The plot thickens like a novel filled with twists, turns and intrigue. This week’s section begins with God answering the prayer of the believers (4:29-30) who prayed expectantly for boldness to preach and for signs and wonders to be done through them. That’s exactly what the Holy Spirit gave them as they continued to teach daily that “Jesus is the Messiah” wherever people were gathered. The Spirit added new believers to this Jerusalem church daily. Can we too pray with a sense of boldness and expectancy? Yes, we can and should.
Nevertheless, familiar prejudices began to affect the church—from within and from outside. Prejudices, which flow out of the pride in our hearts, may be perceived or actual. Yet, allowing either to continue will tear through the bond of unity in a community of believers. Historical prejudices also block perspective and can stir up irrational emotions. Humility and justice are the opposites of pride and prejudice. We have a daily choice of feeding our pride and promoting our prejudices or walking humbly with the Lord and seeking His truth and justice. The Holy Spirit can guide any believer who humbly desires to recognize and remove prejudices from her own heart and behavior.
Read Acts 5:12-7:60 in one sitting to get the whole picture. As you do, read it patiently—give yourself enough time rather than rushing through it. Pray that God would open your heart to the truths He has for you from this text.
1. Discovering the Facts: List the various groups mentioned in the passage and their responses to the Spirit’s words and work through the apostles (implied, all of them).
Scriptural Insight: The reference to Peter’s shadow (v. 15) parallels such items as Paul’s handkerchiefs (19:12) and the edge of Jesus’ cloak (Mt. 9:20) — not that any of these material objects had magical qualities, but the least article or shadow represented a direct means of contact with Jesus or His apostles. (NIV Study Bible, p. 165)
2. Filled with pride (their jealousy over the attention given to the apostles) and fear over losing their political status and social position, the High Priest and his Sadducee associates act. Who is arrested this time? How does God respond to their arrest?
Historical Insight: The Sadducees, though small in number, were an aristocratic, politically minded Jewish group willing to compromise with secular and pagan leaders, including the Romans. They held the majority of the seats in the Sanhedrin, including the High Priesthood, yet denied the resurrection, angels and spirits. Feeling he threatened their status with the Roman government, they opposed Jesus (John 11:47-50). (NIV Study Bible, p. 1579)
3. How did the apostles renew the courage to return to the temple courts to preach after having been arrested? Relate this to their prayer in Acts 4:24-30.
4. Share Your Life: Can you expect the same results today? Share a time when you prayed for courage and/or the right words to say and God answered.
Focus on the Meaning: What weighed most of all with the apostles was their personal commitment to the risen Lord to be His witnesses, “We cannot stop telling what we have seen and heard.” (F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, pp. 96-97)
Deeper Discoveries: Examine Peter’s statement in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men,” using Romans 13:1-5, I Peter 2:13-17, and Acts 4:19-20; 5:29. How should we respond to the government when we have opposing views?
5. Compare Peter’s message here to the ones he’s given before (2:22-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12). Were the council members given the complete gospel message and an opportunity to respond to it?
6. How is Gamaliel regarded? See also Acts 22:3. Compare Gamaliel’s wisdom and motives with that of the Sanhedrin. What insight did Gamaliel have about the character of God?
7. Share Your Life: How does knowledge about God’s character help us in our daily living as we face difficulties?
8. How did the apostles feel after what they had been through (vv. 41-42)?
9. The Hellenistic (Grecian) Jews perceived some “prejudice” existed. How did the apostles respond to this? Describe the men chosen and how their work differed from that of the Apostles. Read Exodus 16-17:7 and ’s appointed leaders dealing with a similar situation and compare.
Historical Insight: The early Church was composed of three groups:
(1) Hebraic Jews—usually natives of Judea; spoke primarily Hebrew and Aramaic.
(2) Hellenistic (Grecian) Jews—Greek speaking and influenced by Greek culture, mostly living among the Gentile nations.
(3) “God-fearing” Gentiles—Gentile converts to Judaism, observers of most rabbinical law but not yet circumcised.
Prejudice existed between each of these groups, especially between the Hebrew “home boys” and the Grecian outsiders, who differed not only in language and culture, but also in regard for the Temple as their center of worship.
Deeper Discoveries: Use a Bible dictionary or commentary to find out more information about the differences between the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews. Keep these in mind as you study through Acts.
10. Share Your Life: Perceived and actual prejudices are barriers to true fellowship. What kinds of prejudices might exist in your local church community? Are you sensitive to any that do exist? Are your leaders aware of them? Ask Jesus to help you recognize any prejudices existing in your heart and behavior. Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you to know when and how to speak to leadership about these.
Deeper Discoveries: The Greek word used to describe the responsibility of these 7 men (“wait on”) is the verb diakoneo (to be a servant, to wait upon) from which the English noun “deacon” comes. Later Paul communicated additional qualifications for deacons to the church at Ephesus. Read 1 Timothy 3:8-13. What kind of men does Jesus want serving in leadership in His church?
Scriptural Insight: In previous times, the laying on of hands was used in many ways, including commissioning a person for a new responsibility. In New Testament times, laying on of hands was observed in healing (Acts 28:8), blessing (Mk 10:16), ordaining or commissioning (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Timothy 5:22), and imparting of spiritual gifts (Acts 8:17; 19:6; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). (NIV Study Bible, p. 1654)
11. How was God working in the new church through their wise handling of this potentially divisive situation? Why do you think so many priests responded?
12. Share Your Life: Maintaining focus on what is important to do and learning to delegate responsibility are not easy. If you serve in a leadership capacity (home, church, work, community), how are you at maintaining focus on doing what’s the important thing to do each day? How well do you delegate responsibility to others that is not necessary for you to do personally?
13. Discovering the Facts: List the events described here in order of occurrence, making note of the various people involved.
Historical Insight: The Jews living outside of Israel turned their religious focus from the Temple, having learned to live in their home countries without the Temple’s presence and relying on the synagogue meetings and the three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to fulfill their religious needs. They concentrated on the law rather than nationhood, on personal piety rather than sacramental rectitude, and on prayer as an acceptable replacement for the sacrifices denied to them. (NIV Study Bible, p. 1433)
14. Describe Stephen from the text (also v. 5) and the work God is doing through him.
15. What controversy did Stephen face in vv. 12-14? Read John 2:18-22; 7:22-23 and any other cross-references to see what teachings of Jesus that these Jews have misunderstood.
16. During the accusations, the members of the Sanhedrin glared at Stephen. What did they see? Remember he has just been accused of being disloyal to Moses. See also Acts 6:15, Exodus 34:29-35, and Luke 9:28-29.
Deeper Discoveries: What similarities do you find between the arrest, trial, and death of Stephen and that of Jesus? Give specific verses.
Deeper Discoveries: If you are unfamiliar with Old Testament history, Stephen reviewed the history of Israel in his defense (7:2-47), giving us a bird’s eye view of the Old Testament. Read these verses and note significant details Stephen gives to illustrate God’s progressive revelation and dealings with the Jewish people.
17. In the last part of his appeal, Stephen addresses the accusation made against him by discussing the place of the Temple in God’s plans. The Jews idolized the Temple as the very means of God’s saving presence among His people. What does Stephen say in 7:48-50 that explodes their view? Where does God live?
Think About It: If God changed so many things in Israel’s history, who is to say that the Law and the Temple were permanent? The Jewish leaders missed Jesus because they were unable to see God working. See 1 Corinthians 2:6-10.
18. Share Your Life: Do you tend to limit God to a building? If so, why? Do you tend to idolize anything the way the Jews idolized the temple? Discuss.
19. In verse 51, Stephen switches from “our fathers” (identifying with them as Jews) to “your fathers” (separating himself from those who had not accepted Jesus as Messiah). Now, what is Stephen’s charge against his accusers? To understand what this means, see also Philippians 3:3 & Romans 2:28-29.
Scriptural Insight: What does “uncircumcised in heart & ears” mean? Though physically circumcised, they were acting like the uncircumcised pagan nations around them in rejecting the very God who offers them life. Their hearts were not truly consecrated to the Lord. (NIV Study Bible, p. 1657)
20. How do the Jewish accusers respond to the message of the Holy Spirit given through Stephen? What grace did the Holy Spirit give Stephen at that moment?
From the Greek: “Witness” translates the Greek word marturia (bearing witness or testimony) from which comes our English word “martyr” — one who bears “witness” by his death.
21. Who is standing by to watch an innocent man die (Stephen’s execution, 8:1)? What does Paul’s presence signify?
Historical Insight: The Apostles may have been treated less harshly than Stephen because of prejudice against the Grecian Jews who devalued the emphasis on the Temple as the center of Jewish worship and sacrifices.
Think About It: At the beginning of this lesson, God miraculously delivered all of the Apostles from this same Sanhedrin that executed Stephen. Yet, He chose not to deliver Stephen. God is sovereign.
22. What clue is given in 7:60 about a believer’s death? See also 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.
23. Throughout this passage, we see Stephen possessing a supernatural calmness even in this life-threatening situation, all the while modeling spiritual maturity and wisdom. Who enables him to do this? See v. 55 and Hebrews 12:1-3.
24. Share Your Life: This same source is available to you in difficult circumstances. In what one aspect of your life do you desire to calmly reflect more maturity and wisdom? Spend some time this week asking God specifically to work on this in you, finding scriptural promises that you can claim. Trust Him to do what He has promised. Ask someone else to join you in prayer about this.
Deeper Discoveries: Crown is derived from the name Stephen (Greek, Stephanos). Research the background of the word “crown” in a good dictionary. Do a concordance study of the use of the word “crown” in the New Testament. Relate it to this event as well as to other Bible characters. Make some conclusions about its meaning to Christians.
Review the scripture passage covered in this lesson for evidences of the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. What will you ask God to do in your life?