Yesterday, our reading ended with Stephen, a man filled with the spirit, a man with a servant’s heart serving as a deacon, preaching the Gospel so convincingly in the Freedman’s synagogue that, lacking a good answer to what he was saying, they trumped up charges and brought him before the Council (the Sanhedrin). What happened next?
A heart aflame speaks to stiff necks — Acts 7
The whole Sanhedrin waited to hear Stephen’s defense against the charges of speaking against the Temple, the Law, and the customs handed down (the rabbinic traditions). What they heard was a brilliant sermon, 90% of which was a recounting of their most beloved and familiar biblical stories. What they didn’t expect was the “stinger” at the end, when Stephen pointedly noted the common thread running through all of these stories — the rebellion and stiff-necked rejection of everyone that God had ever sent their way, now climaxing in the last rejection of God’s Messiah and Son, Jesus Christ. His point cut them to the quick and enraged them; but when Stephen saw the Lord in a vision and spoke about it in their midst, it proved to be too much for their self-control and they took him out and stoned him, making Stephen the first Christian martyr.
Now it could be argued that Stephen might have saved his own life by being a little more gentle in his presentation. There might even be some today that would argue that he would have done better to have merely been diplomatic, denied the trumped up charges, and gone home. I would argue that Stephen did exactly what he was supposed to do, what the Lord expected him to do by speaking up about Jesus and confronting them with their sin. I’d also argue that his confrontory style was exactly as it should have been. With gentle hearts and souls a gentle approach will produce repentance; but with stony hearts jack hammers and dynamite are their only hope. Note also that sometimes the very thing that the Lord requires us to do, can get us into trouble with authorities and other around us; the Gospel sometimes causes a fuss. We must be careful to not avoid telling the Gospel just because it might cause a fuss or make us unpopular — men’s souls depend on it. Would you be willing to risk a fuss over the Gospel?
From Jerusalem to Samaria — Acts 8:1-24
Far from stopping the “contagion” of the Gospel, the outbreak of persecution only scattered the thousands of disciples back home to their native lands with the Good News. Philip, also one of the men appointed as a deacon earlier, was among those scattered and he opted to go to Samaria and preach the Gospel. There, probably because of earlier work of Jesus Himself (remember the Samaritan woman at Sychar?), many new disciples were baptized into Christ including a magician named Simon. Having “given birth” to this group of disciples, Philip then sent for the apostles to come and teach them the things they still needed to know (Matthew 28:18-20 — “…All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…”). When Peter and John came and began to not only teach but also give them gifts from the Holy Spirit (miraculous knowledge, prophecy, miraculous tongues, etc.), Simon’s old nature pointed out a wonderful business opportunity — buy this ability to distribute the gifts of the Spirit. Peter, of course, rebuked him severely, called upon him to repent, and told him in no uncertain terms that this was not his ministry.
Lessons? First the Gospel is for all, even Samaritans. Do you have “Samaritans” in your acquaintance, they need the Gospel, too. Second, the gifts from the Holy Spirit apparently were bestowed only through the apostles’ hands (an apostle being an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection — see Acts 1:21,22. This would of necessity make the miraculous gifts only of relatively short duration on earth — only as long as there were apostles alive to put their hands on men and endow them with these gifts. We’ll talk more about this in future posts.
Look here is water — Acts 8:25ff
Philip didn’t stop with Samaria; he went where the Spirit led him and met up with an Jewish-Ethiopian nobleman returning from Jerusalem to his home in Ethiopia. As he was being chauffeured in his chariot he was reading from the prophet Isaiah — chapter 53 in particular. As Philip approached the chariot and heard him reading (you always read aloud in the ancient world) he asked the nobleman if he understood what he was reading, and he talked his way into a teaching opportunity. Philip picked up with Isaiah 53 and taught him about Jesus. Teaching him about Jesus apparently included what one did in response to Jesus’ death and resurrection, faith, repentance, and baptism; because when the Ethiopian spotted some water, he asked Philip to baptize him. After the Ethiopian’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Christ, Philip did baptize him. Immediately the Spirit swept Philip away to a “new assignment”, but the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing in his salvation and forgiveness and became the bearer of the Gospel to Ethiopia.
Lesson? First, use the opportunities God’s places before you. Speak up, be friendly and helpful, and teach God’s word. Second, baptism can and should happen as soon as the chance avails itself. When you see you’ve got dirty hands, you don’t wait until next month to wash them. When you know that you need to be forgiven, you don’t wait a month or two to respond to Christ’s command to be baptized and forgiven. It’s a spiritually critical matter.
How much faith and courage did Ananias have? — Acts 9
Chapter 9 starts with the conversion Saul of Tarsus. The first time we meet Saul, he is watching the coats of the men stoning Stephen. From there we see him only as a fire-breathing persecutor of Christianity. Eradicating Christians from Jerusalem wasn’t enough, he sought to go to other places and eliminate their heresy and blasphemy; so, after receiving the appropriate authorizing paperwork to arrest and punish Christians he took men with him to Damascus to serve God by getting rid of these disciples of Jesus (does John 16:2 sound familiar? — “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.”). But the Lord had other plans, appearing to him on the road with a message. Saul was temporarily blinded by this experience, but made his way into Damascus and waited. In the meantime, God approached a certain Ananias with a new mission for him, tell Saul of Tarsus what he must do to be saved. Ananias thought this was a mistake, that perhaps God hadn’t been reading the papers lately and didn’t know who this Saul of Tarsus was and what he was up to. And although Ananias was wrong about God being mistaken, you can certainly understand his reluctance to go speak to this Christian-hunter. Without a faithful (and I mean faith-full) and courageous Ananias, there would not have been an apostle Paul! Who are you afraid to tell the Gospel to? What should you (we all) do?
See you tomorrow, Lord willing.