Posts Tagged 'Acts'

Panic Podcast: The Everything Podcast, Part 19

The Book of Acts is, in my opinion, the most exciting book of the Bible, and that’s what we’ll be talking about on today’s podcast.

 

Panic Podcast: The Story of the New Testament, Part 2

In today’s study, we breeze through the Book of Acts and talk about the coming of the Holy Spirit and the subsequent explosion of missionary activity, courtesy of two things:  Persecution in Jerusalem, which forced the new believers out of town, taking the Gospel message with them; and the tireless work of a one-time persecutor of the Church, Saul, who became Paul, the greatest church-planter in the history of church-planting.

 

The Church Carries On

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Historically, Acts 12 is important because it records the final persecution of the Church at Jerusalem. For the fifth time the Jerusalem Christians faced severe persecution. The first period of persecution was instigated by the Sadducees, elders, and scribes (Acts 4). Then the Sadducees came out swinging by themselves because the apostles preached so loudly about a doctrine they didn’t support: the resurrection (Acts 5). The third wave of persecution came at the hands of the Libertines, who dragged Stephen into court (Acts 6), eventually stoning him to death. Saul joined in with his own intense form of Christian persecution during this time and it was during this third wave that almost all the Christians, save the apostles, were scattered (Acts 8). This fifth persecution was at the hand of Herod, about the time that Paul and Barnabas were visiting the churches of Judea.

So the believers decided to send relief to the Christians in Judea, each giving as much as he could. This they did, consigning their gifts to Barnabas and Paul to take to the elders of the church in Jerusalem. (Acts 11:29, 30 TLB)

Acts 12:1 – 12

About that time King Herod moved against some of the believers and killed the apostle James (John’s brother). (Acts 12:1, 2 TLB)

Just who was this King Herod? He was Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, the Herod who was ruling the night Jesus Christ was born. Herod Agrippa I was the Herod who had secured the goodwill of the Jews by taking care to respect and sometimes observe their customs. Agrippa actually seemed to enjoy being in the company of Jews. He is generally regarded by historians as being a mild-mannered, yet very ambitious ruler.

In order to curry favor with the Jews, as was his custom, Agrippa had James the brother of John killed. This sad event was actually the fulfillment of a prophecy given some time before by Jesus Himself.

But Jesus told her, “You don’t know what you are asking!” Then he turned to James and John and asked them, “Are you able to drink from the terrible cup I am about to drink from?”

“Yes,” they replied, “we are able!”

“You shall indeed drink from it,” he told them. “But I have no right to say who will sit on the thrones next to mine. Those places are reserved for the persons my Father selects.” (Matthew 20:22, 23 TLB)

It is an ironic twist of fate that of these two inseparable brothers, one was the first apostle to die and the other was probably the last.

We don’t know much about James’ activities in the early church. The very fact that he was singled out as the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred suggests that he was an obvious leader of the Jerusalem church. Passive, quiet, inoffensive men were never martyred.

In the warped mind of Herod Agrippa I, to execute James, a leading member of the church and a well-known member of Jesus’ inner circle of apostles, would be to strike at the very heart the church itself.

When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish leaders, he arrested Peter during the Passover celebration… (Acts 12:3 TLB)

When Agrippa saw how much the death of James pleased the Jews, he had Peter imprisoned and guarded by no less than 16 men. His plan was to drag Peter out and slain in the public square after Passover, or Easter.

As is His mysterious way, just in the very nick of time God acted on Peter’s behalf:

…suddenly there was a light in the cell and an angel of the Lord stood beside Peter! The angel slapped him on the side to awaken him and said, “Quick! Get up!” And the chains fell off his wrists! Then the angel told him, “Get dressed and put on your shoes.” And he did. “Now put on your coat and follow me!” the angel ordered. (Acts 12:7, 8 TLB)

Herod had his plans but God has His. God also had something Herod didn’t have: a group of praying believers. It was in answer to their prayers that God moved and delivered the apostle just hours before his planned execution. This whole incident reminds us of an obscure verse in the Old Testament:

The Lord is laughing at those who plot against the godly, for he knows their judgment day is coming. (Psalm 37:12, 13 TLB)

John Calvin famously noted:

Against the persecution of a tyrant the godly have no remedy by prayer.

Christians have the promise of God that they are overcomers and that even the gates of Hell will never prevail against the church. Peter had been given this bit of reassurance personally by the Lord:

When you were young, you were able to do as you liked and go wherever you wanted to; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and others will direct you and take you where you don’t want to go.” (John 21:18 TLB)

There was no way Peter was going to die this night. Yet God didn’t move to free him until the church gathered together to pray. The promises due the church and to believers individually come to pass only when believers are praying. Prayer shows that we are trusting in God to fulfill His Word to us.

Acts 12:13 – 18

Peter had been freed from prison, but he still was a marked man. Where does a marked man go?

After a little thought he went to the home of Mary, mother of John Mark, where many were gathered for a prayer meeting. (Acts 12:12 TLB)

Because of continued persecution, the early church in Jerusalem met in homes, and Peter would have known where to go. John Mark’s mother, another Mary, was apparently a woman of means; her home was large enough to accommodate a congregation. The woman who came to the door when Peter knocked was named Rhoda, and she was probably a servant. Now, remember, these were dangerous days. The voice said he was Peter, but was he really? What if this was a trick? Rhoda played it safe and instead of letting Peter in, she went into the prayer meeting to tell them. Their response is curious, given why they were praying in the first place.

They didn’t believe her. “You’re out of your mind,” they said. When she insisted they decided, “It must be his angel. They must have killed him.” (Acts 12:15 TLB)

The Lord laughs as sinners plan to move against His saints, but He must surely chuckle at the behavior of His saints, too. The church was praying for Peter to be set free, and when he is set free, the don’t believe it. They thought the voice at the door belonged to his ghost. How strange we Christians can be.

In an odd way, it’s comforting to know the early church, with all its tremendous power, still had its doubts. We aren’t too far removed from them in this regard. We pray for things then doubt that our prayers will be answered. And when a prayer is answered, we rejoice and are actually surprised about it!

E.M. Bounds, who knew a thing or two about prayer, wrote this:

Four things let us ever keep in mind: God hears prayer, God heeds prayer, God answers prayer, and God delivers by prayer.

Indeed He does.

Peter was probably getting ready to knock down the door. They finally let him in, he told them what happened to him, then gave some advice:

“Tell James and the others what happened,” he said—and left for safer quarters. (Acts 12:17 TLB)

This, of course, was not the James that had just been martyred. This was James, the half-brother of Jesus. He was considered to be the “lead pastor” of the church at Jerusalem.

What was good news for Peter was bad news for the guards. All 16 of the men assigned to guard Peter were executed in the apostle’s place. The infamous Code of Justinian, which represented Roman custom, stated that a guard who allowed a prisoner to escape was liable to the penalty which the prisoner would have paid.

But something else is going on. In executing those guards, Herod Agrippa I is thumbing his nose at God once again. In effect, Herod is saying Peter’s deliverance had nothing to do with God. It was the fault of his guards. And in executing the guards for something they had nothing to do with, Herod Agrippa is showing how little he thought of human life.

Acts 12:19 – 24

God had vindicated Peter. The fifth persecution ended in the death of one man, James, and the deliverance of another, Peter. God’s ways are, to say the least, inscrutable.

Meanwhile, Herod Agrippa I was about to learn firsthand the consequences of acting in an arrogant, presumptuous manner in regards to God and His church. Nobody can do that with impunity.

After Peter’s deliverance, Herod Agrippa I traveled to Caesarea.

While he was in there, a delegation from Tyre and Sidon arrived to see him. He was highly displeased with the people of those two cities… (Acts 12:20 TLB)

The citizens of these two port cities were rivals of those in Caesarea as all three struggled for dominance in the world’s economy. And the three ports depended on Israeli grain for their food supply. Apparently Tyre and Sidon were ignored and mistreated by Herod Agrippa I. He preferred to deal with the people of Caesarea. He made life miserable for the people of Tyre and Sidon.

Luke is scant on details because they aren’t important. What was important to Luke was to show two things. First, that the great Herod Agrippa I, the shrewd, careful politician would be punished by God. In response to Herod’s attack on the Jerusalem church and his taking the life of James, God would take Herod’s life. God judged Herod Agrippa I, who knew the Old Testament scriptures. This man would learn what it means to “sin against the light you have.”

I have scattered you to the four winds of heaven,” declares the Lord. “Come, Zion! Escape, you who live in Daughter Babylon!” For this is what the Lord Almighty says: “After the Glorious One has sent me against the nations that have plundered you—for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye—I will surely raise my hand against them…” (Zechariah 2:6b – 9a NIV)

God did just that with proud Herod Agrippa I. He died a pretty nasty death:

Instantly, an angel of the Lord struck Herod with a sickness so that he was filled with maggots and died—because he accepted the people’s worship instead of giving the glory to God. (Acts 12:23 TLB)

Being eaten alive by maggots or worms is not the best death. It’s shows God’s extreme displeasure with a man who knew better. Another persecutor of the Jews, Antiochus Epiphanes, who himself was struck by God with an incurable disease, wrote this of Herod’s death:

And so the ungodly man’s body swarmed with worms, and while he was still living in anguish and pain, his flesh rotted away, and because of his stench the whole army felt revulsion at his decay. (2 Maccabees 9:9)

The second thing Luke wanted to stress was that in spite of everything that had happened to the church, God was blessing it.

God’s Good News was spreading rapidly and there were many new believers. (Acts 12:24 TLB)

In Exodus 20:5, the Lord said this to His people:

I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.

He was serious about that. There are many examples of people meeting horrible ends at the hands of God because they attempted to take honor and glory from Him. Herod Agrippa I knew the Scriptures well. It is well known that he read them aloud to the people in the temple courts during Jewish feasts. Yet, when the people in Caesarea cheered him on as a god, this man who knew better did not stop them or rebuke them. He claimed that honor, which belonged only to God, for himself. God would not allow this.

What a contrast to the apostles who healed the sick and the lame, yet who continually gave God the glory. Paul and Barnabas never ceased to give all the honor to God as they engaged in their missionary ventures.

Herod was not a nice man. He did great harm to the church. William Gurnall’s words help to keep all the Herods who have ever lived in their proper perspective:

We fear men so much because we fear God so little. One fear cures another.  When man’s terror scares you, turn your thoughts to the wrath of God.

Biblical Inclusion

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The early church was growing in spite of – or perhaps, with the help of – some persecution at the hands of some Jewish religious leaders. One of those, Saul – or Paul – had been converted to Christ. The end of its first decade was nearing and the Christian church was gaining many, many members from the Jewish populations in Judea, Galilee and even some Samaritans had found Christ. Philip was busy preaching up and down the Mediterranean coast and winning more Jewish converts from that region.

But the Gospel is for everyone. It was time for it to be preached to people who were not Jewish or of Samaritan decent. The Gospel needed to be taken to the Gentiles.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19, 20 NIV)

We call Paul “the apostle to the Gentiles,” but it was Peter whom the Lord chose to break through the cultural and religious barrier with the Good News. This is what the Bible considers to be “inclusive.” The Gospel is for everybody, not just for some. The call of salvation goes out to all people without regard to their culture or color or anything else. Anybody is welcome to respond to Christ’s call.

Acts 10:1 – 23

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. (Acts 10:1 NIV)

Dr Luke mentions Caesarea three times. The first time Ceasarea is mentioned, we learn that Philip settled there after he preached the Gospel. The next time, Paul was on the run for his life and his friends took him to Caesarea to hop on board a ship which would take him to Tarsus. And here we learn about a citizen of this great city.

Caesarea, originally known as Strato’s Tower, and was a bustling metropolis which Caesar Augustus gave to Herod in 30 AD. Herod, in turn, renamed it Caesarea to honor Caesar. It was a beautiful city by all accounts with a very diverse population that apparently all got along with each other. Greeks and Romans mixed their cultures and even though they were a minority in the city, the Jews exerted some powerful political influence.

Cornelius, serving the Italian Regiment there, was a centurion, a non-commissioned officer in command of a hundred soldiers. He was Roman – a Gentile – who was wealthy and had a good reputation among not only his peers but the general population of Caesarea.

He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Acts 10:2 NIV)

He may have been a Gentile, but Cornelius was a devout one. He was a convert to Judaism and he believed in the God of Judaism. He was a generous man and a praying man, but was not yet a saved man. In other words, he was religious.

Two visions are recorded in the first 16 verses. Cornelius the Gentile had one and Peter the Jew had one. God was preparing each man to meet the other. God was working at both ends of the line.

In his vision, Cornelius is given very specific instructions by an angel:

“Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” (Acts 10:5 NIV)

“Simon” was probably the most common name among Jews, and the important one, Peter, was staying at Simon, the tanner’s home. That’s why the angel’s instructions were so explicit.

Meanwhile, Peter had his vision:

He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” (Acts 10:10-13 NIV)

For a Jew, those instructions where hard to swallow. Everything Peter was taught, all the laws and practices of his Jewish upbringing and faith, were now being turned upside down.

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15 NIV)

Peter hadn’t been wrong his whole life; he had been observing the very laws God had given His people. But, as they say, the times they were a’changing. God would now cleanse the Gentiles with His Gospel and the Gentiles would now be brought into the fold on the same basis as Jewish believers. Verse 15 is not an insignificant verse for the church of today to remember. It has been called a “divine corrective.” It emphasizes the cleansing power of God’s saving grace. It’s not just a setting aside of religious food laws. It’s God’s great equalizing power at work. Gentiles, renewed by the grace of God, could now become part of God’s great family. John MacArthur:

The kingdom of God is for the spiritually sick who want to be healed, the spiritually corrupt who want to be cleansed, the spiritually poor who want to be rich, the spiritually hungry who want to be fed, the spiritually dead who want to be made alive.

Acts 10:34 – 43

Cornelius was a man who had a measure of faith. When Peter and Cornelius’ men finally reached their destination, Cornelius was waiting for them.

The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. (Acts 10:24 NIV)

The Greek wording indicates that this man had been “continuing to wait expectantly for them.” Think of this man’s faith. He knew Peter would come and he gathered his family together as his vision told him to do. Cornelius, not yet a born again believer, not yet in possession of either saving faith, the Holy Spirit, nor the Word of God, had exhibited more faith than many Christians today. God was definitely working on this Gentile’s heart, and this Gentile was co-operating with Him at every step.

Peter’s opening comments to his host show how far he had come in his spiritual journey:

He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:23 NIV)

How far this one-time apostle had come in a such a short span of time! Here was the man who denied his Lord three times; who had contradicted the Word of the Lord, now obeying without question God’s instructions! God was asking Peter to completely change his religious orientation, and he was doing just that.

He then preached a sermon specifically tailored for his audience. This was a transformed man, for sure. Once a fisherman who spoke his mind without thinking, he was now preaching with great skill and sensitivity. He spoke in such a way as to virtually eliminate the possibility of his audience misunderstanding his message. His sermon had three main points:

First, Peter dealt with the current situation. Verse 34:

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…”

All people, Jew or Gentile, are in need of salvation because all people are equally lost and God wants all people to be saved.

Secondly, Peter deals with the personal career of Jesus. His audience apparently was acquainted with this Jesus of Nazareth and the apostle makes these points:

He was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. God equipped Jesus with power to carry out His mission of preaching and healing. The word “power” indicates that what Jesus did He did through the indwelling Spirit. No human being could do what Jesus did without the power of God operating in his life: Jesus stood up to Satan, cast out demons, healed the lame and the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, and He proclaimed the Word of God like no one before Him.

He went around doing good and healing people. Jesus set people free from sin, sickness, and Satan. Everywhere He went He changed lives, one way or the other. He spoiled the devil’s plans for man.

God was with Jesus. Everything Jesus did He did according to God’s plan. He didn’t speak anything God didn’t want Him to say. He didn’t go anywhere God didn’t want Him to go. He didn’t do anything God didn’t want Him to do. Jesus lived a life of absolutely perfect obedience.

Lastly, Peter makes it clear that Jesus was no mere man. Up till now, Jesus’ divinity hadn’t been discussed. But Jesus was the Son of God and these Gentiles needed to know it. He died and rose again, by the power of God.

This Savior then gave His followers a mission:

He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42 NIV)

What Peter was doing was evangelizing!

To “evangelize” is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord He now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Holy Spirit to all who repend and believe. — John Stott

Acts 10:44 – 48

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. (Acts 10:44, 45 NIV)

This great evangelistic sermon didn’t have an ending; it didn’t need one. The Holy Spirit fell on this group of Gentiles while Peter was preaching and they had their own mini-Pentecost! In fact, at the Jerusalem Council, some time later, Peter compared this so-called Gentile Pentecost with the original Pentecost.

God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:8, 9 NIV)

God had cleansed the hearts of the 120 gathered in the Upper Room when they were filled with Spirit in Acts 2, and He did the same thing with Cornelius’ household in Acts 10.

This, naturally, astonished the Jewish brothers Peter had with him. And it was a good thing he had witnesses! The importance of what happened to these Gentiles cannot be overstated. Here God had received them into the fellowship not only on an equal basis with the Jews but without the laying on of hands. Receiving the Holy Spirit at the very moment of salvation is the normal pattern, and the gift of tongues was a sign to the Jews present that this event was of God.

This is inclusion, Biblical style. Salvation is for everyone, anywhere.


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