Again, we see Peter in this passage serving others selflessly. He did what needed to be done, when it needed to be done.
  • Do you let your cultural norms interfere with your Kingdom work? As a Jewish Christian, one would think that Peter would avoid staying with a tanner. However, Peter placed Kingdom work over cultural norms. Our allegiance should be first and foremost to Jesus. Whenever there is a conflict between Kingdom and worldly expectations, Kingdom expectations must take priority.

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 Thirteen

Acts Lesson Thirteen: 6:8-15 – Stephen’s Witness

Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some from what is called the Freedmen’s Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking. 

11 Then they persuaded some men to say, “We heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God!” 12 They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; so they came, dragged him off, and took him to the Sanhedrin. 13 They also presented false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop speaking blasphemous words against this holy place and the law. 14 For we heard him say that Jesus, this Nazarene, will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 And all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (HCSB)

Today’s passage serves as a deeper introduction of Stephen and lays the groundwork for the events that occur in chapter seven. Before we start today’s lesson, let’s list six features of his character and ministry, with a couple of them stated in the previous lesson.

  • He was full of faith – 6:5.
  • He was full of the Holy Spirit – 6:5.
  • He was full of God’s grace and power – 6:8.
  • His opponents were members of the Freedmen’s Synagogue.
  • His opponents couldn’t stand up to Stephen’s wisdom.
  • His opponents couldn’t stand up against the Holy Spirit, who spoke through him.

Opposition to Servants: Acts 6:8-11 When a person is selected for church leadership, the type of ministry experiences may be different from what they expected.

Verse 8

Up until this point, Scripture only mentions the Apostles performing miracles (Acts 2:43; 5:12). But we read that Stephen also had the power to perform miracles. Since it’s clear that the performing of miracles was not restricted to an Apostle, what conclusion can we draw? It would seem that it was the level of faith and filling of the Holy Spirit that empowered Stephen to perform miracles for the glory of God. If that is true, and Scripture leads one to believe it is, then miracles can still be performed today. However, why do we rarely, or ever, see miracles in the Western church, but we do sometimes hear about miracles in the mission field? This is my position, based upon what is contained in Scripture and the characteristics of the church today.

  • The Holy Spirit is not emphasized or even mentioned in many churches. In some cases, this may be deliberate as a counterbalance to those churches that may overemphasize the working of the Spirit. Both positions are wrong. God exists in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is clear from our journey through Acts so far that the Spirit was the source of power, just as Jesus claimed, for the events that were occurring. 
  • Faith has been replaced with consumerism and materialism in the congregation and leadership. Ministry leaders have wrongly determined that their church and service must be attractively marketed to persuade people to attend. God doesn’t need marketing; He needs faithful shepherd leaders who follow Scripture. Congregation members are often concerned with having their needs met instead of worshipping God and contributing to their church. Appearance and reputation have replaced content and substance as the most important “measurable” of the church.
  • Those in the mission field often have a higher reliance on the Spirit and an understanding of the evil spiritual forces opposed to their work. Their level of faith and reliance on the Spirit is often higher. 
  • The modern church could see miracles occur if they follow the blueprint in Acts.

Verse 9

First, let’s define the Freedmen’s Synagogue. 

  • Historical records indicate that sections in Jerusalem were comprised primarily of Jews who had settled in the city from various nations in the area. The freedmen were descendants of Jews previously held as slaves but who were now free from Rome. 
  • This particular synagogue was comprised of people from Cyrenians and Alexandrians. Both of these people groups came from locations in North Africa. People from Cilicia and Asia. The second people group, Cilicians and Asians, were from areas in modern-day Turkey and Syria.
  • Thinking ahead in the book of Acts, it’s possible that Paul may have been in this synagogue since Paul came from Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 21:39). However, there is no historical data to prove this position conclusively.

During this period, Judaism had four key symbols, and challenging any of them could provoke a confrontation.

  • The Temple.
  • The Law or Torah.
  • The holy land focused predominately on Jerusalem and the Temple.
  • The national, ethnic identity of all Jews and proselytes.

Because paganism was rampant in the areas around Israel, even with the nation itself, faithful Jews knew they had to zealously guard their relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and not tolerate any new ideas that could result in a compromise or idol worship.

We don’t know the basis of the dispute between Stephen and this particular synagogue, but based on the context of what had occurred since Jesus’ ministry and the early church so far in Acts, it seems reasonable to conclude that the synagogue felt that Stephen’s message undermined at least one of the four key symbols listed above. Their conclusion was that Stephen was committing blasphemy.

Verse 10

This is a short but powerful verse. Those who chose to debate Stephen about the Gospel message were sorely outmatched. A quick explanation of the Jewish understanding of wisdom, based upon cultural and Old Testament concepts.

  • Wisdom refers to a person’s approach to life.
  • This approach came from a life in the covenant given by God and was considered a gift from God.

The Greek word used here for wisdom occurs only four times in Acts (6:3, 10; 7:10, 22), and it refers to inspired wisdom through the power of the Spirit. This would verify what Jesus said in 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.

Regardless of the motivation of the Freemen Synagogue, they no put into place a plan to kill Stephen. In many ways, what transpires is similar to what happened to Jesus leading up to His crucifixion.

Verse 11

Now the plot against Stephen begins to unfold. We can speculate about the reasoning behind the plot, but in the end, it doesn’t matter if it was jealousy or, like the case with Paul (Saul), they felt they were the ones being faithful to God, and Stephen wasn’t. The Greek word hypoballo, translated here as “persuaded,” actually evokes a much stronger meaning. The Greek-English Lexicon defines it as: to hire a person to act in a particular way, often involving dishonest activities – to hire, to bribe, to induce. The bribe was to spread a rumor throughout Jerusalem that Stephen was speaking blasphemy against Moses and God, a grave charge in first-century Israel and the only case where capital punishment administered by the Jews was allowed by the occupying Romans.

We should take a moment and consider why would displaced Jews who returned to Jerusalem act in such a vehement way. In general, Hellenistic Jews tended to be less dogmatic than Hebraic Jews. However, they were highly nationalistic and were highly zealous when it came to the Law and the Temple. In some academic circles, they were labeled as “Zionists.” 

The false charges brought against Stephen are quite similar to what the religious leaders tried to do with Jesus. However, in Jesus’ case, they couldn’t produce any evidence that He had violated the sanctity of the Temple, Law, or God. Therefore, they couldn’t execute Him themselves, so they brought Him to Pilate and had Jesus executed by the occupying Romans. As events unfold in Stephen’s case, the Sanhedrin is able to falsely convict Stephen of the charge of blasphemy.

Persecution of Servants: Acts 6:12-15 Even in the most difficult of circumstances, God can provide comfort and peace – even in the face of death.

Verse 12

The end result is for the first time, the general population of Jerusalem began to oppose the young church. In addition to the residents of Jerusalem, the elders (representing the Sadducees) and the scribes (representing the Pharisees) were involved. The third arrest of Christians now took place, soon to be followed by a third trial before the Sanhedrin.

Verses 13-14

The false charges are now presented before the Sanhedrin. In addition to those previously against Stephen, false witnesses are now produced to add more weight to the false claims presented against him. The charges are focused on two areas.

  • Blasphemous words against the Law.
    • To speak against Moses was to speak against the Law.
    • The false witnesses claimed they heard Stephen preaching that Jesus would change the customs of Moses, hence the Law which they held sacred would be changed.
  • Blasphemous words against the holy place.
    • The holy place was the temple.
    • To first-century Jews, this was viewed as the dwelling place of God, with His very presence in the holy of holies.
    • An attack against the temple was considered an attack against God.

Although the charges were false, they stirred up the people as well as the Sanhedrin because of the perceived seriousness of the accusations. As previously stated, the entire situation bears a striking resemblance to the charges brought against Jesus. While it is true that Jesus desired to bring change to Jewish society, He never threatened to destroy the temple, and He affirmed the Law by stating that He came to fulfill the Law.

Verse 15

Now that the charges were stated, they turned to Stephen to see how he would respond. We can only wonder if Stephen’s reaction caused any surprise on the part of the Sanhedrin. On the one hand, there was doubt about the seriousness of the charges brought against him. On the other hand, the Sanhedrin had already had two trials with Christians as defendants, and they had yet to instill any sense of fear or remorse on the defendant’s part.

Let’s define one phrase before we go further in this verse. The phrase is “looked intently.” The Greek word is atenizo, and from the Greek-English Lexicon, we see that it means: to fix one’s eyes on some object continually and intensely—to look straight at, to stare at, to keep one’s eyes fixed on. The entire Sanhedrin was now focused on Stephen and what his response would be to the charges. It is very likely that Stephen was intensely staring back at the high priest.

There are several possible reasons and characteristics for Stephen’s appearance to resemble an angel.

  • Stephen was filled with the Spirit and had no fear.
  • He wasn’t angry.
  • He wasn’t fearful.
  • He held no bitterness.
  • He possessed a quiet confidence.
  • He looked peaceful.
  • He felt secure.
  • He had courage.
  • It is possible that his face reflected divine glory, just as Moses’ face did in Exodus 34:29 and referenced in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18.
    • Both Moses and Stephen bore the mark of having been with God.
    • However, Stephen was accused of speaking against both Moses and God.

This sets the stage for what will transpire in the next lesson.

Applications.

  • Develop your spiritual life and gifts so that you are ready when God calls you. We also need to be flexible as the calling may not be where we expect it. 
  • Allow yourself to be used in various kinds of ministry. Although we should serve predominately in the area(s) of our gifting, we may be called to serve temporarily in other areas. Regardless of what area you’re called to serve in, at the forefront or in the background, serve faithfully.
  • Don’t try and serve God without proper preparation or qualifications. Serving in this way will likely result in disappointment and maybe even hurt the ministry.
  • If you are involved in any type of public ministry, expect opposition. Scripture is filled with faithful and godly men and women who faced opposition. To think that we would escape opposition for faithful work is wishful thinking.

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 Eight

Acts Lesson Eight: 4:32-37 – Unified Believers

32 Now the large group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common.  33 And the apostles were giving testimony with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed for each person’s basic needs. 36 Joseph, a Levite and a Cypriot by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas, which is translated Son of Encouragement, 37 sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (HCSB)

Although this is a short passage to study, four main themes will be discussed.

  • Unity of believers – verse 32.
  • Evangelism – verse 33.
  • Generosity and care for each other – verses 34-35.
  • Introduction of Barnabas – verses 36-37.

What we see in these six verses is a snapshot of what the early church looked like.

Verse 32 – The unity of the believers.

In a previous lesson covering part of chapter two, we studied how the early church was involved in studying Scripture and prayer, both corporate and personal prayer. Now we see that the church was unified in thought. I believe that because of the characteristics outlined in chapter two, we see the characteristic of unity in this passage. When a group of people dig into Scripture together and spend large segments of time in prayer together, it leads to a spirit of unity and togetherness that would not be found if study and prayer were absent from the corporate body of Christ. 

What makes the description of the early church even more remarkable is that it was made up of sinners, just like you and me! They were no different than any modern follower of Jesus. We may think this level of unity and trust is impossible in today’s world, and honestly, that thought challenges my faith, but Scripture proves that sinners, albeit redeemed, can be unified in thought, deed, and word towards each other. That thought alone should give us hope as we see the world around us becoming increasingly chaotic. 

The phrase “were of one heart and mind” is deeper than the surface understanding of the phrase. The original Greek reads, “one in heart and soul,” and leads to a couple of conclusions regarding the phrase. 

  • They were united in heart. They had unbreakable emotional bonds with each other. They loved each other with unconditional love.
  • They were thinking in unity. They had the same theology. There was no discord or disagreement with activities or practices within the fledgling church. They concentrated on what was important; evangelism and loving each other with agape love.
  • They were experiencing what Jesus prayed for before His crucifixion. John 17:20-23 2I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. 21 May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me. 22 I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. 23 I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me.

Not only were they unified, but they were also generous to and cared for each other. This is an extremely rare quality in the world today, even in Christian circles, where many are only looking out for themselves, either implicitly or explicitly. Often to get something done, the cooperation of others is required. Cooperation requires that people are treated well; otherwise, they probably won’t cooperate. It’s also important to keep them happy. Happy people who are treated well are often more cooperative. However, often the underlying motivation is not generosity; it is selfishness. We want something to happen, so we “use” others to that end. As a Christian, we should never forget what God has done for each of us, we’ve been forgiven, and our nature has been changed. The early church realized that God had been generous to them, far beyond what they deserved, and they extended that generosity to those around them. 

Verse 33

Now we have a sudden shift from the unity and generosity of the church to evangelism and teaching. We should ponder why this shift occurs. I believe it signifies a critical element of what is expected of the church, evangelism and spreading the Gospel.

Evangelism, as understood in biblical characteristics, is a concept that seems to be fading in some segments of the modern Christian church. The focus of the early church was on going and spreading the Gospel message. Too often today, the focus is on “come and see” the church. To make this method effective, the church needs to devise ways to attract people to church. The labels attached to these types of churches are “attractional” or “seeker sensitive.” The church tries to find ways to make the church “attractive” or cater to the whims of those they are trying to bring into the spiritual body of Christ. When looked at honestly, the Gospel is not an “attractive” message as it is challenging. It doesn’t promise anything except for persecution. Oh wait, it does promise eternal security, but we need to be faithful through the persecution. It’s not a message that sinners would be excited to follow until they’re brought to their knees by the weight of their sinful nature and realize they need redemption.

Francis Chan, in his book Letters to the Church, conducts a simple exercise with church leaders. He asks them to list all the things that people expect when they come to church. The list often includes:

  • A really good service.
  • Strong, age-specific ministry.
  • A certain type of music/volume/number of songs.
  • A professionally polished sermon.
  • Convenient parking.
  • A clean building.
  • Coffee, maybe even a cafe within the church.
  • Childcare.

He then asks them to list the commands that God gave to the church from Scripture.

  • Love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12
  • Visit orphans and widows. James 1:27
  • Make disciples. Matthew 28:19.
  • Bear one another’s burdens. Galatians 6:2.

If we asked the same question to those we know in church or even ourselves, would our answer look like the first list or the second?

The early church knew what God commanded it to do. The modern church too often resembles what we want in church and not what Scripture commands. The church needs to have an outward focus if it is to be a biblical church. The “country club” mentality church is not a church that honors God or follows His commands.

At the conclusion of the verse, we see how the church was blessed for its faithfulness. It says, “and great grace was on all of them.” I don’t know about you, but I always want to be part of a church that experiences great grace. There is no church without evangelism. Jesus didn’t command His followers to plant churches. He commanded them to make disciples. A church was a natural outgrowth of effective evangelism. We see the same concept in Paul’s missionary journeys. He would go to a town and share the Gospel. As people would come to faith, he would spend additional time there, often raising up leaders (elders) for the new flock before moving on. His primary focus was on making disciples. Once that was complete, a new church was birthed.

Verses 34-35

When we read these two verses, we need to understand that selling all of one’s possessions and laying the proceeds at the feet of the Apostles are descriptive and not prescriptive. This means that although they describe a characteristic of the early church, they are not a specific command for us today. There are other passages in the New Testament that outline the principles of Christian giving, with 2 Corinthians 8-9 being one good example. Now that the discussion of descriptive versus prescriptive is finished let’s look at these two verses in some detail.

The first part of verse 34 illustrates an Old Testament concept found in Deuteronomy 15:4a There will be no poor among you. If Israel would keep God’s commands, then God would bless them, and there wouldn’t be any poor among them. The early church viewed the passage in Deuteronomy as describing the ideal final age when Israel would be entirely faithful to God, and there would be no poverty in the land. The early Christians viewed themselves as the people of God in the final times, seen in Acts 2:17, they were experiencing God’s blessings, Acts 4:33, and were striving to reach the ideal of the people of God with no poor in their midst. 

The land and houses described as being sold were not their primary residence or plot of land. This may not be readily apparent, but when looked at in the context of the passage, it would make no sense if it was referring to their only house. If they sold that, then they would become one of the needy. Instead, they liquidated their “extra” resources and used that to help those in need. 

Clarification is needed for the phrase, “laid them at the apostles’ feet.” This was not some act of worship towards the apostles or payment for the leaders of the church. But it was a gesture of submission to each other. The twelve apostles were appointed by Jesus to continue His mission. The submission and giving of funds were not to them but to the one they represented. To lay the gifts at the feet of the apostles was to give them to Jesus. This was likely a role that they didn’t relish, and we read later in Acts 6:2, where the financial responsibility in the church was handed over to a new position created by the Apostles. We would know that position today as the role of a deacon.

There are some who have labeled the practices described here as “Christian Communism.” However, that is completely misunderstanding the nature of how the church worked and the evil of political communism we see in the world today. Let’s compare the two.


Political CommunismChurch in Acts
Required actionsMandated by the state.Completely voluntary.
MotivationPower and greed.Love.
OwnershipState owned.Private ownership.

Private ownership continues in New Testament Scripture, with another example in Acts 12:12, which mentions the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. Throughout the book of Acts and the New Testament Epistles, there are numerous accounts of churches meeting in the homes of believers. A proper understanding of the early church would dispel any notions that it resembled political communism in its design and practice.

Verses 36-37

The final two verses in chapter four may seem out of place with the introduction of Barnabas. However, there are several reasons for Luke to introduce him at this point. 

  • Barnabas’ action of selling one of his properties and bringing all the proceeds to the Apostles was a demonstration of the widespread activity of the church described in the preceding two verses.
  • His action could have produced envy in Ananias and Sapphira, leading them to make a show of their selling land and giving a portion of the sale while secretly keeping the rest for themselves. 
  • Barnabas plays a significant role in the early church and is mentioned repeatedly in Acts as well as in Colossians. 
    • Barnabas was an encouragement to and supported Paul. After Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, many of the Christians didn’t believe his conversion was genuine. They thought he was still plotting to arrest and kill Christians. Barnabas interceded and became an advocate for Paul’s acceptance into the early church.
      • Acts 9:26-27 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.
      • Acts 11:25 Then he  went to Tarsus to search for Saul, 26 and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.
      • Acts 13:2 As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.”
    • Barnabas also encouraged John Mark after his failure on a missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas.
      • Acts 15:36-39 After some time had passed, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit the brothers in every town where we have preached the message of the Lord and see how they’re doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark. 38 But Paul did not think it appropriate to take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work. 39 There was such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus.
      • Colossians 4:10 Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, greets you, as does Mark,  Barnabas’s  cousin (concerning whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him).

As we reflect on this passage, especially the ideas of selling and giving, we need to understand that these ideas are descriptive and not prescriptive for each believer. They describe general concepts or characteristics of Christians and black and white rules. It should be viewed in light of our attitude towards each other and our attitude towards wealth. If we understand that everything we have comes from God, then we also understand it doesn’t really belong to us in the first place. We have stewardship responsibility over it, and we are expected to use these blessings wisely. When a Christian brother or sister is in need, it should be second nature on our part to help when and where we can. 

When we place this idea side-by-side with cultural norms, we clearly see that the church needs to be countercultural. The church (people) need to be united in purpose, thought, and action. There are five biblical principles for a unified body of Christ.

  • Each member must crucify themselves. Philippians 2:1-11 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth — 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
  • Leaders should endeavor to make unity a priority. Ephesians 4:3 diligently keeping the unity  of the Spirit with the peace that binds us.
  • Believers should meet often and share openly. 1 John 1:7 But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
  • Christian fellowship is spiritual unity in Christ. Spiritual disciplines enable us to have spiritual unity in Christ.
    • Worship.
    • Reading Scripture.
    • Prayer.
    • Fasting.
    • Serving.
  • Strive for agreement over the course of action. See Acts 15 for an example of this. Don’t rush to reach a result. Reach the result in God’s time.

Applications

  • Do you strive for unity with your Christian brothers and sisters, or are you the type that looks for conflict? We should strive for unity in purpose while not letting the ways of the world seep into the church. Conflict should only be started when the church or members of the church are clearly against what Scripture says.
  • Do you consider your possessions, money/stuff/time, yours or Gods? Your answer to this question will shape your actions regarding your possessions.
  • Are you involved in evangelism, either directly or in a supporting role? In the midst of our often busy lives, we are still called to share the Gospel.
  • Are you known as a son/daughter of encouragement or one of discouragement? We can be a person who builds others up, or we can be a person that tears others down. We control our actions in this area.