Scales from the Eyes – Acts 9:1-19a

As a political and news junkie, I am much familiar with the commentary in print and TV of Kirsten Powers. She does not come from anywhere near my point of view on the spectrum of issues, though lately I have found myself surprised several times by a different tone and perspective. It really has caught my attention and had me going “hmm… not what I would have expected her to say on that one.”

On this very day that I am writing this devotional article from today’s reading about the incredible conversion of Saul – known to us later as the Apostle Paul – literally, immediately before sitting down to write about this passage, I stumbled upon an article that gave the story of Kirsten Powers trusting in Christ. The full article about how this confirmed atheist was chased down by God and recently came to faith may be found by clicking HERE. Let me share a couple of the quotes:

“I was not looking to be a Christian. The last thing in the world I wanted to be was a Christian. … When I went away to college, whatever little faith I had, I lost. … All my friends were secular liberals. At this point, I really got even more deeply into an incredibly secular world because now, all my friends were basically atheists, or if they had any kind of spirituality, they were very hostile towards religion, Christianity in particular. So, I really didn’t have any interest in it.”

Through a friend who drew her to attend Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC where Tim Keller is pastor, she began to hear new truths and consider new ideas.

“Really, it was like God sort of invaded my life. It was very unwelcome. I didn’t like it. … It’s kind of hard to describe, but I did have this moment where the scales just fell off of my eyes, where I was saying, ‘this is just totally true, I don’t even have any doubt.’ … If I could have avoided it, I would have. There is nothing convenient about it in my life or in the world I live in. It’s not like living in the South where everybody is a Christian. I live in a world where nobody is a believer. But God pursued me.”

God pursued her. God pursued Saul. God pursued you! As I shared in the devotional writings in the previous sermon series called “Cross Words,” it might seem like we found God … as we talk about salvation in that way. But the reality is that God found us. We see, only because we are able to see because God has removed the “scales” from our eyes. It is all a work of grace. God is in the human reclamation business.

The other part of this story in Acts 9 that I so much like is that of this fellow named Ananias. He is given just about the worst assignment imaginable. Saul had become famous for his antagonism and harsh treatment of Christians. And God calls up Ananias and says that Saul of Tarsus would be ringing his doorbell. How would you feel if you found out that you were going to be visited by North Korean President Kim Jong-un? (I guess you could throw some NBA games on TV and he’d be happy, but you get the picture!)

God does not always give us easy assignments. But there is no safer place than in the center of God’s direction in your life through obedience to Him. God has a plan for all of us.

Saul’s Conversion — Acts 9:1-19a

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision,  “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

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God’s Networking Plan – Acts 8:26-40

The expansion of the early church could be somewhat likened to the modern growth of online social or professional networks. I almost daily get invites and updates from a professional network called “LinkedIn” – though I’ve not been very active with it personally. But with such tools, people connect with other people and so on … until before long, there are even millions networked one to another.

Of course, God’s “salvation network” is the Gospel message, that when received in faith networks the new believer to the body of Christ – the Church. And the book of Acts details how this network grew – both in numbers and ethnically.

The very first believers were folks with a strong Hebrew Jewish background. We soon see that there are Hellenistic Jews in the early company of Christians – these being ethnically Jewish people who had adopted the Greek culture and language of the Roman world. Today’s passage will give the story of a proselyte coming to Christ – this being a Gentile who had fully adopted the Jewish faith and God as the one true God. In the soon-coming story of Cornelius there will be the inclusion of a “God fearer” – one who believed in the one true God, but who had not become Jewish. And finally we will see the Gospel extending to fully Gentile peoples. So … Hebrew Jews >> Hellenistic Jews >> Proselytes >> God Fearers >> Full Gentiles. Cool stuff!

We today read about an Ethiopian official of some high office who had travelled many miles to Jerusalem to worship and was now on his way home. This was quite a long journey, and it certainly indicates a person very serious about faith and knowing God. Such is also evident by his study of Scripture, as in this passage he is laboring over the meaning of Isaiah 53:7,8 – about the prophecy of Christ as the Lamb of God. Philip is divinely placed in the path of this man to explain this passage in the preaching of the Gospel and the completed work of Christ. The Ethiopian gladly receives the truth and publically proclaims his faith through baptism.

I would make two observations today about the heart of God – each of which should encourage us personally, as well as in the work we share of the spread of the Gospel.

1.  Notice the vast heart of God in this expansion of the Gospel. This was not simply a message for the Jewish people, the descendents of Abraham … it was growing to be universal for all lost peoples. God always had a heart for the nations of the world. His desire was that Israel be a missionary nation to the countries around them, but they blew that assignment over and over. But this new message of Christ’s forever payment for the sin of all people presents a great new era of a message of God’s abounding grace. And Luke is recording the growing network of believers – this new program of God called “the church.”

2.  Notice the warm heart of God for the individual. Here was a man with a passion for truth and for knowing God. Though he lived remotely from the center of what God was doing, the Lord did not lose him in the crowds of humanity, but rather orchestrated divine circumstances that this one man may know the plan and work of God.

How great it is to know the God who cares both about the masses of people in the world, yet also is the God of the individual worshipper … and that should certainly encourage us today.

Philip and the Ethiopian – Acts 8:26-40

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopianeunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” [37]   38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

If you are a really careful reader, you may have noted that verse 37 was omitted. In some manuscripts it is contained and says: Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”  This would appear, from the evidence of manuscripts containing it, that this is likely a later addition and was not in the original writing of Luke. In any event, you can see that there is no theological controversy attached to these simple words.

Better than Dropping Bombs on the Heads of People (Acts 8:9-25)

My closest friend in pastoral ministry (and thousands of miles of marathon training and running) is a fellow from a family with whom my extended family has been friends for many, many decades. We together grew up in the same small New Jersey country church, later migrating together to a different ministry where we each followed dissimilar roads toward pastoring two congregations in our home town. Being older than me, he served in Vietnam along with his brother and brother-in-law. My friend was a marine platoon leader with incredibly intense front-line war experiences, while his brother served as a pilot dropping tons of bombs upon the Viet Cong. Later in life, his brother would become the president of World Vision, and all of them have been involved with returning to Vietnam – bringing relief work and the preaching of the Gospel to the very people who had been enemies some decades before. That is the sort of change that the Gospel can bring about!A

Today’s reading tells the story of the Gospel spreading through Philip, the first real missionary, to the area of Samaria. You will recall that these people were a sort of mixed race crowd from a Jewish background and the infusion of conquering Gentile nations. The Samaritans were also despised and looked down upon by the Jews. Remember the surprise of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman in John chapter four – along with explanations about how the Jews had nothing to do with these people? But now, the message of Jesus had come to them and many had believed and expressed their faith publically through baptism.

Among those making this profession was a fellow named Simon – a guy with the “humble” sobriquet of “The Great Power of God!”  He had ability in the magic arts, perhaps even empowered by demonic spirits? But he was amazed at the ability of Philip to perform signs and wonders – these being gifts particular to this age of the establishment of the church prior to the completion of the written Word of God.

At first glance, this appears to be a fabulous conversion story. But when John and Peter come from Jerusalem to affirm these new believers, the Spirit’s power is even more profoundly evident through them – especially through their God-given ability to lay hands on people that the Spirit may come upon them in new power. The heart of Simon is revealed when he offers money to Peter and John to receive this sort of amazing power for himself and his carnival act. As is evident in the reading, Peter REALLY condemns him for this.

Even in the early church, it is interesting to see that not every last person was one of genuine faith. It has always been true that some embrace the accoutrements of the faith for a measure of personal or public gain that comes with it, rather than for actual repentance from the lost condition of sin that separates one from God. It is sobering.

But as we leave this reading, note the final verse 25 – After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages. This is the last we will see of John in the book of Acts; but compare this ministry here with a story also written by Luke in his Gospel account, chapter 9: 51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them.

What a change the Gospel brought about! Here is John, no longer wanting to drop bombs on them, but rather ministering and serving with the wonderful new message of the work of Jesus. The Gospel enables us to see people beyond them being the “Viet Cong” or the “Samaritans” of our worlds – seeing people as simply lost and in need of a Savior whom we know.

Simon the Sorcerer – Acts 8:9-25

Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. 12 But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

25 After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.

Kill The Preacher! (Acts 7:54—8:8)

Anyone who preaches long enough is going to have some experiences where his words are not appreciated for some reason – fair or not. I have had a couple of those experiences. Years ago in New Jersey I had a Mother’s Day sermon go awry. I forget the point of application, but it was not a warm and fuzzy one like what was expected, and there was an outcry of insensitivity among the women of the church! Maybe I deserved it. I remember another occasion where I had a group of people up front patting me on the back for a passionate and pointed sermon on some other topic I’ve since forgotten, while a different group in the foyer was gathering a posse to get elder authority to run me out of town. It happens, but I have never had one with quite the reaction that Stephen received … “Let’s just kill him now!” His message hit them so heard and with such accusation that their rage was immediate and deadly.

So Stephen becomes the first martyr of the Christian Church, though certainly not the last. We tend to be oblivious in the West that this happens regularly to our brothers and sisters in Christ in other parts of the world. An example currently is in Egypt, involving the persecution and deaths of Christians in that country. It is a horrible thing for sure, yet today’s passage demonstrates the glories of heaven that await those who pass from this life to the next – to real life with Christ.

A literary devise that Luke uses in writing Acts is to give prominent characters (who appear later on in the account) an opportunity for a brief “walk-on” role. And so, he notes that a young fellow named Saul was there and in hearty agreement with all that was happening. As well, the brief mention of Saul’s energetic engagement in going house to house to drag off Christians sets the later stage for why Saul/Paul would not find a warm welcome in Jerusalem … hence his growth and discipleship and evangelism would occur far beyond – in places like Antioch, Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, and even Rome.

The final words of Christ during his ascension announced the great commission of the Gospel to be spread by witnesses from Jerusalem – to Judea, Samaria, and far beyond. A positive outcome of the persecution against all the Christian community on this day was the expansive widening of the message of the Gospel, as the people were forced to scatter in every direction of the ancient world. The picture could be of a boot coming down upon a fire, only to see the sparks fly in every direction and set multiple other fires in surrounding dry timber.

Tertullian – the 2nd Century church father – famously said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”  This has been a truism throughout all the years since. Millions have given their lives for the faith, and wherever this has happened, the faith has grown, not shrunk. We could look to the Republic of China for the modern era illustration. The house church movement with millions of adherents testifies to the power of the Gospel over what Martin Luther famously penned as “this world with devils filled.”

We have lived in a unique time where our faith has been accepted by the surrounding culture. And though we see the very clear and troubling erosion of this undergirding cultural foundation, we are still freer of persecution and hatred than the average Christian has experienced over the past two millennia. Will it take persecution in our town squares and upon our doorsteps to live as the witnesses we are called to be by our faith in Christ? Or will we be faithful to use even times of peace to be “Matthews” who bring our friends to meet the Savior?

The Stoning of Stephen – Acts 7:54—8:8

54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him.

The Church Persecuted and Scattered

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

Philip in Samaria

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.

The Long History of Wrong Choices: Acts 7:1-53

On the day that I am writing this, there is a video that has gone viral on the web of a Baptist preacher in the south somewhere who verbally “went postal” on this congregation. He mocks and berates them, saying, “Son, don’t you go to sleep while I’m talking. Hey, hey, hey don’t you lay your head back. I’m important. I’m somebody.”  To another person sitting near the front he says, “You’re one of the sorriest church members I have. You’re not worth 15 cents!”  It is pretty bizarre to be honest.

But there are times when the person charged with being the spokesman for God is in a situation where he has to say what is really the truth. And today we see Stephen flat-out giving the world’s most in-your-face sermon to the religious leadership of Israel. It proved to be the proverbial Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that knocked over the lantern that burned down the city. So let’s get a quick summary of what was so incendiary about his remarks.

Recalling our reading yesterday, we remember that Stephen has been accused of speaking against the traditions of Moses and of inciting the destruction of the Temple. He is hauled before the same Sanhedrin council who warned John and Peter to shut up – having them flogged also. And of course, this same group condemned Christ as well.

So Stephen goes into a rather extended speech/sermon – beginning with Abraham and the events that took the nation to Egypt. Of course it was in Egypt where Moses rose to prominence, ultimately leading the nation out of bondage. Of this favorite and most venerated figure in their heritage, Stephen reminds them of the nation’s rebellion against his leadership. This is the first instance of a long pattern of such insolent behavior.

And regarding the Temple, Stephen recalls to their attention that God instituted the Tabernacle that travelled with them and contained the Ark of the Covenant down through David’s time. It was David’s passion that brought about the Temple – ultimately built by Solomon. It is not like God needed some place in which to dwell, since he is the creator of everything. Stephen is essentially telling them their fascination was too much upon a structure and not enough with pure hearts tuned to obedience to the God honored by the structure!

As the sermon is getting a bit long – not unlike some of my own where I spent maybe too much time on the introduction – Stephen lands this baby really fast – like a 747 on a dirt airstrip!  It builds to a climactic moment where he asks which of the prophets their ancestors did not persecute – even killing some of those who predicted the coming of the Messiah! And now, this generation – YOU GUYS – have done them one better by betraying and killing the Messiah Himself!

In seminary, we were taught to seek to bring sermons to an ultimate point of conviction and application. A question to ask is what the preacher wants the audience to think, feel, and do. Well, Stephen’s audience thinks he is a heretic, feels overwhelming hatred, and acts as a mob to kill him on the spot.

Standing for the truth in the face of power and opposition is difficult to do, but sometimes it becomes the calling of God upon our lives. Could you do it?

Stephen’s Speech to the Sanhedrin – Acts 7:1-53

Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”

To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’

“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.

“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the good will of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.

11 “Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12 When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. 13 On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. 14 After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15 Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. 16 Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.

17 “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. 18 Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’ 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.

20 “At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.

23 “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’

27 “But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’  29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.

30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’  Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.

33 “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’

35 “This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.

37 “This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’  38 He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.

39 “But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’ 41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:

“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
43 You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.

44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.  47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.

48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: 49 “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?50 Has not my hand made all these things?’

51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

Rumor Has It: Acts 6:8-15

“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus told His disciples, “so I send you” (John 20:21 KJV).  To be a messenger of Jesus means to face the same challenges and rejection that He faced.

Stephen was one of seven men selected to serve as a bridge between the Greek-speaking “Hellenists” and the rest of the church.  These seven men were also from Greek background, so they “fit right in.”  What the disciples were to the whole church, these seven were to the Greeks.

Acts 6:8-15  And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.  9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.  10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.  11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”  12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council,  13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law,  14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”  15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

The synagogue was a local house of prayer and learning.  If the temple gave the Jews a sense of spiritual unity, the synagogue gave them a sense of spiritual diversity.  In Stephen’s day, there were roughly 400 synagogues operating in Jerusalem alone—each with its own unique flavor.  The synagogue mentioned here was run by “Freedmen,” most likely founded by former slaves or prisoners of war.

The Jews were threatened by the early Christians.  The Jews enjoyed an uneasy peace with Rome.  Jesus had tugged at the threads of the social fabric.  Now His followers threatened to unravel it entirely—unless, of course, they could be stopped.

When their arguments could gain no traction (v.11), they turned to rumor.  They  accused Stephen of saying that Jesus would destroy the temple—the centerpiece of Jewish religious and national life.   The religious leaders had probably heard Jesus predict the temple’s destruction (John 2:19), so there was enough truth here for the lie to be believable.  Still, Jesus never said that He would destroy the temple.  The rumor was designed to make Stephen look unspiritual and unpatriotic.

Do the details of Stephen’s trial sound at all familiar?  They might remind you of Jesus’ trial before the Jewish leadership.   As Christians, we follow a Savior who was misunderstood, mocked, then executed.   How did you expect your life to turn out?

Ask the average person what the world could do without—what do you think they’d say?  The answers would  almost certainly include “religion.”  Extremism is dangerous.  No one wants to be a religious fanatic.  Christianity is increasingly being defined by its opponents—recast as an intellectually backward, sexually repressive, morally regressive band of homophobes.  Just like the lie told of Stephen, it doesn’t have to be true—it only has to be believable.

But if the gospel is true, we need not fear such challenges.  Why?  Because Christ’s sacrifice clothes us in His righteousness.  We have God’s approval—who else’s do we need?  This tells us at least three things about living in a hostile world:

  • Our reputation is secure.  Because of the gospel, God labels me “righteous.”  What does it matter, then, if others label me a “fanatic?”  Who I am in the world’s eyes doesn’t change who I am in God’s eyes.
  • The gospel gives us the power to offend others, if that’s what they need.  The gospel is offensive to an unbelieving world(Galatians 5:11).  It makes us uncomfortable to make others uncomfortable.  But if I have God’s approval, I don’t need to fear the consequences of sharing my faith with outsiders.
  • Christ wins.  Jesus has already been through this before.  He conquered sin and the grave.  His resurrection tells us that no matter how bad things get, it’s not the end of the story.  He really will make all things new.

The gospel gives us the confidence to follow Christ in a hostile world.  Therefore, let us pray that like Stephen, we can pray for boldness and confidence in sharing our faith with our world.

Crisis Management: Acts 6:1-7

Church division is nothing new.  The church had barely begun before church leaders faced a crisis:

Acts 6:1-7  Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

In first century culture, men married young.  Women often outlived their husbands.  Leaders in Jerusalem had established an early form of “welfare” to care for these widows.  But there was a cultural problem.  The “Hellenists” had embraced Greek culture and language, while the “Hebrews” had maintained their Jewish roots.  Because of this division, the Hellenists thought that their widows weren’t getting a fair shake.

Today’s church is no stranger to complaints.  The music is too loud.  The music is too soft.  The speaking is too deep.  The speaking is too shallow.  The toilet paper unspools in the wrong direction.

In today’s individualized society, preference trumps purpose.  How often have you found yourself looking for a church that “satisfies your needs?” And these are hard expectations to live up to.  Social scientist David Wells observes that the role of the church leader has shifted from “shepherd” to the dual roles of “manager” and “psychologist.” In short, pastors are expected to be all things to all men.  The gospel takes a back seat to “crisis management.”

But the early church understood that it could never live up to this ideal.  So they found a solution:

2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.  3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.  4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”  5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.  6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

Up until now, the church was a network of households.  But the church was expanding.  Social challenges had to be met.  The choosing of the seven was the first step toward greater organization.  The church would later call these men “deacons,” from a Greek word that refers to serving tables (see verse 2).

But these men were not chosen at random.  The choosing of the seven represented a very specific strategy:

  • Choosing Greeks: If you were living in that culture, you’d notice that all seven men had Greek names.  The men chosen to address the problem understood the culture they were addressing.  This was more than a “crisis management team.”  This was a strategy for healing division.
  • Focusing on the gospel: Did you notice the purpose behind the selection?  Read verse 4 again: “But we [the disciples] will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.”  The disciples would not permit a momentary crisis to overshadow their eternal purpose.

Focus on preference and you create a culture of consumers.  Focus on purpose and you create a family of disciples.  Today’s church is in need of leadership whose priority is the gospel.  How can you pray for your church leadership?

  • Spiritual strength.  It’s not just easy to “coast” on your natural skills and ability—it’s deadly.  A leader’s sense of value is often based on his last performance.  Pray that your church leaders would not measure themselves based on others’ expectations, but be continually refreshed in their identity in Christ.
  • Social support.  It truly is “lonely at the top.”  Leadership strains relationships, and pastors can suffer from feelings of woundedness and inadequacy.  Pray that your leaders find support in friends and family.
  • Skillful steering.  Like the early church, leaders have to pick their battles.  Pray that they have the wisdom to handle these crises, and maintain a clear focus on the gospel.

But above all, pray that leadership would be a continual source of joy.  Our passage concludes with the results of these leadership choices:

7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

When God Makes You LOL! (Acts 5:12-42)

There are certain passages of Scripture that are simply funny and about which you cannot help but LOL (laugh out loud). And this story today of the apostles being released from jail without the authorities knowing about it is a classic.

Again we see the power of the Spirit working through the apostles, particularly Peter, as they are involved in a teaching ministry over large groups of people, along with an ability to even grant healings for many afflictions. All of this is happening in the most public of locations in the temple. Great excitement must have accompanied all that was going on, and one can easily imagine how the blood of the religious leadership was beginning to boil.

Finally, filled with jealousy, they had tolerated enough and had the apostles thrown in jail. But during the evening, an angel allows them to escape without notice – past a locked door with guards. The apostles are commanded to go right back to teaching, which they begin in the temple at dawn.

As the Sanhedrin (the council of 71 consisting of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the high priest) calls for them to be brought up from jail for an appearance, word also arrives that the apostles are actually teaching in the temple! And the doors are still locked with the guards in place.

So the apostles are brought before the council to give an account as to how they had not obeyed prior directives to no longer teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter again answers as the spokesman for the group, rehearsing the same theme that they MUST bear witness of these things and of this resurrection of Jesus from the death inflicted by this very group!

Wanting to put them to death, it is one of their number – Gamaliel – who warns against this action. His reasoning is that if this teaching is false, it would fall apart. But if it was true, they would then be standing against God’s work. Time has of course proven the truth of the Gospel, and this venerable teacher of the Apostle Paul unknowingly spoke of their own condemnation as upon the wrong side of truth. (Understand from this passage that Gamaliel did NOT actually believe it was the truth – the Greek construction of the words and tenses makes this clear.)

The anger of the Sanhedrin is rising, and the council has them flogged and sent away with more stringent and restrictive orders. Of course, they are not going to obey this, as, in the words of Peter, they needed to obey God rather than man. The apostles continued to teach, the crowds continued to display the prominent work of these simple men, and the church continued to grow.

The apostles were showing the truth of the words and perspective that would later be verbalized by Paul in his writing – that the apostles were doing this in a power that made them virtually untouchable. Even if you kill such as these, they are happy because, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” May that be the kind of people we desire to be!

The Apostles Heal Many – Acts 5:12-42

12 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 15 As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.

The Apostles Persecuted

17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.”

21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.

When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.

25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.

27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

Church Life – the Good and the Bad – Acts 4:32—5:11

Today’s reading takes us from the mountaintop to the pit in just a short couple of minutes. We read of the incredible nature of church life amongst the earliest Christians, while also seeing the most sobering situation imaginable.

Jerusalem was an economically volatile place to live, and over time it would be the ongoing situation that among the churches of the early Christian world, the Jerusalem church was the poorest. And collections would be sent from other churches to the mother church for the sustenance of this congregation.

But today we read about the ways by which the first Christians cared for each other and met the needs of the entire gathered group (called here by the word “church” for the first time). The people were of one heart and mind. This is every pastor’s dream for his flock – to see the whole body live together in a covenantal community with one another (a theme for a sermon series in the fall). Their common experience of life empowered by the Holy Spirit gave them a sense of unity and oneness that drove them to give to one another whatever was needed. Generosity abounded. Those who had more were quick to do whatever it would take to help – illustrated by some who sold lands and gave all the proceeds to the Apostles for distribution.

Clearly understand that this was not required – at least not beyond a sense of duty driven by love. There were no rules that stipulated the wealthier were to necessarily live in this fashion of cashing resources. So it is incorrect, as some state of this passage, that this is an example of communism.

An exemplary person in this community was a fellow named Joseph (called Barnabas, meaning “Son of Consolation,” because of his gracious concern and encouragement of other people). He sold a piece of property, giving all the collected resources (as did the others) to the Apostles to wisely distribute where needs were evident.

As we turn to chapter five (remember that chapter and verse divisions are not inspired), we see the first word – “But”.  A husband and wife named Ananias and Sapphira likewise sold a piece of land, apparently driven by a desire for the affirmation that came with this sort of generous deed, and not as a result of love and communal commitment. We again see that it was not necessary to have done this, but the way they did it was to conspire to collect the assets of the sale, presenting only a portion of it to the Apostles while giving the impression that it represented a 100% gift.

Both lied about the matter when confronted by Peter – who somehow knew, most likely by divine intervention of knowledge of some sort. And both died and were buried. I grant that it seems at first reading to be an extremely harsh judgment, but God was establishing a principle both within and without the community that sin is serious … that sin will be judged. The effect upon everyone is mentioned twice – that a sober fear fell upon the people.

There are lessons for us for today. There is nothing quite so wonderful as a community that lives together in oneness of heart and compassion and support for one another. It was not like today where in a town filled with varied churches one can flip back and forth to fulfill personal preferences. There was but one body, and they were mutually committed to one another – living in a sort of covenant community relationship that needs to be recovered in the 21st century church.  And secondly, sin is a big deal; and the church is not about any one of us, it is about God. The church is not about personal affirmation, but is rather about serving in a way to promote and build the kingdom of God.

The Believers Share Their Possessions – Acts 4:32—5:11

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Ananias and Sapphira

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Caught in the Middle between “Have To” and “Dare Not” (Acts 4:23-31)

Peter and John had handled themselves extremely well before the authorities – all in the power of the Holy Spirit as they were surely given the words to speak. At the same time, it must have been a frightening experience. You’ll be glad to know that I’ve never spent the night in jail, but I would have to imagine it is a scary thing to do.

Being released from the hands of the religious leadership, the dynamic duo returned “to their own people.”  Featured among the conversation with this “insider” group of the early believers of the church was the rehearsal for them of the severe threats given if they continued to preach in the name of Christ.

The stark nature of the dilemma was this:  They had to obey God’s command as his witnesses of the truth of Jesus Christ and the resurrection, yet to do so would put them in the crosshairs of angry people with the power to even kill them. These chief priest and elders were the same bad boys who maneuvered to get Jesus onto the cross less than two months earlier.

So, in a situation like this, what does one do? They turned to their first impulse – to pray. Here are the essential points of their prayers:

–          God, you made everything, so you are the top authority…

–          God, you taught us through the prophets that the rulers of this world would hate the Messiah and work against him in every way…

–          God, we did indeed witness how the people in this very city did conspire against Christ…

–          God, we know that this was only done and allowed by your grand plan…

–          But God, you’ve heard what they have threatened and how it is pretty clear that they don’t like us one little bit…

–          So God, we need boldness that only you can give, in order to accomplish deeds that can only be done through you working through us in powerful ways.

And we see that God blessed that prayer, and affirmed them with the shaking of the house.

The preaching of the Gospel will always be a fearful situation in the context of a world that (in the natural condition of condemnation of sin and alienation from God) hates Jesus Christ and often the people of his name. We are a minority by holding on to a biblical worldview – an oft despised minority as well. We need power and boldness beyond ourselves, and we gain that through the first impulse of prayer.

The Believers Pray – Acts 4:23-31

23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.’  27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.