Act: For the Cause of Christ #16

Acts: For the Cause of Christ #16

Title: Saul’s Conversion

Acts 9:1-31

Introduction:

Last time we were in Acts we looked at Acts chapter 8. Acts chapter 8 starts the transition of focus from the Jewish nation to the church at large as the church is being filled with Jews and Gentiles. But more specifically, Acts 8 is a look at two different professions of faith, Simon the Sorcerer in Samaria and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Simon professed acceptance of Jesus, but only sought the power of God without repentance to God. The eunuch was searching the Scriptures seeking to understand. The Spirit had been working in his heart and he was ready for the truth. We also saw that Philip was willing to go where the Lord lead, from Samaria to roads of the Judean desert, to traveling to towns and cities.

This week we look at chapter 9, and see the a new character in the narrative beginning his journey with Christ and that he will put the Cause of Christ before himself.

Saul’s Conversion and Baptism 1-19a

Luke brings us back to Saul. Saul isn’t satisfied with the believers that are that have remained in Jerusalem, he must go to other cities and hunt them down. In Acts 26:11 he says himself before King Agrippa, “…Since I was terribly enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.” It is thought that he was seeking to find those who escaped Jerusalem to bring them back to imprison them. So the papers he received from the High Priest were essentially extradition papers. This also could have letters of introduction to the synagogues in Damascus explaining Saul’s authority and mission. Either way his mission ended on the road outside the gates of Damascus. You’ll notice the that believers are referred to as “the Way”. This term is a reference for the new movement and is used at least 5 other times in Acts, it seems to be a term used by the early church to describe “their movement as way of life or way of salvation (Bruce, F. F., NICNT: The Book of the Acts; © 1988; p 181)”. I think it is also a reference back to Jesus’ teaching of Himself in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Near the city of Damascus, Saul and the men he was travelling with were thrown to the ground by a flash of light. We see in Acts 22 and 26 that they were nearing the city around midday when this light greater the sun flashed causing them to fall. Then Saul’s personal interaction with the Lord begins. Saul hears a voice calling to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Here is another example of the union Christians have with Jesus. The church is called the body of Christ. Saul, seeking to eliminate “blasphemers” of Judaism is fact attacking the body of Christ. In Colossians 1:24, Paul tells the church in Colossae that he rejoices in the afflictions and sufferings he endures, as it is his part of Christ’s suffering for His body, the church. When a believer is persecuted Christ knows it and feels it. John Phillips, commenting on the Colossians passage,  explains it this way, “As just one member of the body of Christ, Paul was suffering. But no member of a body suffers alone; other members suffer with it. If I cut my finger, my whole body feels it, especially the head, where the nerves register and interpret the pain. Paul was in prison and in pain. The Lord Jesus, the Head of the mystical body, felt that pain. Paul was suffering, and Christ was suffering. They were suffering together. Paul, in his sufferings, was helping to fill up the measure of the sufferings of Christ (Phillips, John., Exploring Colossians & Philemon, © 2002, p88)”. If this is true of Paul and his sufferings, then surely it is true of any believer being persecuted. Whether it is in China, North Korea, or Iran, or of the early believers in Jerusalem in the first century.

Saul does the natural thing and asks, “who are you lord?” Some think that Saul was offering a respectful “sir” as the word for Lord could be understood in that way. However I have a hard believing that this rabbinically trained Pharisee would have understood this light and voice to be a divine manifestation. In other words, Saul was addressing the speaker with Lord seeking Him to identify Himself. When the Christ identifies Himself as Jesus, Saul is confronted with the Lord of Glory, and his hatred is replaced with faith. Christ tells him to go to the city where he will receive more information.

The men traveling with Saul saw only the flash of light and heard a noise. They did not see Christ standing glory or hear His words to Saul. Saul, now able to get up from the ground, found he couldn’t see. Lots of times before we come to the Lord, or if the Lord is bringing an erring child back, the Lord has to break the pride of the person. There is nothing like a good healthy dose of humility to bring someone on their knees to the Lord. Personally, I think that is part of what happened here to Saul. The Lord took his sight for three days, he was humbled, he didn’t eat or drink for three days. We are told in verse 11 that Saul is praying during this time, so it seems to me that Saul is fasting and praying during this time.

In my head, if this were a movie or TV show, here we might get a fade to black to close the scene for the moment.

If we had a fade to black after verse 9, then here we would have a fade from black and a “Three days later” printed across the screen as Luke changes scenes here to introduce us to a disciple of Christ in Damascus named Ananias. It is believed that this man is a native to Damascus and not a “refugee” that had fled from Jerusalem. We don’t really know anything about him, he isn’t referred to as any kind of leader, he wasn’t an Apostle or deacon. He appears to be an “ordinary Christian”, but the Lord appears to him in a vision.

Ananias is at first willing. He is called, and he replies, “Here I am, Lord”. Then Christ tells him what he is supposed to do and fear comes in. Word of the persecution in Jerusalem has reached Damascus, and word of Saul’s mission to arrest followers of Christ had preceded his arrival to Damascus. Ananias was fearful, but sometimes the Lord asks us to do things we find uncomfortable or scarey, but who are we to question God or His plans? The Lord, in His mercy, explains to Ananias that He has changed Saul. Saul is now Christ’s chosen instrument to take the gospel to the Gentiles, kings and rulers, as well as to the Israel, and that Saul would have to suffer a great deal for Christ.

Ananias obeys and goes to the house of Judas on the street called Straight where Saul was staying. Calling him “Brother” Ananias identifies himself as a fellow disciple. It is important to note that Ananias is not the one commissioning Saul or healing his blindness. Ananias is merely the servant the Lord is using. The Lord is commissioning Saul, which is discussed in greater detail in 26:16-18 and connects to 22:14-16. Ananias lays his hands on Saul and the blindness is lifted and Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit. “It is significant that a non-apostle is the mediator of the Spirit. The church’s ministry is expanding in ways that mean that non-apostles will do important work. In Acts 8 it was baptism by Philip. Here it is laying hands on Saul so that the Spirit may come (Bock, Darrell F., BECNT: Acts © 2007, p 362)”.

Once he his sight was returned, he was baptized and after the baptism, he broke his fast taking some food and regained his strength. We should note that Saul was converted on the road to Damascus and there received the baptism of the Holy Spirit placing him in the Body of Christ, so this was water baptism after his conversion and the filling the Saul received here was not the baptism of the Spirit either, merely the Spirit filling him for his new mission.

Saul was sure he was doing the will of God by persecuting the believers, the members of the early church, but he was acting against God and attacking the Messiah. So the Lord confronted him and humbled him, bringing him to salvation and converting Saul from his former glory in legalism and good works.

Are you seeking salvation in the wrong places? Are you seeking salvation in the good things you do? Or are you a Christian who is living with some sin? Will the Lord have to humble you before you can see?

Saul in Damascus 19b-25

We see in these verses that Saul spent time disciples in Damascus; it’s possible that Ananias introduced Saul to the others. Luke doesn’t give us their reaction, whether they welcomed him with open arms or if they were suspicious and concerned as Ananias had been. But we do see what Saul was doing while he was in Damascus. He was proclaiming that Jesus was the Son of God.

We should note that this is the only place in the book of Acts where that specific title is used. “Other titles, such as ‘Christ’[or Messiah] (see v 22), ‘Lord’, ‘ Righteous One’, and ‘Judge’, are more prevalent (Bock, p365)”. It is possible that the message Saul was proclaiming here in these synagogues was similar to what is recorded in Acts 13:16-41 when Paul is in Antioch in Pisidia. “The title ‘Son of God’ is probably meant in terms of full ‘sonship,’ given its outgrowth from Saul’s vision in seeing the a glorified Jesus whom he had heard preached as the Son of Man at God’s right hand in Acts 7:56 (Bock, 365)”. If we look a little further down to verse 22 and use the Acts 13 passage as a guide, then the title also has a Messianic force with it as Saul was teaching in the synagogues.

The crowds were surprised that the persecutor from Jerusalem was now preaching Jesus as the Messiah. As I suggested earlier, it may be that Saul’s mission or reputation as a persecutor had reached Damascus before he arrived himself. It would be like a member of the ACLU beginning preaching Jesus. Saul continues to preach Jesus and grows stronger. That phrase isn’t about Saul’s physical strength, but is the idea of becoming a stronger, better preacher. So much so, that he was proving that Jesus was the Messiah and confounding the Jews he is debating. Here is also the first time the the term “Jews” is used as a separate group distinct from Christian believers. The Jews in Damascus plot to kill Saul. Saul escapes with the help of the disciples, by being lower down the city wall in a large basket, similar to what was used to collect the leftover food from Jesus’ feeding the 5000. Saul had to go over the wall as the gates were being watched constantly. This is also the first of several plots Luke notes in Acts, all by the Jews against Paul. We see here that apparently sometimes the Christians didn’t wait for martyrdom, but escaped to preach another day.

By looking at Luke’s writing here in Acts, it appears that there was very little time between Saul’s conversion and commission, his beginning to preach and then going to Jerusalem. But Paul’s own writings in Galatians 1:15-18, he tells us he spent 3 years in Arabia before returning to Jerusalem. Paul also tells us in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, that a ruler under the Nabataean King Aretas was guarding Damascus and was going to arrest him. So do we have a problem with Scripture? Aren’t these contradicting and shows that the Bible can’t be trusted? No. These apparent contradictions can be explained.

It is suggested by various sources that there is truth in each account as they are from different perspectives and purposes in writings. We need to remember first that, Luke is not detailing Paul’s entire career, but only major points that intersect with big events in the young church.  Since Luke is recording highlights of the church growth and movement, why would Paul’s three year retreat into Arabia be of interest to Luke’s account? It is suggested that Saul went to Arabia before this section of verses. So that Saul’s time in Damascus bookends his time in Arabia. We are not given and indication of how long a time passed between Saul being in Damascus until his being in Jerusalem. And if Saul’s preaching did create such a stir, why would someone “exclude the possibility that a regional leader such as King Areta might be concerned for the public peace. After all, Pilate in the end execute Jesus, but Pilate’s primary concern was for the public peace, an issue raised by many of the important Jews in Jerusalem (Bock, p364)”. At this point, I lean to the two visits to Damascus view, where Saul went to Arabia and then returned to Damascus to preach before having to escape for Jerusalem.

For Saul Damascus must have meant humility. He entered Damascus blind, being led by the hand as the Lord humbled him at his conversion. Now after he had been doing exactly what the Lord had commissioned him to do, he has to escape in hamper over the wall like a criminal. This was the beginning of the sufferings for the sake of Christ, for the Cause of Christ, that Saul would face in his lifetime. Later in 2 Corinthians 12:10 Paul says he takes pleasure in suffering and persecution for the Cause of Christ, “So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” And at the end of his life he reminds Timothy, “In fact, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12)”.

What are you willing to do for the Cause of Christ?

Jerusalem 26-31

After Saul was able to get out of Damascus he went to Jerusalem. This would have been difficult to do as he would not have many places to go. His former associates in the Pharisees may have heard of his time in Damascus and viewed him as traitor to the “true cause” of crushing the new movement. While Scripture is clear the disciples in Jerusalem were still wary and suspicious of him remembering him as the persecutor. They probably though he was playing the long con and just trying to infiltrate them to get the evidence he needed to arrest the whole lot of them.

Re-enter Barnabas. Again living up to the meaning of his name (the son of encouragement), Barnabas introduces Saul to the group. Now in verse 27, Luke says Saul was introduced to the apostles. It is generally thought the “apostles” is just a generalized plural, referring to the whole group instead of an individual. Again in Galatians 1, Paul himself says when he first went back to Jerusalem, he only met Peter (Cephas) and James, the half brother of Jesus. Now, this James is not an apostle in the strict sense that we think of Peter and John, but in the broader sense of a messenger. Barnabas introduces Saul and explains his conversion, his seeing of the risen Christ, and his ministry in Damascus. It has been suggested that Barnabas and Saul were familiar with each other from before as their respective homes were near each other (Cyprus and Cilicia), however no real evidence of this exists. So how did Barnabas know all this about Saul? Saul may have told him, or Barnabas had heard about Saul from others in Damascus. Whatever happened, Barnabas’ introduction was enough to calm the worries of the other disciples in Jerusalem.

Saul was now able to come and go as he pleased with the disciples, and we see that Saul didn’t waste much time before proclaiming the Jesus in Jerusalem. There is nothing in the language here that Peter or the others had any authority over Saul. In Galatians 1 Paul is adamant that he received his commission from the Lord and that he was on equal standing with Peter and the rest of the Twelve. Saul apparently decided to pick up where Stephen left off when he died, by debating with the Hellenistic Jews. They once again turned violent and tried to kill Saul. Why not? It got rid of Stephen and inflamed persecution against church. Except the chief persecutor was now on the other side of the debate. Once again, Saul had to flee. “Jerusalem was too hot to hold Saul (Bruce, p195)”. In chapter 22:17-21 we are given some additional information from Paul. At some point he was in the temple praying, and the Lord put Saul in a trance and probably by a vision warned Saul to flee as his life was in danger. Saul seems to protest, saying the he is known in Jerusalem because of the persecution, as that would be able to help him in his witness. The Lord tells him to go, because he will be sent to the Genitles. Then we find that Some of the disciples took to the port at Caesarea and sent him to safety to his home of Tarsus. Here in Tarsus we have to leave Saul for now. He exits. Stage right. Saul will re-enter the scene later in chapter 11

Luke gives another progress report here in verse 31.  We see that the church has come through it first test of persecution and has been strengthened. They church is at peace, but it is still working and growing. The church continues to grow in numbers and spiritually.

Notice that the summary of the church’s locations seem to parallel the locations given in 1:8. The church hasn’t gotten to the uttermost part of the world yet, but the areas of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee have been covered by the Gospel. In Acts 2 the gospel was opened to the Jews, in chapter 8 it was opened to the Samaritans, soon in chapter 10 it will open for the Gentiles. Saul is off-stage for the moment, as focus back on Peter, then Peter will fade into the background of Acts and Paul takes centerstage. The scene will shift from Jerusalem to Antioch. “God changes His workmen, but His work goes on. And you and I are privileged to be a part of that work today! (Wiersbe, Warren W., Be Dynamic © 1987, p 120)”

After his conversion, Saul constantly sought to find ways to be apart of the church body and to proclaim the gospel. He even debated the men that caused Stephen’s death, risking his own life. Saul was willing to risk everything for the Cause of Christ, what about you?

Conclusion:

Saul was sure he was doing the will of God by persecuting the believers, the members of the early church, but he was acting against God and attacking the Messiah. So the Lord confronted him and humbled him, bringing him to salvation and converting Saul from his former glory in legalism and good works. For Saul, Damascus must have meant humility. He entered Damascus blind, being led by the hand as the Lord humbled him at his conversion. Now after he had been doing exactly what the Lord had commissioned him to do, he has to escape in a hamper over the wall like a criminal. This was the beginning of the sufferings for the sake of Christ, for the Cause of Christ, that Saul would face in his lifetime.  After his conversion, Saul constantly sought to find ways to be apart of the church body and to proclaim the gospel. He even debated the men that caused Stephen’s death, risking his own life.

Are you ready to humble yourself before the Lord, or will the Lord have to humble you before you can see? Saul was willing to risk everything for the Cause of Christ, what about you?

Acts: For the Cause of Christ #15

Acts: For the Cause of Christ #15

Title: Philip’s ministry

Acts 8:4-40

Introduction:

Last time we looked at Stephen’s ministry, his speech and martyrdom. We saw through Stephen’s speech where he surveyed Israel’s history that the nation of Israel had a long history of resisting God, His chosen leaders, and His Word. This culminated with the Israel rejecting the promised Messiah when Jesus was on earth. Stephen’s martyrdom sparked persecution from the Jewish Leadership against the new church community, causing many believers to flee Jerusalem to the surrounding areas.

It has been said that Chapters 1-7 focused on Israel and the continued offering of the Kingdom to Israel. We have seen that Peter more than once was offering and hoping for the national salvation of Israel by the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Chapters 8-12 seem to be a transitional section of Acts, as the focus shifts from Jerusalem. From the Israel, to Samaria, then to the Gentiles; the focus shifts from Peter to Paul.

Today we start this transition as we look at Philip, who like Stephen, was one of the seven chosen in chapter 6.

Philip in Samaria 8:4-8

As we said last week, verse 4 is a transitional verse from the previous context of Stephen’s death and Saul leading the persecution against the church into this new phase of the church. The believers in Jerusalem were facing harsh persecution from the Jewish Leadership, and many fled the city. We see in an earlier verse that they spread primarily into the surrounding region of Judea and Samaria. Remember we said way back at the beginning of our series that Chapter 1:8 is a key verse of Acts and shows the general outline, that verse reads, “‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’” God used the persecution to send the church into the surrounding area to continue to spread the witness of Jesus.

In verse 5 Luke now focuses on one of those scattering, Philip. He was one the seven men chosen in Acts 6 to be responsible for the ministry of caring for the widows, this is not the Apostle Philip as the Apostles were remaining in Jerusalem. Luke tells us that Philip went to the Samaritans. Which specific city he went to, we do not know; there is a lot of speculation about which city Philip went to, but Scripture doesn’t tell us. We are told that Philip went preaching the Messiah to them. I shouldn’t say ‘preach’ here, in verse 5 the word used means to proclaim or announce as a herald. So Philip was God’s herald proclaiming the Messiah to the Samaritans. We need a little background on the Samaritans before we can continue:

“The Samaritans were greatly despised by the Jews because of their impure blood lines and their religious deviations from orthodox Judaism. Following the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 BC, the largely depopulated region was resettled by colonists brought in by the Assyrians from various part of their empire (II Kings 17:24). They intermarried with the Jews who had been left behind and the “Samaritans” were their descendants. the rebuilding of the temple and the walls at Jerusalem brought opposition from the Samaritans and eventually a rival temple was built on Mt. Gerzim. Ever since, Jews had “no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9), and the feeling was reciprocated. Thus for Philip to share his faith with the Samaritans was a most uncommon acts” (Kent Jr, Homer A., Jerusalem to Rome: Studies in the Book of Acts, © 1972, p 78).

Like the Apostles and Stephen, Philip’s preaching and teaching were accompanied by signs and wonders. God used Philip to heal paralytics and to cast out demons. The point is not the signs and wonders, but the Word of God. The Samaritans paid attention to Philip because God was doing signs through him, giving Philip and platform to preach and teach. Miracles and signs do not save. The Word of God leads to salvation. As a result of Philip’s teaching many Samaritans believed and were baptized.

Simon the Sorcerer 8:9-25

Here in verse 9 Luke introduces a new character. Luke simply calls him Simon, Church History, however, calls him Simon Magus or Simon the Sorcerer. Early church fathers have labeled this man as “The Father of All Heretics” and claimed he was an originator for the Gnostic heresies. Scripture doesn’t tell us much about this man other than what Luke has given us here. Luke does tell us Simon did practice sorcery in this city that Philip was ministering in at some in the past and perhaps at the same time as Philip. Maybe Simon was gone when Philip first arrived and missed the start of Philip’s ministry. We don’t know. We do know that the Samaritans paid a lot of attention to Simon, from the rich and powerful to the common. They even said that Simon’s power came from God. We don’t know if this man was a fraud or actually practicing the occult aided by demons. We see in verse 13 that Simon also claimed to believe and was baptized, though most question the validity of his faith and salvation.

News reached Jerusalem and the Apostles that the gospel had been preached in Samaria and that their were believers as well. The Twelve hadn’t to validate the truth of this news, and sent Peter and John to investigate. I think they also wanted to make sure that the message the Samaritans were believing was that same truth as they were teaching. It is also suggested that Peter and John went to validate, but were assuming that there was no concern over the belief of the Samaritans. Peter and John were satisfied with what they saw and heard. Whether they knew Philip was there before they arrived we don’t know. Philip drops from the scene for awhile and we will see him again in verse 26. Verses 15 and 16 need to be understood carefully. As we stated earlier, this is a transitional section in Acts, and we need to remember that Acts itself is transitional from the Old Testament dispensation of Law to the New Testament and the Church. The Apostles prayer allows God to show his acceptance of the Samaritans; and the laying on of hands, followed by the Spirit’s confirmation, seem to show fellowship with and identifies these new believers as part of the new community. The sign gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit being shown is such a fashion is not the normal happening at salvation. Though the passage does not specify, I think it is safe to assume that evidence of the Spirit coming on the Samaritans was similar to the upper room in Acts 2 and as we will see with Cornelius and his family in Acts 10. Some link this back to Peter’s presence and tie his presence with Cornelius in chapter 10 to Matthew 16:18-19 where Christ “commits” “keys to the kingdom of heaven” to Peter; therefore Peter “unlocked” the door for the Jews in Acts 2, the Samaritans here in Acts 8 and the Gentiles in Acts 10, because after Acts 10 and 11 Peter fades out of the narrative of Acts and Paul begins to take an important role.

After the Holy Spirit descended upon the Samaritans, Simon the sorcerer comes to Peter and John with a proposition. This encounter leads me to think that Simon had only given lip service. His commitment to Christ and the Gospel only went as far as to make sure he was included with everyone else. Sure he was baptized, Philip probably baptized Simon himself. I’m not faulting Philip, there is no account in Scripture of Philip being faulted for baptizing Simon. Philip took Simon’s word that he had accepted Jesus as Messiah and Savior and baptized him. But if Simon had truly been saved, he may or may not have received sign gifts from the Spirit, but he would have understood that the Spirit is not given by men, and certainly cannot be bought. God gives the Spirit. Look at Peter’s response in verse 20. Peter tells Simon he hadn’t really been converted. Simon wanted to continue his powerful influential lifestyle and wanted “in” with the Apostles and wanted to be able to do miracles and give the power of the Spirit to others. He was a counterfeit that Satan was using to try and influence the Samaritan congregation. Peter, very likely through the power of the Spirit, was able to see through him. Simon was more concerned about getting out of judgement than being right with God. He asked Peter to pray for him instead of repenting and praying himself. Simon is an example of someone so close to the gospel and never accepting it. Simon is a negative of example given in Scripture.

After the confrontation with Simon, Peter and John headed back Jerusalem continuing to preach the gospel in Samaritan villages and cities. Though he is not mentioned here, it is possible that Philip was going with them. Because in the next verse Philip is told to go take a specific road from Jerusalem to Gaza.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch 8:26-40

Verse 25, gives us the idea that Philip returned to Jerusalem with Peter and John, but the Lord had a special assignment for Philip. Then in verse 26 an angel appears to Philip and tells him take the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. This road is apparently somewhat desolate as Luke refers to it as the desert road. Philip obeyed. As he was on the road he came across an Ethiopian caravan heading home. This caravan was for a eunuch of high office, the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. It is suggested that the name Candace is a name of a dynasty. It is thought this is not the Ethiopia we think of today, but the ancient civilization of Nubia, which was south of Egypt. This eunuch was evidently a proselyte of Judaism as we are told he was in Jerusalem to worship. There is disagreement over whether he could be a full proselyte and be a literal eunuch or if the term is being used in another way, like taking a vow or celibacy. We don’t know for sure, but I think it is likely the literal term of eunuch is the meaning here. If he was a eunuch in the literal meaning, then he could never have been fully accepted into Judaism as a proselyte. Either way, Philip saw him, the caravan had evidently stopped, and heard the eunuch was reading from Isaiah. The Spirit prompts Philip to go and talk with him.

I used to have an image in my head of the the chariot or carriage going at full speed through the desert and Philip running up to it and jumping on board. Maybe the Spirit gave him some supernatural help for Philip to do that.

Philip did run up to the eunuch, maybe he saw the servants were almost ready to start the journey again. Philip asked the man if he knew understood what he was reading. Look at verse 31. He needed a guide, someone to explain what Isaiah was talking about in the passage we know as chapter 53. “Isaiah 53 describes our Lord Jesus Christ in His birth (vv 1-2), life and ministry (v 3), substitutionary death (vv 4-9), and victorious resurrection (vv 10-12)” (Wiersbe, Warren W., Be Dynamic, © 1987, p 105). The eunuch seems to be focusing on the verse 7 and 8 of Isaiah 53, and didn’t understand Whom the prophet was speaking of. The Lord had prepared this man’s heart for Philip to explain the gospel and tell him about Jesus Christ.

The explanation of Who Jesus is and the gospel seem to happen as they were traveling. They were getting near the water and the eunuch asked about baptism. Now here we have a problem with the text. Some versions have verse 37 in the text and some have verse 37 in the footnote or with some reference material someplace else on the page? Verse 37 only appears in manuscripts from the West. It is not in a large portion of very reliable documents, and is thought to not original to Luke’s writing of Acts. It is thought that this verse was added sometime in the second-century when the practice was to have a confession of faith from a convert before baptism was administered. For our purposes today, we will include the verse, so reading from verse 36… Philip baptized the eunuch there. This is another example that baptism comes after salvation. Whether verse 37 is original or not, the eunuch must have made some profession of faith to ask about baptism. Baptism is by full immersion into water for those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior to make a public statement of following in obedience to the Lord.

The Spirit performed a miracle with Philip, after the completion of the baptism Philip is caught up or carried away. This is the same verb Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians in describing the rapture. This miracle shows us that God is still at work. The eunuch is unable to form a relationship with Philip, but continues home rejoicing in his new relationship with God. A relationship the Judaism would never have given him. It is thought that this eunuch went home and shared the gospel there giving cause to start the Ethiopian Church. Our chapter ends with Philip being seen next at the city of Azotus which was located about twenty miles north of Gaza and thirty-five miles west of Jerusalem. However, Philip the Evangelist doesn’t stay still. He keeps going north and preaches the gospel in cities and towns until he came to Caesarea where he settles down. We see him again briefly in still in Caesarea having started a family there, in Acts 21.

Conclusion:

Acts chapter 8 is part of the transition of focus from the Jewish nation to the church at large filled with Jews and Gentiles. But more specifically, Acts 8 is a compare and contrast of two different professions of faith, Simon the Sorcerer and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Simon professed acceptance of Jesus, but only sought the power of God without repentance to God. The eunuch was searching the Scriptures seeking to understand. The Spirit had been working in his heart and was ready for the truth. We also see that Philip was willing to go where the Lord lead. From Samaria to roads of the Judean desert, to traveling to towns and cities.

Are you a Simon? Have you only made a profession with your mouth and haven’t actually accepted Jesus Christ as Savior? Or are you like the Ethiopian searching the Scriptures looking to understand, needing someone to explain things? Or do you know someone like the Ethiopian needing a Philip? Are you willing to be a Philip? Are you ready to share the gospel when the Lord opens a door? Are you ready to follow His direction?

Acts: For the Cause of Christ #14

Acts: For the Cause of Christ #14

Title: Stephen

Acts 6:8-8:3

Introduction:

We left off in Acts halfway through chapter 6. In this section we saw how there was suspected partiality in the church around the serving of the widows between the Greek/Jewish members and the Hebrew/Jewish members. The complaint went before the Apostles. The Apostles wisely told people that their primary responsibility was to preaching the Word of God. They instructed the people to choose seven men “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom” to be leaders and to take over this ministry.

The members of the church agreed and 7 men were chosen: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus. The Apostles approved the selection, prayed over them and laid hands on them to show they had authority in this ministry. We were left with a kind of progress report of the church in verse 7 with hearing that the Word continued to spread and the disciples in Jerusalem continued to grow and that a number of priests were converted. Now we look at how one of these men was such an influence that he was brought before the members of the Sanhedrin to defend the faith.

Stephen Accused – 6:8-15

Stephen demonstrates that though someone is involved in a certain ministry (the distribution of goods to members in need), that that is the only ministry that person cares about. Stephen knew that everyone’s ministry was spreading the gospel. Not only was he preaching and teaching, the Lord used him to do wonders and signs as to prove the God was apart of this new message Stephen and the others were presenting.

Now Stephen didn’t just contain his preaching to the Solomon’s Porch in the temple complex, he also went to area synagogues. Trouble came from at least one synagogue. The grammar in verse 9 is not clear as to the number of synagogues that are involved, suggestions have ranged from one to five. For our purposes today, we’ll assume only one synagogue is mentioned, Freedmen’s Synagogue or Synagogue of Freedmen. It has been suggested that this synagogue was opened by Jewish slaves, or descendant of Jewish slaves, that were captured by Pompey in 63 BC when he captured Judea for Rome, and were then freed sometime later. There are four nationalities mentioned here, Cyrenians and Alexandrians (these seem to be the majority of people in the synagogue), as well as people from Cilicia and Asia (or Asia Minor). The reference to Cilicia causes some to think that Saul of Tarsus went to this Synagogue, as Tarsus was the capital of Cilicia, but would a self-described “Hebrew of Hebrews” go to a Hellenist Synagogue?

The opposition to Stephen, and the gospel, seems to be that men from this synagogue tried to debate and argue with Stephen and couldn’t.  Verse 10 tells us, [read 10]. Here is a verse to remember when you are discussing the gospel with someone, another reminder that the Holy Spirit will bring the things to say when we need it. So, Stephen’s ministry turned out to be just as controversial as Peter’s and the Twelve.

Because these men could not defeat Stephen’s wisdom (ultimately it was the Spirit they were debating), they plotted against him. They, like the scribes and chief priests with Jesus, get false witnesses to testify and spread a lie about what Stephen was saying. They raise a charge of blasphemy saying Stephen speaks against Moses and God. It is likely that a broad sense of blasphemy is in play here as Moses is listed first (and is likely in reference to the Mosaic Law). We see in verse 13 that it is further “explained” as the law and the temple. This charge stirred up the people, who had given their favor to the early church in the previous chapters, and the elders and the scribes. Stephen was brought be before the Sanhedrin, this is the third time a member of the early church has brought before the ruling council of Israel since Pentecost.

Before the Sanhedrin the false witnesses testify that Stephen speaks against the temple, and the law. The charge is a perversion of a statement Jesus, which was also used against Jesus at His trial (Mt 26:60-61), think they got the same false witness?

Verse 15 gives us a unique expression within the New Testament. It suggests that Stephen had some appearance about him like he was somehow reflecting a small part of the glory of God. It has been suggested that the Sanhedrin would have thought of Moses and how his face shown when he came off Mount Sinai, that it was almost like God was telling them that Stephen was not against Moses. I think no matter what, Luke is saying that Stephen was innocent of the charges brought against him. It is also likely that Paul would have told Luke about this later.

Could you be a Stephen? Are you willing to be a Stephen?

Stephen’s Speech – 7:1-53

Patriarchs – 1-19

The High Priest, Caiaphas, asked Stephen if these blasphemy charges were true. Stephen did not give a direct answer, instead he gives a defense of each charge against him by surveying Israel’s history. There are several disagreements over apparent discrepancies within Stephen’s speech. I am not going to tackle these arguments here, however one view is that Luke without error, recorded Stephen’s whole account, errors and all. I, however,  disagree with that as Stephen being full of the Spirit is such an important part of the narrative, it would be unlikely that the Spirit would have allowed such errors in this speech.

To answer the charge of blasphemy against God he begins with the Abraham and the Patriarchs. He starts by referring the Lord as the God of glory, and recounts that God called Abraham from false gods and lifestyle of the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia. This should have been a clear example that Stephen certainly was orthodox with his faith and respect of the God of Israel. He stresses the God’s will and purpose would be done. He shows that God would still complete His purpose despite the usually sinful actions of people. Even the patriarchs who sold Joseph into Egypt. However while in Egypt, part of God’s promises were coming true as the Hebrews flourished and multiplied until a new Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews.

Moses and Israel – 20-43

Stephen spends a large portion of time dealing with Moses and the law as this was a point he was accused of blaspheming. His testimony showed his belief in Moses’s ministry and the divine occurrences surrounding it and the giving of the law was as good as the Sanhedrin themselves.

However, Stephen reminded the Sanhedrin that children of Israel routinely resisted God’s dealings with them and His chosen leader. Stephen goes on with how the nation rejected Moses and worshipped idols. He tells the Sanhedrin that he is not the blasphemer as he accepted Moses’ prophecy of a coming Prophet (see verse 37).

Stephen then just moves ahead in the history to the time of exile. He reminds them again that the nation continued to sin and worship false gods and break the covenant again and again until the Lord disciplined them in exile.

God’s House – 44-50

In addressing the charge about the temple, Stephen reminds the council that the superstitious reverence for the building was contrary to Solomon for in 1 Kings 8:27 Solomons himself says, “But will God indeed live on earth? Even heaven, the highest heaven, cannot contain you, much less this temple I have built.”

Stephen reminds them that the Tabernacle was the only structure ordered by God to be set up for worship. Their ancestors carried into the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership, King David sought to build a permanent structure, but Solomon was the one to build the first temple, which as a far grander building the one that was in use in Stephen’s day. Stephen quotes Isaiah 66:1-2 reminding the Sanhedrin that God had no need for a physical building. Stephen again shows his high view of God as he calls Him the Most High, this is a reference back to a Hebrew name for God ‘El elyon’ which is usually translated as ‘God Most High’ in our english versions.

Still Resisting – 51-53

Stephen applied this historical truths to his audience. He had shown how the Israelite ancestors had routinely disobeyed God. Stephen told them that their ancestors had killed the prophets who foretold of the Messiah, and then when the Messiah came the Sanhedrin Stephen now stands before had killed the Messiah. He accused his listeners have have the same rebellious spirit as their forefathers, he even uses a term found in the Old Testament in Exodus 33:3, 5 and Deuteronomy 9:6, 13; he calls them stiffnecked people. This is the idea of stubborness, or unable to turn or bow one’s head. With the stern rebuke of stiffnecked, he calls them uncircumcised in heart and ears. He’s saying the spiritually they are no better than the unbelieving gentiles.

Are you stiffnecked? Are you resisting what God is asking you to do? Are you resisting accepting Jesus Christ as Savior?

Martyr and Dispersion – 7:54-8:4

Here the whole thing breaks down. It seems that Stephen’s accusation of Israel continuing to resist the Spirit, to resist God, causes such outrage that it appears as though they interrupt him. He is unable to continue as he does not talk about Jesus or the resurrection, which has been the case with each of the previous recorded speeches in Acts. God, at this point allowed Stephen a vision of heaven. Stephen was able to see God’s glory and throne and see Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. Stephen does the obvious thing and announces what he see to his listeners.

This declaration by Stephen that he saw the Son of Man, the Messiah, standing next God in heaven was the final straw for the people in the council chambers, this for them seems to be actual blasphemy and they react. At this point any pretense of a legal procedure breaks down into a mob mentality. It is interesting to note that Stephen accused them of being uncircumcised in ears, and then they actually covered/stopped their ears at his declaration of his vision. It isn’t clear as to whether the council chambers were closed, or if there were spectators observing. Some think that the Sanhedrin themselves are the ones who stopped their ears and dragged Stephen outside the city, others just refer to ‘the crowd’. Either way, whatever the Sanhedrin had in mind to do breaks down into a lynch mob as they dragged Stephen outside the city gates; this is a clear reference from the Mosaic law for how to stone a lawbreaker (Lev 24, Num 15, Deut 17). What about the Romans? Weren’t all capital cases suppose to go to the Roman Authorities for execution, as in the case with Jesus? At this point, there was no consideration of consequences, at this point the ‘trial’ had dissolved to mob violence. Obviously there were some members of the Sanhedrin or members scribes, Pharisees, and others there as the witnesses (those who heard the ‘blasphemous statement’) laid their feet at the feet of Saul of Tarsus. As he did with Barnabas in chapter 4, Luke subtly introduces his readers to a new character, and the ‘hero’ of the second half of Acts, here by mentioning Saul.

While they stoned him, Stephen echoed the actions of Jesus first by calling out towards heaven and asking Jesus to receive his spirit. This is similar to Jesus on the cross when He cried out “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Lk 23:46)”. Stephen then on his knees, prayers for his attackers. Here is following Christ’s teaching and emulating Him. In Luke 6:27-28 Christ says, “But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” And Luke 23:34 records, “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing’…”. With this forgiveness of his attackers, Stephen dies. He is remembered as the first Christian martyr.

Luke then notes Saul’s approval of the stoning of Stephen, this seems to be the spark and the leader needed for outright persecution of the new community by the Jewish Leadership. This is introducing a new phase for the spreading of the Gospel. The city of Jerusalem has been pretty well saturated at every level by these witnesses of Jesus. It was time spread out from Jerusalem, and this new persecution was a catalyst as we will see next week. But we this passage is the culmination of the increasing opposition and hostility towards the church. “We have moved from a warning (4:21) to a flogging (5:40) to martyrdom (7:58-60) to persecution (Bock, Darrell L., BECNT: Acts, © 2007, p 317-318)”. This new persecution against the church caused the church to scatter and spread throughout the region. The passage says “all except the apostles were scattered”, why the apostles stayed is unclear. They may have decided to take the risk of persecution and continue witnessings as leaders in Jerusalem, they may have been left alone since they were so well known, or there is thought that the Hellenistic Christians were the ones taking the brunt of the persecution; however, there isn’t clear evidence for any of these lines of thought.

Next we see that some devout, but unnamed and unspecified number of men took Stephen’s body and gave him a proper burial. They then mourned him or “lamented greatly”. This is the idea that we see in the Old Testament of sackcloth and ashes. Jewish tradition allowed for the burial of one who had been stoned, but not lamenting. “Their act is both defiant and a statement of their perception that Stephen was righteous (Bock, p319)”. This kind of mourning and lamenting could go on for about 30 days (Deut 34:8).

While this was happening Saul was leading the persecution against Christians in a severe way. The term that is used is the idea of damaging or spoiling something. We will see in Acts 9 that Saul is working with the approval of the Sanhedrin. Saul’s dragging people of to prison foreshadows what will happen later in Acts in other cities. The seriousness of his work is really shown by the house-to-house search he used.

Verse 4 here of chapter 8 is a transitional verse. It connects the immediate context with what will be discussed in the following section. We are shown good that is coming from the persecution and the scattering, as we see that those who were fleeing Jerusalem still preached the gospel. The persecution does the opposite of what it was intending to do. Instead of stopping the gospel, it assisted in the spreading of the gospel. “Persecution correctly handled by the church can do that (Bock, p320)”.

When’s the last time you shared your faith? When’s the last time you shared the gospel? Was it when you felt safe? Would you share if it was unsafe?

Conclusion:

We’ve seen how God can use one person for the Cause of Christ. Could you be a Stephen? Are you willing to be a Stephen? We’ve quickly surveyed Israel’s history and seen how though there were those you followed God, much their history is an example of turning from God, and resisting God. Are you stiff-necked? Are you resisting what God is asking you to do? We have seen how proclaiming God’s truth can rather unpopular, and at times not safe. When’s the last time you shared your faith? When’s the last time you shared the gospel? Was it when you felt safe? Would you share if it was unsafe? What are you doing for the cause of Christ?