Archive for the ‘Acts’ Category

Motives Matter

Posted: September 16, 2018 in Acts, Uncategorized

Acts 8:4-25, “Motives Matter”

Motives matter. You’re given the choice between two surgeons: one is often on TV, interviewed by celebrities, and trying to make a name for himself; the other has served in obscurity on the mission field in South America. Which would seem to be more trustworthy: the one serving himself or the one serving others? From a criminal point of view, the issue of motive becomes important in terms of sentencing, and perhaps even regarding what crime is actually charged. Will someone accused of causing a death be charged with first-degree murder, or manslaughter? It depends on whether the killing was thought-out & intentional, or if it was a tragic accident. Much of that comes down to motive. Motives matter.

Motives matter in our service to God, as well. It’s not often something that can be seen on the outside; motives are often hidden in the heart. But it matters whether or not we serve Jesus for the glory of God, or for the glory of self. It matters whether we seek attention for Him, or for ourselves. On one hand, we can praise God any time service is done for Him. As Paul wrote to the Philippians regarding his own situation in jail, some gloated over his trouble while preaching Christ from “selfish ambition” – but as long as Christ was preached, Paul rejoiced (Phil 1:15-18). On the other hand, those who serve Jesus for the wrong reason might be able to fool everyone else, but they cannot fool God. As Paul also wrote to the Corinthians, one person’s work for Jesus might be of “gold, silver, and precious stones,” whereas someone else’s might be “wood, hay, and straw,” and Jesus’ judgment will determine which is which! (1 Cor 3:12-14) Once again, it comes down to motive.

Born-again Christians need to ask themselves why they serve Christ. Just because we’re saved doesn’t mean that we’re sinless. Just because we belong to Jesus doesn’t mean we always act in purity. As Martin Luther put it, Christians are “simultaneously saint and sinner.” We have been made righteous by the free gift of Jesus because of His work on the cross and resurrection from the grave – but at the same time, we still struggle with our flesh and sinful desires. We are truly justified (made righteous) from all our sin, but we are continually sanctified (set apart, made holy) all the days that we draw breath. Because of that, we struggle with issue of the heart – we struggle with motives. Do we want to be spiritual in order to be seen as spiritual, or do we truly want to glorify Jesus? Why do we do the things we do for Jesus? What is in our hearts?

Of course, none of this is new – it has been dealt with by Christians through the ages, all the way back to the very beginnings of the church, as seen in the book of Acts. It’s exactly what Luke describes for us when showing us two very different men: Philip, and Simon.

Persecution had officially come to the Jerusalem church. Although the twelve apostles had experienced hardships, imprisonment, beatings, and more on their own, the Jewish leadership had limited it to the church leadership. No more. With Stephen’s trial and execution, all the church became vulnerable to persecution. Stephen hadn’t been an apostle; he was simply a Spirit-filled servant with a heart for evangelism. For that reason, he was killed, becoming the first Christian martyr in history.

Yet Stephen was not the only deacon (servant) with a burden to preach the gospel. His co-laborer on the benevolence team did also, and Philip likewise found great success. Unlike Stephen, Philip did not remain in Jerusalem, but stretched out to Samaria. It was there that he worked miracles and saw people respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One such response came from a man named Simon, and what he did in his response to the gospel set him up as a stark contrast to Philip. Philip preached the gospel for the sake of Jesus Christ; Simon wanted to preach the gospel for his own sake. Their motives were vastly different, and it was evident to God.

Watch your motives! Our motives matter to our Heavenly Father. Praise God that He wants us to serve Him, inviting & empowering us to do so, but our service to Him ought to be done to Him, for Him; not for us.

Acts 8:4–25

  • Philip’s ministry in Samaria (4-8)

4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.

  1. Remember that the young Pharisee Saul had begun an intense persecution of the church in Jerusalem. To this point, the Christians in Jerusalem had remained in Jerusalem, not having a reason to venture outward even though Jesus’ Great Commission had called them to make disciples of all the nations (Mt 28:19-20). But this had been part of God’s plan. Just like babies need to sit up before they can crawl, and crawl before they walk, the baby Church had growing to do. Jesus had been clear that their ministry would begin first in Jerusalem before spreading out to Judea & Samaria, and after that to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), and this first transition was just now taking place. Saul’s persecution became the catalyst for Christians leaving Jerusalem, and they went exactly where Jesus said they would go: Judea & Samaria (vs. 1).
  2. What did they do as they left? They preached the word. Though they were persecuted, their persecution spread the gospel. Like seed that is dispersed in a field takes root in the ground, so did the Christians who were dispersed outside of Jerusalem take the seed of the gospel with them. Where they went, they took their proclamation of Jesus…exactly as Jesus always intended for them to do.
    1. This is true for every born-again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. Where is your mission field? Exactly where you are right now. That’s not to say that God isn’t going to call you to go elsewhere, but wherever you go, you take the gospel with you. “Witnessing” is not so much an action as it is our identity. We are witnesses of Jesus. Think back to what Jesus told the apostles: Acts 1:8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Jesus did not say that they “shall witness” of Him in all these places (though they would); He said they “shall be witnesses” of Him. It’s the difference between a verb and a noun. A verb is what we do; a noun is who we are. Don’t misunderstand: evangelism is indeed an action, and one in which we should engage. But we engage in witnessing because we are witnesses. That is who we are – it is who Jesus has made us to be, and who the Holy Spirit empowers us to be.
  3. This was what all of the scattered (dispersed) believers did. One in particular was a man named Philip – one of the seven original deacons from Acts 6. Philip was not an apostle, but he was mightily used of God – not just here in Acts 8, but also in Acts 21 when he is identified as an evangelist who had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8-9). He had a lengthy ministry in the Lord – the very beginnings of which we read here.

5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed.

  1. Who were the Samaritans? Traditionally, they were enemies of the Jews – distorted cousins, sharing a common history but theological perversion. Originally, they had been the ten northern tribes of Israel, but once conquered by the Assyrians, they had their Hebrew identity bred out of them through much mixed marriage and distorted religion. The Samaritans had their own version of the Pentateuch, altered to make Mount Gerizim the place of worship, rather than Mount Zion. It was a twisted scripture, leading to twisted false theology. Culturally speaking, the Jews and Samaritans hated one another. Although we often speak of the “Good Samaritan” today (regarding Jesus’ parable), the reason Jesus’ parable was so shocking to His original listeners is because they could not bring themselves to imagine any such thing as a “good” Samaritan! At one point, the apostles James and John asked Jesus for permission to call fire down on the Samaritans (Luke 9:54)…not exactly the best way to spread the gospel of the kingdom!
  2. With that in mind, think of what it was Philip did. Philip preached Christ to the Samaritans. He preached to the people no one else wanted to even speak to. Philip preached Christ to the people who were considered the least & the hopelessly lost. In other words, Philip preached Christ to exactly those who he needed to preach to! He had nothing to gain by going to the Samaritans, and perhaps much to lose. After all, even though persecution was on the rise in Jerusalem, he as a Jew would be just as much distrusted by the Samaritans as he was hated by Saul. But that’s where he went, and that’s where he proclaimed Jesus, because those were the people that needed Jesus the most.
    1. We often want to pick an easy mission field for ourselves, but Jesus doesn’t call us to “easy.” He calls us to make disciples of all Some of your neighbors might seem like the hardest people to reach with the gospel…they still need to hear it. Some of the nations to where we send missionaries might seem like the people most closed to the message of Jesus…but the message still needs to go. Beware that your service to Christ isn’t limited by your comfort level. You go where He tells you to go. You do what He gives you to do. It may be with a “Samaritan,” someone that seems impossible to reach with the gospel. So be it. You just be obedient!
  3. And notice how the Samaritans responded: they “heeded” (heard, obeyed) the gospel in unity (“with one accord”). The people least desired by others to hear the gospel, and least expected to respond to the gospel, heard & responded in droves! They believed and came to faith in Christ. How is this possible? It was nothing other than a supernatural work of God. God prepared them to receive the good news of Jesus.
    1. Again, we often limit our ministries to the stuff that we think is going to be easy, but perhaps our expectations are backwards. In Philip’s case, the supposedly-difficult mission field wasn’t difficult at all! Why? Because of the work of God. God went ahead of him, prepared the way for the gospel of Jesus, and a wonderful work was done to His glory! Jesus already told us that the fields are white for the harvest (Jn 4:35, and He was in Samaria when He said it!) – people are ready to be saved, because God has made them ready to be saved. All they need is for someone to tell them. Tell them! Trust God to have gone before you, preach the gospel, and leave the results up to Him.
  4. Philip not only preached of the power of God to save through Jesus, he demonstrated it through miracles and acts of power. The Samaritan people heard the gospel and saw the proof of it, experiencing both physical and spiritual healing. Interestingly, this is something else Philip had in common with Stephen. Both preached the gospel, and both performed signs & wonders – neither being one of the 12 apostles. Miracles are not limited to the office of apostle! The Spirit moves as He wills, and His miracles are up to Him.
    1. Can we expect miracles as we share the gospel? Not necessarily…at least, not in the way we might think of them. Again, the Holy Spirit gives signs and wonders as He wills, and there are times supernatural healings take place & times they don’t. Even so, every time someone is saved is an example of a miracle. That’s an instance when someone who is spiritually dead comes to life. So yes, signs still accompany evangelism…in fact, we pray that this sign happens more often!

8 And there was great joy in that city.

  1. Of course! This is the natural response to salvation: joy! It is even more joy when someone who was lost in a lie is unexpectedly given the truth. The Samaritans were not only lost in sin & death, but they didn’t have the untainted word of God from which they could hear of the true Messiah. Once Philip brought them the news, they rejoiced! Lives were changed…even those who were the most unexpected among already-unexpected people.
  • Simon the Samarian sorcerer (9-13)

9 But there was a certain man called Simon, who previously practiced sorcery in the city and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great, 10 to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the great power of God.” 11 And they heeded him because he had astonished them with his sorceries for a long time.

  1. Simon was a magician who had everyone deceived. So much so, the people called him “the great power of God.” The phrasing in Greek is rather difficult to translate. ESV: “This man is the power of God that is called Great,” NASB: “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” Whether Simon proclaimed himself to actually be God, or to only have the power of God is uncertain. What is certain is that Simon performed all kinds of wonders that amazed people, and they were convinced he was the real deal. They believed that he had access to divine power (in some way or form).
    1. Although the only Biblical mention of Simon the sorcerer is in Acts 8, he was known outside of the New Testament writings as being one of the chief heretics of the church and a constant thorn-in-the-flesh to the apostle Peter. That said, those other writings were not inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is beyond argument that Simon was known among the Samaritans and gained an infamy after the lifetimes of the apostles, but the only truth we know of his life is what is written in the book of Acts. We need to be careful not to let outside Gnostic writings (i.e. heretical writings) influence our judgment of the historical man.
  2. It begs the question: Can sorcery work? Simon seemed to work “magic,” and there are other instances in the Bible when sorcery seemed to be a fact (such as the magicians of Pharaoh’s court who went head-to-head with Moses). Without question, there’s much out in the world that is fake, but…the answer is yes, though a qualified yes. Yes, sorcery can work, but when it does it is demonic. Even Jesus talked about lying signs and wonders in the end-times (Mt 24:24). People play around with occult items all the time, getting caught up in wicca, tarot cards, physics, seances, and more, and (sadly) open themselves up to demonic deception and oppression. Beware that you do not do the same! As Christians, we need to know that there is a spiritual realm we cannot see that has all kinds of demonic principalities, powers, and rulers of darkness (Eph 6:12). If we are in Christ Jesus, we need not fear those things (for Jesus is infinitely more powerful!), but we dare not play around with them either.
  3. Thankfully, the people did not stay deceived. They had seen the wonders worked by Simon, but then they saw something far better and far more pure through Philip…

12 But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized.

  1. The Samaritans were saved & baptized. Not everyone of course, but many. Multitudes of crowds in one accord had been prepared by God to respond to the good news of Jesus, and when they saw the power of the true God in action, they recognized the false demonic powers for what they were. They heard the evangelism of Philip, believed, and were baptized.
  2. BTW – Baptism always follows belief. Babies are not to be baptized because they cannot exercise faith, but that doesn’t mean that baptism is meaningless. Believer baptism is not only commanded by our Lord Jesus (Mt 28:19-20), but it is the consistent pattern of the New Testament, being a visual testimony to all the world of our faith in the work of Jesus. When we go down into the water, it is as if our old self has been put into the grave with Jesus; when we come up, it signifies the new life promised by Jesus’ resurrection (Rom 6:4). An unbaptized born-again Christian is a contradiction in terms. 

13 Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done.

  1. Even Simon was saved & baptized! This demonically inspired magician saw true miracles, and could not deny them. This is the power of God! When someone who is so desperately lost in sin and deception, being totally given over to the whims of the devil – if even that person can believe in Jesus, who among us is hopelessly lost? If there is hope for someone like Simon, there is hope for anyone!
    1. Some of you may consider yourself hopelessly lost. You may think that too much time has gone by – that you’re too bad a sinner – that you’re too much a basket-case to receive the forgiveness of Jesus. Not so! There is no one so lost that Jesus cannot save them! When Jesus died on the cross, He died for you. All of your sins were placed upon the Son of God, and there is no sin too great that His blood does not overcome. In Jesus’ resurrected life, He offers you eternal life – but you must believe. Entrust yourself to Jesus Christ, believing upon Him today!
  2. Question: Knowing what we know of Simon (from the rest of the chapter), shouldn’t he be considered a false convert? Scholars differ on their conclusions, with many solid conservative teachers siding against Simon’s conversion. They believe him to be a false convert – someone who indicated an initial form of belief, but had no real inward change of spirit towards Christ Jesus. Like in the Parable of the Soils, perhaps Simon was one who initially responded to the seed of the gospel, but had it choked out by the deceitfulness of riches (Mt 13:22). They say that Peter’s chastisement of Simon as not having a heart right with God is proof that Simon’s heart had not been regenerated by God. With all due respect to those valued Bible teachers, I disagree, based on the text of Scripture. Before people jump to conclusions that fit well with our particular theologies, we must first let the Scripture be our final judge and authority. That means we have to first look at the Bible for what it says, even if that leads us to some uncomfortable conclusions.
  3. So what does the Scripture say? “Then Simon himself also believed.” Luke used the same word to describe Simon’s belief as Luke used of anyone who believed on the Lord Jesus for salvation. Granted, the root verb (πιστεύω) could be used of false belief, or mere intellectual agreement. James uses this word when writing what the demons think of Jesus: “Even the demons believe, and tremble!” (Jas 2:19) But when looking at word usage and definitions, it’s essential that we look at how the word is used in the same actual grammatical construction and context. In this case, the usage is consistent throughout the New Testament. When this word appears in this particular fashion (aorist active indicative 3rd person singular), someone has either truly believed unto salvation, or has definitively not believed at all. The only other times Luke uses this word in the same way in the book of Acts is when people came to true faith in Jesus: the proconsul of the island of Paphos (13:12), and the leader of the Corinthian synagogue (18:8). Likewise Paul, who was Luke’s mentor in the faith and an often travelling companion, uses the word in a similar way, writing of how Abraham believed God and was accounted as righteous (Rom 4:3, 17-18; Gal 3:6) – or he quotes the Greek translation of Isaiah, writing of those who have not “believed our report,” (Rom 10:16). And the list could go on. On this usage, the New Testament is consistent. With that in mind, how could the account of Simon the sorcerer be the one time the word doesn’t mean what it says? At the end of the day, this is not an issue worth division, and Bible-believing Christians can (and do!) come to different conclusions. But whatever conclusion you reach, it needs to be based on God’s word; not preconceived ideas of what we think God’s word ought to say.
  4. With all that said, some are probably asking “So what? What’s the big deal? What does it really matter if Simon was a false convert or truly saved?” Answer: It certainly mattered to Simon! And it matters to us, as well. After all, what happens if, as a born-again Christian, you come to the realization that you’ve believed something that was incorrect? What do you do if you ever come to a crossroads in your theology, realizing that perhaps you’ve been mistaken about something? Does it mean you weren’t ever saved? Does it mean that you’ve been walking around in false belief your whole so-called Christian life? Although we’d like an easy answer to that question, it’s not always cut-and-dry. There are some doctrines that are absolutely essential to saving faith, and some that are not. A person who believes differently on the spiritual gifts than you can still be a born-again believer in the Lord Jesus; a person who denies the deity of Jesus cannot. A person can be wrong on their view of baptism or the Lord’s Supper and still be saved; a person who is wrong on the sufficiency of the work of Jesus at the cross is lost. What was the case with Simon? His sin had nothing to do with Jesus’ deity, sacrificial work at the cross, resurrection from the dead, or anything else that could be considered essential doctrine. There’s no question he was caught up in sin, but saved people get tripped up by sin all the time. (You might have a personal example from your drive to church this morning!) All of us struggle with sin – all of us have issues of doctrine from time to time – all of us have issues, period, sometimes for long times. It doesn’t mean we’re not saved. Personal faith doesn’t equal perfect The moment we think it does is the moment we’ve turned “faith” into a “work,” and that’s precisely the opposite of what it ought to be!
    1. That all being said, please don’t take this to the other extreme. The Scripture is clear that we ought to be absolutely sure we are in the faith. We are to examine ourselves, ensuring that we are in Christ and He is in us (2 Cor 13:5). Consistent unrepentant sin is a glaring warning sign that our faith may not be as sincere as we thought it was. If, once confronted by your sin & convicted by the Holy Spirit, you do not respond in repentance, you have every reason to doubt your salvation.
    2. Bottom line, we are to depend on Christ. Our salvation is not based on us; it’s based on Jesus. It isn’t a matter of perfect doctrine, nor is it a matter of a long-forgotten past decision. It is based on Jesus’ work alone, seen in living faith.

That’s a long way to go to set the scene! Yet all of that needs to be established in order to see what happens next. On one hand, there is Philip: a humble yet active servant of Jesus, giving the gospel to people who desperately need it for no other reason than they need Jesus. On the other hand, there is Simon the (hopefully former) magician, who’s just heard the gospel and seemingly put his faith in Christ. How will he respond? Will he follow in the footsteps of Philip, from whom he heard the gospel, or will he have a different agenda? Luke tells us shortly…

  • Simon vs. Simon Peter (14-25)

14 Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, 15 who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16 For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

  1. News got back to Jerusalem of what was happening. Peter & John were commissioned as apostolic representatives not only to verify what was going on, but to pray for the Samaritans that “they might receive the Holy Spirit” in the same way that the apostles had received the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.
  2. Question: Why is this necessary? Don’t Christians receive the Holy Spirit at our initial salvation? Yes…we are born of the Spirit & indwelt by Him, and His empowerment comes through multiple later fillings. This has been not only the testimony of Acts, but the consistent pattern through the rest of the New Testament. So what’s going on here? Keep in mind this was a transitional time for the church. To this point, only Jews in Jerusalem had heard the gospel and responded unto salvation. Even on Pentecost when there were visitors from around the Roman empire, all who were present were Jews, because it was a Jewish feast. This is the first time the gospel had gone out to people who were not pure ethnic Jews. This is something that needed to be witnessed and authenticated in an official way, in order that it would be accepted and understood by all. Thus, this was a work of grace given by God. By having the apostles present for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit, God ensured that the Jewish Christian apostles would understand that even the Samaritans were a part of the exact same church, with absolutely no difference between them.
    1. We are one people – one church! There is no difference between us: Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female (Gal 3:28) – north, south, black, white, democrat, republican – if we are in Christ Jesus, then we are one church.

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

  1. Before we jump to conclusions, we have to understand what Simon was thinking. Like many modern-day illusionists who purchase tricks & illusions from one another, this ancient magician thought he could do the same thing. There Simon was, having already witnessed the miracles performed by Philip, and now he was watching the apostles pray for & impart the Holy Spirit to his neighbors. Apparently there was some outward sign of their receiving of the Holy Spirit (perhaps tongues? Luke doesn’t say), and Simon wanted to be able to do the same thing. So he offered Peter & John cash in order to purchase what he believed was a new “trick,” which wasn’t a trick at all!
  2. But that doesn’t mean that Simon’s motive was harmless. Simon recognized that there was something here that was more than human illusion or demonic deceit; this was real, and he wanted this real thing for himself. The word for “power” could be translated as “authority.” Remember that prior to their salvation experience, the Samaritans viewed Simon as having the great power of God – they looked to Simon as being truly powerful. Simon didn’t want that to stop, just because everyone was saved by Jesus. He wanted to be continued to be seen as a bigwig. If he could obtain this spiritual power to grant the Holy Spirit, then the Samaritans would continue to look to him as this “Great Power of God.” IOW, Simon’s motive was 100% selfish, and totally sinful.
  3. FYI: This is the historical origin of what is referred to as “simony,” the practice of purchasing spiritual authority, spiritual favor, or bribing one’s way into a religious position of some sort. In the Middle Ages, rich landowners would give their main inheritance to their oldest son, but perhaps purchase a bishopric position for another son. The practice lives on today any time someone uses wealth to purchase a “blessing” or some other favor from the church (often seen in the “prosperity” gospel). It was sinful with Simon the Samaritan, and it is sinful today. 

20 But Peter said to him, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! 21 You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. 22 Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.”

  1. What was wrong with Simon’s offer? What wasn’t? Everything was wrong! (1) The Holy Spirit is not some impersonal force that can be “acquired;” He is the 3rd Person of the Triune God. (2) The gift of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment is just that: a gift. It is not a wage, nor a commodity. You can’t go to the store to buy it. (3) God’s gift is God’s to give! It wasn’t up to Peter or John or anyone to decide who could or could not receive the Holy Spirit; that is for God alone to decide. The apostles were mere instruments used on His behalf. – Bottom line: this wasn’t a simple misunderstanding on Simon’s part; this was massive hubris and egotistical sin. Simon believed his own press. He thought he was the great power of God as well, having lost all perspective on the Lordship and Deity of Jesus Christ. 
  2. This brings up the question once more: Was Simon a false convert? We have to remember that the Scripture does not contradict itself. What Luke recorded Peter as saying in vss. 20-21 does not undo what Luke wrote in vs. 13 regarding Simon’s belief. Simon believed in the same way the other Samaritans believed, so if Luke declares they were saved (which they were, having received the Holy Spirit by the hands of the apostles), so was Simon. Granted, Luke never states if Simon had received the Holy Spirit – but Luke never says that he didn’t, either. Simon’s sinful offer could easily have been made after the apostles prayed for him. Like any of us, Simon could be saved, yet still struggle with sin.
  3. If that’s the case, what did Peter mean by saying “You have neither part nor portion in this matter”? Is this (as many argue) a reference to Simon having no part in salvation? It all depends on what “this matter” means. If it is the gift of the Holy Spirit as a sign and seal of eternal salvation, then it means that Simon was lost…but Peter’s words would also mean that Simon was forever lost, unable to be saved – which negates the whole command for Simon to repent. Yet contextually, it seems “this matter” is a reference to the authority/power to impart the Holy Spirit. IOW, Peter denies Simon the part/portion of participating in the ministry. Simon’s heart was not “right in the sight of God,” and he had zero business acting on God’s behalf as His representative or ambassador as the apostles were doing. Simon’s motives were totally wrong, and he would taint the gospel with his evil, harming the cause of Christ.
    1. Is this not the case with so many well-known TV ministries today? So many of these men and women are known for their love of money; not the gospel of Jesus Christ. They exalt themselves; not Jesus. But what happens as a result of their selfishness and greed? The true gospel gets tainted. All preachers are lumped in with them, being “just another” guy in a suit asking for money.
    2. Motives matter because people can tell the difference. More importantly, motives matter because God can tell the difference! God knew Simon’s heart wasn’t right, and Peter knew that Simon had been “poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.” Like a gall bladder that bursts and makes a person septic on the inside, so was Simon poisoned by his own evil intents. God wasn’t fooled. Simon could pray for as many people as he wanted, but his outward actions wouldn’t change the state of his inward heart. Simon may have believed upon Jesus for eternity, but he was living in the present as a slave of his own sin (Rom 6:6).
  4. What is the solution for this sort of poison and prison? Repentance! Peter commanded Simon to turn around, change direction, change his heart/mind/attitudes from his current state, and to turn to Christ Jesus in humility and faith, asking God to forgive him. Although no one else had been harmed by Simon’s terrible offer, the “thought of [his] heart” was wicked, requiring the forgiveness of God. Question: Do born-again Christians need to repent? YES! Repentance isn’t a one-time act done only when someone first comes to faith in Christ – repentance is a lifestyle for the born-again believer in Jesus. We are to repent every time the Holy Spirit makes us aware of sin in our lives, and praise God He gives us the opportunity to do so! 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We tend to forget that the apostle John wrote those words to Christians. It’s not just unbelievers who need to repent, and ask the forgiveness of God through Christ; it’s everyone. As born-again believers, we have the absolute promise that Jesus grants it!
    1. Some of you have lived your Christian life too long bound to sin. You’ve put up with poison because you haven’t confessed ongoing sinful thoughts and motives. Want freedom? Live in humility and repentance!
  5. As a side note, this is the 2nd time Peter has had to discipline someone in the book of Acts. And both times, it was over the issue of money. Ananias & Sapphira lied about their donation to the church – Simon tried to purchase spiritual authority in selfish evil. Beware the danger of the love of money! Beware the value you attach to it! Don’t let money get in the way of your walk with Christ.

24 Then Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me, that none of the things which you have spoken may come upon me.”

  1. Simon heard the words of Peter, and it shook him. Was this a true heart change or was it temporary worldly sorrow? It’s impossible to know for certain, as Luke never returns for a follow-up. Extra-biblical traditions and legend teach that Simon was a heretic of heretics, but again, that is only legend.
  2. Thinking again to Ananias and Sapphira, it’s interesting that Simon actually received the opportunity to repent – an opportunity Ananias and Sapphira did not have. Perhaps Simon took it, perhaps not. 

With that, Luke concludes the Samaritan narrative…

25 So when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans.

  1. The ministry continued, and more Samaritans were saved. Who did the witnessing this time? Peter & John. The apostles followed in what the deacon Philip had already begun. The fact that these people were Samaritan no longer mattered. What mattered was that they were open to hearing the good news of Jesus, and Peter & John were ready to share it with them. (Are you ready to tell others of Jesus? Are you ready to respond to the good news of Jesus?) 

Conclusion:

Two men are highlighted in Samaria. One gladly proclaimed Jesus to a people prepared by God to hear, doing so just because it meant that Jesus would be glorified & people would be saved. The other tried to buy his way into the ministry because he thought he’d be able to maintain his own self-importance. What Philip and Simon each had in their hearts was seen in their actions, and it made all the difference in the world. Motives matter.

As a born-again believer, what is your motive for serving Jesus? What’s your motive for even worshipping Jesus? For some, it’s to feel good about themselves, to stroke all their right emotional buttons so they come away with the right “feeling.” For others, it’s about making themselves look spiritual to others, so that they would be admired as a “really good Christian.” Or it’s about building up their own kingdom, rather than the kingdom of God. They want their own group of followers who look to them as leaders. Beware! Those are false motives. Call it what it is: evil – bitter iniquity.

It doesn’t mean that you’ve lost your salvation, but it does mean you need to repent. If this is something the Holy Spirit is convicting you of, then you don’t need to waste a moment – you need to humble yourself right now and confess your sin to Jesus. He is faithful & just – He cleanses & forgives, but your repentance is not optional.

May God help us serve Jesus with pure hearts for the right reasons! We want to see Jesus lifted high, to be known & exalted throughout our city & throughout the world. It’s not about building our kingdom; it’s about building His. It’s not about us in worship; it’s about Him being worshipped. It’s not about us receiving credit for ministry successes; any success at all is given by Him & the credit should go to Him. So give it to Him! 

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The First Martyr

Posted: September 9, 2018 in Acts, Uncategorized

Acts 7:54 – 8:3, “The First Martyr”

Someone had to be the first. As Stephen pointed out to the Sanhedrin, the messengers of God had always been hated and rejected, so it was inevitable that what happened to the prophets of Israel would eventually come to the followers of Jesus. Multitudes of people would be killed for their faith in the risen Jesus, and Stephen was the first.

It hasn’t ended. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, an average of 90,000 Christians were martyred per year between 2005 and 2015. (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/04/14/christian-persecution-how-many-are-being-killed-where-are-being-killed.html) Christians around the world (particularly in North Korea, and the infamous 10/40 window) face the reality of death every single day, simply because they name the Name of Jesus. This isn’t ancient history, nor is it a hypothetical situation of what might possibly happen to “someone” “someday.” It happens to many Christians every day, and we need (1) to be aware of it, (2) know how we can pray for our brothers and sisters who endure it, and (3) be prepared for our own much lighter version of it ourselves. We need to look at what happened to Stephen, and learn from the example he gave.

The church had begun, and although there was resistance to the apostles by the Jewish leadership, by & large they were able to continue their ministry without interruption. Yes, they had been placed on trial, jailed, and beaten, but whatever persecution there was against Christianity was limited to the Twelve.

All of that changed with Stephen. Stephen was one of seven Spirit-filled Christian men chosen by the church to assume some of the ministry tasks that, though important, were not the primary duties of the apostles – namely the administration of benevolence to Greek-speaking Christian widows. Stephen had a heart not only to help those within the church, but to evangelize those outside the church, and he actively took the gospel to Greek-speaking Jews in their own synagogue. And he was effective! So much so, that the synagogue rulers were threatened enough to find false witnesses against Stephen, accusing him of blasphemy against Moses & against the temple.

The bulk of Acts 7 records Stephen’s courtroom defense. Given the chance to speak, he testifies of God’s consistent historical faithfulness to the Jews, and their own consistent historical rebellion against Him, which continued to the present day. They were a stubborn, hard-hearted people – acting far more like Gentiles than the covenant-chosen people of God. They had always persecuted the prophets of the past, just like they persecuted and killed the Messiah who had been in their midst.

Obviously that message did not go over very well. The Jews hearing Stephen became enraged, and as a mob, they killed him – making Stephen the first man killed for his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Persecution had officially come to the rest of the church, where it remains until the day of Jesus’ return.

In this passage, we witness not only the death of Stephen, but also the introduction of Saul – thereby setting the stage for one of the most dramatic conversions in history. Saul/Paul did not start off as the apostle to the Gentiles; he was an enemy to the church. Stephen’s stoning was his first act as a persecutor of the Lord Jesus.

What are Christians to do when we face our own modern-day Sauls? (And make no mistake, they still exist!) What do we do when we find ourselves in similar situations as Stephen, being rejected and hated for our faith? We remain faithful to Jesus, keeping our eyes & hopes on Him! Jesus certainly never takes His eyes off us; we don’t take our eyes off Him.

Acts 7:54–8:3

  • Stephen’s death (54-60) / a vision (54-56)

54 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.

  1. There was conviction and total rage in the room as they listened to Stephen. When the NKJV says “they were cut to the heart,” it translates the same word used by Luke during the apostles’ trial when Luke says that the Sanhedrin was “furious, and plotted to kill them,” (Acts 5:33) right before Gamaliel spoke up urging caution. Now the Sanhedrin was dealing with all of this gospel message and conviction of their sin all over again, and they returned to their initial reaction: fury. Literally, to saw that they were “cut to the heart” is to say that their hearts were “sawn in two.” Stephen’s accusations hit them like a spiritual gut punch, and their reaction was visceral.
  2. Of course, it wasn’t Stephen who truly convicted them; it was the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught that this would be one of the Spirit’s primary ministries among the world: John 16:8–11, “(8) And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: (9) of sin, because they do not believe in Me; (10) of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; (11) of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” We often think of God the Holy Spirit as working among the church (and He does!), but that is not His only The Holy Spirit works among the world convicting them of their sin & their need for forgiveness. Often this occurs through the Spirit-inspired word, which is “living & powerful & sharper than any two-edged sword,” (Heb 4:12), plunging deep into our hearts & minds, discerning what is/is not of God. Other times, the Spirit works through those whom He has filled & empowered to boldly witness of Jesus, as He did with Stephen. Such rock-solid conviction was wrought that the men in the room were crushed by the weight of it.
    1. Keep in mind that the gospel of Jesus is indeed good news, but it can also be offensive It is the power of salvation to those who believe (Rom 1:16), but it is the aroma of death to those who are perishing (2 Cor 2:16). To those who choose to reject Jesus, His gospel is a stone of stumbling and rock of offense (1 Pet 2:8). Some people are bound to be upset when confronted with the message of Jesus. That doesn’t mean we stop proclaiming it; it just means they confirm their own hardness against God.
  3. To say that this particular group got offended is an understatement. Luke says that “they gnashed at [Stephen] with their teeth.” This is the only use of this word in the New Testament, and one dictionary summarizes it as “a sign of violent rage,” (BDAG). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word is used of the wrath of a king being like the roaring of a lion (Prov 19:12). Basically, these people were out-of-control angry, loosing their basic bodily functions. Imagine facing down a pack of rabid dogs – that was what stared Stephen in the face. He was in true danger, and he knew it.
    1. This doesn’t sound like the promises of the gospel that are so often presented today, does it? We’re often told that when we believe in Jesus, all our problems are solved & life gets easy. After all, God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives, right? God does love us, and His wonderful plan for us is to be soundly saved from sin and to live forever with Him in heaven…but that doesn’t mean that life gets easy on earth. Born-again Christians quite often face difficult times, endure terrible tragedies, and even face violent death. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us (He does!), or that God has forgotten us (He hasn’t!). God knows exactly what we go through, and He is right there in the midst of it with us. Stephen even received a vision confirming this very thing…

55 But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

  1. Can you imagine the moment? One minute you’re looking into rage-filled eyes of men about to lose control of themselves and kill you; the next, you’re looking into the heavenly throne room at King Jesus, roused to stand on your behalf. Amazing! From total anger to total comfort in a milli-second! That’s what happened to Stephen, as he was personally comforted by Almighty God.
  2. Notice: Stephen was comforted by the Trinitarian He was “full of the Holy Spirit,” saw “Jesus…the Son of Man,” and saw “the glory of God” with Jesus at His “right hand.” The entire Godhead intervened in the moment, offering comfort and peace to Stephen when he needed it most. Of course, Stephen had already been filled with the Holy Spirit in the past – it was one of his qualifications for being chosen for the benevolence ministry (6:3), and had apparently occurred again when Stephen shared the gospel in the synagogue (6:10). But although every born-again Christian is always indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are not always filled with the Spirit 100% of the time. (Hence the reason Paul commands the Ephesian Christians to “be filled,” – Eph 5:18.) Luke does not explicitly state that Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit when he preached to the Sanhedrin, though it seems highly likely that he was – but there is no question he was filled just prior to his death. God the Holy Spirit empowered him to face the terror of the moment, giving him exactly what he needed at the time he needed it. As the Spirit filled him on earth, Jesus appeared to him in heaven – not only confirming Stephen’s faith that Jesus truly is the Son of God risen from the dead, but standing in the position of power at God’s right hand, and standing in support of His faithful witness. And beyond that, Stephen even witnessed the glory of God, the visible manifestation of God’s radiant existence. Like Moses saw God’s glory on Mount Sinai, so did Stephen see God’s glory on Mount Zion. The Almighty Triune God showed Himself to Stephen – what could bring more comfort than that?
    1. Christian: our God does not abandon us…ever! We may or may not receive a vision like Stephen’s, but our Almighty God is just as present with us unseen as He was with Stephen, being seen. God the Spirit fills us, God the Son intercedes for us, God the Father looks upon us. He strengthens us and comforts us when we need Him most, whether or not we recognize His work when He does it. And why wouldn’t He? When you have faith in Christ Jesus, having received Him as your Lord & Savior, you are a child of God. You belong to His family, being both born and adopted as one of His own. Our Father does not leave us when we need Him the most! As parents, what goes through your mind when you see your son or daughter in pain? How much more our Heavenly Father! He comforts…so look to Him for His comfort! Too often we think we need to just “buck up” and do it on our own, screwing a smile on our face as if nothing’s wrong. Why lie to yourself and to God? Something is wrong, and you need God’s help. Guess what? He gives it! Look to Him – rely upon Him – He is right there for you.
    2. That’s true for born-again Christians – but what if you’re not born-again? What if you don’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you belong to the Lord Jesus Christ and are eternally saved? God sees you too, and He is available to comfort you…but in order to receive His comfort you must first receive Jesus as Lord. For now, your sin keeps you separated from God, but your sin can be forgiven in an instant because that was the reason Jesus died on the cross. He paid the price for your sin and rose to life from the grave, and because He did, you also can be made a child of God, comforted by Him. Turn away from your sins, turn to Christ – be saved, and be comforted!
  3. What was it about all this that was so comforting to Stephen? It was a vision of victory. The Sanhedrin and the other Jews in the room may have wanted Stephen dead, but there was Someone else who had power and authority over even them. The highest authority in all the universe stood in defense of Stephen, and Stephen’s faith was justified. He saw Jesus as nothing less than the “Son of Man,” the same title Jesus so often applied to Himself, and the picture of Daniel’s Messianic prophecy: Daniel 7:13–14, “(13) “I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, And they brought Him near before Him. (14) Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, Which shall not pass away, And His kingdom the one Which shall not be destroyed.” If Jesus is the Son of Man at the right hand of God in the midst of the glory of God (the “clouds”), then that meant that Jesus was totally victorious. He has conquered sin, death, and the devil, and the only thing that delays the consummation of all things is the perfect timing of God. At the time, it seemed that Stephen was the only one bowing his knee to King Jesus, but one day every knee will bow & every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord! (Our Jesus is the conquering King, already victorious over every enemy!)
  4. BTW – Is there significance to Jesus’ stance? Psalm 110:1 (also quoted by the author of Hebrews, and by Jesus Himself) shows God the Father talking to the Messiah, telling Him to “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” Does Jesus sit or stand at God’s right hand? No doubt He normally sits, but when there is occasion to stand, He stands. Stephen’s death was just such an occasion. Just as we might stand in support of a loved one, so Jesus stood in support of His beloved faithful servant and friend.
  • A stoning (57-58)

57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. …

  1. Not only had Stephen’s sermon infuriated them, they considered his vision blasphemy. How could someone share a place with God, other than God? Normal people cannot…but that is what the Scriptures proclaim of Jesus, because He IS God. Stephen had just equated Jesus with the Son of Man (something which Jesus also did, and one of the charges against Him at His own trial – Mt 26:64), and was thereby putting Jesus on an equal platform with God. We know this to be theologically true, but to the Jewish leaders, this was blasphemy, and it pushed them over the edge. They couldn’t take it anymore, and they (be it the Sanhedrin, a mob, or a mix of both) rushed forth to kill him. 
  2. Notice how it was they ran at him: “with one accord.” Students of Acts have seen this word used before by Luke, to this point always in reference to the church. The word is literally “one-passion,” (ὁμοθυμαδόν) and it speaks of total unanimity in heart, purpose, and desire. For the church, their “homothumadon” was regarding prayer, fellowship, seeking the Spirit, and their worship of God. For the mob, their “homothumadon” for murder.
    1. That’s the difference between the church and the world. The church is to be united around the things that glorify God; the world often unites in the things that oppose Him. Be united in what counts!
  3. Question: Wasn’t this supposed to be illegal? This was the Sanhedrin’s pretended reason for delivering Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, saying that it was “not lawful for us to put anyone to death,” (Jn 18:31). The whole event with Stephen puts the lie to that statement. Some have speculated that Stephen’s stoning took place during a time that Pilate was not present in Jerusalem, but certainly it could have been stopped by Roman soldiers if it was truly illegal. In all likelihood, the act of execution by the Jews was technically illegal, but Rome didn’t really care if or not they did, as long as it didn’t cause problems for Rome. There are several instances in the New Testament where people were stoned by mobs, without any mention of Roman interference. The Sanhedrin could have killed Jesus if they wanted to; they didn’t, because they wanted Jesus to die in a specific way: via crucifixion. They could have thrown rocks at Jesus, but they wanted Jesus hanging from a cross with Roman approval as a warning to others not to follow. (Of course, Jesus did hang from a cross, but it accomplished precisely the opposite! Jesus’ death and resurrection is a grand invitation to follow Him, because He has paid every debt and won every victory!)

… And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

  1. This is the 1st mention of Saul in the New Testament. Most people today know him by his Roman name, Paul – which Luke later adopts in Acts 13. “Saul” was the name he used around fellow Jews in Jewish areas; “Paul” was the name he used throughout the wider Roman empire, being a Roman citizen from the city of Tarsus. From his letters, we know that Saul/Paul was a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and a Pharisee, possibly being an official member of the Sanhedrin at the time. Being that he was born outside of Jerusalem, it’s quite possible that Saul was even a member of the synagogue in which Stephen preached the gospel, perhaps even being someone unable to best Stephen in theological debate (Acts 6:9-10). The fact that Luke labels him as a “young man” doesn’t mean that he was too young to be considered an authority. A “young man” could be anyone up to the age of 40. 
  2. More than providing a passing introduction, Luke shows Saul’s position of authority, and his approval. The mob of witnesses against Stephen “laid down their clothes at the feet” of Saul, meaning that he watched over their garments, looking on at their actions without interference. He may not have picked up a stone to cast, but he certainly enabled many others who did.

Not only did Stephen receive a vision from the Lord in the midst of all his suffering, Stephen kept his focus upon the Lord through prayer…

  • A prayer (59-60)

59 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “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 when he had said this, he fell asleep.

  1. The first thing Stephen prayed for was personal release. We can only imagine the physical anguish of what it is like to have your body physically beaten to death by large rocks being hurled at you. There would be cuts, abrasions, broken bones, massive pain and head trauma – truly a terribly painful way for someone to die. (It’s something that Saul/Paul himself would experience at least once, almost ending in his death – Acts 14:19.) It comes as no surprise that Stephen turned his spirit over to the Lord, asking Jesus to take it from him. This wasn’t a morbid death-wish; it was a hope-filled prayer to be with Jesus sooner rather than later.
  2. Secondly, Stephen prayed for mercy towards his murderers. His death was unjust & undeserved, being truly sinful – but Stephen did not want them charged with this sin. The Jewish Sanhedrin and mob had enough to answer for, regarding their rejection of Jesus as Messiah. Although it is up to God to determine righteous justice, the heart of Stephen was compassionate towards those who demonstrated such hatred to him. Truly, Stephen had the attitude that Jesus taught during the Sermon on the Mount, not only being blessed for being persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Mt 5:10), but by praying for those who persecuted him (Mt 5:44). Stephen was so transformed by the love and grace of Jesus, that he loved those who hated him, asking mercy for those who were merciless towards him.
  3. Does it remind you of anyone? Stephen sounded a lot like Jesus! Jesus prayed much the same things while hanging from the cross: Luke 23:34, “(34) Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots.” Luke 23:46, “(46) And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit.’ ” Having said this, He breathed His last.” Stephen may not have used Jesus’ exact words, but he modeled the same heart.
    1. What is our response towards those who hate us? Not those whom we merely dislike or have difficulty getting along with – but with whom there is true hatred. How do we treat those who want us dead? For us in the American evangelical culture, situations like that are difficult to imagine, but for Christians around the world it is an everyday occurrence. For some, just walking down the street is dangerous. Their houses are marked – their relatives have abandoned them – their job opportunities are stolen from them. They come eye-to-eye with people every single day who view them as infidels and desire them dead. How are those Christians (all Christians) supposed to respond to people like that? We’re supposed to respond like Jesus & like Stephen. Likewise, we are to extend love, mercy, and compassion. Even when it seems like we ought to seek vengeful retribution, we don’t. Vengeance belongs to the Lord; not to us (Rom 12:19). Our message isn’t one of revenge; it is the gospel of reconciliation. We pray for mercy for those who don’t deserve mercy. After all, we didn’t deserve it either!
  • Saul’s persecution (1-3) / a new era for the church (1-2)

8:1 Now Saul was consenting to his death. …

  1. Saul was no passive bystander. Again, this was something of which he actively approved. The word for “consent” is a double-compound word, which has the idea of “with good consideration.” The way Luke portrays it, it is almost as if Saul was the Sanhedrin representative, demonstrating to the mob that their violence against Stephen had official approval from the leadership.
  2. This was something Saul/Paul remembered the rest of his life (Acts 22:20), but something he was unable to change. Although we may never forget our own sins, praise the Lord that in Christ, God does not hold them against us! As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us! (Ps 103:12)

… At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

  1. Stephen’s death changed everything. Whereas earlier, opposition of the gospel was limited to opposition against the 12 apostles, it now spread to the entire church. Although Luke writes that “all” were scattered “except the apostles,” he certainly did not mean that only twelve Christians remained in Jerusalem. Elsewhere in the book of Acts, it’s clear that there was at least some church in Jerusalem, as it was a launching point for the apostles, prophets, and more. Most likely, Luke means that it was the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Christians that left Jerusalem, as the Hebrew (Aramaic-speaking) Christians could blend in more easily. Whatever the exact number, a large percentage of the church left town for their own safety.
    1. BTW – Praying for those who persecute you doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stick around and simply put up with the persecution. Authorities (when friendly) can be contacted, measures of protection can be taken, and people can obviously move (although they become refugees). We can turn the other cheek without giving ourselves over to abuse.
  2. There was good news, however: all the persecution became a tool used by God to spread the church beyond The time had come to push the baby bird out of its nest for a quick lesson in flying, and the baby church was pushed out to the rest of the Jewish world. Remember what Jesus told the apostles prior to His ascension – this fits exactly with His original outlined plan for them. Acts 1:8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” In Acts 1-7, the disciples of Jesus were His witnesses in Jerusalem – in Acts 8-12, the disciples are His witnesses throughout Judea and Samaria. It isn’t until Acts 13 that Paul and Barnabas begin their missionary journeys and take the gospel to the end of the earth. But what was it that initially drove the gospel beyond Jerusalem? Persecution. It wasn’t until Christians were forced to leave, that they actually left. As they left, they took the message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ with them everywhere they went.
  3. Persecution is never desirable, but it can be helpful. Persecution has a way of separating the wheat from the tares & the sheep from the goats. In cultures that are friendly to Christians (such as most of the USA), it can be easy to slip in among the church without actually being part of the church. False conversion runs rampant. Yet when there is a cost to being a disciple of Christ, false conversions are few. People who don’t have 100% of their hope in Jesus don’t want to be lumped in with those who do, if those who do experience hardship for their hope. But beyond the idea of false conversion is that of true commitment. When true Christians are persecuted, their faith may be tested through fire, but it’s strengthened – it’s purified. If our only hope is Jesus, then how much more precious is that hope, when all our earthly comforts fail! Christians who endure persecution are often some of the strongest Christians you’ll ever meet. [India]
  4. To Luke’s point, persecution also has a way of backfiring upon itself. Instead of smothering evangelism, persecution actually encourages it. (Ironically, it’s the ease of American Christianity today that has led to apathy regarding evangelism!) When Christians endure state-sanctioned hardship, they are forced to hang onto their faith with everything they have…and that’s something noticed by their neighbors. Soon, people want to know the reason for the hope we have within us (2 Pet 3:15). Even when directly facing their persecutors, Christians become more bold with their faith, clearly proclaiming Jesus, stating they will never abandon Him. This has been the case throughout church history. Considered by many to be one of the most influential men of the church fathers, the 2nd century presbyter of Carthage, Tertullian wrote a massive work of apologetics, defending the existence of the church to a Roman empire bent on persecuting them. For fifty chapters, he details how the imperial persecution of Christians was irrational, but concluding that no matter what it was Rome did, the church would not be destroyed. “Semen est sanguis Christianorum,” (Apologeticum, 50.) “The seed of Christians is blood,” or, as often paraphrased in translation, “blood [of the martyrs] is the seed of the church.” It was true then, and it’s true today.

2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

  1. Closes the narrative on Stephen. Although a mob was responsible for his death, more reasonable “devout men” were responsible for his burial. Stephen’s ministry was brief, but it left an impact, and these men mourned him.
  2. The NET Bible makes an interesting point about the “great lamentation,” noting that the Mishnah Sanhedrin tract 6.6 prohibits mourning for those who were stoned to death. “And the relatives come and greet the judges and the witnesses, as if to say, we hold nothing against you, since [we know that] your verdict was just. And they would not [observe rituals of] mourning, but they would grieve, since grief is only in the heart.” (https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Sanhedrin.7?lang=bi) On this, the NET Bible says of Luke’s note, “The remark points to an unjust death.” IOW, these devout men (be they converted Christians or unconverted Jews…Luke doesn’t say) knew that Stephen’s stoning was undeserved. They gave him a lamentation and burial due to an innocent man; not a heretic. Bottom line: Stephen’s death was unjust, and the people knew it & didn’t hesitate to say so.
  3. Of course, that didn’t stop the hatred of others, as seen in Saul…
  • A new enemy for the church (3)

3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.

  1. The young theologian Saul now had a new phase of his career: Grand Inquisitor and Persecutor of the church. “He made havoc of the church,” meaning that he wanted the church destroyed. This is the only time in the NT this word is used, and it describes a violent act, “Like the laying waste of a vineyard by a wild boar,” (AT Robertson). The name of Saul drove fear into the hearts of Christians everywhere in Jerusalem (and beyond!). Persecution was a new reality for them.
  2. Yet even here, there is a silver lining. This is who Saul was; it was not who Saul remained. Once he was confronted by the Lord Jesus Christ, Saul was instantly transformed, and his whole life was made new. Instead of destroying the church, he worked to build up the church. Instead of dragging men and women off to prison, Paul was often the one taken to prison. Much of Paul’s greatest contribution to Christianity occurred because he was in prison! After all, that’s where many of his epistles were penned. Saul/Paul went from being one of the greatest threats ever faced by the church, to one of the greatest missionaries ever known by the church. That’s what the grace of Jesus Christ can do! Praise the Lord for gospel transformation!
    1. Guess what? It’s not just for Paul – it’s for all of us! If you are in Christ Jesus, you have been radically transformed! We may not have been grand inquisitors or persecutors, but even if we weren’t enemies of the church-at-large, we were enemies of God. We rebelled against Him, and we deserved His judgment. Paul wrote about it so well: 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, “(9) Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, (10) nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. (11) And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” In the past, we were those horrible things, but in the present in Christ Jesus, we are something gloriously different! We are cleansed, set apart, made right in the sight of God, and made ready to see Him in eternity for all eternity…we are saved! We went from being His enemies to His children, all because of the work of Jesus. Just like Paul was transformed, so were we, and praise God for it!
    2. Have you experienced this transformation? Maybe you’re not sure…you would know it, if you had. When someone is born-again by the grace of Jesus Christ, that person knows – that person has the confirmation in his/her heart given by the Holy Spirit. Maybe you don’t know if you’re more like the persecutor Saul or the saved-by-grace Paul. You can be sure today!

Conclusion:

With the death of Stephen, a new era dawned upon the church: one of persecution. Stephen became the first martyr of the church age, but he certainly was not the last. Many others of his own generation, and countless others through the centuries have endured similar fates. But…the enemies of the church are not victorious; King Jesus is! Worldly enemies attempt to stamp out the church, but it cannot be done. They try to silence the gospel, but it will not be silenced. Persecution causes the message of Jesus to only ring louder, even to the ends of the earth! Our Jesus has all victory, even over persecution.

And He does not abandon His own. Jesus knows the struggles we and all Christians face, even those who suffer and die for His names’ sake. As with Stephen, He sees us, comforts us, and even stands on our behalf. He welcomes home His saints, and proclaims to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” He is always faithful to us, no matter what it is we face.

So you be faithful to Him. Is persecution a reality? Without question. It has been throughout history around the world, with the United States being the exception that proves the rule. But even here, our window is closing. The time is coming (and is currently arriving) that public Christianity comes at a cultural cost. That cost is worth it! Beloved, be ready for hatred and opposition – it is nothing new. But don’t respond with hate; respond with love. Like Jesus, like Stephen, pray for those who persecute you, entrusting yourself to the Almighty God, Who is more than capable of caring for your needs.

Acts 7:37-53, “Stephen’s Sermon: Israel’s Rebellion”

It’s one of the most famous courtroom scenes in movie history: Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men,” sitting as a witness in a pristine Marine uniform, shouting back at Tom Cruise: “You want the truth?! You can’t handle the truth!” In the movie, this was part of a plan to goad Nicholson’s character into giving a confession of a crime without knowing he was confessing. (It worked!) 

In the Bible, Stephen might have said something similar (without all the cursing!), but with the guilt reversed. He was innocent of all charges against him, but his prosecutors & judges couldn’t handle the truth of what he was accused of. Crimes had indeed been committed against God, but they were to blame; not him.

This is Part 2 of Stephen’s self-defense during his trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin. Remember that Stephen was one of seven Spirit-filled men chosen by the church to be servants (deacons) assisting the apostles in the benevolence ministry. The Greek-speaking widows in the church had been inadvertently neglected in the daily distribution of funds and/or food, and Stephen was part of the ministry team assigned to help them. His personal ministry service did not end there, as he engaged in powerful & passionate evangelism among Greek-speaking Jews in their own synagogue in Jerusalem. Stephen was so effective at it that it caused a disturbance among the synagogue rulers, and they found false witnesses willing to testify that Stephen had blasphemed Moses (via changing the customs and traditions of Moses), and blasphemed the temple. As a result, Stephen was made to stand trial.

Stephen had much to say, and the way he did it, he reviewed a great deal of Hebrew history as he made his case. He defended himself to an extent, but what he was really doing was making the case that it was the Jews who had been unfaithful to God in the past and in the present. They had rejected Him. For His part, God had always been faithful. He made promises to the patriarchs, and kept them. Whether the promise was for land or for freedom from Egyptian slavery, God was faithful to His word every single time. It was the people who weren’t always faithful. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery – the Hebrew slaves initially rejected Moses. Even after Moses led the people out of slavery, they still grumbled against him in the wilderness.

No matter how many promises God kept for His people – no matter what authenticating signs He worked through His prophets – the Hebrews had a history of rebellion. That was true in the days of Moses, and it was true in the days of Jesus. Ultimately, that was the point Stephen made to the Sanhedrin. What the Jews were doing at the time was the same thing they had always done: reject God and God’s messengers (in this case, the apostles & the rest of the church).

All of this comes to a head in the second part of Stephen’s sermon. Moses was soundly rejected, God was flatly refused, and God’s temple was profoundly misunderstood. Although Stephen had been put on trial for blaspheming Moses & the temple, the true blasphemy had taken place long before, and was upheld by the current generation of Jewish leaders. They engaged in the same sin as their fathers: they rejected God and His prophets.

Be careful not to make the same mistake! Don’t reject God – receive Jesus and respond to Him as you receive the word of His apostolic messengers contained in the New Testament. When you respond to the gospel, you respond to Jesus! The key is to be humble enough to know you need to respond!

Acts 7:37–53

  • Rejecting Moses (37-39a) / rejecting the messenger of God

37 “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.’

  1. Contextually, Stephen had been speaking about Moses. Moses had experienced a miraculous birth and upbringing, and rightly believed God would use him to deliver Israel out of slavery. Yet when Moses first attempted to do so, he was soundly rejected by the Hebrews around him, who viewed him more as an entitled rich interloper than the national deliverer given by God. At age 40 he fled Egypt and spent the next 40 years in Midian learning humility and the finer points of shepherding. (Both of which would be necessary qualities when leading God’s people through the wilderness!) Of course God did call Moses, and personally commissioned him to return to Egypt as the deliverer, empowering him to work incredible signs and wonders not only in Egypt, but beyond.
  2. That Moses was foundational in the life of the Hebrew people. That Moses was a prototype of the prophets, judges, and rulers to come. But even that Moses did not believe himself to be the end-all of Hebrew leaders. There was another, a better-than-Moses still to come in the future. Moses prophesied of Messiah. Stephen quotes Deuteronomy 18:15, just as Peter did in Solomon’s Portico after healing the man born lame in his feet (Acts 3:22). God had a wonderful plan for Moses, but God’s plan did not end with Moses. Even Moses pointed to Someone else: a Prophet who would not be him, but would be like That future Prophet would be raised up by God, given the words of God, and perform miracles by the power of God. No other prophet in the past could check all the boxes. Some would be given God’s words (ex: Isaiah & Jeremiah) – others would be entrusted with God’s power (ex: Elijah, Elisha) – some might even have incredible callings and commissions (ex: Jonah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist). Few (if any) would have it all…except Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth had a miraculous birth & calling – He spoke the words of God with authority – He performed countless miracles on a scale unseen since the days of Moses (if not since the days of Creation!). And more than that, He had the right to rule. Other prophets of the past spoke on God’s behalf, but they did not rule as God’s representative like Moses. This new Prophet, would! Jesus was given all authority in heaven and on earth, and is coming back not only to reign over the restored nation of Israel, but every single kingdom of the world. This new Prophet is not only like Moses, but He surpasses Moses in every way!
  3. To the point at hand: How could Stephen have spoken ill of Moses (blasphemed him), when (1) Moses wasn’t to be worshipped, and (2) Moses spoke of another Prophet yet to come (i.e. the Messiah)? All Stephen did was speak of the same Prophet of which Moses spoke. Stephen was the one taking the words of Moses seriously; not the synagogue leaders. If the synagogue leaders (and the Sanhedrin, for that matter!) listened to Moses, they would have listened to Jesus. To write of Jesus as the Messiah was to write off everything that all the previous prophets had written about Him, including Moses.
    1. This is what happens when a person is hard-hearted against God. It’s one thing for a person to have questions about Jesus and want to know the truth; it’s another to start off on the offensive and be stubborn in one’s will against God. Many people who claim to be “skeptics” regarding Christianity aren’t really “skeptical” at all; they’re stubborn. They made up their minds in advance and are unwilling to believe, despite the vast amount of evidence in front of them. It was true for the Jewish synagogue leaders & Sanhedrin, and it’s just as true today.
    2. What is the solution to stubbornness? Hard hearts are made soft through humility. Be willing to admit what you don’t know, and come to Jesus based on who He is, and who He has proven Himself to be, in light of the cross and His resurrection from the dead. Will it take a step of faith? Without question. But as the Bible says: Hebrews 11:6, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Humble yourself, and believe!
  4. Besides prophesying of the future Messiah, what else did Moses do with Jesus? He spoke with Him! 

38 “This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, 39 whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. …

  1. When Stephen says that Moses spoke “with the Angel” on Mount Sinai, what Stephen is saying is that Moses spoke with God. The “Angel” is the Angel of YHWH, which was the visual representation of God Himself. Properly speaking, God is Spirit (Jn 4:24) and thus, God cannot be seen. John wrote that no one has seen God at any time (Jn 1:18), because, by definition, spirit is invisible (like the wind). Besides the physical quality of God (for lack of a better word), there is His moral quality. He is so pure and holy and righteous that no one can look at Him and live (Exo 33:20). Yet we know that people have seen God. Isaiah saw the throne room of God (Isa 6), Jacob wrestled with God on the night he was named Israel (Gen 32:30), and Moses saw the glory of God on Mount Sinai (Exo 19-20). If these men could not see the invisible God, then who/what did they see? They saw the Angel of the Lord (YHWH), God’s own self-revelation of Himself, who was none other than the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus! Paul wrote of Jesus, that “He is the image of the invisible God,” (Col 1:15), and thus every instance in which God is made visible in the Old Testament was an instance when the Lord Jesus appeared to men. When Moses spoke with God as a friend, speaking to Him face-to-face (Exo 33:11), Moses spoke with the Messiah Jesus.
    1. When we know Jesus, we know God. It’s that plain & simple. Jesus told the disciples that if they had seen Jesus, they had seen the Father (Jn 14:9). It’s no different with us, in faith. The way to know God is to know Jesus. In fact, it is the only Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one goes to the Father except through Him! (Jn 14:6)
  2. So Moses spoke with Jesus, the Angel of YHWH, and received “living oracles” from Him. All of the traditions of the Jews, which they accused Stephen of blaspheming, were (supposedly) derived from the laws of Moses. Those laws were given him by God (the Angel of YHWH) on Mount Sinai. Those laws were good, because they came from God. Those laws were more than just words; they were alive. They were “living oracles” passed down through the generations, preserved in the pages of the Bible. Unlike the rabbinical tradition, the living oracles of God had the authority of God because they came from God. (Yet the Jews of the day often subordinated the word of God to the preferences of men…not unlike people of this day!)
    1. The Bible says of itself that God’s word is living, powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb 4:12). It is powerful because it is breathed out by God – it is alive, and it gives life to those who believe. Don’t reject the living words of God!
  3. Stephen points out that their forefathers not only rejected the living oracles of God, but messenger who gave them those oracles. As much as the ancient Hebrews depended upon Moses, they despised him, grumbling & complaining against him at every turn. Even while Moses was actively on Mt. Sinai receiving the commands of God from God Himself with the visible glory of God resting on the mountain, the Hebrews still rebelled!
  • Rejecting God (39b-43)

… And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands.

  1. By rejecting Moses, Israel rejected both Moses and The event Stephen mentions is one of the greatest disgraces in the history of the Hebrews. Again, Moses is actively on the mountain, and God’s glory is actively visible to all. The Israelites were so afraid of God after He spoke to all the people, giving them the Ten Commandments, that they begged Moses to speak to God by himself on their behalf (Exo 20:19). God made Himself available to all, but they trembled in His presence and begged for a mediator (we have a far better one in Jesus!). But even though God and Moses gave them what they requested, they still rebelled. Moses had been on the mountaintop 40 days, and the people pretended he was dead. Stephen quotes Exodus 31:1, with the Hebrews pulling Moses’ brother Aaron aside, demanding that he forge for them an idol to worship. They claimed not to know what became of Moses…as if God’s glory wasn’t still visible! This was not an act born out of ignorance and desperation; it was an act of rebellion. They knew exactly where Moses was, and they also knew that the true God who brought them out of Egypt was nothing like the gods of Egypt. They simply decided they didn’t want that God.
  2. What did Israel want? They wanted to worship something they could see – something that they could wrap their minds around – something that was familiar to them from the things they had previously known. IOW, they wanted something that they could control. If their “god” came from the gold that was among them, forged from the fires they formed, then that was a god they could make into whatever image they desired.
    1. This is what all idolatry is. It’s what we do as well, even though our idols rarely take the form of golden statues of animals. We take whatever idea of god we have in our own minds, forming this god to be exactly what we want him to be, picking & choosing from our own personal preferences. We may even quote Bible verses in support. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), so our version of “God” fits whatever our definition of love might be, while ignoring the many other verses that speak of God’s holiness. Our god wouldn’t actually judge anyone or allow someone to go to hell & perdition, so we just write that out of our minds. (Or pick the attribute of your preference…) Hear this clearly: that is idolatry. When we invent an image of god that is something other than the God of the Bible, then we have become idolaters.
    2. The saddest part of all is that God has given us an image: the Lord Jesus Christ, yet it is that image that is so often ignored: Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” “Image” = icon (εἰκών), the representation/revelation of God given by God Himself. When God showed us Himself, He showed us Jesus. We don’t make an image; God gave us one. But people say, “That’s too restrictive, too exclusive. You shouldn’t have to believe in Jesus in order to go to heaven.” Why not? God wants us to go to heaven – why wouldn’t He? He created us, having formed us in our mothers’ wombs. He loves us, and wants to see us with Him forever. He’s even told us very clearly how it can be done: go through Jesus. Sometimes we need to be able to visualize what God might be like, so God showed us: it’s Jesus. Jesus is loving & He’s holy. He’s powerful & He’s compassionate. He powerfully conquers His enemies, and He is victorious over sin & death. Jesus shows us everything we need to know about God. Look to Him, and be saved!
  3. The worst part? Aaron gave into the Hebrews’ idolatrous demands and agreed to do it! Whether he feared for his life, or he thought he could redirect the Hebrews into worshipping the true God through false means, we don’t know. The Scripture says nothing about his motive, but it does describe his failure. He took their gold that God had graciously given them as 400 years’ worth of back-wages from Egyptian slavery, put it into the fire, and formed the golden calf. (And when later confronted by Moses, he gave the lamest excuse in history. “I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out.” – Exo 32:24) Of all people at the base of the mountain, Aaron was the one person who should have stood firm for God. He had been Moses’ mouthpiece when confronting Pharaoh. He too saw the revelation of God, personally witnessing the miracles of God. Yet Aaron failed miserably, and made the golden calf.
    1. Amazingly, God still specifically chose Aaron to serve as high priest. What is that? That is grace! God had a plan for Aaron that went beyond his failure. If God did that for Aaron, think what He has in mind for us! (It is never too late to be used by the Lord for His glory. Bask in His grace!)
  4. Since the people had rejected God & God’s messenger, what would be God’s response? They would be rejected as well. 

42 Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the Prophets: ‘Did you offer Me slaughtered animals and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch, And the star of your god Remphan, Images which you made to worship; And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.’

  1. Did God give up Israel? Not immediately, but yes. He threatened to do it right there at Mount Sinai, with Moses pleading and interceding on their behalf (Exo 32:31-32). Even so, it was a sign of things to come. The event with the golden calf was perhaps the worst failure of the Hebrews (apart from their rejection of Jesus as Messiah), but it was not their only failure. They rebelled against God’s command at the border of the Promised Land, and spent the next forty years wandering in the wilderness. They repeatedly grumbled against Moses in the desert. Once in the Promised Land, they refused to cast out the Canaanites as they were originally commanded. During the time of the judges, they entered a terrible cycle of idolatry, invasion, oppression, repentance, and deliverance. During the time of the kings, they followed the whims of whatever man held the office – sometimes worshipping the Lord, but mostly walking in the footsteps of their pagan Gentile neighbors. So yes, God “gave them up.” He allowed the northern kingdom of Israel to be conquered by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom of Judah to be conquered by the Babylonians. Both kingdoms were severely disciplined by God, with only a remnant of people remaining who actually worshipped Him.
  2. Stephen quoted Amos 5:25-27, from LXX, and interestingly replaced “Damascus” with “Babylon.” Amos wrote during the days of King Uzziah of Judah, predating the ministry of Isaiah, meaning that he wrote just prior to Israel’s fall to Assyria & long before Judah’s fall to Babylon. In the original prophecy (both the Hebrew and Greek versions), God said through Amos that the northern kingdom of Israel would be sent into captivity “beyond Damascus,” a chief city of Syria, fitting the Assyrian conquest well. Stephen seems to have taken a bit of liberty with the text, being that he spoke to the descendants of the southern kingdom of Judah who went into Babylonian captivity. The prophecy may have originally been spoken to Israel/Samaria, but it applied just as well to Judah. 
  3. The point? The Hebrews never worshipped God rightly. No matter what later kingdom into which they fell, they were always idolaters. Sure, they went through the motions of religion during their years in the wilderness – at least sometimes. But whatever little they did in worship, they did insincerely. Most of what they offered in worship, they offered to pagan gods. They sacrificed children to the Canaanite god of Molech. They worshipped “the host of heaven,” as they did with “Remphan,” a name for the deified planet Saturn. They made “images,” towers, and high places, all designed to worship something other than the Living God. God had graciously revealed Himself to them, and they responded with scorn. They chose to worship the false gods of their imaginations rather than the true God who loved them and delivered them out of Egypt to be His own people.
    1. How accurate this is to our own culture! Even for Christians born out of the Protestant Reformation and the revivals of the Great Awakening, we are little better than the ancient Israelites. People go to church services and go through the motions of religion, but rarely engage in true worship. They might be members of a church congregation, even faithfully giving their finances & time, but they worship a god they made up in their minds. They dictate to God the things that they want, caring little to nothing for the things God wants. They want Jesus as a butler, but not as a king. How is that any different than ancient Israel? Why would God treat a people like that any differently?
    2. The good news is that this isn’t how we have to be! We don’t have to fit the stereotype of the religious hypocrite, or the well-meaning idolater. Jesus has invited us to worship Him in spirit & truth (Jn 4:24), and we can! Come to Jesus as He is – receive Him for who He has revealed Himself to be, and respond in humble faith.

So that was Moses, but remember there were two basic charges against Stephen. Not only was he accused of blaspheming Moses and desiring to change the Jewish customs from Moses’ law, but Stephen was also accused of blaspheming the temple, claiming that Jesus would come to destroy it (Acts 6:14). That’s where Stephen transitions next…

  • Misunderstanding the Temple (44-50) / making more of the building than the Builder

44 “Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen,

  1. The children of Israel did not have to invent an image for themselves to try to worship God; God Himself showed them how He wanted to be worshipped. Exodus chapters 25-30 are filled with very specific instructions given by God to Moses of how the tabernacle was to be built, including the specific designs of what it was to look like. God gave Moses a vision of how the lampstand was supposed to look (Exo 25:40), how the tents and boards were to be put together (Exo 26:30), and even filled the appointed craftsmen with the Holy Spirit and wisdom to make the items exactly according to God’s specifications (Exo 31:1).
  2. And it wasn’t just the place of worship; God was specific about the manner of worship. Not only did God instruct Moses about the tabernacle, but God instructed him how to use it. There were the initial instructions given to Moses during the forty days he was on Mount Sinai, but then there was the entire book of Leviticus – in essence, an instruction manual for the priests, and a clear-cut document on the holiness of God.
  3. Bottom line: idolatry was totally unnecessary. Israel never had to guess at how God desired them to worship Him; He told them how to do it. Question: Does God tell us? Yes! Not only does God give us His image in Jesus Christ – not only does He tell us in general terms that God is to be worshipped in spirit and truth – He gives us specific example of how it should be done in the pages of the New Testament. Like the early church, we are to continue “steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers,” (Acts 2:42) – we are to use our different spiritual gifts “according to the grace that is given us,” (Rom 12:6) – we are to let all things in worship “be done decently and in order,” (1 Cor 14:40) – we are warned against quenching the Spirit & despising prophecies while being sure to test all things (1 Ths 5:19-21) – we are to pray in all things, feeling free to lift up holy hands (1 Tim 2:8), and more. A wonderful description is given in the book of Ephesians: Ephesians 5:17–21, “(17) Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (18) And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, (19) speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, (20) giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, (21) submitting to one another in the fear of God.” Does all of this look different from congregation to congregation? The Scripture nowhere tells us we have to begin worship at 10am with prayer, sing five songs, give announcements, then the message – nor that people have to dress in suit & tie, with the pastors wearing certain distinct garments – nor that buildings have to have stained glass, nor specify what musical instruments may or may not be used, etc. But whatever individual practices we have among our congregations, they must be ruled by Scripture. God has shown us how it is He is to be worshipped, so we worship Him in that way. We approach God on His terms; not our own.
    1. Individuals go wrong on this when they engage in idolatry (i.e., not going through Jesus). Congregations go wrong on this when they go beyond the Scripture. This can be done through ritualistic religion (elevating the role of priests to personally convey the grace of God through baptism, communion, etc.), or through wild, unguarded practice (barking like dogs, looking for gold dust from the ceilings, making wild untested prophecies). Both extremes are unbiblical worship…be careful!
  4. As for Stephen, it was clear that God did give clear instruction on how to be worshipped. That was what the tabernacle was. And it wasn’t just the tabernacle…

45 which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David, 46 who found favor before God and asked to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built Him a house.

  1. Both the tabernacle and the temple were made God’s way. The tabernacle was made under the direction of Moses according to the instructions given by God, and it was used for generations. Its successor was the same. The temple was also made according to the instructions received from God as God gave them to David, although it wasn’t David who built it, but his son Solomon (1 Chr 28).
  2. Question: Was there anything wrong with building the temple to replace the tabernacle? Some have noted that Stephen is so brief, that he almost seems dismissive about it. No – at least, not when it was built God’s way according to God’s instruction (which it was). David almost jumped the gun on this (and the prophet Nathan initially gave him approval & a false-start! – 2 Sam 7:3), but although David was a man after God’s own heart, David was a man of war & blood. God’s desire was for Solomon to build it, and that was the effort God blessed.
  3. But the key was to see the temple for what it was: a place to worship God, but not a place to be worshipped. This was perhaps easier to do with the tabernacle, being that the Levites had to physically assemble it at every campsite in the wilderness. It was harder to see the tabernacle as being anything more than a tent where people came to worship God, because it was reinforced every time the Israelites moved. The temple, on the other hand, was far more permanent. A building has a potential to become an idol in itself, as people attach far too much importance to it. (Which was what they did with Stephen, and that was exactly what Stephen was pointing out.)

48 “However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: 49 ‘Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the LORD, Or what is the place of My rest? 50 Has My hand not made all these things?’

  1. The temple was God’s chosen place to be worshipped, but it was not God’s house. God is bigger than the universe; He’s far bigger than the temple! Stephen quotes Isaiah 66:1-2 describing the infinite expanse of God. Remember that God is Spirit, so part of this means that He is not confined to any one particular place. Theologically speaking, one of God’s attributes is His omnipresence: He is everywhere. Note: this is different than the Eastern idea of pantheism, which is the belief that God is in everything (in that leaf, in that rock, in the air, etc. – there is god in him and god in her, and all humans are part of the oneness of god). Pantheism is unbiblical, because the Bible clearly teaches that God is other than us. He is Creator; we are the created – He is holy; we need to be made holy – He is Father; we are His enemies until Jesus makes us His children, etc. The Biblical doctrine of omnipresence teaches that God’s presence is everywhere, basically stating that there is no place where God is not. David asked in the psalms, “Where can I go from Your Spirit, or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Ps 139:7) David was never anyplace where God could not reach him. (Neither are we!) That’s the point with Isaiah as well. How can God be contained in a house, when God cannot be contained by the entire universe? He is the Almighty Creator God, far bigger than these things!
  2. If that’s the case, then how is it possible that Stephen could “blaspheme” the temple? A physical building can be a place of worship, but it isn’t the object of worship. Only God can be blasphemed; a building is just a building. The Jewish leaders accusing Stephen of blaspheming the temple had obviously lost sight of what was most important. It’s not the building that counts; it is what takes place in the building.
  3. And what was it that had recently taken place in the building in question? The blood money paid to Judas in order to betray Jesus had been thrown there. It wasn’t the temple that was blasphemed; it was the Messiah who was. That’s when Stephen brings it home…
  • Accusation: Murderers! (51-53)

51 “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.

  1. The turn is so sudden and so forceful that some have wondered if perhaps Stephen was interrupted by the Sanhedrin, or perhaps he just lost his patience with them. Whatever was the mood in the room prior to this point, it no doubt changed in an instant! Stephen drastically turns the tables on the Sanhedrin and synagogue leaders, going from defendant to prosecuting attorney in nothing-flat.
  2. Stephen couldn’t have gotten more pointed, if he tried. He flatly accused the Jews of acting as if they were Gentiles. Just like God had said to Moses on Mount Sinai at the time of the golden calf that the Hebrews were a “stiff-necked” people, so were their descendants centuries later. They were stubborn in their sin, and they were hard-hearted against God. They acted as if they didn’t have any covenant with God at all. They might have gone through the ritual of circumcision in the flesh, and they had all of the outward pretense of being religious people, but they were pagan in their hearts & as Gentile as they came. That was their history as a people, and that was how the current leadership continued.
  3. How did the Jews “resist the Holy Spirit”? They resisted everything about Him: they resisted His messengers, they resisted the Messiah, they resisted His message…

52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, 53 who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”

  1. They killed the prophets. This wasn’t new with Stephen; Jesus accused them of exactly the same thing. (Lk 11:47-51) They may have built the tombs of the prophets, but they were also the ones who killed the prophets. They were guilty of the deaths from the first (Abel, killed by his brother Cain in Genesis) to the last (Zechariah, killed at the altar in 2 Chronicles, the last prophet written in the Hebrew canon).
  2. They killed the Messiah. Not only had the Jews of ancient Jerusalem persecuted the prophets of God, but they also persecuted the One of whom they prophesied. They foretold the arrival of the ultimate Righteous Man of God, the Messiah, and the Jewish leadership opposed Him from the very beginning. No matter how many signs and wonders Jesus had done, authenticating His ministry, the leadership wanted nothing to do with Him, and they actively sought out a way they could get rid of Him. As Peter said on the day of Pentecost, they took Jesus with “lawless hands” (Acts 2:23), and they became His “betrayers and murderers.”
  3. They “killed” the law. The Hebrews received divine revelation and despised it. Be it the instructions on pure & holy worship, the prophecies regarding the Messiah, or the doctrine of God Himself, they may have preserved the holy word of God (for which we can be grateful!), but they did not obey it. They ignored it from the time it was initially given all the way to the present day.
  4. Sadly, the Jewish people still do the same thing as their forefathers. Their eyes are blinded to the truth of Jesus as Messiah, and thus they still do not keep the law that was given to them. Pray for them! Pray for their eyes to be opened, for their stubbornness to be broken, and for them to be saved by the grace of Jesus.
    1. Guess what? It isn’t just them; it’s us! Our own culture is guilty of much of the same. We have also resisted the Holy Spirit, despised the message and messengers of the gospel, and turned away from Jesus. Who in our own southern Bible-belt culture has never heard the news that Jesus died for our sins? Who on the street cannot at least state the claim of the Bible that Jesus is God? People are aware of Jesus, but they have despised Him. Pray! Pray for eyes to be opened around us – pray for people to humble stubborn hearts – pray for people to be saved!

Conclusion:

Who truly committed blasphemy? It wasn’t Stephen! The whole history of the Hebrew people was filled with their continued rejection of God and His merciful outreach. God gave them prophets & prophecies – God gave His self-revelation – God gave them instructions how they could worship Him…and they rebelled. Although there were brief times of revival and Spirit-led worship among the Israelites, they were short-lived. The bulk of their history was one of stubborn stiff-necked rebellion against God, and it continued right to their rejection of Jesus and Jesus’ followers.

That was the ancient Jews, but it wasn’t just the ancient Jews. The same thing continues today among Israel and the entire world. Think of your own life. Before you became a Christian, how hard-hearted were you against God? How often did you resist the Holy Spirit, and His leading you to Jesus? Oh, the grace of God, that He continued to reach out to us! What love and compassion, that He would pursue us to the point of salvation!

Sadly, we often still rebel even after we are saved! We have Jesus and the teaching of the Bible to tell us who God is, what He is like, and how to worship Him…and yet we reject it to follow our own personal preferences. “My God would never do ­­­____.” “Maybe what the Bible says is true for you, but not for me.” “Surely God wouldn’t mind _____.” Know this: that’s nothing less than idolatry and rebellion…no different than the sin of ancient Israel.

Beloved, God has so much better in mind for us than that! God loves us, and He wants us to worship Him. He wants us to know Him rightly. He wants us to daily experience His mercy & grace, full unfettered relationship with Him through Jesus. But we must go to Him on His terms; not ours. We must submit ourselves to His word; not force our own mind upon Him.

Where there is rebellion in your life, cease. Listen to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, stop resisting Him, and submit to Him. We have the opportunity to follow through where ancient Israel failed…don’t waste it!

Acts 7:1-36, “Stephen’s Sermon: God’s Faithfulness”

I’ve always been a big fan of history. Not my classes in high school or college so much, with all of the memorization of dates and names, and (often) an agenda in what was presented – but real history to which I can relate. To travel and actually see the places where history was made, be it the Alamo in San Antonio or the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon, Virginia – it’s amazing to see the places that made us who we are as a people, and the things that took to get us to this point.

As Christians, we have a history reaching far beyond the 16th century – and even beyond the 1st! We share a history with the Hebrew people, for we are, by faith, also the children of Abraham. In Acts 7, we get a taste of this history from the testimony of Stephen, as he defends himself during his Sanhedrin trial. Yet is it only a history lesson? By no means! It’s been often said that “history” is “His story,” in reference to the work of God, and that is exactly what Stephen shows. God had been active among the generations of Hebrews: always fulfilling His promises to them, always providing for them, always keeping to His perfect plan. God had been faithful; His people had not.

Remember how we got here… The church in Jerusalem was growing by leaps and bounds. Despite persecution of the apostles by the Sanhedrin, the apostles did not stop preaching the gospel, nor performing miracles in Jesus’ name. And the people of Jerusalem responded in abundance! Due to the growth, certain needs in the church became too much for the apostles to handle, so the called for more Spirit-filled believers to serve in various administrative ministries. One of these first seven servants (deacons) was Stephen, who, along with the other seven, ensured that Greek-speaking Christian widows had enough to eat along with the rest of the needy Hebrew/Aramaic speaking Christian widows. Of course Stephen did more than benevolence ministry – he also performed miraculous wonders and sights, and engaged powerfully in evangelism among the Greek speaking Jews in their own synagogue. So effective was he, that those who opposed him accused him of blasphemy via false witnesses, arranging for him to be arrested and tried by the Sanhedrin.

It was in the middle of this trial that Acts 6 ended. Stephen had been accused, and it was time for him to respond. To this point he had said nothing (at least nothing recorded in Scripture), but he had the peace of God bathing him. Those who looked upon him saw a man with the face of an angel, meaning that they saw a man exuding the glory of God!

What now? Stephen speaks – not so much in his own defense, but turning the tables from defender to prosecutor, building the case that the Jews of his day were doing what their ancestors had always done: reject the messengers and mercy of God. It takes him a bit of time to do it, and although that’s the main point of his overall sermon, it isn’t what is covered in the first half. According to the customs of the day, he goes through quite a bit of Hebrew history, slowly setting the background to make his point. Before Stephen can accuse the Jews of crimes against God, he must first establish himself as an ordinary orthodox Jew. Remember that he had been accused of blasphemy, so he needs to demonstrate that he is no heretic. Secondly, Stephen needs to establish God’s track record throughout the years. God needs to be shown as consistently faithful, if the Jews are to be accused of consistent rebellion.

That’s the point of the 1st half of Stephen’s sermon: God is consistent. He always keeps His promises to His people. He always has a plan for His people. Thus, His people have no excuse not to believe Him in faith.

God is faithful; believe Him!

Acts 7:1–36

1 Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?”

  1. If the question seems to come out of nowhere, we need to remember that verse numbers and chapter breaks are not inspired. These are helpful tools integrated into the Scriptures through the centuries, but they are not inspired Scripture themselves. When Luke originally wrote Acts, these events simply transitioned from one section to the next. (If you want a different way of reading your Bible, pick up a reader’s edition where the verse numbers and other markers have been removed – or listen to an audio recording without chapter breaks. It’ll be a fun & enlightening way of looking at the Scriptures from a new perspective!)
  2. The question, likely spoken by Caiaphas, comes as an immediate response to the accusations listed in the previous chapter: Acts 6:13–14, “(13) They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; (14) for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”” The basic charge was blasphemy against the temple & the law, specifically centered on the accusation that Stephen taught Jesus’ future destruction of the temple & destruction of Jewish tradition (customs of Moses). At this point, the high priest is basically acting in the role of a courtroom judge, saying, “How do you plead?” Although he was probably more than ready to pronounce guilt, he at least gave the accused an opportunity to respond. What he didn’t realize was how thoroughly Stephen did respond!
  3. Before we look at Stephen’s response, ask yourself how you would respond in a similar situation. It’s unlikely (though not impossible) that we will find ourselves on trial for our faith in Jesus, but it is very likely that we will be asked about it at some point. (If we’re never asked, that’s a different problem altogether! Our faith ought to be visible!) When asked, what would you say? Scripture tells us that we need to be ready – we need to have answers. 1 Peter 3:15–16, “(15) But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; (16) having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.” If someone were to ask you today, “Why are you a Christian?”, how would you respond? Would you even be able to answer? Know what you believe, and why you believe it! In the past, American Christians could get away without knowing why they believed what they believed, simply because so much of the rest of our culture had the appearance of Christianity. That’s no longer the case. We live in a post-Christian society, and the American church can no longer slide by in laziness as uneducated Christians. We must have convictions about Jesus, and be ready to answer others about Him when asked.
    1. Disclaimer: this doesn’t mean we have to feel pressured to be walking encyclopedias of theology and apologetics. It doesn’t mean every Christian has to go to Bible college or seminary. It simply means we need to know why we put our faith in Christ. What was it that caused you to respond to Him? If you can share your testimony, then you can give an answer when asked. Be ready!
  4. One other thing about Stephen’s response needs to be kept in mind: although Stephen recounts events of Hebrew history, there are minor details that might seem to be inaccurate when compared with the actual text of the Old Testament. Some have gone through his speech with a fine-toothed comb, nitpicking all the supposed-errors and inconsistencies with the Bible. Time constraints forbid us from tackling every single issue, but the majority of them can be explained by one or more of the following reasons:
    1. First (and most prevalent), Stephen summarizes commonly known Hebrew history. By no means did the scholars of the Sanhedrin need to be taught the fine details of Genesis. Stephen used a broad-brush when mentioning these events of the past, and his original audience perfectly understood the things he said.
    2. Second, Stephen used the text with which he was most familiar: the Greek Septuagint (LXX), which sometimes differs with what we know today as the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT / BHS). What he quoted, he still quoted accurately. (FYI: There are explanations for all the differences between the LXX & MT, if one puts in the time to research them.)
    3. Third, sometimes Stephen recounts the Hebrew tradition rather than the Hebrew Scripture. It doesn’t make his view of the Scripture inconsistent; it just means he referenced a tradition that all of his original listeners understood.
    4. Bottom line: There are no inconsistencies in the sermon than cannot be explained. The Holy Spirit inspired the recording of Stephen’s speech just as much as He inspired Moses’ original writing of the 1st five books of the Bible (the Penteteuch). We just need to keep the original context, culture, and audience in mind. We can learn from what Stephen preached, but he didn’t originally preach it for us; he preached it for the people who were in the room. That’s the key to understanding his message.
  • Abraham (2-8)

2 And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’

  1. Right out of the gate, Stephen asserts his orthodoxy: “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham,” and Stephen goes right to the foundation event of the Hebrew people. There is but one God in this universe, and He is its sole Creator, being alone worthy of glory from everything that draws breath (and everything that does not!). He exudes glory, and men cannot look upon Him and live – not apart from an act of grace from God Himself. (Which is why God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ! When we have seen Him, we have seen the Father.) This God picked out one man from all the population of the world, and called him away from idolatry to serve and worship Him…and Abraham (Abram at the time) did it!
  2. Basically, Stephen related the events of Genesis 11:31-12:4. There are a few details that are left out, and some that seem fuzzy, but again this is all a summary. Abram’s father was still alive when God initially called him, and it seems that even his father Terah believed God’s calling on Abram’s life and moved the entire household out of Mesopotamia at least to the city of Haran, where Terah died. Abram then being the head of family, continued the journey southwards.
  3. Don’t miss what it was that took place with Abraham’s calling: God took the initiative and offered grace. God personally called, and God got personally involved. Abraham hadn’t done anything worthy of this singular calling – he was just a pagan, like so many other pagans of the day, worshipping the things he saw around him. Yet God reached out to him. God had a plan for the world, and His plan included a lineage from Abraham. So God called Abraham and promised not only to use him, but to personally show him and guide him along the way. Out of all the people in the world, Abraham would know the Living God. That is a privilege beyond measure! (And it’s a privilege all of us have when we know Jesus!)
  4. Abraham believed…

4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. 5 And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him.

  1. Abram obeyed. His faith was shown by his actions, as he left Haran and continued to the land of Canaan, which was at that time populated by many different peoples. Abraham was a stranger living among strange nations, he and his house alone worshipping the true God in what would later become known as the “Holy Land.” It wasn’t holy at the time! But because God called him, and showed him this land, that’s where Abraham went in faith.
  2. Yet his faith did not guarantee immediate results. Abram was in the land, but did not possess it. The possession was only promised. For his part, Abraham lived as a nomad shepherd (though an extremely wealthy one, being viewed as a prince by his neighbors) – but no land was his. The only piece of property he owned was a cave that was used as a burial plot for his family. Thus, the only way Abraham could enjoy his possession was by faith. He went there by faith, and he lived there by faith. Abraham relied on the promises of God, trusting in God’s faithfulness…and that was enough. 
  3. Not only did God promise land, but He promised descendants to dwell in it. In His initial call to Abram, God promised to make him a great nation (Gen 12:2), but this promise became more specific later on after Abram arrived. Once he saw the land, God told him that his descendants would be so numerous that they would be “as the dust of the earth” (Genesis 13:14-16). Keep in mind that at this point, Abram was still childless. In fact, by the time God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (“Exalted father” to “Father of multitudes”), Abraham only had one child & even that had been done outside of God’s will. Abraham had to not only believe God’s promises, but continue to believe, even when he didn’t see quick results. 25 years would pass between his initial call and the birth of his promised son, and Abraham had to trust God the entire time.
    1. Have you found yourself waiting for God’s promises to be kept? Have you found yourself questioning if God’s promises will be kept? They will be…so hold on! God is faithful, and there is not a word of His that He does not fulfill.
  4. These were just the first of several promises. Not all of them seemed as cheery, but it was all part of the larger plan of God. 

6 But God spoke in this way: that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land, and that they would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years. 7 ‘And the nation to whom they will be in bondage I will judge,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and serve Me in this place.’

  1. These are the prophecies of Genesis 15:13-16, when God again promises numerous descendants to Abram (as the stars of heaven, Gen 15:5), and God gave him the one-sided unconditional promise that He would fulfill it. But what accompanied that promise almost seems contradictory: slavery. If God promised Abraham a land and a people, then how could it be that this people (who had not yet come) would have to leave the land (which had not yet been given) and live in a foreign place, only to be eventually enslaved there? Was this a promise or a punishment? On the surface, it didn’t seem good! It was. God had a purpose for all of it. Abraham still needed to trust God…he still needed to have faith.
    1. Do you get the idea that faith isn’t a one-time event in the life of a worshipper of God? When we put our faith in Jesus for salvation, that’s the beginning; it’s certainly not the end. We need faith for every day! We need to trust that our God is sovereign, and that He knows what He’s doing. We need to believe that Jesus is with us, guiding us, empowering us through the Holy Spirit, taking us where we need to go. 
  2. That was certainly the case with these prophecies concerning Abraham’s descendants. God not only promised slavery, but He also promised judgment and freedom. If the people of God would just hang on, they would see the plan of God fulfilled. Yes, everything God promised to Abraham was true: he would be the father of multitudes who would dwell in the land God personally showed him. They would go through some necessary hardships, and although they might not understand the “why” of their trials, they could trust the “who” of the God taking them through it. God would not forget His people, nor His word. He never does!

8 Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham begot Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot the twelve patriarchs.

  1. At this point, Stephen fast-forwards a bit. Again, he isn’t teaching a comprehensive study of Genesis; he’s giving a summary overview, emphasizing the promises and provision of God, as well as the need of God’s people to continually trust God by faith. He’s already mentioned the prophesied slavery and deliverance of the Hebrews, so now Stephen recounts how it all took place.
  • Jacob & Joseph (9-16)

9 “And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house.

  1. Even though Stephen’s accusation against the Jews doesn’t come until later in his message, he begins to set the stage. The modern Jews weren’t the only ones to reject God’s chosen messenger and deliverer; the original patriarchs did the same thing. The 10 older brothers of Joseph sold him into slavery. Read all about it in Genesis 37: how Joseph dreamt of greatness, and the brothers responded in fierce jealousy. They first desired to kill him, but settled for selling him to some passing Midianite traders on their way to Egypt. It was terrible sin, and a sign of things to come for the nation of Israel. When confronted with the word of God, they would often rebel, trying to force their own way of doing things.
    1. Sound familiar? That’s every person who resists the gospel of Jesus Christ. That was us before we responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s sometimes even us after we’ve responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ! We may hear God’s word, but we don’t like it, thinking it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) apply to us – so we force our own way, trying to do our own thing. And how does it work out? It doesn’t. Even if we see some kind of immediate result, there are always consequences that follow. God’s plan is never going to outdone, nor is His word ever going to return void. Of that we can be sure!
  2. Even with this terrible sin against Joseph, God provided for him, and delivered him out of his slavery. It took many years, with other trials to come (something skimmed over by Stephen), but eventually Joseph stood before Pharaoh and was elevated to the position of grand vizier / prime minster (Genesis 41:38-41). God blessed Joseph to the point that he was the 2nd most powerful man in the ancient world. Talk about grace…Joseph had it in abundance! He literally went from being a prisoner in the dungeon to the prime minister of Egypt in matter of minutes. If that isn’t a work of God, nothing is!
    1. To a casual observer at the time, just 24 hours earlier it would have seemed if God had totally forgotten about Joseph. Joseph had been repeatedly faithful to God, and where had it gotten him? Betrayed by family, enslaved in Egypt, falsely accused by his master’s wife, imprisoned in the dungeon, and forgotten by those he helped while there. Surely if God was going to act, He would have done something by now, right? Joseph ought to just give up and do what he wanted. Wrong! God was God was active the entire time, having planned out everything to the minute, perfectly seeing it through. Joseph needed to trust God, and he did. 
  3. In all of this, God “delivered [Joseph] out of all his troubles,” but that wasn’t all God was doing. The delivered would soon become the deliverer! Yet for a deliverer to exists, there must be a situation from which there need be deliverance. That’s what God gave next…

11 Now a famine and great trouble came over all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and our fathers found no sustenance. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. 13 And the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to the Pharaoh. 14 Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people. 15 So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers.

  1. Stephen continues to summarize the events of Genesis, tackling the events of Chapters 42-46 in one fell swoop. With Joseph in place, God sets things in motion to force the family of Jacob (Israel) to the foreign land of Egypt…exactly as God had told Abraham would happen. He sent a famine that ranged from Egypt all over the area of the ancient Mediterranean, including the land of Canaan. Jacob had no choice but to send his sons to go purchase food from Egypt (something which was saved up in abundance through the wisdom of Joseph), and this set in process a series of events where Joseph recognized his brothers, tested their character, saw their repentance, and was reconciled with his family. 22 years after he had been forcibly separated from his father, Joseph was finally reunited with him, with happy reunion!
  2. Put it all together, and what is the pattern? God gave a word, and most of the people rebelled. Through impossible circumstances, God raised up a deliverer, when there was suddenly a need for deliverance. God gave that deliverance, all to His glory. God had planned it, promised it, provided for it, and then proved it. God is faithful!
    1. Sound familiar? It’s the gospel! We have rebelled against the word and person of our Creator God, and because of our sin we are in need of deliverance. Yet through seemingly impossible circumstances (death and resurrection), God has raised up a Deliverer! God’s plan has always been for Jesus, He promised Jesus, He provided us Jesus, and then He proved Jesus by raising Him from the dead. Believe!
  3. FYI: vs. 14 provides one of the most glaring so-called “inconsistencies” of Stephen’s message. Genesis 46:27 states that 70 people were in Jacob’s house; Stephen says it was 75. Which is right? Depending on how one counts, both are! Stephen quotes the LXX which states 75, which likely includes wives or daughters not originally listed in Genesis 46. Another possibility is that the LXX excludes Jacob and Joseph from the count, but includes all of Joseph’s grandchildren. Either way, it ought to be noted that the Jewish scholars of the Sanhedrin are silent at this point, not raising any objection at all. They had no issues at all with Stephen’s grasp of Hebrew history and theology; their objection comes with Stephen’s soon accusation of their rebellion against God. But if the Sanhedrin didn’t see any Biblical error with Stephen, why should we?

16 And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem.

  1. Egypt was a place of deliverance for the Hebrews, but it was not their permanent home. Jacob went into Egypt and came out again in death. Stephen combines a couple of different events here, in that not only had Abraham purchased land, but so had Jacob, which was purchased from the sons of Hamor upon which Jacob built an altar (Gen 33:19-20). Jacob was actually buried in the plot purchased by Abraham (Gen 50:13). Joseph’s bones, on the other hand, seems to have been buried in the land purchased in Shechem (Josh 24:32). Again, there’s no error; just a summarized account.
  2. Stephen mentioned all of this because it was leading to something: God had a plan for the Hebrews that went far beyond Egypt! Remember that He not only promised Abraham descendants, but a land of their own. Egypt wasn’t it. Eventually they would have to leave, no matter how comfortable they may have become over the course of 400 years. Just like God had to force them in, He would have to force them out.
  • Moses: background (17-22)

17 “But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt 18 till another king arose who did not know Joseph. 19 This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live.

  1. Another set of promises, prophecies, and provision is seen the life of Moses. Remember that back in verse 6, Stephen recounted how God promised to Abraham that his descendants would to a foreign land and be oppressed for 400 years. Not only did that prophecy of oppression turn out to be true, but so was God’s promise of deliverance. Exodus 1 details the hardship of God’s people. With the succession of Pharaohs, the memory of Joseph passed from the generations, and future kings saw a growing threat in the growing nation of Israel. The Hebrews were enslaved, and eventually forced to commit infanticide to slow the population growth. It was horrible and violent, and the people cried out to God. Had God forgotten them in Egypt? Had He turned away from His people? Not at all. Just like God waited for the right time to raise up a deliverer in Joseph, so He waited for the right time to raise up a deliverer in Moses.

20 At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father’s house for three months. 21 But when he was set out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son.

  1. Once again, there were impossible circumstances. Joseph was in the depth of the Egyptian dungeon, and Moses should have been thrown into the depth of the Egyptian river, or otherwise killed as a newborn. Instead, he was placed within a basket that floated downstream to the daughter of Pharaoh, who took him as her own son, even hiring Moses’ birth mother as a nursemaid (Exodus 2:1-10). Just as He did with Joseph, God delivered the deliverer.

22 And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds.

  1. Stephen references Jewish tradition at this point. Scripture tells us nothing of the younger years of Moses, although as an adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, it’s reasonable to assume that he had the best of education and opportunities provided to him. The Jewish historian Josephus (writing after the dawn of Christianity) recorded some of this tradition, saying that Moses led the armies of Egypt to victory against the Ethiopians and was heralded as a great general among them (Antiquities, Book 2, Chapter 10).
  2. Even so, Moses was not an Egyptian, and this was known to both himself and to Pharaoh’s house. Remember that as a babe, his own mother served as the nursemaid to Pharaoh’s daughter, so Moses always knew his background. It would not at all have been unlikely for Moses to believe himself destined by God for great things, and he bided his time until things were right. The only question would have been: when was it right? Moses’ idea was different than God’s idea…
  • Moses: rejection (23-29)

23 “Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. 25 For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand.

  1. Moses’ 1st attempt to act as the deliverer didn’t go so well. Exodus 2:11-15 recounts how Moses saw a Hebrew being beaten by an Egyptian, and Moses quickly avenged the Hebrew, believing his action to be secret. It ought to have been the perfect plan, but the problem was that it was Moses’ plan; not God’s. Moses didn’t yet understand God’s plan, nor did he understand the mind of the Hebrews. That became plain the following day…

26 And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?’ 27 But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?’

  1. This was the Hebrews’ 1st rejection of Moses. There would be several other times in the future they grumbled against him – not the least when he first arrived back in Egypt and confronted Pharaoh. But this was the first of things to come. The Hebrews didn’t want anything to do with Moses, even though it’s clear from history that Moses was the chosen deliverer sent by God.
  2. What was the problem here? There are several! Obviously the two Hebrews were at fault for fighting and for refusing any correction. Yet Moses was at fault for his assumptive pride. He just assumed he could step in and lead, without any real basis for others accepting his leadership. Moses rightly believed he was destined to lead the Hebrews, but the rest of the Hebrews didn’t know that. He hadn’t built any credibility with them – in their eyes, he lived the life of a rich palace kid while they broke their backs in slavery. More importantly, Moses hadn’t yet been called by God. The only authority Moses had was the authority he had in his own eyes…which wasn’t any authority at all. Moses needed to wait on God’s timing, calling, and equipping before acting. At this point, Moses wasn’t acting in faith, but in the flesh.
    1. The work of God must be done according to the word of God in the power of God, or it isn’t His work at all. At that point, it’s a work of our flesh, and it’s something we need to beware!
  3. Even so, Stephen’s main point was that Moses was rejected. The one who was to be the messenger of God was turned away by the people of God…a disturbing habit seen through the years.

29 Then, at this saying, Moses fled and became a dweller in the land of Midian, where he had two sons.

  1. Just like God hadn’t forgotten His people, He did not forget Moses. God provided a refuge for him, giving him 40 years to learn what it meant to wait upon the Lord. Just like Abraham had to wait to see God’s promise, and Joseph had to wait to see God’s promise, so did Moses have to do the same. 
  • Moses: God’s calling & empowerment (30-36)

30 “And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. 31 When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him, 32 saying, ‘I am the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and dared not look.

  1. Stephen moves into Exodus 3 with God’s famous encounter with Moses at the burning bush. Finally, after 40 years in Midian with Moses at the age of 80, he is called by God and commissioned to be God’s spokesman and deliverer of the people. For most of us, 80 is long after retirement with people making their final plans and family arrangements; for Moses, it was the beginning of his 3rd career! Question: Had God only just then decided to make Moses the deliverer? Not at all…God ensured that Moses’ whole life had led to this point. The man was now wonderfully prepared to go back and lead God’s people in humility and faith. The problem for Moses earlier is that he had an inkling of God’s calling, but he wasn’t prepared to wait on God’s timing. Moses believed he could do it in his own strength. By his 80’s, Moses realized he had no strength whatsoever…he couldn’t even speak without the help of God! Before God used Moses, He wanted Moses totally dependent upon Him. 
  2. Not only was God gracious in His calling of Moses, God was gracious in His own revelation. Just as He did with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God personally appeared to Moses, identifying Himself as the God of glory, the God of Moses’ fathers. The same God who had made promises in the past was showing Himself faithful to fulfill those same promises, and Moses had the privilege of seeing it firsthand. So did the Sanhedrin regarding Jesus as the Messiah, but they chose to reject that revelation. Moses had the faith & sense to recognize the work of God, whereas the modern Jews despised it. Stephen is setting the stage for his argument to come. 

33 ‘Then the LORD said to him, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.” ’

  1. God provided His personal presence. It wasn’t just any angel that appeared in flame in the bush; it was the Angel – the Angel of YHWH. God personally showed up, gracing Moses with His glory. As John later wrote of Jesus, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory…full of grace and truth,” (Jn 1:14). To be in the presence of God is to be in the glory of God, and that is what the original disciples experienced in the presence of Jesus. It’s also what every Christian experiences being indwelled by the Holy Spirit. That’s why Paul can write that we are the “temple,” (1 Cor 6:19) because God is in
    1. Note: the place where Moses stood was holy, because God was there…and that was on Mt. Sinai. Stephen had been accused of blaspheming the temple, but although that was where the Jews worshipped God, the presence of God hadn’t been there since the days of Ezekiel. Stephen couldn’t blaspheme the temple, but the Sanhedrin themselves could definitely blaspheme the glory of the temple, which is what they did when they rejected Jesus. They were the ones who rejected the person and the presence of God – the ultimate blasphemy.
  2. In the gift of His presence, God assured Moses that He would keep His promise. The time had come for these things to be fulfilled. The 400 years prophesied to Abraham were complete, and now it was time for the prophecies of deliverance, justice, and freedom to be fulfilled. God had not forgotten His people. He never does – He is always faithful!

35 “This Moses whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.

  1. God empowered the once-rejected Moses to lead & to deliver. Forty years earlier, the Hebrews wanted nothing to do with Moses, and they weren’t too happy with him when he first arrived back & were forced to make bricks without straw. But the time was right, the plan of God came to fruition, and the people saw with their own eyes how God worked through Moses. The people’s previous rejection of him was proven wrong, as Moses performed all kinds of “wonders and signs” through 10 plagues in Egypt, through the parting of the Red Sea, and much more.
  2. If God did all of that through Moses, how much more did He do through Jesus? Stephen doesn’t even have to mention the name of Jesus in order for his point to be made. God demonstrated beyond a doubt that His chosen messenger for the ancient Hebrews was Moses. If they could ignore his miraculous upbringing or a few of his signs, that was one thing – but soon there was too much to ignore. How could one deny the night of Passover, or the waters of the Red Sea standing upright, or the pillar of cloud and fire proceeding before them in the wilderness? God did too much through Moses for Moses to be ignored. (Stephen easily showing he hadn’t blasphemed Moses at all!) But what God did through Moses paled in comparison to what God did through Jesus. There was the miraculous birth, the innumerable healings & demon exorcisms, there was creation of bread and fish, and most importantly (and most evident of all) Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. God did too much through Jesus of Nazareth for Him to be ignored, despite the repeated attempts of the Jewish leaders. God had made His chosen Deliverer known, and it now fell on the people to pay attention.

Conclusion:

Stephen was building his case to show how the Hebrews had always rejected God’s message, God’s messengers, and God’s mercy, which led them to do the same thing with Jesus and the Christians proclaiming the gospel. But first Stephen took the time to lay the groundwork: God had always been faithful! God had made promise after promise to Abraham and his descendants, and God kept every single one. God had a long-range plan in motion, and everything He allowed the Hebrews to experience was something that kept them right where He wanted them. He would always deliver His people, because He loved them and He promised them deliverance…they just needed to respond in faith and obedience.

The God we serve is faithful! His track record is proven through history. We see it not only through Abraham, Joseph, and Moses – we see it in Jesus! Can there be any doubt that God provides a Deliverer? Look no further than the cross! See the empty tomb! The devil has been defeated, and death has lost its sting! God has been faithful to His promise back in the Garden of Eden, saying that He would send someone to crush the head of the Satanic serpent, and that Deliverer is Jesus.

So believe! Take the God of faithfulness at His word, and believe what He has said about His Son.

Stephen’s “Crime”

Posted: August 12, 2018 in Acts, Uncategorized

Acts 6:8-15, “Stephen’s ‘Crime’”

When we think of “firsts,” we typically think of good things: the first man to walk on the moon – the first doctor to perform open-heart surgery – the first female supreme court justice, etc. Other “firsts” are not so enjoyable. The first person to die for his faith in Jesus Christ is of the latter.

Stephen was the first martyr of the Church Age. He wasn’t the first to experience persecution, nor the first to die for his faith in the Lord God. Prophets throughout the Old Testament suffered in many ways, which Jesus acknowledged to the people of Jerusalem, as He pointed out their historical and ongoing rejection of the messengers of God (Mt 23:35, Lk 11:51). Of course Jesus Himself experienced persecution unto death. That was the primary earthly reason behind the cross: the Jewish leadership rejected Him & His message, and condemned Him to death.

So it wasn’t that what happened to Stephen was historically unique – but it was the first instance of martyrdom in the Church Age, post-Jesus’ resurrection. Just because Jesus was risen from the dead did not mean that resistance to Jesus ceased. On the contrary – it ramped up the more the gospel spread, and persecution continues to this day around the world.

Keep in mind that Jesus said this would happen: John 15:18–20, “(18) “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. (19) If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (20) Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”  It’s tough to be plainer than that! Christians ought never be surprised by the hatred of the world; it is something we ought to expect. (The surprising thing is when it doesn’t come!) Even so, it isn’t easy. There are true hardships in the moment of persecution, and if there is any time we need to rely on the grace & power of God, it’s then. As the first martyr of the church, Stephen set a clear example of how it can be done. How do we stand strong in our faith? How do we remain faithful to Jesus, no matter the cost? Follow in the footsteps of Stephen.

His name means “crown,” which is why Christians through the centuries have spoken of a “martyr’s crown,” even though no exact reference is found in the New Testament. Stephen surely received the crown of life, the crown of righteousness, etc., but he also lived as a crown, giving his life for the glory and testimony of Jesus.

The reader of Acts was introduced to Stephen a few verses earlier in Chapter 6, as he was one of the seven servants (deacons) chosen by the early church to take care of some of the financial and administrative duties that was too much for the apostles. The 12 apostles had ministry priorities of prayer & the word, and with the rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem, it became more important than ever for the apostles to be dedicated to those things. However, other valuable ministries still needed to be done, and the call was sounded for Spirit-filled, spiritually mature Christians to help. Stephen was one who was chosen and set apart for the work.

We need to remember that Jewish persecution of the church had already begun. On two separate occasions, apostles were put on trial by the Jewish Sanhedrin, where they were strongly commanded not to teach in Jesus’ name, nor to heal in His name. Obviously, the apostles refused to comply, knowing that it was better to obey God rather than men. Even so, the order had been given, and it didn’t matter who did the speaking – be it one of the 12 apostles, or one of the Christian multitudes.

As it turned out, the next believer to face the ire of the Sanhedrin was Stephen. The end of Chapter 6 only gives us a brief introduction – it is Chapter 7 which includes his sermon and martyrdom. What is it we find in these few verses of Chapter 6? Stephen’s so-called “crime.” This shows why Stephen was arrested and faced trial. He had simply been a good witness for Jesus. Actually, in the minds of the local Jews, he was too good. That made him their enemy, so they invented lies about him to get him arrested. Through it all, Stephen never wavered in his faithfulness – neither should we. Be faithful to Jesus, no matter what!

Acts 6:8–15

  • The “problem” of Stephen (8-10)

8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.

  1. Stephen caused quite a stir among the people! Filled with grace and power, he did amazing things, working all kinds of miracles. Although there’s much to look at in the details of this verse (some of which we’ll see), be sure to get the big picture and the main point: Stephen performed miracles. Stephen the servant, the deacon – Stephen the common everyday Jerusalem Christian – Stephen, not an apostle of the Lord Jesus, although definitely a disciple along the lines of any born-again Christian. Sometimes we get the idea that only Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles alone performed signs & wonders. Some people even believe that only apostles can ever perform miracles in the Church Age. The Bible clearly shows something different. Stephen “did great wonders and signs among the people.” Stephen was used by God the Holy Spirit to work miracles.
    1. We have to get away from this false idea of a caste-system of Christianity. As if there are “normal” Christians, and there are “super” Christians. No – there are only born-again Christians! Sure, some people walk more faithfully with Christ than others, and not everyone consistently seeks to be filled with the Holy Spirit. But there is not a blessing available to one born-again believer in Christ that is not available to any born-again believer in Christ. God grants each one of us spiritual gifts, and though they differ in expression, they are equally given by God & thus all valuable. God desires to use each of us in His kingdom, although our role and our ministry is up to Him. But it isn’t as if one gifted empowered Christian is any better than another. Even if we are compared with the 12 apostles, they do not have a greater value than us. Jesus shed the same blood for Peter & John as He did for you & me – all of us have equal value to Him.
    2. So yes, Stephen was used to work miracles. Likewise, Barnabas and Paul were numbered as apostles, Philip as an evangelist, his daughters as prophetesses, and Agabus as a prophet (Acts 21:8-11). God has always used more than the 12 in His church, and He still does today. Some of you are gifted evangelists – others have supernatural mercy & help. God will give some of you exactly the right word at the right time, and others the gift of faith to keep on believing when the faith of others fail. And do you know what? All of it is necessary – all of it is miraculous – all of it is the gift of God. If your idea of service is just waiting for God to use “super” Christians, or even just the pastor, then you’re missing out. You’re missing out at how God can use you.
  2. As to what “great wonders and signs” Stephen did, we don’t know. Apart from the initial manifestation of tongues on the day of Pentecost, and the supernatural judgment upon Ananias & Sapphira, the only other miracles not involving angels in Acts so far have been that of healing. It seems likely that Stephen did the same thing. This would have provided additional continuity with the ministries of the apostles, as well as with Jesus, and it gave further credibility to the gospel message.
  3. How was Stephen able to do it? He was full of faith, grace, and power. Depending on your Bible translation, it either says that Stephen was full of faith & power, that he was full of grace & power. Textual evidence leans highly toward “grace” as original, but considering that Acts 6:5 says that Stephen was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” faith was certainly part of his ministry. The bottom line (regardless of the description) is that Stephen was empowered by God. He did not work these miracles on his own – he had no special skillset or abilities. All Stephen did was make himself available to Jesus, and Jesus did the rest. Stephen’s faith was in Jesus – Stephen’s grace was given him by Jesus – and Stephen’s power came through the Holy Spirit, made available in Jesus. All that Stephen did wasn’t because of Stephen; it was all because of Jesus.
    1. It’s the same with us. God forbid that we ever take credit for the work He does within us. It’s all Him; not us. Without Jesus, what good is faith? Faith in yourself sounds nice & motivational (“Just believe in yourself!”), but it won’t get you to heaven. By definition, grace is something that must be given, and Jesus alone makes it possible. As for power, surely men & women can fake much as they claim power for themselves, but the only way it’s real is if it comes from Jesus who is Almighty God in the flesh. His true work cannot be faked or duplicated! Whatever good you do for the Lord is all because of the Lord. So be sure to give Him the glory & praise!
  4. Some have criticized Luke’s description of Stephen in Acts 6:8, saying that it contradicts with the ministry appointed to him in Acts 6:1-6. If Stephen was supposed to be serving the Hellenistic Christian widows of Jerusalem (along with the rest of the seven chosen servants), then how did he have time to work miracles? Did Stephen ignore his primary ministry – did he let the other work be neglected? It’s a false dilemma – as if Stephen could not do both. Perhaps he spent much of his time helping the widows, but then took other time for evangelism and healing. Or perhaps he did the miracles while in the process of helping the widows. The point is that Stephen’s ministry to the widows was a joy & solemn responsibility, but it was not the only thing that he was allowed to do. Like any of us, he had the ability (and joy) to be used by the Lord in many ways, wearing several different hats. People shouldn’t be so pigeon-holed (either then or today).
  5. Apparently, one of Stephen’s many activities besides serving widows and working miracles was engaging Jews in evangelism…

9 Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. 10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.

  1. Just as Paul would later be known to do, Stephen’s evangelistic ministry began among the local synagogues. In this case, it was perhaps a synagogue he sometimes attended. (Remember, like all the early Christians, Stephen was a Jew. He still went to the temple & attended synagogue, in addition to his daily meetings with the rest of the church.) This particular synagogue was named “Freedmen,” and included many Jews from outside Jerusalem around the Roman Empire. To say that they were “freedmen” indicates that many of them had been Jewish slaves of Romans, now freed & living in Jerusalem. Tellingly, it was comprised of Jews from Hellenistic provinces, with Stephen likely being a Hellenist as well. Whether this was his personal synagogue or not, Stephen had a common bridge with them, and he used it to share the gospel of Jesus.
    1. Look for the commonalities! Look for the bridges you can build with others to talk about Jesus. It isn’t as difficult as we might think. We live in the same communities as our neighbors – we experience the same challenges – we often laugh at the same jokes and cry at the same tragedies. Any one of those things might serve as a bridge to the gospel. We just need to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, and ready to respond when He shows us an opportunity.
  2. What likely happened was that Stephen went to the synagogue like he had so many other times, and when the Scriptures were read, it was common for the synagogue leaders to invite visitors or other people with a message to share something. The services had less liturgy than events at the temple, and there was quite a bit of interaction. It was likely during these times that Stephen spoke of Jesus. Perhaps he showed how the Scripture reading of the day pointed to Christ, or perhaps he just directed whatever questions were being asked back to Jesus. Whatever it was, he took the opportunity he had to preach the gospel.
  3. Best of all? He was successful! We have Stephen’s words that he spoke to the Sanhedrin, but to don’t have what he spoke to the synagogue. We may not know the content, but we know the power & the result: “They were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.” There he was, in the midst of the synagogue, rabbis surely present along with everyone else, and Stephen outwitted them all. Consider for a moment that Saul may have been present that day, his home of Tarsus being a city in Cilicia. Not even the zealous young Saul, Pharisee of Pharisees, student of Gamaliel, could best Stephen in a theological debate about Jesus. And what training did Stephen have? None, so far as we know. All we know of Stephen is that he was full of faith, grace, and the Holy Spirit, and that he had a good reputation among the church. Yet he could go toe-to-toe with the synagogue rabbis and hold his own. Better yet, he was undefeated in debate. How? Again, this was not a work of Stephen, but of God. God the Holy Spirit gave him the wisdom and words required to witness of Christ. And the Spirit’s work in Stephen was so strong that it was obvious and undeniable. That’s power!
    1. That isn’t limited to Stephen. Any one of us as born-again Christians can be so filled with the Spirit that He uses us in much the same way. Question: If that’s the case, why don’t we see it more? Two possible answers:
      1. We aren’t continually filled with the Spirit. Too often we try to do God’s work our way, then we wonder why we fail. God’s work can only be done God’s way by God’s power, in accordance with God’s word. That way, only God gets the glory…and that’s exactly the way it should be! And that leads us to the second reason…
      2. We don’t seek God’s Spirit for the right reasons. Often, Christians say they want the power of God, but what they really mean is that they want the power of God for themselves. As James writes, they ask, but they ask amiss (Jas 4:3). When we ask to be empowered by God the Holy Spirit, it needs to be for the glory of God and the gospel of Christ.
    2. That was how Stephen was empowered, and because he was, he was unstoppable. This makes perfect sense – after all, when the synagogue leaders opposed Stephen, they weren’t really opposing Stephen; they were opposing God.
  4. So Stephen posed a big problem to the synagogue leaders. Here this guy was, preaching Jesus, and he was really good at it. No one among them could resist his logic or his theology. How could they get rid of him? What could they do? Easy: lie…
  • The lies against Stephen (11-14)

11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”

  1. This was the first lie spoken of Stephen, and it served as the charge that was serious enough to get him arrested. Remember that Christianity was still new, so they did not yet have rabbinical restrictions (midrash commands) forbidding preaching Jesus in the synagogues. Granted, the Sanhedrin forbade it for the church, but that was something directly commanded of the apostles (and by extension, the rest of the church). It was unlikely that any public written decree was issued. The synagogues may not have known how exactly to respond, so they decided on the route of accusations of blasphemy.
  2. Were the accusations true? Of course not – but the synagogue rulers tried to spin it that way. By no means would Stephen have actually blasphemed Moses or God – but any potential “change” to their customs might be able to be described that way. Jesus Himself said that He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17). Taken out of context, that might be twisted into a charge of blasphemy. Seemingly, that’s what they did with Stephen, as the rulers “secretly induced” (prompted, hired, instigated) men to make these accusations of him.
  3. With the charge trumped up against him, Stephen was promptly arrested…

12 And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council.

  1. The arrest itself was quite the public event. Unlike with the apostles who were taken from the temple courtyard and jailed overnight until the council could be convened, an entire crowd took Stephen straight from the synagogue to the Sanhedrin. The defeated leadership whipped up a mob and demanded immediate judgment, and the Sanhedrin was all too happy to comply.

13 They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”

  1. The false charges continued against Stephen during his trial. This time, they were brought by “false witnesses” – another parallel with Jesus’ own persecution. The fact that they used false witnesses is telling, particularly seeing that there were so many true witnesses who would have seen the entire exchange in the synagogue. Why rely upon false witnesses when they had access to true ones? Because the false witnesses were prepared to tell a lie, and that was just what they did.
  2. This time the accusation wasn’t so much against Moses (although any supposed change to the law would fall into that category), but words against the temple & the laws concerning it – particularly regarding Jesus of Nazareth and His accused destruction of the temple. Remember that the same tactic was used against Jesus at His own trial. They found false witnesses claiming that Jesus said He would destroy the temple, although He never said any such thing (Mt 26:61). What had happened was that Jesus prophesied the destruction of His own temple (His body), which would be rebuilt in three days – a reference to the cross & resurrection (Jn 2:19). Otherwise, Jesus prophesied the Roman destruction of the temple (which did eventually take place in 70AD), but nothing about Him leading a rebellion to tear down the structure brick-by-brick. Even so, people lied about Jesus’ words at the time, and they attempted to do the exact same thing with Stephen.
  3. So that was the temple, but what about the customs of Moses? Did Jesus promise to change those? No…and yes. No – the law would not be destroyed or abolished, but fulfilled. But yes – in that the kingdom of God was made available to nations beyond Israel. Jesus was very open about the worldwide nature of the kingdom, and that caused quite a bit of concern among some of the Jews. Of course even this was not against Moses – the worldwide blessing of Messiah is written in the Bible from the book of Genesis onward. But from a certain point of view, it would seem as if everything changed.
    1. And guess what? Some things were about to change! How could it be otherwise with the cross & resurrection? The need for a blood sacrifice to atone for sin had been fulfilled, as had the need for an earthly temple. The people of God were no longer defined by a single bloodline descended from Abraham, but through a lineage of faith that stretched back to Abraham (and beyond). The literal promises of the restored Israelite kingdom still existed, but there was about to be an interruption of almost two thousand years in-between. Of course things were changing…but this change was good. What it’s the plan of God, it’s always going to be good.
    2. The problem for these particular Jewish leaders (and false witnesses) was that they were more concerned about the change than about God’s will. They were more in love with their tradition than they were with their God, and that left them in rebellion against – If we aren’t careful, something similar can happen to us. It’s not that any true born-again Christian will ever be left out of heaven (that is something secured for us by Jesus alone; not by any work we can or would ever do), but we can easily find ourselves more attached to our traditions or our preferences than the will of our Lord Jesus. We can easily find ourselves wanting things our way, rather than His way. We think, “God would never do ­­­___. God would never use that person, or that church.” Be careful! God’s ways are not our own. The Bible shows God using pagan kings for His will & ultimate plan of salvation. If He can use pagans, He can use heretics. (And who’s to say who God can and cannot use, other than God? He uses us, after all!)
  4. Again, we don’t have a transcript of the things Stephen said while in the synagogue, but if he preached Jesus (which he did), he preached Jesus’ words as he knew them. There was a change coming, and it was already there. Jesus’ death and resurrection proved that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and all people (no matter what nationality) can find forgiveness & eternal life in Him. If that brings a charge of blasphemy form the Jewish Sanhedrin, so be it! It doesn’t change the truth!
    1. Remember that when you proclaim Jesus, you proclaim the truth! We live in a culture of increasing skepticism & antipathy to the claims of the Bible. But it doesn’t change the fact that what the Bible says is true. Let people lie about you, if they must – let them despise the message of the gospel – just don’t stop proclaiming it! Never stop saying what is truth, and Jesus is the truth. Never ever give up the gospel!
  5. BTW – Notice that the biggest problem Stephen’s accusers had was not Stephen himself – it was “Jesus of Nazareth.” Even if no formal decree against preaching Jesus had been issued, the synagogue rulers knew well that the name of Jesus of Nazareth did not sit well with the Sanhedrin. It was in the name of “Jesus Christ of Nazareth” that Peter & John had very publicly healed the lame man in the temple gate (Acts 4:6), and it was “Jesus of Nazareth” that Peter had powerfully proclaimed on the day of Pentecost with the multitudes of Jerusalem listening (Acts 2:22). If they wanted to see Stephen punished by the Sanhedrin, they could do little better than tie him directly with the proclamation of Jesus. And it was true! Even if the things they said about Stephen’s preaching was a lie, what was not a lie was that he clearly proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. And at the end of the day, that was what had been so offensive in the synagogue, and that was why Stephen was on trial that day. If that alone had been the charge (instead of the other lies told by false witnesses), Stephen would have been forced to say, “Guilty, as charged.”
    1. And how wonderful! Our primary job as Jesus’ disciples is to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8), as we make other disciples of all the nations (Mt 28:19-20). To be so identified with Jesus in our witness, that we would be put on trial because of that witness…that’s exactly the way it should Not that we desire hardship or persecution (we don’t seek it out for ourselves), but should it come, may there be enough evidence to convict us as Jesus’ disciples!
    2. Take a moment to ask it of yourself. If for some reason, you were to be taken this afternoon and suddenly placed on trial for your faith, would there be enough evidence for a conviction? Sure, you showed up for worship with the rest of the church (which is more than some people do!), but so do a lot of other people. What does the rest of your life say about your faith? Does your relaxation on Sunday afternoon match up with your worship on Sunday morning? Do your conversations at work reflect the same person who has conversations at church? IOW – Do you look like a Christian even when you aren’t around other Christians? Don’t get the wrong idea…we don’t have to limit our topics of conversation, or sound like broken records to every person with whom we speak. But our lives should be consistent. There ought to be evidence of our faith.
      1. What if there’s not? What if there’s nothing? It’s one thing to be inconsistent – all of us struggle with that every now & again. But it’s another thing to be totally void of any evidence of the faith we say that we have. If that’s you, then that’s something you need to address with Jesus today. There’s another word for “evidence” in the life of a Christian, and that’s “fruit.” If there’s no fruit in your life that you belong to Jesus, then you need to ask yourself if you belong to Jesus. (2 Cor 13:5)
    3. So there it was: Stephen had been arrested, put on trial, and lies were being spewed about him. His words about Jesus were taken radically out of context, twisted to make it sound like he was an enemy of his people and even an enemy of God. What was his response? Verse 15…
  • The witness of Stephen (15)

15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.

  1. The accusations had been made, with charges of blasphemy thrown against him. His life was on the line, and the mob was clamoring for blood. What did Stephen do – how did he respond? As the Sanhedrin and accusers stared him down, there wasn’t even a hint of fear upon his face. Instead, they “saw his face as the face of an angel.” How incredible it was that Luke included this description! Obviously, there was much more that took place, and Stephen’s sermon in his defense (though not so much his defense, as it was an acknowledgement of the offense of the gospel message) is included in detail in the following verses. But Luke included this description of Stephen’s face for a reason. Why? Actually, there are probably two reasons.
  2. Reason #1: Stephen had the peace of God. Remember that Stephen had not been placed on trial due to lawlessness or rebellious sin. He wasn’t a criminal deserving of punishment; he was simply being faithful to Jesus, doing the same thing that Jesus calls each one of us to do as disciples. And Jesus was with Stephen the entire time he did so. He does not leave us, nor forsake us – He does not abandon us in our time of need. One of the gifts that is God the Holy Spirit is the gift of His presence. With His presence comes His peace. Speaking to the apostles on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus told them this in preparation for His departure: John 14:25–27, “(25) “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. (26) But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. (27) Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Why should the apostles not fear? Because Jesus left His peace, and His peace came with His Spirit. When Christians face trials for the name of Jesus, we can be assured that the peace of Jesus will be given us. And what is it that we know about the peace of God? It surpasses all understanding! (Phil 4:7)
  3. Reason #2: Stephen reflected the glory of God. When Luke wrote that Stephen’s face was like that of an angel, what did he mean? Most likely, that it shone – perhaps figuratively, perhaps literally. We often think of angels being innocent (as with babies, “She has a face like an angel!”), and although they are, the typical Biblical description of angels is that they reflect God’s glory. They are in gleaming clothes, or have bronzed shining skin. It’s not that angels have all that glory on their own, but they rather spend time in the presence of God so that when they appear to others, they shine forth the glory of God. That seems to have been what happened with Stephen as well. Being filled in the moment with God the Holy Spirit, the glory of God radiated from his face. As when Moses’ face literally shone when he descended from Mt. Sinai and the presence of God (Exo 34:30), so did Stephen’s face shine in the moment of his trial. Even in the midst of persecution, Stephen still experienced the presence of God!
  4. Put it together: when you’re empowered by God the Holy Spirit to witness of God the Son, you cannot help but glorify God the Father. And what can bring more peace than that? This is something experienced by martyrs through the ages. Again, what happened to Stephen wasn’t unique, though it was the first time it happened in the Church Age. It certainly wasn’t the last Men and women throughout the centuries have gone through exactly the same thing. The persecutors and individual circumstances may have changed, but the hatred against the gospel remained the same. Although we cannot speak for all martyrs (we don’t know all their stories), we can speak for many: they have experienced the overwhelming peace of Jesus as they glorified God with their lives. – Jan Hus was a 15th century priest in Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) who was a reformer before his time, one of the key figures in what would become the Protestant Reformation. His “crime” in the early 1400’s was to endorse the teachings of the English scholar and theologian John Wycliffe, and publicly teach against the moral and theological corruption of the Roman clergy – particularly writing against the practice of indulgences. He was eventually excommunicated, arrested, and sentenced to burn at the stake. Just before they lit the fire that killed him, it is written that he said this: “God is my witness, that those things that are falsely ascribed to me and of which the false witnesses accused me, I have never taught or preached. But that the principal intention of my preaching and of all my other acts or writings was solely that I might turn men from sin. And in that truth of the Gospel that I wrote, taught, and preached is accordance with the sayings and expositions of the holy doctors, I am willing gladly to die today.” (http://www.columbia.edu/~js322/misc/hus-eng.html) As with Stephen, that was a man who knew the peace and the glory of God – that was a man who died with exquisite hope in Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus did not abandon Jan Hus in his hour of need, nor did He abandon Stephen…He certainly will not abandon us.

Conclusion:

Chapter 6 ends there, but the events for Stephen do not. Soon he’ll get a chance to speak for himself, to answer the charges made against him. Instead of backing off from the gospel, he’ll double down on it, turning the tables and accusing his accusers of rejecting and killing Jesus. Unlike with Peter & John, this trial will not end with Stephen’s rebuke and release, but with his death, as he becomes the first martyr of the Church: a “crown” laid down at the feet of Jesus.

His crime? Faithfulness. Stephen was simply what we’re all supposed to be: witnesses of Jesus. All he did was take the opportunities he was given to preach Jesus. He did it in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, and his witness of Christ was heard in his words, demonstrated in his deeds, and seen on his face. For that, he was persecuted unto death.

Persecution is not something that we seek, but it is a reality. It is clear from the statements of Jesus, to the writing of Paul: 2 Timothy 3:12, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” The question is not whether if we will be persecuted, but what we will do when we face it. What did Stephen do? He remained faithful. He didn’t panic, he didn’t retreat, he didn’t recant; he remained faithful to his Lord who had always been faithful to him. He relied upon Jesus for his strength just like he relied upon Jesus for his salvation.

That’s the key. Beloved, we do not face these things on our own, so we don’t need to fear as if we will! Jesus is with us, the Holy Spirit is inside us, and God the Father is for us…who can be against us? Too often Christians fear to speak up about Jesus because we’re afraid of what might happen. Something might happen – it might not. But even if it does, do we honestly believe that our Lord will leave us alone? Do we really think that the Lord Jesus who loved us enough to lay down His life for us on the cross will abandon us and let us face the fear by ourselves? Certainly not! Jesus could not have gone to a further extent to grant us peace with God – surely He will bathe us with His peace when we need it most. He will give us exactly what we need at the exact moment we need it. He will be faithful…He always is!

The true question is not Jesus’ faithfulness to us; it’s our faithfulness to Him. Don’t give up on Jesus – don’t hide your witness! When people ask, be bold – when people don’t ask, live in such a way that they cannot help but see Him. Be filled with the Spirit, empowered by Him, reliant upon His wisdom, showing forth His glory. When we are, people will see Jesus. Some may respond; others may not. You just stick with Jesus, no matter the cost.

The First Deacons

Posted: August 5, 2018 in Acts, Uncategorized

Acts 6:1-7, “The First Deacons”

They say necessity is the mother of invention. It’s when a need arises that a solution is made. That’s true regarding business, sports, military, and even the church. There are many things we take for granted in a church, such as titles and church offices. We think of things like: pastor, elder, evangelists…all of which seem obvious in their origin. But what about something like deacons? There was a need within the church, and the role was “invented” to fill the need. Depending on what religious background a person has, a deacon can mean totally different things. Among the Eastern Orthodox Church, the office of deacon is an actual ministerial title given to a certain level of clergy who assists the priests; whereas among Southern Baptists, the title of deacon is usually given to people who are basically corporate board members, managing the business of the church organization. Biblically speaking, what is a deacon? Where did the term originate? On one hand, we can say “Deacons deac, and Elders eld,” and there’s some truth to that – but what do we mean by it all?

We find the answer right here in Acts 6. Granted, the title of “deacon” isn’t officially used, but it is here that the role has its foundation. At its most basic level, a deacon is a servant, and the reason the role exists is because there was a need. The church in Jerusalem was growing, and although there were 12 apostles, they couldn’t do all the work. More people were needed in order to minister to one another, and thus deacons were born.

Back up a bit – remember that the church had begun relatively small. Once Jesus ascended to heaven, there were 120 disciples in Jerusalem, led by the 12 apostles. It all changed on Pentecost in an morning, when 3000 put their faith in the Lord. The believers loved one another, spent time with one another, and devoted themselves to doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Things were going strong, and not even persecution could slow it down. Despite two attempts from the Sanhedrin to stop the apostles from teaching and healing in the name of Jesus, the apostles were faithful to their calling and witness. They (and all the church) were bold in their speech and actions, with God continually working signs and wonders in Jerusalem, giving credence to the gospel of Jesus Christ. By Acts Chapter 4, the church numbered 5000, and by Chapter 5 they stopped counting. Multitudes were coming to faith, and the church was continuing to love one another, with landowners even selling off their property to ensure that Christians had enough to eat.

Of course, with more people comes more needs. To date, the 12 apostles led it all, but they were only 12 men. They, like all humans, had inherent limitations. There are only 24 hours in a day, and there’s only so much attention we can dedicate to different things at different times. At a certain point, something is going to fall through the cracks, and that’s what happened. The apostles needed help.

The church needed the apostles, but they needed more than just apostles; they needed other dedicated servants…people later known by the term of “deacons.” In truth, the church needs more than apostles, pastors, deacons, and other titles – the church needs everyone. We are all servants of the Lord Jesus, and every single one of us is necessary in His kingdom. We just need to be willing and available to serve.

Acts 6:1–7

  • The problem (1-2)

1 Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.

  1. Again, along with a growing church, was growing needs. The Jerusalem church now numbered well into the thousands, perhaps even close to 10,000 by this point, and it was inevitable that some sort of problem would crop up along the way. In this case, the problem arose from a cultural bias…or at least some form of cultural misunderstanding. Scholars debate what exactly it was that differentiated the “Hebrews” from the “Hellenists,” but most agree at least that it involved language. Both groups were ethnically and religiously Jewish. Both offered sacrifices at the temple, both looked to the promises of the Messiah, etc. Where a person was born didn’t matter so much as what culture he/she identified with. Paul (for instance) was raised outside of Judea in the city of Tarsus, but he was still considered a Hebrew of Hebrews and trained to be a Pharisee. No matter where Paul (then, Saul) was raised, he still dressed, spoke, and lived as a Jew…he was a Hebrew. The Hellenists were Jews that identified far more with Greek culture. Their primary language was Greek instead of Aramaic, and they likely dressed more like Greco-Romans than Judean Hebrews. It was perhaps inevitable that there arose a divide between the two groups.
  2. Keep in mind that it wasn’t that the Hebrews hated the Hellenists, or vice-versa – the problem seems to have been one of neglect, rather than intent. The Hellenist widows, not speaking the same language as the Hebrew widows, apparently didn’t receive the same instruction as the Hebrews, and did not receive the same benevolent giving as the Hebrews. Luke writes that they “were neglected in the daily distribution,” which could be translated that they “were overlooked in the daily ministry/service.” Widows were quite prevalent in Jerusalem, as it was not uncommon for husbands to move their families to Jerusalem as they aged, in order to be buried in the holy city. But that left their widows without family support and income. Thus, the church helped fill the gap and provide for their needs. Yet if a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian didn’t understand the Aramaic instruction for how to receive money or food, then she missed out and went hungry. The language gap caused them to be missed (overlooked / neglected). Obviously, this was a problem that needed to be resolved.
  3. And that wasn’t the only problem. The reader of Acts might note that this is the first time that the church was not “of one accord.” Whereas in the past, they were of one heart, one mind, and one purpose, now there was “a complaint.” There was ‘grumbling,’ and murmuring among the rest. Miscommunication led to misunderstanding, and that led to murmuring complaints.
    1. If it sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the typical cycle among groups today, even (and especially) among the modern church. Some miscommunication takes place – perhaps a misheard word, or poorly-chosen phrase, or unclear direction. Whatever it was, it wasn’t intentional – it was just “one of those things” that happens to everyone. That led to misunderstanding and hurt feelings. Those things are natural, normal, and take place in any church. (Be around me long enough, and I guarantee I’ll miscommunicate something, screw up in some way, and I’ll owe you an apology at some point!) Ideally, what should happen at this point is that people sit down, talk it out, be generous with grace, quick to ask forgiveness, and be done with it. That’s the sort of solution that’s Biblical (re: Matthew 18) and gives glory to God. Sadly, what too often does happen is that people nurse their hurt feelings, assume the worst of the other person, and start grumbling about it with others. Rumors spread (all under the guise of a “prayer request”), people refuse to deal with it directly (because no one wants to “name names”), and the problem spreads like rot. All of it could have been avoided, if people just dealt with the problem Biblically.
    2. Beloved, let’s do things Biblically! We’ve all seen how it shouldn’t be; let’s do it the way it should Let us set the example to other Christians on how to deal with problems. We’ll have problems, no question…but we don’t have to let it devolve into grumbling and complaining. We have the option of doing things the right way, so let’s do it!
  4. Again, don’t miss what was at the core of the problem in Acts 6. What was it that was missing in the early church? The previous state of “one accord” (homothumadon) = unity. All churches (no matter what size) need We need a common purpose and goal, and we have one in the Lord Jesus. Our common purpose is the glory of God, and our common mission is the Great Commission. Our common joy is the love of Christ, and our common power is that which is given us by God the Holy Spirit. We can have unity, so let us strive to be united!
    1. Where this breaks down is when people stop seeking what they have in common, and start seeking what they want on their own. Instead of looking what Jesus wants for our church, we look to what I/we We want our own individual needs met, rather than seeking how Jesus can use us to meet the needs of others. We look to promote our own goals and ideas, rather than serving the goals of Christ and His kingdom. Unity is lost when selfishness breeds. And selfishness has no place in the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not selfish when He laid down His life upon the cross; we have no right to be selfish in our response to the cross.
  5. To the church’s credit, this grumbling & complaining was recognized early on by the leadership, and they took action to address it…

2 Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.

  1. First, notice what took place: “the twelve summoned the multitude of disciples.” The leadership (comprised of the 12 apostles) summoned the rest of the church. Although there are some issues best handled in private, or in a smaller gathering of leaders, this was not one of them. The problem had spread among the entire congregation, so it needed to be discussed among the entire congregation. The division between Hebrews and Hellenists was not limited to a small group of people (they could have been called aside and personally addressed) – apparently it was rampant among the thousands of Christians in Jerusalem. Again, the whole unity of the church body had been affected, and the only real way to address it was head-on: bring the whole church together and talk about it. They didn’t ignore the problem; they dealt with it.
  2. Second, notice that there were two ministries being discussed: (1) The word of God, and (2) Serving of tables. The first is obvious. The teaching ministry of the apostles was the primary ministry in which they were engaged. This was something the 12 was uniquely qualified to do. They were the ones who spent three years with Jesus, day-in & day-out, from Jesus’ baptism to His resurrection – even Matthias, who was the replacement for Judas Iscariot (Act 1:21-26). They were the ones who heard the majority of Jesus’ teaching, and saw Him in action performing countless miracles. They were the ones who spent time with the Risen Jesus after His resurrection from the grave. There was no group more appropriate than the 12 apostles, when it came to teaching Jesus’ doctrine from the written Scriptures, knowing how Jesus Himself interpreted and applied the teaching of the Old Testament. – On the second ministry, this applied to the problem at hand. The “daily distribution” in verse 1 was the distribution of money and/or food to the widows so that they could eat. It was one of the earliest forms of benevolent ministries within the Christian church. Interestingly, the word for “distribution” and “serve” come from the same Greek root (even though one is a noun & the other a verb). Distribution = διακονία; serve = διακονέω; the English transliteration being “deacon,” with the basic meaning being that of service/ministry/performing duties. Put it together with what the apostles were observing, and there was a legitimate need for servants to serve. Widows were going hungry, and the church had funds/resources available to help them – they just needed helpers to provide the help.
  3. So two ministries were expected of the apostles at the time. The problem was, it was “not desirable” (not pleasing/proper) for them to do it. Don’t get the wrong idea. The apostles weren’t saying that serving tables for the widows was a bad ministry; it just wasn’t the right one for the apostles to perform. Both the word-service & table-service were needed; it’s just that the apostles were only 12 men serving thousands, and their attention necessarily needed to be elsewhere. Both ministries were ministries – true services performed unto the Lord, by the Lord’s power. The apostles just weren’t the right ones to do it. That’s when the apostles suggested a solution…
  • The proposal (3-4)

3 Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business;

  1. More people were needed! The apostles couldn’t do it all, so other men could be found to perform this different ministry/service. They asked for “seven,” not that there was anything special about seven – it was likely a cultural preference. Jewish communities often had a group of seven men as administrators, who could oversee some of the financial items of the town. The need to serve the widows fit the same sort of description, so it was natural that the apostles ask for seven men. That said, there were a few qualifications:
  2. Qualification #1: They had to have a “good reputation.” Interestingly, the word used for “good reputation” comes from the same word from which we get the English “martyr.” We might say that these seven men had to have a good witness – that their testimony among others had to be clear. And this makes sense…after all, how could the apostles solve a problem of division within the church if they appointed men who were known as being divisive? How could a problem of complaining be solved by people who were known to be grumbling gossips?
  3. Qualification #2: They had to be “full of the Holy Spirit.” There’s a bit of textual question as to whether Luke originally wrote “Spirit” or “Holy Spirit,” but there’s no question that it is the Holy Spirit that is meant. Although at first glance, it might seem that the apostles require the seven men to be saved (being born of the Holy Spirit and sealed with the Holy Spirit), a closer look shows they mean something different. After all, the seven men were to be sought from “among” the multitudes of disciples. By definition, if they were disciples of Jesus, they were born-again. At this point, the apostles were not warning of false converts. No – what they meant was that these men needed to walk empowered by the Holy Spirit, something that not every born-again Christian does. Remember that Luke has described the apostles and church as being repeatedly filled with the Spirit (2:4, 4:8, 4:31), so this needed to be the habit of these men.
    1. Again, it needs to be stressed that all Christians have the Holy Spirit. Despite the teachings of some, a person cannot be a Christian, without the new birth and indwelling of the Spirit. Every Christian has the Holy Spirit. But…born-again Christians do not necessarily walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, being continually filled by Him. That’s not something at which we have to guess…we can look around and see that with our own eyes! How many times have you seen born-again Christians struggle against habitual sin? (Maybe even yourself!) They don’t like the sin – they’re grieved by the Sin, constantly repenting and seeking Jesus’ forgiveness…but they feel themselves trapped, unable to break the cycle. That’s a Christian walking apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s a Christian walking according to his/her carnal flesh, instead of by the power of the Holy Spirit made available in Christ.
    2. It doesn’t have to be that way! Christians can walk empowered by the Spirit, freed from the slavery of sin, joyfully in a way that gives glory to God. Why live as a slave, when we have been freed by Christ Jesus? Why live according to death, when Jesus has given us life? To be freed by Jesus, and then go back to our previous slavery is ludicrous. Imagine a slave walking back to his captor, and clamping the chains on himself…it’s totally illogical! Yet that is exactly what so many Christians do in their sin. Beloved, live in freedom! Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh (Gal 5:16). Don’t be unwise, but understand the will of the Lord, and be continually filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:17-18). Live free – live empowered – live joyfully for Jesus!
  4. Qualification #3: They had to be full of “” Grammatically speaking, this might go hand-in-hand with being full of the Spirit. IOW, if they were full of the Spirit, then they would also be full of wisdom. The grammar doesn’t necessarily demand that interpretation, so it might be best to look at wisdom on its own. Even so, it’s impossible to separate the requirement for wisdom from the Spirit. After all, there is a difference between the wisdom of men and the wisdom of God…and the wisdom of God only comes from the Spirit! The basic idea here is that the men chosen to serve needed to have more than an ivory-tower idea of theology; they needed practical know-how. And the reverse was true, as well. These men needed more than just business skill; they needed spiritual maturity. The issue of serving widows was more than an act of administration; it was a theological problem that caused disunity in the church. They needed to know how to best administer the churches resources for a theological end/goal. The things they were doing weren’t done simply as a task; they were done as a task unto the Lord Jesus, and for the glory of the Lord Jesus. They certainly needed to know the best way of getting it done, but done in a way that would best benefit the church for the glory of God.
    1. That’s true regarding any ministry in a church congregation. It has to be more than just a task/goal. Your ministry is mowing the grass? Great! Don’t just knock down weeds; mow for the glory of God. Your ministry is providing coffee and refreshments? Great – it’s more than just finding the best way to set out food & drink; it’s doing it with the right attitude as an act of worship to Jesus, and loving His people. Church congregations need people of wisdom, but that wisdom cannot be divorced from worship. When that happens, you have a smoothly operating social club; not a church.
    2. That said, the idea of wisdom involves the idea of competency. Church congregations have no business putting men and women into positions in which they’re bound to fail. Skill is needed for certain tasks. During the reign of King David, a Levite named Chenaniah was appointed to be in charge of the music “because he was skillful,” (1 Chr 15:22). When God gave instructions for the tabernacle to be built, He put the Spirit of God and wisdom into men like Bezalel, son of Uri, and Aholiab, son of Ahiamach, along with others because they were “gifted artisans,” (Exo 31:1-6). These people had the right skills for the job; they just needed the gift of the Holy Spirit, which God provided. – Likewise in the modern church, we need competent people to serve in the areas in which God has gifted them to serve. (Don’t know what that is? What’s your skill, your passion? Find/start a ministry that uses what God has given you!)
  5. So that was what was needed for these men/deacons doing this deacon/service. It wasn’t the right fit for the apostles, but it would be the right fit for someone else. What was the right ministry for the apostles? 

4 but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

  1. This was it. The apostles say “prayer and the ministry of the word” as their primary ministries/priorities. This didn’t mean that they would refuse to do anything else. Obviously, they continued to evangelize beyond the church, and to work signs & wonders. By Acts 15, the apostles are seen settling disputes – something which included prayer and the Scripture, but went beyond leading prayer and teaching Bible studies. So we know from the Biblical record that there was more than prayer and Bible teaching, but these two things were what they were to do the most. As apostles (“sent ones”) specifically commissioned by the Lord Jesus to be His representatives to the world, telling others what He had told them, and giving their eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection, these men had to spend time in prayer and the word. The effectiveness of the rest of the church depended on the apostles’ faithfulness to prayer & doctrine. What good would their evangelism be, if they didn’t know the prophetic Scriptures that Jesus fulfilled? What good would their witness be, if they didn’t spend time in prayer? How could they hope to lead the church in other matters if these two foundational things were neglected?
  2. Although these are specifically listed as apostolic priorities, they are also pastoral Be careful not to get the wrong idea. By no means are pastors equivalent to apostles, but at this stage of the church, the apostles had a very pastoral role. In fact, some of the apostles always saw themselves as pastors, Peter being an example. He referred to himself as a “fellow elder,” and called the other elders to shepherd (“pastor”) the flock of God (1 Pet 5:1-2), just like Jesus had called him to feed and tend His sheep (Jn 21:15-17). Pastors do not have Peter’s apostolic authority, but they are to share some of the same apostolic priorities. Pastors, too, are to give themselves “continually to prayer and the ministry of the word.
  3. Sounds great, but what does it mean? It seems like it ought to be obvious: spend time in prayer, and Bible study, right? To a large extent, yes. The book of Acts shows us a bit of the prayer life of the apostles: in Acts 1 when they sought a replacement for Judas, in Acts 2 when they waited for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, in Acts 4 when they prayed for boldness, in Acts 10 when Peter received a vision about God giving grace to Gentiles, etc. This is primarily personal and group prayer, though there’s little doubt that they spent time in intercessory prayer for others. The ministry of the word is a bit more obvious, as the church dedicated themselves to listening to the doctrine of the apostles, and the apostles are shown continually teaching the church throughout the book of Acts. They were obviously well-versed in the Scriptures, being able to quote it when necessary, and sprinkling verses throughout their evangelistic sermons.
    1. What does it all mean for today? It means that pastors better be in prayer & the word! A pastor who does not pray is a poor pastor indeed. Prayer is essential for the work of pastoral ministry. Like any occupation, it can be easy to fall into habits & ruts, and just do what you’ve always done. That’s bad enough when it comes to certain occupations like medicine, where the doctor/nurse needs to pay close attention to the individual patient – but it’s terrible when it comes to the care of God’s people. How can the word of God be taught, if the teacher hasn’t spent time with God? How can God’s people be counseled, if the counselor isn’t himself dependent on God’s counsel? Keep in mind that Jesus had a regular habit of prayer, so much so that His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray (Lk 11:1). If the Son of God thought it necessary to pray, how much more lowly pastors?
    2. Likewise when it comes to the ministry (service) of the word. We cannot teach what we first have not learned. We cannot proclaim what we do not understand. Paul exhorted Timothy to be extraordinarily careful with the Scriptures, being an excellent student of what has been carefully handed down: 2 Timothy 2:15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” An ashamed worker is a worker who is held accountable for something done wrong…and pastors (as well as anyone who teaches the Bible) will be held accountable! James 3:1, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” These are sobering thoughts – hard warnings – and pastors who ignore them do so at their own peril.
    3. The key for those in pastoral ministry to remember is that we are not just shepherds; we’re stewards. This word & these people are not ours; they are the Lord’s. We must treat them carefully, and the only way to do so is to spend much time and effort in prayer and in the Bible. Without that, we will flounder and fail, with the potential of causing great harm to the beloved Bride of Christ.
  4. Practically speaking in regard to the apostles (as well as today), this meant that their time was already claimed. There was no time for serving the tables of widows, as valuable as a ministry that was. Jesus had called the Twelve to prayer and the word, and it would fall to other godly men and women to do the rest. — That is still the case today. Pastors are called to prayer and the word, and the rest of it falls to men and women of God in the church congregation. Paul wrote this very thing to the Ephesian Christians: Ephesians 4:11–12, “(11) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, (12) for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” What is it pastor/teachers do? They equip the saints, “for the work of the ministry.” Pastors certainly do a work of ministry, but they do not do the whole work of ministry. The primary people who accomplish the work of the ministry is the church congregation.
    1. This is where prayer and the ministry of the word comes in. Personally speaking, these are the tools God has given for me to equip you. Once you are equipped, you do the work of the ministry. Do you see something that needs doing? Do it. Is there someone you know who needs to hear the gospel? You tell him/her. Is there a disagreement among others into which you have been brought? Don’t go run tell the pastor. According to Paul, “you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted,” (Gal 6:1). You’ve been equipped, now you do the work.
    2. This is the way the body of Christ is supposed to work! A pastor is only one part, but together, we are many! We need one another within the local congregation to make it all work. To use Paul’s analogy from 1 Corinthians 12, you might be an eye, someone else might be the hand, and I might be the little toe. All parts are necessary, and we all need one another. (Which is one reason it’s so important to come and be a part of a church! When you’re not here, the rest of us lack. You do harm to other Christians by your willful absence.)
  5. So the problem has been recognized, and a proposal was put forth. What next? The people are chosen…
  • The people (5-6)

5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, 6 whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.

  1. Remember that the apostles had gathered the entire multitude of the church to make their case, and apparently they all agreed. Additionally, they thought that the idea was good, so they set about choosing the men to be the first unofficial “deacons.” Interestingly, all the seven men have Greek names – perhaps as a nod to the problem of the Greek widows (the Hellenists) being overlooked. The fact that they all have Greek names doesn’t necessarily mean that they were all Hellenists (rather than a mix of Hebrew and Hellenists), but doubtless there were many Hellenists among the group. This would have gone a long way to establish trust, and ensuring that they were men of “good reputation.”
  2. As to the individual men, this is when Luke gives us a specific introductions to Stephen and Philip (both of whom are featured in Acts 6-8), but we know little to nothing about the rest of them. The final man, Nicolas, is described as a “proselyte from Antioch,” which tells us a bit about his background. He was originally a convert to Judaism, now a fulfilled Jew with his faith in Christ Jesus. That alone speaks highly of his reputation among the rest of the church, in that they entrusted a Gentile-born Jewish convert with this financial responsibility of caring for Hellenistic Jewish widows.
    1. BTW – Have you ever wondered how these men were picked? Luke tells us the names of the men chosen, but Luke never writes how they were chosen. Remember that the Jerusalem church now numbered in the thousands (well over 5000, perhaps up to 10,000) – how would these men stand apart? Outside of a specific revelation from God (which we’re not told), there’s only one possible answer: they were already known among the rest, because they were already active & serving the rest. These weren’t names randomly chosen from a hat; they were men of “good reputation,” which implies that the rest of the church knew something about them. They had witnessed their earlier service & character, and thought them qualified for the task of deacon-service.
    2. How are men and women chosen for servant-leader roles today? The best way is to look for those who are already serving. Why set someone apart for a role of responsibility who has not already demonstrated responsibility? Look for someone who has taken the initiative in the past, and who actively demonstrates godly character and service today. Those men and women make themselves known.
  3. Once chosen, “they laid hands on them,” setting them apart for the ministry. Who laid hands on them? Presumably the apostles, although the grammar more likely indicates that it was the multitudes themselves. Either way, the men were recognized as being called by God for the work at hand, and it was a formal way of (1) praying for them as they begun, and (2) showing their specific calling. Basically, it was a form of ordination: public recognition by the church congregation of what God had already done. Although ordination is cheapened today to the point of going online and downloading a form from a false “church,” true ordination is something different than a diploma mill. It’s not a credential or a diploma; it’s a recognition. What is it that God has done – who is it that God has called? The church simply comes together in agreement with God. That’s
  4. Although this seems to be the foundation of the role of “deacon” among the New Testament church, note that no title was given at the time…none was needed. When Paul later wrote to Timothy of deacons, the language he used only called them “servants.” 1 Timothy 3:8–10, “(8) Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, (9) holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. (10) But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless.” The word is διάκονος, and is transliterated “deacon,” but by itself it is not a proper noun or title. The same word was used by Matthew when Jesus spoke of humility among the disciples, with each one needing to be the other’s “servant,” (Mt 23:11). In secular Greek, the primary meaning of the word was that of a “table-waiter.” In the New Testament, it took on new meaning for servants of Christ. All Christians are in some sense deacons…history and tradition is what made it into a specific title.
    1. Titles aren’t bad, but function is more important. The church needs people who are less concerned about the title of “deacon,” and more concerned about simply serving Jesus.
  • The payoff (7)

7 Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

  1. Luke doesn’t write how the seven men/deacons fixed the problem between the Hellenists and the Hebrews. Nothing is said of their administration. What is written is of far more importance. Instead of grumbling & complaining, the church was able to get back to what it was supposed to do: share the gospel. Unified once more as a body, the church was able to demonstrate the same love that they said that Jesus gave them at the cross, and the rest of Jerusalem was able to see that they were Jesus’ disciples by their love for one another (Jn 13:35). Their evangelism became so effective, that even priests believed! (Not necessarily a reference to the high priest, who repeatedly persecuted the church – some scholars estimate there were up to 8000 “ordinary” priests, whose service at the temple was divided up throughout the year. Apparently, it was many of these priests who believed the gospel and were saved.)
  2. What happens when the church stops fighting, and starts serving? People see Jesus. The two most common complaint against Christianity today is that the church is full of hypocrites, being that Christians don’t act like Christ. There’s too much in-fighting, too much hiding of one’s own sin, too much building of one’s own kingdom. Question: Is the church full of hypocrites? I’ve been one, and so has everyone else. We’ve all failed at some point. But we don’t live in that hypocrisy. We put those things aside, and seek to be unified in Christ Jesus. Once we get out of the way, that’s when people see Jesus. Let us strive to do it! Put “self” aside, walk in the Spirit, and let people see Jesus!

Conclusion:

For all that went right in the early church, it was inevitable that they’d eventually run into a problem. Division can happen among the best of friends and closest of family members – surely it can happen between brothers and sisters in Christ. But that doesn’t mean we do nothing. Problems that are unaddressed remain unsolved, and when grumbling and complaining begins, it won’t stop until something changes. To the church’s credit, they did something. They saw a need, and found godly servants to meet that need.

The apostles were involved, but they weren’t the solution to the problem. The apostles had their own ministry and priorities – what they needed were other people within the body of Christ to take up their ministry service. It is more than just a select few that are equipped by God, after all – it’s all of us.

God has equipped all of us to serve in some way…what’s yours? How are you serving? (Being a deacon/servant for Jesus.) There are many needs – some of which are already recognized & being met – others which are simply waiting for the right person to see it, and serve. Pastors can’t (and shouldn’t) do it all; it is the church that is supposed to serve. There are children that need men and women to teach them God’s word and demonstrate His love to them. There are people who need to be visited by a friendly face, and perhaps some food in a time of need. There are resources given to the church by God that need care and attention. Many times we look around for people to serve…sometimes we ought to look in the mirror. What is it that God has called you to do? Do that. Serve Christ. Serve Him diligently – serve Him selflessly – serve Him joyfully.

Who to Obey?

Posted: July 30, 2018 in Acts, Uncategorized

Acts 5:21b-42, “Who to Obey?”

Four letter words get a lot of attention. We censor them from our young children, and are offended when we hear them in public. We don’t even need to be told what they are, as we have a mental list of what these four-letter words might be. For some, “obey” is at the top of the list. Question: is “obey” a bad word? To talk to some people in pre-marital counseling, it might be. When wedding vows are recited, some people wince at the idea of taking vows to obey. Likewise, to speak to some teenagers, the idea that there is a Biblical command for them to obey their parents is mortifying.

Of course obedience does not have to be bad. Obedience on the battlefield keeps soldiers alive. Obedience in the surgery room removes cancers and restores heartbeats. Everyone doing their part under the commands of a capable leader can accomplish great things. Christians have a capable leader in King Jesus, and He has given us our marching orders. We are to obey, and we can do so joyfully!

Of course, sometimes His commands will come in conflict with the commands of others. Very few governments around the world give true freedom of religion, and even “free” nations put restrictions on what can/cannot be done by churches. What happens when God and government collide? What is a Christian to do – whom do we obey? 

It didn’t take long for the early church of the apostles to encounter this exact scenario, and for them, it was no question. They knew exactly what to do. King Jesus had given them a command, and they were determined to obey Him – even as others would fight against Him.

As we know from the book of Acts, this wasn’t the first time Peter and John had been put on trial – though it was the first time for the rest of the apostles. For Peter and John, this was virtually déja-vu. In Acts 3, they encountered a man who had been lame from birth, and healed him in full view of everyone who was entering the temple grounds for prayer. This gave Peter & John the opportunity to preach the gospel (which they did), and they were soon arrested and made to stand trial. Acts 4 records the trial, and the Sanhedrin (the council of Jewish leaders) didn’t have a legal way to punish the two apostles, but they expressly forbade them from teaching people in the name of Jesus. Of course Peter and John refused, and they went right back to preaching the gospel, praying to God for boldness to preach all the more.

God answered their prayer, equipping them to preach Jesus, and empowering them to work miracles in the name of Jesus. Soon, all the apostles were doing this in the temple gate, and all kinds of people were coming to faith in Christ. It came as no surprise then, that the high priest once again had the apostles arrested, and thrown in jail overnight long enough to gather the rest of the Sanhedrin in order to convene a second trial.

As it turns out, it wouldn’t be quite so easy for the high priest, as God had other plans! He sent an angel to free the apostles from prison, and command them to go back to the temple and continue preaching the gospel of Jesus. And that’s what they did. Even with it being early in the morning, people had already started to arrive at the temple for prayer, and the apostles were waiting for them, ready to preach the gospel.

What happens now? The second trial still has to take place, and the apostles will be made to answer for why they chose to disobey a direct order of the Jewish council. Their answer? They did obey; they just chose to obey a higher chain of command. They obeyed God, rather than men. So should we! Don’t fight against God; obey Him. And how best to obey Him? By obeying the gospel of Jesus & believing upon Him.

Acts 5:21b–42

  • Discovery of the freed apostles (21b-25)

21b … But the high priest and those with him came and called the council together, with all the elders of the children of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the officers came and did not find them in the prison, they returned and reported, 23 saying, “Indeed we found the prison shut securely, and the guards standing outside before the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside!”

  1. It’s almost comical to read. The prison guards had no idea the cell was empty. They were standing outside, guarding nobody. Meanwhile, the assembled Sanhedrin called the apostles to appear, so imagine their surprise to find out that the apostles were gone! Their representative walked to the jail, spoke to the guards, and all of them learned at once of the missing prisoners. No doubt there was a bit of panic at work!
  2. Question: How did the guards miss the angel opening the prison doors? Remember, it wasn’t as if God “raptured” the apostles away from the tomb; verse 19 clearly states “an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors.” There was a physical door swinging, and physical people leaving. How could that have been missed by the guards? Surely they were not asleep, nor would the angel have worried about “tip-toeing” and keeping things quiet. It was another miracle! God blinded the eyes of the guards and stopped their ears, preventing them from knowing what had happened. It would have been if they were frozen solid for the few minutes it took for the angel to free the apostles, and the guards didn’t even know the difference.

24 Now when the high priest, the captain of the temple, and the chief priests heard these things, they wondered what the outcome would be.

  1. At this point, they all understood something supernatural had happened, so it’s no wonder they wondered. Even if they still were clueless of how the apostles got out of jail, there was no question that supernatural miracles had often been worked by these men. The Sanhedrin may have been biased against Jesus and foolish in their resistance to him, but they weren’t stupid. They could look around and see God working, and they didn’t have any idea how this would work out for them. The fact that the apostles were now missing made it all the more unsettling.

25 So one came and told them, saying, “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!”

  1. As it turned out, the Jewish rulers didn’t have to search far for their missing inmates. The apostles were right back in the same place doing the same thing they did when they were initially arrested.
  2. Talk about boldness! It would be one thing to go elsewhere in Jerusalem and preach the gospel, perhaps down at the Jordan River, or by the gates of the city. That would be bold enough, considering the open resistance of the Sanhedrin. But the apostles didn’t go into hiding, nor did they even made it difficult to be found. The angel of God had commanded them to go right back to the temple and teach about Jesus, so that’s what they did. They boldly obeyed the command of God, entrusting themselves to His hand. 
  3. Thus, the officers found them in the first place they went to look…and that was okay! If God commanded them to teach in a public place like the temple, that meant that God wanted them to be found. First, God wanted them freed; now He wanted them found. Inconsistent? Not at all! It demonstrates Who exactly was in control. The Sanhedrin may have had the approval of the Roman Empire to govern the Jews, but God governs all, and He needs no permission! The apostles would not remain under arrest if He did not allow it, nor would they testify unless He permitted it. The apostles understood this, trusting that whatever were the results of their actions might be, as long as God called them to do it, it was okay.
    1. There may be times God allows us to rejoice in great victories; there will be other times God allows us to rejoice in great trials. As long as we are in the will of God, then so be it! If God has us where He wants us, then what He allows will serve to give Him glory. And what could be better than that?
  • The 2nd trial (26-33)

26 Then the captain went with the officers and brought them without violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned.

  1. The apostles were arrested again, though with a bit of caution by the officers. So many miracles had been done at this point that the apostles had the full support of the people of Jerusalem. If they had been dragged off in chains, a riot would have been the result…and possibly the death of the temple officers! 
  2. Note that the apostles went without resistance. They repeatedly disobeyed the orders of the Sanhedrin, but when compelled to appear for trial, they went willingly. The apostles show a respect for earthly authority, even while obeying a higher authority.

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, 28 saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!”

  1. Once finally standing before the Sanhedrin, the apostles are basically charged with contempt of court. Their earlier command had been clear: Acts 4:18, “So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.” The apostles were not to teach in the name of Jesus, nor even speak His name. The miracle of healing the lame man had been done in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (Acts 3:6), and the Jewish rulers didn’t want to take the chance of anything else being done in Jesus’ name, lest Jesus gain credibility even if the disciples never taught another word.
  2. As it was, the apostles flagrantly disobeyed this command. Not only had they continued teaching the gospel message, but they kept demonstrating the power of Jesus as they continually worked miracles in the name of Jesus. That led to two complaints:
    1. Complaint #1: The “doctrine” was gaining ground. The message of Jesus was getting around Jerusalem, and multitudes were believing and placing their faith in Christ. Although there were some among the Jews who feared to join the rest of the church, others did so gladly, seeing the proof of the resurrected Jesus through the power He so amply demonstrated. IOW, the first complaint was that the apostles were successful! The only reason the doctrine was spreading was because it was true. If it had all been faked, or based on a lie, nothing would have happened & no one would have had any reason to believe it. But they did believe, because it was true.
    2. Complaint #2: The Jewish leaders were being blamed. The Sanhedrin didn’t want to be held responsible for Jesus’ death, yet that was exactly what they were. They were the ones who rejected Jesus – they were the ones who put Him through an illegal court – they were the ones who delivered Jesus over to Pilate – they were the ones inciting the mob to call out for Jesus’ crucifixion. At the time, they didn’t have a problem bearing the blame. Pilate was willing to wash his hands of the issue, and the Jews replied that Jesus’ blood should be upon them and their children (Mt 27:25). But that was then; this was now. Then, they believed Jesus to be a false Messiah; now, He was risen from the dead and acting in the power of God, as were His disciples. The resurrection makes a huge difference!
  3. Even so, the Sanhedrin didn’t like where all this was going. They were the rulers of the Jewish people; not the apostles of Jesus. If the word of Jesus continued to spread, it threatened the position and influence of the high priest and others. After all, if the current leadership hadn’t been wise enough to recognize the Messiah when He appeared, then perhaps the people would want different leaders. For their own sakes, the Sanhedrin needed to nip this in the bud & do it quick. That’s why they demanded the apostles’ obedience. They weren’t going to get it…

29 But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.

  1. Amen! Speaking on behalf of the other apostles, Peter didn’t hesitate. Just as the Sanhedrin had been clear in their earlier prohibition, Peter and John were just as clear in their intent to disregard. Acts 4:19–20, “(19) But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. (20) For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”” They affirmed exactly the same thing again. If made to choose between obeying God, or some human council, then God was going to win every time. God deserves the highest allegiance – God is worthy of the most fear – God is the recipient of our greatest worship. What can man do, in comparison with God? As Jesus said, man can kill the body, but he cannot kill our soul (Mt 10:28). What we receive from God has ramifications not only for the next few minutes, years, and decades, but for centuries & millennia & eons. What we receive from God has effects that last into eternity. God is the one we must obey, at all times. If it happens to coincide with the commands of men, great; if not, so be it.
  2. Question: How can the words of Peter in Acts 4-5 be reconciled with the words of Peter in his later letter? 1 Peter 2:13–14, “(13) Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, (14) or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.” On one hand, Peter instructs Christians to submit to the government, yet when faced with the same situation himself, he refused to do it. And Peter isn’t the only one to write this. Paul also wrote to the Roman Christians to be subject to the governing authorities (Rom 13:1), yet he was routinely jailed for his insistence on preaching the gospel. Can someone both submit to the government, yet resist it in the course of our faith? Is this possible? – Yes. Those from military backgrounds are very familiar with the chain of command. A private does what it is his/her sergeant tells him/her to do. But if a lieutenant comes along with a different set of orders, then that sergeant’s orders are set aside. And if a general comes along with something else, everyone better jump to what he says to do! That doesn’t mean that the private has the freedom to disregard everything the sergeant ever says; just where his orders are overruled by the orders of a higher ranking officer. Likewise, we have a chain of command. When human governments command us to do certain things, or forbid us from certain things, we must obey. We are commanded to pay our taxes, so we pay. We are forbidden from committing assault, so we obey. These things coincide with what our Lord Jesus has commanded, so it all works out. Where it changes is when these things come into conflict. When the government says “You can’t preach the gospel,” and Jesus says “Go into the world and preach the gospel,” then we follow Jesus’ command. King Jesus outranks the government every time.
    1. This is not some hypothetical question, or some ivory-tower debate…at least, not any longer in the United States. This is real-life, every day. Certain business owners have been commanded by the government to set aside their Christianity, and reserve their Biblical convictions for their own personal worship time, never letting it cross over into their daily lives. God’s word tells us that it cannot be separated. What’s a Christian to do? “We ought to obey God rather than men.” The choice isn’t always comfortable, but it’s an easy & obvious choice to be made. Christians obey God. We obey Him when it’s popular to do so, and when it’s unpopular. We obey Him when it’s politically correct, and when it’s politically dangerous. There simply is no question about it: we must obey God, whatever the consequences might be.
  3. And that’s what the apostles did as well. They made the choice to obey God, fully aware of the consequences that would come from the Sanhedrin. Don’t miss this: they were willing to receive the consequences of their rulers, if that meant they were fully obedient to God. Thus, there is no contradiction in the Biblical command. They obeyed God while being submitted to the government, because they were willing to bear the punishment the government doled out for their disobedience. Remember they did not resist the officers when initially arrested, nor did they resist when the officers came to retrieve them a second time. Later in the passage, they did not fight the beating commanded by the Sanhedrin, and throughout their lives the apostles would endure the physical persecutions that came as a result of their faithfulness to Jesus. They showed themselves fully submitted to the government, while always obeying God as their highest authority.
    1. We are to do likewise. Can we fight an unjust judgment in court? Absolutely – as Paul demonstrated during the course of his missionary journeys, we can avail ourselves of the full legal system at our disposal. But we do so within the system available to us, and we accept whatever consequences come as a result. If that means fines, okay – if that means jail time, okay. It would not be the first time a Christian was jailed for his/her faith in Christ. It seems unusual to us because we rarely see it in the United States, but this is the norm for Christians around the world.
  4. Peter and the other apostles were submitted to the government, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have anything to say. The Sanhedrin had given them a platform in their trial to speak in their own defense, and the apostles used it for a more glorious purpose: the gospel…

30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. 31 Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.

  1. Keep in mind that the apostles were in trouble for preaching the gospel. So what do they do at their trial? Preach the gospel. This time, to the Sanhedrin. Hadn’t they already done this? Yes, as seen in Chapter 4. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t need to do it again. Just because the Sanhedrin rejected the gospel once, didn’t mean that they would reject it always (though sadly, many in the Sanhedrin did). The apostles were going to take every opportunity they had to proclaim Jesus, even in front of hostile audiences. Their mission was the Great Commission, and they would engage in it every chance they got!
    1. Never forget your mission! Neither you nor I are apostles, but we too have been “sent” by Jesus. We too have a primary mission in the Great Commission. Thus, we engage in it every chance we get. It’s not a matter of “Maybe this isn’t the right time,” or “Maybe it isn’t the right audience.” Every time is right, and every audience needs to hear! To be sure, there are varying approaches that work with different circumstances, and we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit, using God-given wisdom and discernment as to how best to share the gospel. But…it needs to be shared. We’re never guaranteed a 2nd chance to share with someone, so we’d better take advantage of the 1st one!
  2. The apostles didn’t back off from the sin of the Sanhedrin, either. The Jewish leaders were responsible for the murder of Jesus. They may not have wanted to be blamed for “this Man’s blood,” but blame did belong to them, and Peter (and the others) made it perfectly clear that this was the case. Again, those on the Sanhedrin were the ones who forced Jesus through an illegal trial, drug up false witnesses against Him, delivered Him over to Pilate, and demanded death by crucifixion. The Romans bore their own guilt in the matter, and were the ones who beat Jesus and drove spikes through His wrists and feet, but the Jewish leaders had demanded it to be so. The high priest may not have physically picked up the hammer, but he may as well have. The crucifixion took place at his (and the Sanhedrin’s) request. They bore the guilt, and they needed to know it.
    1. Why? Because we have to know our sin if we are to seek forgiveness for it. Think about it: Who apologizes for deeds they did not perform? Who repents for crimes they did not commit? One of the reasons so many people in our own culture reject Jesus today is because they don’t think they need Why seek a Savior, if you haven’t sinned? Sexual perversion & lust? It’s a lifestyle. Greed? It’s just ambition. Pride and boastfulness? It’s just self-esteem. And the list could go on… People don’t deny any of their actions; they just deny that it’s sinful. And if it’s not sinful, then they won’t be judged – and if they won’t be judged, then they don’t need a Savior.
    2. That’s why it’s important for us to call sin what it is! For others and for ourselves. In fact, it needs to start with us first! We’ve got to stop making excuses for our own sins, otherwise we will be rightly accused of hypocrisy and judgmentalism. It’s not a “lapse of judgment,” or a “minor indiscretion,” or a “one-time thing,”…it’s sin! Its rebellion against our Lord, and grievous to His heart. Call it what it is, so it can be dealt with as it is. When we do, it makes us cling even closer to Jesus, be ever more dependent on His grace, and gives us compassion to tell other people how they can know Him too!
  3. Of course the good news isn’t really good if all we know of Jesus is His death. Yes, the Jewish leaders murdered Jesus, but God raised Him up! And He didn’t only raise Jesus from the grave, but He kept raising Jesus, exalting Him to the highest position. Today, Jesus sits at God’s right hand, designated by Him to be “Prince and Savior,” (Ruler & the Saving One). He is both the King and Deliverer – the One who will lead all Israel and all the world, and the One through whom anyone can be saved from the guilt of sin and the pain of death. Put this together with the reality of our sin. When we realize we have truly sinned, understanding it for the criminal treasonous act for what it is, that’s a horrifying thought when we also understand that our sins will be judged by the Almighty Perfect God. To have everything laid bare before God: our lustful thoughts, our selfish acts, our deceptive deeds, and more, and knowing we will be judged for each one…awful! Who can stand? Praise God we have a Savior! God Himself raised Jesus to be our Savior! Jesus went to the cross and rose from the dead to provide us the grace we could never hope to have on our own. Now we have the opportunity to repent (as does all Israel), turning away from our sins in order to cling to Jesus, and He grants us “forgiveness of sins.
    1. Amen! That’s the good news of the gospel: Jesus is God, and Jesus is Savior. We can be forever saved because of Jesus, if we but respond to Him in repentance and faith. That was the message the apostles preached to the Sanhedrin, and that’s the same message all Christians preach today. – Is it a message you have received? Have you repented from your sins and trusted Jesus as your Savior? It’s more than acknowledging the historical and theological facts (anyone can do that); it’s engaging with those facts by truly entrusting yourself to Jesus.

32 And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

  1. News like the gospel of Jesus sounds almost too good to be true. Resurrection from the dead? It sounds impossible! How is news like that to be trusted? You need witnesses…and God provided them. First: the apostles – they were eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ. They went to the tomb, and saw it was empty with their own eyes. They saw Jesus appear before them, entering into a room with locked doors. They were invited to see His wounds, and to eat bread and fish with Him. They spoke with Him, after He was raised from the dead. They continued to learn from Him, after He was raised from the dead. And then they saw Him physically ascend to heaven. They witnessed all these things, and they could not help themselves from sharing that witness with others.
  2. And they weren’t the only witnesses! Secondly: the Holy Spirit is a witness unto the Risen Jesus. How so? His presence and power among the apostles is divine proof that God keeps His promises. Jesus said that when He left, God the Holy Spirit would come…and He did! Keep in mind, this was not some subjective experience that the apostles claimed. It wasn’t that they said that the Holy Spirit had come, and the Sanhedrin had to take them at their word. All of Jerusalem witnessed the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. What had happened that day was undeniable – Jews who had come in from all over the Roman empire heard the evidence of God the Holy Spirit, as the church was empowered to speak in unknown languages. Peter’s point? This would never have happened if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead. The arrival of the Holy Spirit among the church was evidence of the resurrection – God the Spirit is a witness to God the Son.
  3. Question: What did Peter mean by saying the Holy Spirit is given “to those who obey Him”? (Same word as used in verse 29!) Is he saying that people have to obey God in order to be saved? Absolutely not – that is the antithesis to the gospel! If we could obey God, then Jesus would never have come. There would be no reason for the Son of God to die on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, if it were possible for us to fully obey God and earn our own eternal life. No – the obedience mentioned by Peter is in reference to the gospel message. The only act obedience required to be saved is obedience to the gospel itself. IOW: We must believe! Again, it’s not enough to merely hear and understand the message of Jesus; we have to respond to it. We have to “obey” the gospel by turning away from our sins and trusting Christ as our Savior and Lord. Those who do are saved, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

33 When they heard this, they were furious and plotted to kill them.

  1. When the NKJV says “they were furious,” the term literally means that they were “sawn through,” or we might say “cut to the quick.” Like when a fingernail is cut too far back, and you wince in pain, that was what the message of the apostles did to the Sanhedrin. It cut right through all their objections and self-justifications, and they reacted in pain and anger. It was a gut-punch that hit them hard, and they were ready to respond in-kind. So much so, that they were ready to execute the apostles on the spot. The apostles hurt them spiritually (though truthfully!), but the Sanhedrin was ready to hurt them physically.
  2. Yet what would be the charge? They’d have to invent some sort of crime for them, just like they did for Jesus. Things were starting to get out of hand, and that’s when one of the elder, wiser men among the council spoke up…
  • Gamaliel’s counsel (34-39)

34 Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while.

  1. Gamaliel was a very famous rabbi & Jewish scholar in the 1st century, dying a few years prior to the Roman destruction of the temple in 70AD. According to tradition, he was the grandson of the famed rabbi Hillel (of the Hillel vs. Shimmei debates), and one of only seven Jewish scholars of antiquity to be given the title “Rabban,” (our rabbi). Biblically speaking, he is only seen here, and mentioned by Paul as one of Paul’s own rabbinical teachers as he was studying to be a Pharisee.
  2. All of that to say, Gamaliel commanded a tremendous amount of respect among the Jewish community. There are certain men and women, that when they speak, everyone else hushes to listen. Gamaliel was one. There is no historical proof that he ever became a Christian, but he was still blessed with much wisdom.

35 And he said to them: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. 37 After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed.

  1. Gamaliel gave two examples of men who gained some influence, but were removed by God. False messiahs were relatively common among the Jews of that day, and if they didn’t claim to be the Jewish king, they still tried to lead various revolts trying to be the next Maccabee. This Theudas and Judas of Galilee were two such men. Each had gathered a following of some significance (though nothing like the thousands who were now a part of the church led by the apostles), and each of the men had come to nothing. Ultimately the Sovereign God removed both, using the Romans and others as His instruments.
  2. There’s a bit of controversy with Theudas, as the ancient historian Josephus also wrote of a Theudas. The problem is that there are two different timeframes, and two very different circumstances. It begs the question: was either Luke or Josephus wrong? No – they likely wrote about two different people. “Theudas” wasn’t all too uncommon a name (nor was “Jesus” or “Judas”), so it’s not unreasonable to assume that there was one rebel named Theudas who had already been known by the time the apostles were on trial, and another Theudas who rebelled prior to the temple destruction. (Always give the Bible the benefit of the doubt!)

38 And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; 39 but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.”

  1. Gamaliel’s point: Let God deal with the apostles. God dealt with the earlier rebels. Neither Theudas nor Judas of Galilee led movements blessed by God, and those movements were quickly abandoned and forgotten. Why not deal with the apostles in the same way? If it was another empty movement, God would soon expose it as such. But if not…then that changes everything! Gamaliel demonstrates true wisdom here: “if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it – lest you even be found to fight against God.” What God does cannot be stopped. He can be resisted and rebelled against, but He cannot be rebuffed – He cannot be defeated. Gamaliel, though a Jew currently unwilling to place his faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, still understood that if God wanted this movement to succeed, it would succeed. No rabbi, priest, or nation would be able to stand in its way. Even if one did not want to convert, it was one thing to refuse to believe the message of the gospel; it was another to actively fight against it. Granted, any response other than faith was the wrong response, but one would incur swifter and more severe consequences!
  2. If there’s one thing we don’t want to do it’s this: don’t fight against God! You say, “But it’s okay – I’m a Christian. How could I ever fight against God?” How quick we forget our own terrible tendency to sin! We fight against God every time we say “No” to His command. We fight against God every time we resist the leading of the Holy Spirit. We fight against God every time we willingly choose sin over holiness. Do Christians fight against God? Yes – sadly, far too often! Beloved, don’t do it! The very worst place for a born-again Christian to be is outside of the will of God for us. Be it in blatant sin, caught up in lustful habits, drunkenness, fits of anger and selfishness, etc. – or be it in more subtle ways, such as insisting upon our own will for our lives, rather than submitting ourselves to the will of God. Maybe we force our way into a ministry when God hasn’t called us to it – or we refuse to enter a ministry into which God has Maybe it’s our repeated refusal to engage in conversations about Jesus, or a habitual laziness regarding prayer or Bible reading. Whatever it is, if it’s a conscious effort not to engage in the will of God for us, it’s fighting against God…and it’s wrong. When we do it, we’re going to have to expect some discipline from our loving Heavenly Father (Heb 12:6).
  3. For others, your fight against God is a bit more obvious in that it’s the same as the Sanhedrin. You actively resist the gospel of Jesus, refusing to acknowledge Him as Savior and Lord. It’s not that you don’t know the claims of the Bible for Him; you simply don’t care. You don’t want Jesus, and you don’t want to surrender your life to Jesus because you want nothing to do with God. Hear this, and hear it clearly: you are fighting against God. In that battle, who exactly do you think will win? Think about it logically: God wins every time. How can one battle the Almighty? How can one outwit the God who knows everything? How can one out-argue the God who created speech, Who invented logic, and in Whom is the standard of all morality? Do you honestly think you can argue God to a point where He is wrong?! Don’t be so foolish – don’t doom yourself for all eternity to come. Look to God for who He is, and see the love and grace He offers you in Jesus. Stop fighting against Him & surrender!

Gamaliel made his argument, and then left it in the hands of the Sanhedrin. How did they respond?

  • Apostles sentenced and released (40-42)

40 And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

  1. How is it that Sanhedrin could agree with Gamaliel, yet still beat the apostles? There’s a bit of a mental disconnect! Even so, they agreed with his overall point of letting God deal with the issue. In their way of thinking, the beating was an official way of them expressing their disapproval of the apostles’ message.
  2. Ultimately, the Sanhedrin repeated their earlier command from Chapter 4, forbidding the apostles from speaking in the name of Jesus, and released them. There was no 1st Amendment in 1st Century Judea, no freedom of speech. People could be commanded to speak certain things or to speak nothing, or else face the consequences. That’s what they commanded here – not that it would make a difference for the apostles. They had an allegiance to God, and they would follow the orders of their Commander-in-Chief. Jesus infinitely outranked the Sanhedrin, so it didn’t matter what the Jewish rulers said or did to them.

41 So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.

  1. The first thing the apostles did? Rejoice! They “were counted worthy to suffer shame” for Jesus. One wonders if this event wasn’t on Peter’s mind when he wrote his first epistle: 1 Peter 4:12–13, “(12) Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; (13) but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.” Persecution in the lives of Christians is nothing new or unique. We’ve not gone through anything that other Christians haven’t endured to a far greater extent. And even if (for some reason) we believe what we’ve experienced is extreme, it’s still nothing compared to Jesus. But whatever it is we endure, we can rejoice. Not that it’s joyful or desirable to be beat, threatened, rejected, or anything of the sorts – these are the things we pray we will never experience. But when we do, we can still rejoice. Why? Because we’re sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. We’re partaking in what Jesus did for us. Because our persecutors saw so much of Jesus in us, that they persecuted us the same way they persecuted Him. That’s the reason for joy. We can rejoice, because God has been glorified in us…amen!
  2. From a textual/translation point-of-view, there’s a bit of question whether the original text says “shame for His name,” (NKJV, NASB) or “shame for the name,” (ESV, HCSB, NIV). On one hand, the issue is minor because the context is obviously that of Jesus’ name. On the other hand, if the original text is “the name,” then that speaks loudly to the deity of Christ. Far from downplaying the name of Jesus, it actually exalts it. To the Jews, “the name” was a reference to YHWH (the tetragrammaton), always a reference to Almighty God. If the apostles suffered for “the name,” knowing that the forbidden name was Jesus, it meant that they actively saw Jesus as being one with YHWH. And He is! Jesus is fully God, just as much as God the Father and God the Spirit.
    1. The bottom line is still the same. The apostles suffered shame for the name of Jesus, and that caused them to rejoice because God was glorified in them. (It changes our perspective on persecution a bit, doesn’t it?)
  3. They also promptly ignored the commands of the Sanhedrin…

42 And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

  1. They went right back to the gospel ministry. In fact, they went back to the same place they had twice been arrested, and kept doing the same things that got them arrested in the first place. They wouldn’t stop – they would never stop. No matter how much trouble the Sanhedrin gave them, no matter how many times they were commanded to cease, the apostles would not stop preaching Jesus. How could they do otherwise? They held eternal truths in their hands – they spoke the key to everlasting life. How could that be refused to the masses, simply because a roomful of men told them to stop? God had told them to speak, so they spoke. The Lord Jesus had given them a commission, so they would see it through.

Conclusion:

So should we! Never stop preaching the gospel, never stop obeying the commands of our Lord Jesus! He told us to make disciples of all nations, so that’s what we do. He told us to go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that’s what we’re to do, no matter what. We have received orders from the highest of authorities, the supreme Commander-in-chief. What He says supersedes all.

Don’t fight against God; obey Him! Don’t fight against Jesus; surrender to Him! The apostles knew they had to obey God rather than men, and so did Gamaliel. Those who fight against God, lose. God can and does defeat anyone who wars against Him…don’t do it!

And He doesn’t want you to! God would much rather you experience His love, mercy, and grace. God sent His only begotten Son Jesus to save you; not condemn you. We’ve already condemned ourselves in our sin, but Jesus came to save us from that. Why would we fight against the One who delivers us? It’s like the patient who kicks against the EMT or nurse who’s trying to help him/her – or the drowning man who pushes the lifeguard underwater. When we fight against those who are trying to save us, we only harm ourselves. Stop fighting against Jesus; He wants to save you! Surrender yourself into His more-than-capable hands, and then follow through on what He gives you to do.