Posts Tagged 'Acts'

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.

Living (and Dying) For Christ

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The early church in Jerusalem was growing in leaps and bounds. The apostles were preaching their message of the risen Christ and that same Christ was working through those same apostles to heal the sick. The Holy Spirit was working through the members of the church and more and more converts were joining their quickly swelling ranks.

Peter, John and the other apostles had been arrested a couple of times and told to tone down their preaching. They did the opposite. What else could they do? They had been specifically told by God, through an angel, to preach and preach some more.

It was getting difficult for the religious leaders of Jerusalem to ignore this new religious movement. The last time the apostles were arrested, a member of the Sanhedrin gave the ruling council this piece of advice:

“And so my advice is, leave these men alone. If what they teach and do is merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to stop them, lest you find yourselves fighting even against God.” (Acts 5:38, 39 TLB)

The Sanhedrin thought this was good advice and, after beating the apostles, let them go.

They left the Council chamber rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer dishonor for his name. And every day, in the Temple and in their home Bible classes, they continued to teach and preach that Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 5:41, 42 TLB)

It didn’t take long, however, before the first internal controversy arose involving, of all things, a bunch of widows.

The good, Acts 6:1 – 8

The church was growing like crazy.

But with the believers multiplying rapidly, there were rumblings of discontent. (Acts 6:1 TLB)

That phrase, “with the believers multiplying,” gives us an idea of how quickly this new congregation was growing. In the Greek, “multiplying” is a present participle, meaning “continuous growth.” This new church was welcoming new members continuously. In present-day America where over-all church attendance is dwindling, it seems incredible that this kind of growth was possible. But we know it did happen, and the more members a church has, the more problems it has.

Those who spoke only Greek complained that their widows were being discriminated against, that they were not being given as much food in the daily distribution as the widows who spoke Hebrew. (Acts 6:1b TLB)

Things haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. People are still complaining, in church and out, that others are getting more than they are. In this case, two groups of widows, a Greek group and a Hebrew group, butted heads. The Greek-speaking widows didn’t feel as though they were getting “their fair share” of the free food. Was this a legitimate complaint? The cynic in me says it wasn’t. Everybody wants “free stuff.” The problem, however, was not the distribution of food to widows. The problem was that the complaining threatened the unity of the church. Something had to be done to preserve that unity. The apostles came up with a plan:

Now look around among yourselves, dear brothers, and select seven men, wise and full of the Holy Spirit, who are well thought of by everyone; and we will put them in charge of this business. Then we can spend our time in prayer, preaching, and teaching.” (Acts 6:3, 4 TLB)

Here we have the first deacon board being established. Why seven men? Some think that it was because Jerusalem had been divided up into seven districts and that there were seven smaller, satellite congregations meeting in large homes or buildings, therefore seven deacons would have represented these districts. Others think that the simplest reason is the best reason: In Jewish numerology, “seven” symbolized completeness. It was a sacred number.

The qualifications for deacons were as follows: First, they had to be men. In point of fact, there were female deacons later on in the life of the church. Second, these men had to be believers who were part of the church. No outsiders were to have a part in the government of the church. Third, they had to be men with a good reputation in the community. Fourth, they had to be spiritual men, that is, they had to be “full of the Holy Spirit.” This was the normal, not unusual, expectation of the church. And lastly, deacons needed to be men of wisdom. This “wisdom” was both a native wisdom (they needed to know how to get the job done) as well as the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

The congregation, pleased at the decisions made by the church leadership, chose seven men. All seven had Greek names, which seems to indicate that they were chosen in deference to the Greek speaking widows who had instigated the controversy. The seven deacons were ordained, that is, they were set apart and the apostles laid their hands on each of them as a sign of their association with them in the work of the Lord.

As a result of this quick action taken by the apostles, the result was obvious:

God’s message was preached in ever-widening circles, and the number of disciples increased vastly in Jerusalem; and many of the Jewish priests were converted too. (Acts 6:7 TLB)

This was an obvious result because the apostles could now devote their entire time and attention to the preaching of the Word, and it is the Word that yields results. The “waiting on tables” part of the ministry was now taken care of by the deacons.

The bad, Acts 6:9 – 15

One of the newly chosen deacons, Stephen, now takes center stage. His name means “crown,” which is appropriate since he would become the first to wear the martyr’s crown. As an aside, Stephen’s martyrdom provides the historical link between Peter and Paul because it is at Stephen’s stoning that Paul, or Saul, is first mentioned.

It seems that Stephen’s gifts put him more in line with the apostles than with the other six deacons who “waited on tables.” Because of Stephen’s effective preaching and the signs that accompanied his ministry, he caught the attention of some other religious types who wanted to argue with him and who eventually accused him of two things: (1) That he was always speaking against the Temple, and (2) that he was changing the law of Moses. These charges served to label Stephen a blasphemer. Of course none of the charges were true, but he was still made to answer them. It may well be that it was his name, a Greek name and not a Jewish name, that caused Stephen to be treated far more harshly than the other apostles were when they were taken into custody.

At this point everyone in the Council chamber saw Stephen’s face become as radiant as an angel’s! (Acts 6:15 TLB)

This is a remarkable sentence. The radiance of Stephen’s face was glowing with God’s glory and presence. This wasn’t the first time God’s glory shined through one of His people:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:29, 30 NIV)

The ugly, Acts 7:51 – 60

Beginning with Acts 7:2, Stephen give a lengthy reply to the High Priest’s question:

“Are these accusations true?” (TLB)

In fact, Stephen’s answer is a sermon; the longest sermon recorded in Acts. It’s as long as all three of Paul’s put together. This long sermon paints a very bad picture of the Jews. Like Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, there is a lot of history in Stephen’s sermon, the climax of which comes at verse 51:

“You stiff-necked heathen! Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? But your fathers did, and so do you! ” (TLB)

Needless to say, the religious leaders were not at all impressed with Stephen. They were enraged. Where did Stephen’s courage come from? The Holy Spirit certainly, but of all the religious leaders listening to this deacon, none was free except Stephen. Robert Frost was right when he wrote:

Freedom lies in being bold.

As Stephen boldly bore down with the truth, the members of the council became disorderly. The Word of God as proclaimed by this Christian convicted these men to such an extent that they interrupted his defense/sermon intent on stoning him to death. Sometimes the objective truth of God’s Word has that effect on people; it drives them to distraction, or in this case, drove these religious leaders to violence.

The Sanhedrin, in their anger and in their disgust with Stephen, became the lawbreakers! They had no authority to sentence this deacon to death, let alone pick up the stones and to carry out a death sentence themselves.

In the midst of this melee, Stephen stood completely at ease, sustained by the risen Lord at God’s right hand.

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily upward into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and Jesus the Messiah standing beside God, at his right hand!” (Acts 7:55, 56 TLB)

With that sentence, Stephen guaranteed his death; it was as though he poured gasoline on an open fire. These highly educated men of religion, in a fury and frenzy, dragged Stephen out of town and proceeded to stone him to death. Like Jesus, as Stephen faced certain death, he simply prayed:

And as the murderous stones came hurtling at him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” and with that, he died. (Acts 7:59, 60 TLB)

One of the witnesses of this travesty of justice was a man who will become very prominent in Acts and in the history of the early church:

The official witnesses—the executioners—took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Paul. (Acts 7:58 TLB)

Evangelist Leonard Ravenhill helps put things in perspective. Stephen was in no way the victim. He was the victor.

Everyone recognizes that Stephen was Spirit-filled when he was performing wonders. Yet, he was just as Spirit-filled when he was being stoned to death.

We who enjoy freedom to preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in America don’t encounter a lot of persecution. Although that is starting to change, with the IRS and various government agencies abusing their power and authority by targeting Christians and Christian groups or charities for unnecessary audits and “soft persecution,” none of us has been stoned. Yet. But this event changed the early church forever – for the better. It lit the spark that caused these early Christians to get out of Jerusalem and into the unreached Gentile world.

Stephen was dead, but the story was far from over.

Paul was in complete agreement with the killing of Stephen. And a great wave of persecution of the believers began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem, and everyone except the apostles fled into Judea and Samaria. (Acts 8:1 TLB)

Out of tragedy came a golden opportunity for the Gospel to advance into the rest of the world.  And the Lord was working on a man who would soon become the greatest evangelist and preacher the church ever knew.

5 P’s

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It’s good to get along with people – with as many people as you can. Nobody sets out to become the object ridicule, scorn or mockery. Most of us try to avoid confrontation and seek the approval, tacit or otherwise, of people. The idea of being singled out for special treatment – think persecution – gives us pause. It is something to be avoided. The apostle Paul believed this to be true and made it part of his teachings:

Don’t quarrel with anyone. Be at peace with everyone, just as much as possible. (Romans 12:18 TLB)

However, sometimes the Christian just can’t “be at peace” with some people. An unfortunate and overriding idea throughout the New Testament is that from time to time Christians may expect persecution, but that experience should be considered a blessing.

I demand that you love each other, for you get enough hate from the world! But then, it hated me before it hated you. (John 15:17, 18 TLB)

When you are reviled and persecuted and lied about because you are my followers—wonderful! Be happy about it! Be very glad! for a tremendous reward awaits you up in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted too. (Matthew 5:11, 12 TLB)

If that weren’t bad enough, later on Peter got into the persecution bandwagon and wrote that Christians ought to rejoice – be happy, mind you – when they are persecuted on account of their faith.

Dear friends, don’t be bewildered or surprised when you go through the fiery trials ahead, for this is no strange, unusual thing that is going to happen to you. Instead, be really glad—because these trials will make you partners with Christ in his suffering, and afterwards you will have the wonderful joy of sharing his glory in that coming day when it will be displayed. (1 Peter 4:12, 13 TLB)

Now, lest you think that Christians should run around actively looking to be persecuted, that’s not the idea at all. Hopefully times of persecution will be few and far between. But, if you as a Christian face some kind of persecution because of your belief in Jesus Christ, then that’s actually a good thing because it means that your life, in some way, resembles that of Jesus Christ’s. If the world persecuted Him, and the world persecutes you, then you must be doing something right.

Power and preaching, Acts 3:1 – 21

But Peter said, “We don’t have any money for you! But I’ll give you something else! I command you in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk! ”

Then Peter took the lame man by the hand and pulled him to his feet. And as he did, the man’s feet and ankle bones were healed and strengthened so that he came up with a leap, stood there a moment and began walking! Then, walking, leaping, and praising God, he went into the Temple with them. (Acts 3:6 – 8 TLB)

This incident reminds of an earlier verse in Acts:

A deep sense of awe was on them all, and the apostles did many miracles. (Acts 2:43 TLB)

No wonder people in Jerusalem, and especially members of the fledgling church there, were in “awe.” Miracles of the type in Acts 3 don’t happen every day! That’s why they’re called “miracles.” The circumstances surrounding this miracle were really the intersection of two habits. One was the habit of Peter and John visiting the temple; the other was the habit of the lame man being carried to the temple to beg. It’s interesting (and fortunate for the lame beggar!) that even after the formation of the new church the disciples continued to attend services at the temple. This tells us that in spite of their faith in Jesus Christ, they continued to faithfully observe the obligations of their Jewish faith. Josephus tells us that even during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD the priests continued this religious tradition of going twice a day to the temple, in the morning and in the evening, to pray and offer their sacrifices on the altar.

This miracle was completely unexpected. God frequently does the unexpected to get the attention of people. Jim Cymbala notes:

People pay attention when they see that God actually changes persons and sets them free. When someone is healed or released from a life-controlling bondage, everyone takes notice.

He’s right about that, of course. This lame man got far more than he bargained for this day! He was gloriously healed “in the name of Jesus Christ.” That interesting phrase is used to this day and a lot of people, even those who use it when they pray, don’t know what it means. A name stands for all that the person is. So the name of Christ would include all the power and authority of Christ. When Peter, then, exercised the healing power “in the name of Christ,” he was, as it were, standing in place of Christ, representing Him and His authority and power. The man was healed, completely and instantaneously. His faith responded to Peter’s words and the grip of his hand. This is a powerful illustration of what happens to the helpless sinner, who is a spiritual cripple unable to help himself. When he responds in faith and obedience, as this lame man did, he finds new life and power to stand and walk upright in the way of righteousness.

There were three consequences of this remarkable miracle. First, the lame man was filled with joy. This is understandable; you’d be filled with joy to if all of a sudden your bones straightened out and for the first time you could stand up and walk like everybody else! Second, God received praise. The man stopped his begging and accompanied Peter and John into the temple. This suggests that he knew this miracle came from the power of God. Third, the people that witnessed this miracle were amazed and testified about what they had seen.

Not wanting to waste a golden opportunity, just like he did on the Day of Pentecost, Peter took advantage of what happened to preach a sermon. He took a current event and used it as an object lesson to exalt the name of Jesus. The people were doubtlessly impressed with these two apostles, but Peter put them in their place, rebuking them for not understanding how the healing happened. It wasn’t Peter or John who did it, it was Jesus, the one they killed.

Almost as remarkable as the healing of the lame man was the astounding spiritual transformation of Peter. Here was the cowardly man who, just weeks earlier, denied that he even knew Jesus, standing up in front of people proclaiming Him to be the Messiah.

Purity and purging, Acts 5:1 – 11

The opening verses Acts 5 record the sad story of a husband and wife, members of the church in Jerusalem. These very early days of the church were heady indeed. The church grew in leaps and bounds, propelled by the power of the Holy Spirit and the unrestrained preaching of the Word of God. This new “movement” attracted all kinds of people, including, in the case of this couple, liars.

What happened to Ananias and Sapphira reminds of what Peter himself would write later:

For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin first among God’s own children. And if even we who are Christians must be judged, what terrible fate awaits those who have never believed in the Lord? (1 Peter 4:17 TLB)

The church was growing and was influential, and Satan wouldn’t have any of that! In chapter 4 he tried by means of some outward persecution to stifle the Word of God. We are told that the authorities came and, even while Peter was still preaching, arrested him and tossed him and John into jail. It was a futile attempt; these men were guilty of nothing. Satan’s attempt to stop the Gospel by attacking the church from without failed. Now he would attack from within.

But there was a man named Ananias (with his wife Sapphira) who sold some property and brought only part of the money, claiming it was the full price. (His wife had agreed to this deception.)But Peter said, “Ananias, Satan has filled your heart. When you claimed this was the full price, you were lying to the Holy Spirit. The property was yours to sell or not, as you wished. And after selling it, it was yours to decide how much to give. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us, but to God.” (Acts 5:1 – 4 TLB)

This couple had lied and they both paid the ultimate price. Their lives were taken. God intervened in this situation to preserve the purity of the words and work of this church by purging out some of the weak members of the group. Subtraction is better than addition, sometimes. If this divine judgment seems a bit harsh, keep in mind that Ananias and Sapphira lied to the whole church. If they could do that, God knew what else they were capable of doing. Dishonesty among believers can lead to all kinds of trouble, not the least of which is a ruined testimony in the community. This God would not allow. One Bible scholar wrote:

The offense of Ananias and Sapphira showed contempt for God, vanity and ambition in the offenders, and utter disregard of the corruption which they were bringing into the church. They thought more of the display made at the Apostle’s feet than of the offense before God’s eyes.

Indeed. Still, it’s hard to understand how there could have been such hypocrites in the Early Church so soon after the coming of the Holy Spirit, and it’s is hard to comprehend why selfish, insincere people would join a church today, only to cause trouble and division.

Nothing will kill the power of a church’s testimony faster than a church filled with sinning Christians. There is no substitute for personal purity. But that kind of purity is expensive.

The Lord’s intervention apparently had the desired effect:

Terror gripped the entire church and all others who heard what had happened. (Acts 5:11 TLB)

This is an important verse because it’s the very first time the group of believers in Jerusalem was referred to as a “church.” The use of this word by the Christians implied that they, not the Jews, were the “true people of God.”

As a result of this purging three things happened. First, the purity of the church remained intact. Second, godly fear and reverence came upon all the members. They realized it was a serious thing (if not dangerous!) to be a follower of Christ. Lastly, a new power was experienced by the church. Signs and wonders filled the assembly.

Persecution, Acts 5:17-24

The High Priest and his relatives and friends among the Sadducees reacted with violent jealousy and arrested the apostles, and put them in the public jail. (Acts 5:17, 18 TLB)

The Saducess were behind this. The preaching of the resurrection, something this Jewish religious sect steadfastly denied, angered them and the apostles were unceremonially cast into jail. God, however, had other plans:

But an angel of the Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail and brought them out. Then he told them, “Go over to the Temple and preach about this Life!” (Acts 5:19, 20 TLB)

Thomas Watson made this keen observation:

The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.

An astute observation. It’s the prayers of the faithful that move the hand of God. In this case, the Lord set His preachers free and commanded them to back to doing the very thing that got them arrested in the first place!

This whole incident must have really aggravated those Saducees. They didn’t believe in the resurrection, and that’s all these Christians were talking about, and they didn’t believe in angels, and here an angel set the preachers free! God does indeed have a sense of humor.

Just like the night before, they were arrested again and imprisoned. The leaders of the nation began to accuse the apostles. Apparently all twelve of them were tried together, and had it not been for the timely intervention of Gamaliel, these Christian preachers would have been killed.

It was Peter who made the famous statement:

“We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29b TLB)

God had specifically told the apostles to do exactly what the church and political leaders told them not to do. And this brings us back to what Paul wrote:

Don’t quarrel with anyone. Be at peace with everyone, just as much as possible. (Romans 12:18 TLB)

Peter, John, and the rest of the members of the early church had a moral obligation to obey God. Certainly God through the angel had ordered the preaching to resume, but our Lord issued His Great Commission and it is still in force two millennia later. All of Christ’s followers are to do what the apostles and members of the early church did: preach the Gospel, share their faith with the lost, and make converts.

So, yes it is good to get along with people. But it’s better to get along with God. It’s certainly safer in the long run.

That is why we can say without any doubt or fear, “The Lord is my Helper, and I am not afraid of anything that mere man can do to me.” (Hebrews 13:6 TLB)


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