Acts: Christ at Work Through His Church

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Preface to Acts

I have a good friend who is a relatively new Christian. Some time ago he set out to read through the New Testament. He read Matthew, Mark, and then Luke, but he was so eager to get to the Book of Acts he skipped John. I can understand exactly why he was so anxious to get to this very exciting New Testament book. There is no other book like it. It describes the birth of the church, and the transformation of discouraged and fearful followers of Jesus into fearless preachers of the Gospel. Acts provides us with biographical insight into the lives of those men who wrote the New Testament, and an account of the birth of many of the churches to which New Testament epistles were written. Perhaps most of all, the Book of Acts describes the ministry of the Holy Spirit in and through the Church, convicting men of sin, converting men and women to faith in Christ, and giving courage and clarity to the apostles, who had the awesome task of committing the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ to written form. Here is a book that you can hardly put down, one that has informed and inspired saints down through the ages.

Acts is full of surprises. God will not be put in a box by men. God is not there to be used by men, as they go through the right sequence of spiritual steps. God uses men, rather than to be used by men, as Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8) learned. The apostles and disciples of our Lord met together to choose a replacement for Judas, and Matthias was chosen by lot (see Acts 1). There is good reason to conclude that God set aside the church’s choice, raising up Saul, a man that the apostles found hard to accept as a fellow-believer, let alone an apostle (see Acts 9). When the early church had a problem of inequity in the feeding of its widows, the apostles had the church select seven men, to oversee the care of the widows, so that they, the apostles, could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6). And yet it was two of these men who were appointed to free up the apostles who were most instrumental in the proclamation of the gospel among the Gentiles (Acts 7 and 8). God will not be put in a box. If the Book of Acts teaches us that God has great power, which He demonstrates in and through the church, the Book also teaches us that God’s presence and power is sovereignly bestowed on men, and that those who would seek to manipulate God for their own gain are living very dangerously.

Acts is not so much a “how to” book as it is the documentation of how our Lord continues to minister to His church through His saints, by means of His Spirit, in ways we would never have expected. It is a great book. Let us listen and learn with open hearts and minds, looking to His Spirit to make His thoughts our own, as we study this magnificent portion of His Word.

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1. Getting Ahead of God (Acts 1:1-26)

The Importance of the Book of Acts

One can hardly overstate the importance of the Book of Acts or its contribution to the canon of Scripture. Let me mention just a few of the reasons why Acts—and thus our study of this book—is so important.

First, Acts (combined with the Gospel of Luke) makes up over one-fourth of the entire New Testament. Luke/Acts is really one work in two volumes (remember that only so much could be put on one scroll, just as only so much can be recorded on a cassette). If this one work makes up over one-fourth of the content of the New Testament, the principle of proportion alone tells us that it must be very important material.

Second, the Book of Acts provides us with a vivid account of the radical change which took place in the attitudes and actions of the disciples, who were passive and almost invisible after our Lord’s death, as described in the Gospels. The Peter who would deny his Lord in the courtyard of the high priest, who would hide behind locked doors after Jesus’ death, and who would “go fishing” after His resurrection, is a very different man in Acts 2, where he boldly proclaims Jesus to be the Christ and announces to his audience that they were guilty of His death and were facing divine judgment. The transformation of the Lord’s disciples is evident in the Book of Acts.

Third, Acts is a crucial book because it is the only book in the New Testament which fills in the gap between the Gospels and the Epistles. The Gospels end in Jerusalem with no church, a few Jewish believers in Jesus, and a group of disciples who are still living, as it were, in the past. The Epistles, on the other hand, depict a growing number of churches made up of mainly Gentile believers and a group of disciples who are boldly proclaiming Christ as Israel’s Messiah, and as the Savior of the Gentiles as well. Only Acts fills in the gaps, to explain how these changes took place. We would not understand the Epistles apart from the Book of Acts.

Fourth, Acts provides us with an inspired account of the transition of the gospel from a largely Jewish context to a gospel which is universal, not only embracing the Gentiles but becoming, for a season, a largely Gentile phenomenon. We begin in Jerusalem with a handful of Jewish followers of Jesus. The Book of Acts ends in Rome, with a number of Gentile churches having been founded, and a predominantly Gentile Christian community. The Book of Acts describes this transition: geographically, from Jerusalem to Rome; theologically, from Israel to the church; and racially, from Jews to Gentiles.

Fifth, the Book of Acts (in conjunction with Luke) gives us the history of the origin and nature of the opposition against the gospel by the Jews. One of the greatest and most frequent problems the New Testament church had to deal with was the opposition of the Jews, who resisted the gospel, and the Judaizers, who sought to pervert it. The Gospel of Luke (and the other Gospels as well) describe the roots of this opposition, which began as a resistance to Jesus’ actions and teaching. The Book of Acts shows how this opposition continued on against the gospel and the church after the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. What Paul does theologically in the Book of Romans, Luke does historically in the Book of Acts. We would never understand the nature of the problem which faced the church (which, incidentally, has its own forms today) apart from Luke/Acts.

Sixth, the Book of Acts provides us with a historical background for many of the churches which are dealt with in the Epistles of the New Testament. When we read the Epistles of Paul to the church at Thessalonica, or Ephesus, or Philippi, we know much about the church and how it started from the account which Luke has provided for us in the Book of Acts. Acts provides valuable background information for the churches that are addressed in the Epistles. It is often not difficult to understand the problems these churches are facing in the light of their birth and early years.

Seventh, the Book of Acts supplies us with some excellent examples of the apostolic preaching of the gospel. Gospel preaching is modeled in Acts. If we would follow the example of the apostles in proclaiming the gospel, then we will learn from Acts how it is done.

Eighth, the Book of Acts contains a dramatic portrayal of the power of God at work in the church through the Holy Spirit which began at Pentecost and which will continue until the return of our Lord. If the Gospels contain the account of God’s working through Christ (empowered by the Holy Spirit), the Book of Acts depicts Christ at work in the church through His Spirit. The beginnings of the “age of the Spirit” are found in Acts, and only in Acts. A small, fearful, unpromising group of men and women become a revolutionary force, transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit (including the resurrection of Christ by the Spirit—cf. Romans 8:11).

Ninth, the Book of Acts is an account of the fulfillment of our Lord’s promises to His disciples concerning the coming of the Spirit and His ministry in the world to and through them. During His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit. Near the time of His death, He spoke in much greater detail concerning the Spirit. After His resurrection, He commanded His disciples to “make disciples of all nations,” but not until after they were endued with power, for which they were to wait. The fulfillment of these promises is recorded in Acts.

Tenth, the Book of Acts is a forceful defense of the apostleship of Paul. If one were to read the Epistles of Paul apart from the Book of Acts, one would wonder who he was and what right he had to speak with such authority. The Book of Acts not only contains the account of Paul’s conversion (in three accounts), but it is an account of the way in which God appointed him as an apostle, in spite of the actions and early resistance of the other apostles. Acts provides Paul and his epistles with a credibility and authority which enhances their impact on those who would read them.

Eleventh, the Book of Acts describes how the purpose of God to save the Gentiles through Israel was accomplished, but in a way no one would have expected. It was not through the obedience of Israel that the Gentiles received the gospel but actually through their disobedience. The book gives us the incredible account of how God achieved the beginnings of a world-wide religion (rather than a small Jewish sect) by the opposition of the Jews, by their persecution of the saints, and even in spite of the actions and example of the Jerusalem church. It is an account of the sovereignty and power of God, using even men’s sin to accomplish His purposes.

Finally, the Book of Acts is vitally important because it has become a battleground for evangelical Christians. Acts is unfortunately a battleground for Christians. The charismatic Christians make it their textbook, while anti-charismatics try to minimize it as merely transitional. My opinion is that neither position is totally correct. Christian living is intended to be more supernatural than many non-charismatics say, and it is not as continually miraculous as some charismatics maintain (Acts itself is not riddled with the spectacularly miraculous). Whatever the greater works are, it is not in the realm of the spectacular.

It is for these and other reasons that the Book of Acts is vital for our understanding and our practice of the gospel. I look forward to this study of Acts with great anticipation. I ask that you commence this study with much prayer for an open heart and mind to learn that which God has here for us. I urge you to read and reread this great book as often as possible. May God grant that we find our lives transformed by the truths of this book, and even more, that we be drawn ever more closely to our Lord Jesus Christ and to His Spirit who now dwells among and within us who are saved.

Introduction to Acts 1

As I approach the study of the first chapter of Acts, one question overshadows all others, and it is this: Just whose name would be on the foundation in place of Judas? Who was the twelfth apostle?

In the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Revelation we read these words: The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Revelation 21:14).

In the first chapter of Acts we read of the selection of Matthias as the twelfth apostle, the replacement of Judas. Is the name “Matthias” the name which we will find on the twelfth foundation stone? Some would say, “Yes”; others, an emphatic “No!” Let us look at this chapter with this question in mind.

The Proportions of the Passage

Before we begin our study, I want you to take note of the proportions of the passage in light of the “principle of proportion.” Allow me to spell out this principle here:


Look at the principle of proportion in action in Acts, particularly in chapter 1. Of the twenty-eight chapters of Acts, only one chapter (the first) gives an account of matters prior to Pentecost. The remaining chapters depict Pentecost (2:1-4), its impact (2:5-13), its interpretation (2:14-40), and its implications (2:41–28:31).

If only one chapter is devoted to pre-Pentecost matters, this tells us something. Of all that could have been said that fits into this category, Luke chose to take up the greatest part of the chapter with an account of the selection of the twelfth apostle. It would seem to me that this must be, in the mind of Luke (and of the Holy Spirit who inspired this book), a very important incident, at least as it relates to the unfolding argument of the book. Thus, I will focus most of my attention in this lesson on verses 12-26, because this is where Luke has indicated the emphasis should come, based on the principle of proportion. The mystery is that as important as this incident seems to be, Matthias is never specifically mentioned again. The rest of the Book of Acts, and the Epistles as well, virtually ignore Matthias. Why then is the selection of Matthias given such editorial priority? We will find the answer to this question at the conclusion of our study. We will, however, begin by making a few comments on the first eleven verses as they provide the background and the context of the episode of the choosing of Matthias as the twelfth apostle.

The Position of the Passage

While it may not be necessary to do so, let me underscore the importance of our text in chapter 1 by pointing out that the selection of the twelfth apostle is not only the only incident which Luke recorded during the ten-day period of the disciples’ waiting, but it is the incident which immediately precedes Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, in chapter 2. If there is any importance by association—as there surely must be—then what comes in the immediate context of Pentecost must be important. The position of our passage is a clue to its importance.

Structure of Acts 1

The structure of Acts 1 can be summarized as follows:

  • Luke’s Introduction to His Second Volume (verses 1-2)
  • Jesus’ Post-Resurrection Ministry (verses 3-5)
  • The Disciples’ Question and Jesus’ Response (verses 6-11)
  • Filling the Vacancy of Judas (verses 12-26)

The Chronological Sequence of Acts 1

If we are to understand the events in Acts 1, it is important for us to gain a sense of chronological sequence. In verses 1 and 2 Luke referred to his previous volume, the Gospel of Luke, in which he covered a time span of approximately thirty-three years. That Gospel began a little before the birth of Jesus and of John, His predecessor. It gave some detail about the births of both John and Jesus. Only one incident in the childhood of Jesus was briefly mentioned, and other than this, the first thirty years of Jesus’ life are virtually passed by. The major portion of that Gospel pertains to the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, beginning with the introduction of John and the baptism and temptation of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke ends with the resurrection of Jesus and with an anticipation of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s Gospel, then, covers a period of time somewhat less than forty years, essentially dealing with the life of Jesus from His birth to His resurrection.

The Book of Acts takes up precisely where Luke’s Gospel left off. The first eleven verses of Acts 1 deal primarily with that forty-day period when Jesus was risen from the dead but had not yet ascended to the Father. Verses 12-26 are the only inspired account of that ten-day period of time (approximately)1 between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, some fifty days after the time of Jesus’ resurrection. The actions taken by the disciples occur during that point in time much like the four-hundred-year period just prior to Messiah’s coming to the earth. Jesus was now physically absent, and yet the Holy Spirit has not yet descended. It was during this period of time that Jesus had told His disciples to wait. They spent most of their time at the Temple (cf. Luke 24:52-53) or in that upper room, praying, and perhaps discussing the Scriptures. The one event which Luke chose to record for us was the selection of the twelfth apostle which, we must assume, was an event important to us, and most of all important to the development of the argument of this volume. Let us press on to see what we are to learn from this first introductory chapter.

Linking Luke and Acts

1 The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen (Acts 1:1-2, NASB).

The Book of Acts is clearly a sequel, a second volume to be read in conjunction with the first, the Book of Luke. The author is the same, as well as the recipient, Theophilus. The content of the first volume pertained to the deeds and the doctrines of the Lord Jesus Christ, ending with His ascension. Jesus’ final words, Luke tells us, were orders to the apostles He had chosen. These orders were given, Luke includes, “by the Holy Spirit.” Those orders were given in Luke and will be reiterated here shortly. The purpose then of Acts is to provide an account of that which Jesus continued to do through His church, by means of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus began to do and to teach, the Holy Spirit would continue to do, through the church.

A Review of Jesus’ Ministry after His Resurrection

3 To these He also presented Himself alive; after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. 4 And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:3-5, NASB).

Verse 3 tells us something very clearly which is of great importance: Jesus set aside once and for all the doubts of the disciples concerning the fact of His resurrection. In the Gospel of Luke, the disciples are doubtful as to our Lord’s resurrection to the very end. Mark’s Gospel tells us most clearly that the disciples’ unbelief was deep-seated and that Jesus found it necessary to rebuke them for it (Mark 16:14). Here, in Acts, Luke tells us the reason the disciples could be so entirely convinced about His resurrection. It was not just that Jesus rebuked them for their unbelief, but that He presented Himself alive to them on various occasions and over a period of forty days. This evidence was irrefutable. They were convinced. Never again does the issue of the fact of His resurrection arise with them. Indeed, from this point on they are the “witnesses of His resurrection,” something which they will repeatedly and confidently affirm (cf. Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39-42; 13:31).

Verse 3 also informs us of the content of the teaching of our Lord during those forty days. It is summed up by Luke by the use of the phrase, “the kingdom of God” (verse 3). Jesus commenced His ministry by announcing that the “kingdom of God” had come (Mark 1:15), much the same as John the Baptist had been preaching (cf. Matthew 3:1-2). Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God and found it necessary to continually correct the misconceptions of Israelites and even of His own disciples. Now, after His resurrection, Jesus spoke once again of that kingdom, which was still future. It is not just a matter of the very distant future, however, but a matter of the present as well. While the promises of the kingdom of God have not been fulfilled in 2,000 years since the days of our Lord, there were some present aspects of that kingdom of which our Lord must have been speaking. Surely Jesus was not talking only of the distant future with His disciples, but He was teaching them the things which they needed to know pertaining to the near future and to their ministries in particular. Thus, the “kingdom of God” must have included the ministry and message of the apostles, which would commence with the coming of the Spirit.

Not separate from the teaching of our Lord and the kingdom of God was the matter of the “promise of the Father” (verse 5), for which they were to wait. It was a baptism which the Father had promised, and thus a matter of Old Testament prophecy, but it was also one of which our Lord Himself had taught (“which you have heard of from Me,” verse 4). While Luke has some things to say on this matter, John’s Gospel is the most thorough on the matter of the Holy Spirit (cf. 7:37-39; chapters 14-16). This promise was a “baptism,” not one like that of John, but distinct from it. Jesus contrasted the coming of the Spirit and the baptism He (Christ) would perform through the Spirit, with that of John. Indeed, it was a contrast which John himself taught. John told his audiences that while he baptized with water, Jesus would baptize men with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This was the “promise of the Father” for which they were now commanded to wait. It would not be many days before this would come to pass.

The Disciples’ Question and Jesus’ Response

6 And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8 but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” 9 And after He had said these things, “He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; 11 and they also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:6-11).

One of the things about which Jesus must not have spoken was the timing of the coming of the kingdom. The disciples found it necessary to ask Jesus when the kingdom was going to come about. More specifically, they asked the Savior if the kingdom was to be established immediately.

It is the Christmas season as I write this message, and the poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” somehow comes to mind in connection with this question of the disciples. Just as thoughts of Christmas and the “coming of Santa” filled the minds of children on Christmas eve, so thoughts of the kingdom seemed to be dancing in the minds of the disciples. I am not certain their motivation for wanting the kingdom to come was much different than it was during the earthly ministry of our Lord. Perhaps the disciples were still thinking of power and position and prestige. It isn’t impossible. The resurrection of Christ need not have changed the attitudes and motivations of the disciples. As we shall see, even Pentecost will not produce all the changes which are yet to come in the lives of the disciples of our Lord. It would seem that the disciples were preoccupied with the kingdom, a “Jewish” kingdom2 (“restore the kingdom to Israel”), and an imminent one. How Acts will fill in the details here!

The timing of the kingdom was within the sovereign purposes of God, not to be known by the apostles. It is clear that knowing the time would not have been beneficial to them. What was within their realm of responsibility was to proclaim the good news of the gospel to all nations, and thus our Lord reiterated the Great Commission, not so much as a command, mind you, but as a prophecy of what was certain to come. The Holy Spirit would come upon them, bestowing power on them, and they would be witnesses to the nations. This was a certainty. It did not always happen consciously or voluntarily—even willingly—but it did happen. Acts is the historical account of how, in the wisdom of God, this was accomplished in spite of His disciples, as well as because of them.

It has often been noted, and rightly so I believe, that Acts 1:8 provides a geographical outline of the development of the preaching of the gospel and of the growth of the church, but also of the argument of the Book of Acts as well. The gospel will be preached in Jerusalem and Judea (Acts chapters 1-7), in Samaria (chapter 8), and eventually all the way to Rome (chapters 13-28). Luke gives us the key to the Book of Acts at the “front door” of this book, in Acts 1:8.

From the very outset of the Book of Luke, God’s intention of saving Gentiles, as well as Jews, has been indicated. The angel Gabriel (1:30-33) spoke of the Lord Jesus in terms of fulfilling Israel’s hopes; Mary spoke likewise (1:46-55). But the angel who spoke to the shepherds said, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people (Luke 2:10).

Jesus, in His first public announcement of His Messiahship in Luke 4, clearly spelled out that the salvation of the Gentiles was an inseparable part of the plan of God which He came to fulfill. Thus, Acts 1:8 spells out what Luke is going to report as the Book of Acts continues: The Holy Spirit will come on the disciples, empowering them to be witnesses of the resurrection and the gospel of our Lord world-wide, beginning at Jerusalem but extending to the ends of the earth.

The discussion ends with the ascension of our Lord. While they looked on, Jesus was taken up, into the clouds, disappearing from their sight. It seems as though the disciples must have stood there for some time, gaping into the clouds as though expecting Him to come back. The two angels who were present gently rebuked the disciples and sent them on their way with the assurance that the Lord Jesus would return in a similar way, but also informing them that their standing there, looking into the sky, was of no profit. No idle standing around waiting for the return of the Lord was sanctioned then. Surely such idleness is not of profit today either.

The Selection of the Twelfth Apostle

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. 14 These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. 15 And at this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, 16 “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 “For he was counted among us, and received his portion in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all who were living in Jerusalem; so that in their own language that field was called Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘LET HIS HOMESTEAD BE MADE DESOLATE, AND LET NO MAN DWELL IN IT’; and, ‘HIS OFFICE LET ANOTHER MAN TAKE.’ 21 “It is therefore necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—22 beginning with the baptism of John, until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these should become a witness with us of His resurrection.” 23 And they put forward two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias. 24 And they prayed, and said, “Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two Thou hast chosen 25 to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles (Acts 1:12-26, NASB).

Verses 12-14 give us a very general description of the activities of the apostles (and the broader group of disciples) during that ten-day “waiting period.” They went back to Jerusalem, as commanded, and went up to the “upper room,” where they, the eleven (verse 13), along with the women who had followed Jesus (cf. Luke 8:1-3; 23:49, 55-56; 24:1-10), Mary, the mother of our Lord, and His brothers (verse 14), waited. These men, who had not believed in Jesus during His life, had now come to faith.

There, in that upper room, this group of about one-hundred and twenty believers devoted themselves to prayer (verse 14). We are not told for what they were praying. It may well have included prayer that the kingdom of God would come (cf. Luke 11:2), but I suspect that it must have involved prayer for the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, based upon our Lord’s words recorded in Luke 11:

“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him” (Luke 11:13).

It was in the context of this prayer vigil that the twelfth apostle was chosen, as reported in verses 15-26. Many have debated whether this action should have been taken by the disciples. Below are some of the arguments for and against this action.

Factors in Favor of the Actions of the Apostles

(1) The action is taken by the apostles, of whom Peter is the leader.

(2) The decision is one that is concurred with by the entire group of one-hundred and twenty.

(3) The decision appears to be based upon a study of the Scriptures, prayer, and discussion by the entire group.

(4) There is subsequent mention of the twelve, which would appear to include Matthias (cf. Acts 2:14; 6:2).

(5) There is never any word of condemnation, rebuke, or criticism for the action which was taken here.

All of the above are reasons some would hold that the action taken by the group was appropriate. On the other hand, there are other factors which seem to question the wisdom of what was done. Among these are the following:

Factors Which Question the Actions of the Apostles

(1) The action taken was prior to Pentecost, before the Holy Spirit had come upon the apostles to guide them.

(2) The apostles were “taking action” when Jesus had specifically commanded them to wait, until the Spirit had come on them.

(3) Jesus had chosen all of the other apostles (cf. 1:2), and He had given them no command to choose a replacement for Judas.

(4) While there is a minimal reference to “the twelve” later on, Matthias is never again specifically referred to in the New Testament. Why is so much attention giving to the choice of a man who is then ignored throughout the rest of the New Testament?

(5) The context surrounding this incident does not suggest that it was a decision prompted by a command of the Lord, a biblical imperative, or the guidance of the Spirit. I have mentally labeled this section, “Doing What Comes Naturally.” It seems that the apostles were, along with the rest, acting on their own, apart from any clear imperative or command. In the immediate context, the disciples seem preoccupied, and Jesus had to turn their attention toward things other than what they had in mind. The angels had to spur the group on, rather than to stand on the mount, looking into the sky. The immediately preceding context suggests that the apostles still had things out of focus, while the immediately following context (Pentecost) informs us that the Spirit’s coming was not yet, and thus suggests that the apostles were acting on their own initiative, and not that of God.

(6) The motivation of the apostles might seem suspect, when considered in light of their past thinking and actions. You will recall from the Gospel accounts that the disciples were eager for the kingdom to come, but from a motivation of self-interest, from a desire for position, power, and prestige. They were even competitive with one another. Why then the urgency for the position of the twelfth apostle to be filled? It could be suggested that it was because the disciples felt the kingdom could not come until there were twelve apostles in place, so that there would be twelve thrones filled in order that the twelve tribes could be judged. This would be a reasonable conclusion, based upon our Lord’s words to the disciples in Luke 22:30, spoken shortly before His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion.

(7) While Peter’s interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures to which he referred may well have been sound, the inferences he drew from them are possibly more suspect. Jesus Himself linked Old Testament prophecy to His betrayal by Judas. He cited Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18 and 26. Peter seems to allude to the text in Psalm 41:9 cited by our Lord, but he specifically quoted from two passages from the Psalms. The first citation was from Psalm 69:25; the second was from Psalm 109:8. If Peter’s interpretation of these two texts as being prophetic is correct, I am not certain his interpretation necessarily follows from them. In the first citation from Psalm 69, the text Peter cited is this, “LET HIS HOMESTEAD BE MADE DESOLATE, AND LET NO MAN DWELL IN IT.”

(8) Now from the account of the fate of Judas, which Luke has given to us parenthetically in verses 18 and 19, who was it that made the homestead of Judas desolate? It was surely not the disciples nor was it anyone else who consciously did what they did in order to obey this prophecy. God fulfilled this prophecy. And so, when we come to the second statement, “HIS OFFICE LET ANOTHER MAN TAKE,” should we assume that there is anything called for here on the part of the apostles? I think not. If God fulfilled the first “LET …” from Psalm 69, why should the disciples feel obliged to fulfill the second “LET …” from Psalm 109? If the second citation were fulfilled in the same way the first was fulfilled, the disciples would not need to have done anything. I am not certain the Old Testament text requires anything of the disciples, but Peter and the others felt it did.

(9) The process used to choose Judas’ replacement seems somewhat suspect. At best, one can say that the selection of Matthias was carried out in an Old Testament fashion by the casting of lots. This method was never given to the disciples, nor is it ever found again in the New Testament as a means of determining who God has chosen to hold any office. The casting of lots allowed for a decision to be reached totally apart from divine intervention. Of course God can and does determine the outcome of the casting of lots (Proverbs 16:33), but is this the way God intended this decision to be made? The candidates were nominated, and the two candidates put before the Lord were chosen by the group, based on the requirements they themselves determined. They allowed God to choose between the two candidates. Somehow this seems sub-standard to me. The method employed by the group seems to put God in a box and to limit Him to the options men have placed before Him.

(10) Luke’s argument in Acts seems to challenge this action, because in Acts Paul’s apostleship seems to be affirmed at the expense of that of Matthias. Paul constantly stressed that his apostleship was the sovereign will and purpose of God, and not of man. He also spoke of himself as an equal with the rest of the apostles.3 And remember, Paul was also a witness of the resurrection of Christ, for he was stopped short by a vision of the Lord Himself, risen from the dead. If Paul’s apostleship is affirmed and Matthias’s apostleship is ignored, there is good reason to question the legitimacy of Matthias’ apostleship. There is at least some evidence to challenge the action taken by the apostles due to this emphasis on Paul’s apostleship.

Having presented the pros and cons of the legitimacy of this selection of the twelfth apostle by the one-hundred and twenty, we now must square off with the issue of who was right and who was wrong. Or must we? Notice that while we are preoccupied with this question, Luke does not seem to have been so troubled by the issue. Indeed, Luke presents evidence supporting both sides. And Luke never chose to pronounce on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of this action. Why? In my opinion, the answer is simply that it did not really matter, because it was not the real issue.

The feeling that we must pronounce on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of this selection of Matthias reveals a serious fallacy in our thinking. What real difference does it make whether the apostles were “right” or “wrong”? We seem to think it makes a great deal of difference. But does it? Do we believe the plans and purposes of God collapse when men fail to do the “right” thing? Do we really believe God’s purposes are achieved only when we do the “right” thing? Then we are wrong, dead wrong!

If the Book of Acts underscores any truth, it is that of the sovereignty of God, who works all things in accordance with His will, whether or not men believe or obey. Much of what the Spirit of God accomplished in the Book of Acts was in spite of men. God can just as easily use the “wrath of man” to accomplish His will as He can the obedience of man. The Gentiles will hear the gospel, and many will come to faith on account of the Jews. Not because of their faith and obedience, mind you, but ultimately because of their stubborn unbelief. As Paul will clearly teach in Romans 9-11, and as Luke will clearly demonstrate in the Book of Acts, it was the rejection of Messiah by Israel that made the preaching of Christ to the Gentiles possible.

In the matter of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the selection of the twelfth apostle, God was not obliged to use Matthias just because the one-hundred and twenty “rightly” chose him, any more than He would have been prevented from using him if they had “wrongly” selected him. I believe the account of the selection of Matthias is a key to the message of the entire work, the message that God was sovereignly at work, through His Spirit, to accomplish His will in ways in which men would never have conceived and which they would not believe even if they were told. In this way, God receives the glory, and not men. Is this not precisely what Paul concluded in Romans 11, after spending three chapters explaining the relationship of the Jews and the Gentiles to the gospel:

For just as you once were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! FOR WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? OR WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:30).

I believe Luke cites the incident of the selection of Matthias at the beginning of Acts because it is so typical of the way God will work throughout the book, and indeed, throughout the history of the church. Men may rightly or wrongly make decisions and take action, and God, in His sovereignty, is free either to use or to set aside their actions. God often sets aside the plans and purposes of men because they seldom, if ever, come up to the wisdom of God. That is precisely what Paul has concluded above. And it is what Acts will dramatically demonstrate for us as well. The Book of Acts is not the account of men so transformed that the growth of the church was inevitable. The Book of Acts is the account of the working of a sovereign God through His Spirit, by means of men, and in spite of them, to accomplish that of which men would never have conceived and in ways they would never have imagined. Acts is the account of the workings of a sovereign God, working through fallible men and women. This selection of Matthias is but the first of many of man’s plans (good or bad) which God will set aside for a better plan—His plan.


If I were forced to make a choice as to whether the apostles were guided by God to select Matthias as the twelfth apostle, I would have to answer in the negative. If I were asked whether the apostles thought they we are doing the will of God and were acting on the highest human plane, I would say, “Yes.” But that really is not the issue. It surely is not something on which Luke wants to pronounce, since he has simply reported what happened, without a word of commendation or condemnation.

To be perfectly honest, I believe many of the decisions we make and actions we take are of this same kind—they are based on our best understanding of the Scriptures and the situation, based on the best decision-making process we know, and done as though this were the will of God for us. Often times it will not be until much later that we will either see the hand of God at work in the matter, or we will not see it. While we do not always know, at the moment, whether God is in what we are doing, the really important thing is whether or not we are in what God is doing. When the purpose of God is evident, when God’s Word gives us a clear command, and when God’s Spirit has led the way, are we involved in what God is doing? The Book of Acts has much more to say about men getting in step with God’s plan than about God getting in step with ours. That is because He is God, and we are men; He is sovereign, and we are finite and dependent.

What we are talking about here is not unique to the apostles in their day and time. It is a phenomenon which is typical in our own time. Have you ever come to the conclusion, after much thought, counsel, and prayer, that God’s will for you was a particular line of work, or a particular mate, or a particular place, only to discover in time that such was not the case at all? Do you agonize over such decisions, or simply acknowledge that God’s will and ways are beyond our comprehension, and that we must, at times, continue to wait on Him to reveal His will clearly to us?

What we experience on a personal level, we also see happening on a corporate level. As a church we believe it is necessary for us to have certain organizational structures in place and certain programs in operation. We, as elders, may pray and talk and plan. We can, for example, organize outreach programs which seek to spread the gospel to the lost in our neighborhood. While we are responsible, I believe, to do such things in obedience to the clear commands of Scripture, we must always be alert to the working of God in ways beyond our ability to predict, plan, or execute. And when we see that God has been opening new doors, we need to be quick to move in these new directions, perhaps even setting aside our plans and programs. It does not matter that we have been well motivated or that our actions are based on biblical principles. God is not obligated to use such plans and programs, though He may. But God may wish to use methods and means which will not only be more effective but which will give all the glory to Him. We cannot, therefore, take pride in our plans, our program, our obedience. This, as I understand it, is what the sovereignty of God means in practical terms.

Let us look at another illustration of what our text, in the context of Acts, may mean for us. I believe our nation desperately needs revival. I also believe that the sovereignty of God means that only God can bring revival, in His time, in His way, and using His divinely ordained means. We can and surely should pray for revival, but let us never think that if we but pray hard enough God will produce a revival for us. He will bring revival in His own good time and in His own good way. We should pray for revival because, I believe, this is biblical, but not because we suppose that our prayers will produce the results we desire. Prayer should leave the matter in God’s hands and not presume He has put the matter entirely in ours. This does not mean we should be inactive, not doing anything at all. It does mean that when we actively seek a revival we wait for God’s good timing, and we look for God to work in ways that we would not have predicted. We don’t presume God will bring revival just as we have planned it or prayed for it. Prayer is the acknowledgment of our dependence on God. God is not waiting for us to be faithful or obedient enough. If He did, nothing would ever happen.

When it was time for God to bring revival to Nineveh, it was not because any Jews were faithfully praying for such an event. It was not because Jonah, a prophet of God, was eager for it to happen. It was not because Jonah was so obedient or because his preaching was so sincerely motivated. It was because God had purposed to save the Ninevites, by His grace. And because it was God’s purpose to save Nineveh, God did so, in spite of the spiritual condition of Israel and in spite of Jonah’s resistance and rebellion. This was a revival, and it was one that was the result of the plans and purposes of a sovereign God who is able to accomplish His plans, in His time, in His way, with or without our cooperation.

Quite frankly, little of the progress of the gospel among the Gentiles, as described in the Book of Acts, was the result of willing obedience on the part of men. The saints in Jerusalem were forced out of this city by persecution. It was not that they meditated on the Great Commission of our Lord and concluded that it was time for them to venture out to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles in far away places. It was that things became so unbearable in Jerusalem they had to flee for their very lives. Peter was jolted from his Jewish ceremonial cleanness, which practically forbade contact with Gentiles, to go the house of Cornelius, a Gentile (Acts 10). The Jerusalem church called Peter on the carpet for doing so in chapter 11, and even when they acknowledged God’s purpose to save the Gentiles in this same chapter, they did not see practically preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. The evangelization of Gentiles did not come through the apostles (save Peter and a few brave souls who were the exception), but through others, like Stephen, like those bold men of Cyprus (chapters 8 and 11), and like Paul. It was not the church at Jerusalem that was the launching pad for foreign missions, but the church at Antioch. Here is the sovereignty of God in the salvation of Gentiles.

In the Book of Acts, then, we should expect the theme of the sovereignty of God to be a very prominent one. I believe we shall see this in two areas in particular. First, we shall see the sovereignty of God in the spreading of the gospel to the Gentiles and not just to the Jews alone. Second, we shall see the sovereignty of God in the salvation of Paul and in God’s use of him as a chosen vessel (in contrast, perhaps, to Matthias) to carry the gospel to the Gentiles.

May God grant that our study of this great Book of Acts would prove to be a life-changing one, and that each of us may, in the power of His Spirit, be His instruments for the carrying out of the Great Commission in our day.

If you, my friend, have never heard this gospel which the apostles were to carry to all men, it is the same gospel which I bring to you today:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, …” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

“And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name every one who believes in Him has received forgivenss of sins” (Acts 10:43).

May you believe in Him today for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life.

1 It is a little difficult to be exact here. Pentecost occurred fifty days after the first Sabbath after Passover. It would seem that this would have been fifty days after the resurrection of our Lord, which was on Sunday, the first day of the week.

2 The disciples asked Jesus about His “restoring the kingdom to Israel.” Jesus had, for forty days now, been speaking of the kingdom. Obviously, He had not dealt with timing. That was the disciples’ preoccupation. But it was also their preoccupation with Israel; it was a Jewish preoccupation. What a surprise they were in for. And no wonder Jesus reiterated the Great Commission in response. While they had thoughts of Israel’s restoration (where their glory was vested), Jesus purposed to save the world and thus the need to proclaim the good news to all nations. How little they grasped it. How slowly, in Acts, they actively pursued it (not until chapter 13), and then by a front-runner like Paul, who was persecuted for doing so (cf. Jerusalem church’s reticence throughout--Acts 11, Acts 21:17ff.). Peter had to be virtually “booted out” to evangelize Gentiles, and he would eventually backslide (cf. Galatians 2:11ff.).

3 Below are the texts affirming Paul’s apostleship in the New Testament:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 1:1).

1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? 2 Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. 3 This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5 Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? (1 Corinthians 9:1-5).

And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? (1 Corinthians 12:28-29).

Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me (1 Corinthians 15:7-10).

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia (2 Corinthians 1:1).

The things that mark an apostle--signs, wonders and miracles--were done among you with great perseverance (2 Corinthians 12:12).

Paul, an apostle--sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead (Galatians 1:1)

Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. 18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles--only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. 21 Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me. 2:1 Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. 8 For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:17--2:1, 8).

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:1).

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11).

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother (Colossians 1:1).

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope (1 Timothy 1:1).

And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle--I am telling the truth, I am not lying--and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles (1 Timothy 2:7).

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, . . . 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher (2 Timothy 1:1,11).

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2. Putting Pentecost in Perspective (Part 1) The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (Acts 2:1-13)


The “coming” of the Holy Spirit is very much like the account of the birth of our Lord in Luke. It is a key event depicted at the beginning of the Book of Acts which sets the stage for what follows. If the ministry of Jesus in the Book of Luke is the outflow of His birth (His incarnation), then the ministry of our Lord through the church in the Book of Acts is the outflow of the descent of the Spirit in Acts 2. What a marvelous passage we have come to.

And yet, sadly enough, we have come to one of the great battlegrounds of evangelical Christians. When one begins to talk about “the Holy Spirit” and “Pentecost,” almost any group will begin to polarize into “pro-charismatic” and “anti-charismatic” segments. As we approach Pentecost in our study, let us be mindful of our predispositions. Let us seek, as much as possible, to let the text shape our thinking on Pentecost rather than to allow our thinking to “reshape” or distort the text. And let us rely on the Holy Spirit, who alone can teach us the true meaning of our text. Let us also seek to preserve the “unity of the Spirit” as we consider this passage. Too many of us come to this text to prove something rather than to learn something. Let us seek to be learners.

As I have approached this passage, I have been puzzled by something which our Lord said, not once, but twice. When He instructed His disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, He spoke of the Spirit as “the promise of the Father” (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4). It is clear that Jesus spoke of the coming of the Holy Spirit on several occasions (cf. Luke 11:13; 12:12; John 7:37-39; 14-16; 20:22). Why then did Jesus not tell the disciples to wait for the Spirit He promised? I believe the reason is because our Lord wished the disciples to see the coming of the Holy Spirit to have been that which was promised long before He came. If the Holy Spirit was promised by the Father, then the Holy Spirit was promised by the Old Testament. Our Lord could only reiterate a promise already made, a promise made by the Father. Indeed, in the Gospel of John, Jesus emphasized that it would be the Father who would send the Spirit to them (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:23-28).

It is my conviction that an accurate understanding of Pentecost is essential to our understanding of the Book of Acts. Thus, the exposition of this short passage will be protracted into several lessons. My desire is to first look to the Scriptures to shape our perspective of Pentecost, as depicted here. Second, it is my hope that Pentecost, rightly understood, would shape our own perspective of the role of the Holy Spirit in the church, in our day and time, and in our own personal walk with the Lord.

This lesson will be devoted to a study of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. If the Holy Spirit’s coming was a matter of the Father’s promise, then that promise should be clearly indicated in the Old Testament. We will look in this lesson at the ways in which the Holy Spirit worked in and through men, and then we shall look at the prophecies of the Old Testament related to the Holy Spirit and His coming, which commenced at Pentecost. The next lesson will focus on the Holy Spirit in the Gospels, in the life of our Lord Jesus and in others. We will also look at those promises of the Holy Spirit which we find in the Gospels. Then, and only then, we shall turn our attention to the text at hand and to the description and explanation of it which is recorded. We will further look at Pentecost in relationship to the three other “Pentecosts” which are found later in Acts 8, 10, and 19. Finally, we will attempt to view Pentecost from the vantage point of the Epistles.

The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

Some Christians seem to think that the Holy Spirit was a stranger to the Old Testament and to the Old Testament saint. In reality, the Spirit of God is much more quickly evident than the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God. A look at a concordance will quickly indicate this. The Holy Spirit first occurs in the second verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:2, actively involved in the creation of the earth. Shortly thereafter in Genesis 6, the Holy Spirit is said to be involved with creation and specifically with men, in striving with them due to their sin. In the closing books of the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is frequently mentioned, that last clear reference being found in Malachi 2:15.

Let us consider a number of the passages in which the Holy Spirit is mentioned. Let us look to the ways in which the Spirit worked in the days of old, and let us (later on) compare these with the work of the Spirit in the New Testament times, as well as in our own. I believe we will see a great deal of continuity.4

The Holy Spirit as the Source of Life

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Genesis 1:2).

The spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life (Job 33:4).

When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth (Psalm 104:30).

The Holy Spirit is described as creative, life-giving, and life-sustaining. Is it any wonder that in the New Testament He would be similarly described (cf. John 3:5-8; 6:63; 2 Corinthians 3:6)?

The Holy Spirit Strives with Men

Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years” (Genesis 6:3).

The Holy Spirit as a Teacher and Guide

You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst (Nehemiah 9:20; cf. also 9:30).

But it is the Spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that gives him understanding (Job 32:8).

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground (Psalm 143:10).

The Holy Spirit as the Manifestation of God’s Presence

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me (Psalm 51:11).

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? (Psalm 139:7).

But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear’ (Haggai 2:4-5).

The Holy Spirit’s Special Relationship with Israel

You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst (Nehemiah 9:20).

For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you admonished them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you handed them over to the neighboring peoples (Nehemiah 9:30).

By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord, and trouble came to Moses because of them; for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips (Psalm 106:32-33).

“Woe to the obstinate children,” declares the LORD, “to those who carry out plans that are not mine, Forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge” (Isaiah 30:1-2).

Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them. Then his people recalled the days of old, the days of Moses and his people—where is he who brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of his flock? Where is he who set his Holy Spirit among them, who sent his glorious arm of power to be at Moses’ right hand, who divided the waters before them, to gain for himself everlasting renown, who led them through the depths? Like a horse in open country, they did not stumble; like cattle that go down to the plain, they were given rest by the Spirit of the Lord. This is how you guided your people to make for yourself a glorious name (Isaiah 63:10-14).

“But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the LORD Almighty was very angry (Zechariah 7:11-12).

The Holy Spirit Filled and Empowered Men in the Old Testament

A. Craftsmen, Artists, Designers, Builders:

Bezalel (and others, involved with tabernacle furnishings):

And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts (Exodus 31:3).

Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the LORD has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them master craftsmen and designers. So Bezalel, Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the LORD has given skill and ability to know how to carry out all the work of constructing the sanctuary are to do the work just as the LORD has commanded” (Exodus 35:30–36:1).

David (design of the temple):

He gave him the plans of all that the Spirit had put in his mind for the courts of the temple of the Lord and all the surrounding rooms, for the treasuries of the temple of God and for the treasuries for the dedicated things (1 Chronicles 28:12).

B. Administrators and Leaders (including kings):


So Pharaoh asked them, “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?” (Genesis 41:38).

Moses and the 70 Elders who help him:

17 “I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone.” … 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did not do so again. 26 However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the Tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. 29 But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:17, 25-29).


So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand on him (Numbers 27:18).

Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the Lord had commanded Moses (Deuteronomy 34:9).


The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person. Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (1 Samuel 10:6-7).5

When they arrived at Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he joined in their prophesying (1 Samuel 10:10).

When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger (1 Samuel 11:6).

Saul and his men—preventing them from doing harm to David, God’s anointed:

When David had fled and made his escape, he went to Samuel at Ramah and told him all that Saul had done to him. Then he and Samuel went to Naioth and stayed there. 19 Word came to Saul: “David is in Naioth at Ramah”; 20 so he sent men to capture him. But when they saw a group of prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing there as their leader, the Spirit of God came upon Saul’s men and they also prophesied. 21 Saul was told about it, and he sent more men, and they prophesied too. Saul sent men a third time, and they also prophesied. 22 Finally, he himself left for Ramah and went to the great cistern at Secu. And he asked, “Where are Samuel and David?” “Over in Naioth at Ramah,” they said. 23 So Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even upon him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth. 24 He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay that way all that day and night. This is why people say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 19:18-24).


13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power. Samuel then went to Ramah. 14 Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him (1 Samuel 16:13-14).

“The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; his word was on my tongue (2 Samuel 23:2; cf. also Acts 1:16; 4:25).

C. The Judges of Israel:


The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war. The Lord gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him (Judges 3:10).


Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him (Judges 6:34).


Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites (Judges 11:29).


And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him while he was in Mahaneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol (Judges 13:25).

6 The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done… 19 Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of their belongings and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Burning with anger, he went up to his father’s house (Judges 14:6, 19).

As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands (Judges 15:14).

D. The Prophets:


When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him (Numbers 24:2).

Elijah and Elisha:

I don’t know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn’t find you, he will kill me. Yet I your servant have worshiped the Lord since my youth (1 Kings 18:12).

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your Spirit,” Elisha replied.… 13 He picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 Then he took the cloak that had fallen from him and struck the water with it. “Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. 15 The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The Spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him (2 Kings 2:9, 13-15).

But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves, vineyards, flocks, herds, or menservants and maidservants? (2 Kings 5:26).


“Come near me and listen to this: “From the first announcement I have not spoken in secret; at the time it happens I am there.” And now the Sovereign LORD has sent me, with his Spirit. This is what the LORD says—your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go” (Isaiah 48:16-17).


He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day” (Ezekiel 2:1-3; cf. also 3:12, 14, 24; 11:1, 5, 24; 13:3; 43:5).


8 Finally, Daniel came into my presence and I told him the dream. (He is called Belteshazzar, after the name of my god, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him.) 9 I said, “Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you. Here is my dream; interpret it for me (Daniel 4:8-9).

“This is the dream that I, King Nebuchadnezzar, had. Now, Belteshazzar, tell me what it means, for none of the wise men in my kingdom can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you” (Daniel 4:18).

There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. King Nebuchadnezzar your father—your father the king, I say—appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. 14 I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom (Daniel 5:11).


“Do not prophesy,” their prophets say. “Do not prophesy about these things: disgrace will not overtake us.” Should it be said, O house of Jacob: “Is the Spirit of the Lord angry?

Does he do such things?” (Micah 2:6-7)

“But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin” (Micah 3:8).

E. Others, Who Spoke to Men for God:


Then the Spirit came upon Amasai, chief of the Thirty, and he said: “We are yours, O David! We are with you, O son of Jesse! Success, success to you, and success to those who help you, for your God will help you.” So David received them and made them leaders of his raiding bands (1 Chronicles 12:18).


The Spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded (2 Chronicles 15:1).


Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite and descendant of Asaph, as he stood in the assembly (2 Chronicles 20:14).


Then the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood before the people and said, “This is what God says: ‘Why do you disobey the Lord’s commands? You will not prosper. Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you’” (2 Chronicles 24:20).

The Holy Spirit in Prophecies Concerning Israel’s Future


The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire. Then the LORD will create over all of Mount Zion and over those who assemble there a cloud of smoke by day and a glow of flaming fire by night; over all the glory will be a canopy. It will be a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain (Isaiah 4:4-6).

5 In that day the Lord Almighty will be a glorious crown, a beautiful wreath for the remnant of his people. 6 He will be a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment, a source of strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate. 7 And these also stagger from wine and reel from beer: Priests and prophets stagger from beer and are befuddled with wine; they reel from beer, they stagger when seeing visions, they stumble when rendering decisions. 8 All the tables are covered with vomit and there is not a spot without filth (Isaiah 28:5-8).

12 Beat your breasts for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vines 13 and for the land of my people, a land overgrown with thorns and briers—yes, mourn for all houses of merriment and for this city of revelry. 14 The fortress will be abandoned, the noisy city deserted; citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever, the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks, 15 till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest. 16 Justice will dwell in the desert and righteousness live in the fertile field. 17 The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever. 18 My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest. 19 Though hail flattens the forest and the city is leveled completely, 20 how blessed you will be, sowing your seed by every stream, and letting your cattle and donkeys range free (Isaiah 32:12-20).

1 “But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen. 2 This is what the Lord says—he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen. 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. 4 They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams. 5 One will say, ‘I belong to the Lord’; another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’ and will take the name Israel (Isaiah 44:1-5).

20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the Lord. 21 “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,” says the Lord (Isaiah 59:20-21).


“They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 11:18-21).

“Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:30-32).

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes. 24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. 30 I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. 32 I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, O house of Israel! (Ezekiel 36:22-32).

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” … Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord’” (Ezekiel 37:1-3a,11-14).

I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 39:29).


28 “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30 I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 31 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. 32 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls (Joel 2:28-32).


3 ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? 4 But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5 ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’ 6 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty” (Haggai 2:3-9).


6 So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. 7 “What are you, O mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’” 8 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 9 “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you (Zechariah 4:6-9).

I looked up again—and there before me were four chariots coming out from between two mountains—mountains of bronze! The first chariot had red horses, the second black, the third white, and the fourth dappled—all of them powerful. I asked the angel who was speaking to me, “What are these, my lord?” The angel answered me, “These are the four spirits of heaven, going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole world. The one with the black horses is going toward the north country, the one with the white horses toward the west, and the one with the dappled horses toward the south.” When the powerful horses went out, they were straining to go throughout the earth. And he said, “Go throughout the earth!” So they went throughout the earth. Then he called to me, “Look, those going toward the north country have given my Spirit rest in the land of the north” (Zechariah 6:1-8).

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. 11 On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, 13 the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, 14 and all the rest of the clans and their wives (Zechariah 12:10-14).

1 “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. 2 “On that day, I will banish the names of the idols from the land, and they will be remembered no more,” declares the Lord Almighty. “I will remove both the prophets and the spirit of impurity from the land. 3 And if anyone still prophesies, his father and mother, to whom he was born, will say to him, ‘You must die, because you have told lies in the Lord’s name.’ When he prophesies, his own parents will stab him. 4 “On that day every prophet will be ashamed of his prophetic vision. He will not put on a prophet’s garment of hair in order to deceive. 5 He will say, ‘I am not a prophet. I am a farmer; the land has been my livelihood since my youth.’ 6 If someone asks him, ‘What are these wounds on your body?’ he will answer, ‘The wounds I was given at the house of my friends.’ 7 “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the Lord Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. 8 In the whole land,” declares the Lord, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it. 9 This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God’” (Zechariah 13:1-9).

The Holy Spirit will Empower Messiah


1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord—3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist (Isaiah 11:1-5).

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1).

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor (Isaiah 61:1-3).

Listed above are those references in which the Spirit of God is clearly identified as such. There could also be many other texts in which the ministry of the Spirit is clearly implied or referred to, but using other terms than that of the Spirit of God. From these references, however, let us attempt to draw some conclusions about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Next, we will attempt to draw together some general conclusions as to the future ministry of the Spirit, as predicted by the Old Testament prophets. This will serve as a foundation for our next study of the ministry of the Holy Spirit as depicted in the Gospels.

The Old Testament Ministry of the Holy Spirit

The Old Testament Ministry of the Holy Spirit

The first thing we should note is that the term, “Holy Spirit,” seldom occurs in the Old Testament. Actually it is found only three times; once in Psalm 51:11, and twice in Isaiah 63:10-14. The most frequently used terms or expressions for the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament are:

  • the Spirit of the Lord
  • my Spirit
  • the Spirit
  • the Spirit of God
  • the spirit of … (Judgment, fire, justice, etc.)
  • your Spirit

In nearly all of these cases, the reference to the Holy Spirit is clear, although there are some instances where the Holy Spirit and the human “spirit” seem almost to merge, so that the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Spirit of Elijah” (cf. 2 Kings 2:9-15). This is also the case with the “Spirit” which was on Moses, which also came upon the seventy elders who were to help him (Numbers 11:17-29). If there were any doubt in our minds as to whether or not the “Spirit” of the Old Testament were the same person as the “Holy Spirit” in the New, all we need to do is to read the inspired New Testament references to the Holy Spirit’s work in the Old Testament, both by our Lord (cf. Matthew 22:43; Mark 12:36), and by the apostles and others (cf. Acts 1:16; 4:25; 7:51; Hebrews 3:7; 2 Peter 1:21).

Regardless of the infrequency of the precise term, “Holy Spirit,” the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament times is much more prominent than one would suppose, apart from a consideration of the many texts referring to Him. The Spirit of God is almost immediately introduced in the Book of Genesis (1:2), and He becomes a frequent focus in the writings of the prophets. The Holy Spirit had a significant role in the creation of the world (Genesis 1:2) and in striving with sinful men (Genesis 6:3). He inspired men who revealed God to men, either in word, or in work. He instructed and guided men, especially the nation Israel. The Spirit of God instructed and guided not only the nation Israel as a whole, but men individually (e.g. David, 1 Samuel 16:13-14; Psalm 143:10). He enabled and empowered men to do that which was humanly impossible (e.g., the judges of Israel). He manifested not only the power of God through men (Isaiah 63:10-14) but the presence of God among men (Psalm 51:11; 139:7; Haggai 2:4-5). It seems as well that the Holy Spirit was the instrument through whom the glory of God was manifested (cf. Haggai 2:3-9).

The Holy Spirit therefore appears to be the agency through which God most often worked. God used men to reveal His will and His word (e.g. the prophets), but these men were inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit so that the words they spoke were clearly the “Word of the Lord.” When men spoke in the Spirit, they spoke for God. When men disobeyed the Word of God, they were regarded as having not only resisted God, but His Spirit as well (Nehemiah 9:20, 30; Psalm 106:33; Isaiah 30:1-2; 63:10-14; Zechariah 7:11-12; cf. Acts 7:51).

It is noteworthy, I believe, to see that the Spirit’s coming upon men was the sovereign choice of God, rather than God’s response to the initiative of men. Generally speaking, men did not expect the Spirit of God to come upon them, nor did they do anything to prompt it. It happened. God took the initiative, and men responded accordingly. There is clearly no “pattern” for those who would wish to find some method or formula for obtaining the Spirit’s power. Men did not dispose of God or of His Spirit; rather God disposed of men, using His Spirit to do so.

The Spirit’s coming upon men in the Old Testament is not always the same. In some instances, the Spirit’s descent upon men seems to have been permanent, perhaps signaled by some unusual manifestation. The seventy elders of Israel, for example, manifested the Spirit’s coming upon them initially but not again, in an unusual way. In the case of Saul, the Spirit that was given was also taken from him when the kingdom was taken away. Samson is one on whom the Spirit came only at certain times. Thus, we cannot find a rigid pattern for the way in which the Spirit came upon men.

The Spirit’s coming upon men was, as a rule, not the result of their great spirituality nor did it necessarily result in spirituality. That is to say, when the Spirit came upon men, they possessed supernatural ability (or power). That power or ability was not unlimited but generally was limited to certain tasks, abilities, or functions. That power did not necessarily make the recipient more spiritual. Samson, for example, was “overcome” by the Holy Spirit, but his life was a moral disaster. He was a man, not dominated by the Holy Spirit—he was not a spiritual man—but a man dominated by his own flesh, or more pointedly, he was dominated by foreign women. Saul was not a greatly spiritual man before the coming of the Spirit upon him nor was he so afterwards. Balaam was a man who is perplexing, because we are not even certain that he was a true believer in God, even though he could not but speak for God when the Spirit of God came upon Him. Thus we could say that men possessed by or filled with God’s Spirit did that which they would not and could not ordinarily do. The control of the Spirit assured that God’s work would be done through men but not because of man’s abilities or inclinations.

This is dramatically illustrated in the life of Saul, the king of Israel and later on the enemy of David. Although Saul was a physical giant, he was far from self-confident or assertive (cf. 1 Samuel 10:20-24). When the Spirit came upon Saul initially, it was to endue him with power in order to reign as Israel’s king. Due to Saul’s sin, the kingdom was taken away from him and so was the Spirit. In place of the Holy Spirit came an “evil spirit from the Lord” (1 Samuel 16:14). In 1 Samuel 19 (18-24) we read of a most interesting “filling” of the Holy Spirit. Saul knew that his kingdom had been taken away and that David would replace him. He sought to capture David and to kill him. When he sent a party of men to apprehend David, these men were overcome by the Spirit so that they prophesied, rather than to carry out their duty of arresting David. (I cannot help but wonder whether these men prophesied about the coming kingdom of David, the one God had appointed and Saul had anointed.) Two other arresting parties were dispatched to arrest David, and the same thing happened to them. Finally, Saul went himself, only to experience the same overwhelming power of God’s Spirit. How different it was this time, as opposed to his previous “filling.” Then, it was evidence that God was with him and that God’s power enabled him to carry out his task as the king of Israel. But in this second instance, Saul was virtually immobilized and also made to look the fool, which he was. The Spirit was upon Saul, but not in the way anyone would wish. The Spirit simply overcame Saul so as to keep him from carrying out his evil intent.

I infer several additional factors related to the passages at which we have looked. The first is that the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (like the New) was necessitated by the nature of God and the nature of man. God is infinitely above men, so that man would never think God’s thoughts apart from a divine work of God in man (which is what the Spirit did and what He continues to do). Beyond this, men would not be able to accomplish God’s purposes, even if we comprehended them and were committed to achieving them. God’s work is a divine work and thus the need for divine power. Even men of faith have a limited grasp of God’s ways, and they also have limited power. Thus, the ministry of the Spirit was necessitated by the greatness of God and by the ignorance and impotence of men. The Holy Spirit was God’s way of assuring that His will was accomplished in the world, through men.

Related to this, I believe, is the element of representation. One of the common threads or themes I see in these Old Testament passages is that God “filled” (you may use a different term if you prefer) men with His Spirit when men would represent Him in some way, by word or work, and thus they would have to be empowered by His Spirit so as to accurately reflect and represent Him. When prophets spoke or wrote under the influence and control of the Holy Spirit, they could rightly say, “Thus saith the Lord.” When leaders like Moses and David led, the Spirit’s control and power over them enabled them to lead as though God were leading men through them (which He was).

This applies to the craftsmen, like Bezalel and Oholiab. It may seem strange to say this, but I am convinced it is true. The best representation of God that man can create is but an idol. The golden calf of Aaron was intended to represent the God of Israel who led them out of Egypt (Exodus 32:4), but it was only an idol, a distorted representation of God. When the tabernacle, and later on the temple, were built, those items of furniture and symbolic representation could only reflect God if God Himself created them. Thus, His Spirit gave Bezalel and Oholiab the skill to create those things which would accurately represent God. Even though these men appear to have been the finest craftsmen of their time, their natural abilities were inadequate. So too when David designed the temple, God worked through him with His Spirit so that the temple would reflect the God of heaven and not the distorted conceptions of God which men had.

One of the Holy Spirit’s tasks was to accomplish divine communication from God to men, such as the empowering of the prophets. Another task was an illuminating and teaching ministry which enabled men to understand that which God had revealed in the Scriptures. David, in the psalms, seems to be especially sensitive to this ministry. Thus, when he prays that God would “open his eyes” to behold wondrous things from God’s law (Psalm 119:18), I believe he was praying for the teaching and illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit.

When the people of Israel willfully turned their backs on God and rebelled against His Word, they grieved His Holy Spirit. As a result, as I understand it, the Spirit ceased to illumine them to the meaning of the law, except through the prophets, from time to time. Men ceased to read God’s law in terms of its “spirit” (conveyed by the Spirit), but rather in terms only of its “letter.” It is no wonder that the kinds of interpretation we see the religious leaders holding in the Gospels was the order of the day. The Savior’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was not the overturning of the Law (which He came to fulfill, not to put away), but the interpretation of the Law as God had always intended it—in terms of its spirit, and not just of its letter (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6). Unbelief and disobedience led to a perversion of the written Word of God, because the teaching of the Spirit ceased when He was grieved.

When I consider the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, I am taken aback by the prominence of the third person of the Trinity. While the Spirit of God may not be clearly distinguished from God, so that the doctrine of the Trinity was crystal clear, He is described as being God, and as the agency which God used to accomplish His purposes in the world. The frequency of the references to the Holy Spirit is much greater than I expected and the extent of His ministry much broader. The similarities of His ministry between the Old Testament economy and that of the New Testament times are great. It will be our task to determine at a later time just how the ministry of the Spirit in the New Testament was distinct or different from that which He had in the Old. For now, let us move on to a consideration of the characteristics of those prophecies pertaining to a future work of the Spirit, as found in the Old Testament.

The Future Ministry of the Holy Spirit

The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit throughout the Old Testament provides us with a great deal of information as to what the ministry of the Holy Spirit might be in the future. If God is consistent, which He is, then He can be expected not only to remain the same but to work in similar ways. Thus, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament times and beyond could be expected to be similar to that which we have seen as characteristic of His Old Testament ministry. But we are not left to our own estimation as to what His future role might be. The Old Testament prophets had much to say about the future of the nation Israel. A significant role in Israel’s future was to be played by the Holy Spirit. Thus, there is a great deal of prophetic emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the days to come for the nation Israel, as well as for men and women of every nation. I will seek to summarize some of the characteristics of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in Israel’s future, as it is depicted by the prophets themselves in the texts cited above.

The first thing which becomes clear as one reads the prophets concerning Israel’s future hope is that the Holy Spirit would play a vital role in the “new age” which was yet to come for the people of God. Thus, many of the prophecies concerning Israel’s future hope contained promises pertaining to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Spirit as described by the prophets does not seem to be utterly new and different from that which the Spirit had been doing throughout the Old Testament times, but an expansion of that ministry.

The role of the Holy Spirit in the fulfillment of Israel’s future hope has at least three major areas of involvement, each of which has its own facets. The Holy Spirit’s ministry involves: (1) the nation Israel; (2) the Messiah; and (3) the nations. It should be remembered that in each of these areas a number of elements are described and foretold, but these were not understood by the Israelites as a whole or even by their prophets (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12). It is really only in light of the fulfillment of these prophecies that we can see the wisdom of God in precisely carrying out what we cannot even understand. Let us look briefly at each of these three areas.

The Holy Spirit and the Nation Israel

The prophets made it clear that the coming kingdom which God had promised and for which they looked by faith (cf. Hebrews 11) was one that would be inaugurated by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (cf. Isaiah 32;12-20; 44:1-5; 59:20-21; Ezekiel 36:22-32; 37:11-14; 39:29; Joel 2:28-32, etc.). Among the ministries which the Holy Spirit would perform were the following (I will put them in the order in which I understand them to have been fulfilled, or in which they will be fulfilled, although the Old Testament saints were not aware of this order at the time):

First, the Holy Spirit would deal with Israel’s rebellion and sin. The first aspect of the Spirit’s ministry had to do with judgment, not salvation. Thus, Joel (chapter 2) and Zechariah (12:10–13:9) speak of the Spirit’s ministry of bringing Israel to repentance by causing them to understand that they had rejected and crucified God’s Messiah. It is because of this that, “They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son” (Zechariah 12:10).

Second, Israel will be cleansed of her sin. This is closely related to the first aspect of the Spirit’s ministry. Before cleansing can be achieved, repentance is necessary, which is the first step. The prophets spoke of the coming of the Holy Spirit in close proximity with the cleansing of Israel. Ezekiel 36:25 and Zechariah 13:1 speak very clearly of this cleansing of Israel, although no one knew exactly how this would be accomplished.

Third, the Holy Spirit would renew Israel by giving them a new spirit, a new heart. Ezekiel is the prophet who spoke most of this matter of a “new heart” (cf. Ezekiel 11:18-21; 18:30-32; 36:22-32). The problem with Israel was not the law which they had been given, but their hearts. God promised, through His Spirit, to give His people a new heart, a heart which would dispose His people to love and to keep His laws, and thus to pave the way for the pouring out of His blessings on His people (cf. especially Ezekiel 36:26-32). The new covenant of which God spoke did not set aside the standards of the old, but rather granted men forgiveness of sins, and the enablement to live in accordance with God’s standards, not to earn their salvation but to live it out in a way that honored God.

Fourth, the Holy Spirit’s ministry was very closely linked with a resurrection of the dead, so that God’s promises to Israel might be fulfilled. Ezekiel 37 is a most fascinating text, for it not only speaks of God putting His Spirit in His people so that they would live (verse 14), but this is said immediately after the promise that the “dead bones” of the “whole house of Israel” would be raised. That this was referring to a literal resurrection is clear from the fact that God promised to open their graves and bring His people up from them. Thus, the ministry of the Spirit in Israel’s future is closely linked with the resurrection of dead Israelites.

The Holy Spirit and Israel’s Messiah

Mysteriously intertwined with the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the achieving of Israel’s hope was the ministry of Israel’s Messiah. That which the Messiah did was said to be accomplished in the power of the Spirit. Notice these three aspects of the future ministry of Messiah and how the ministry of the Spirit is associated with them.

First, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in relation to Messiah would empower His life and ministry. Isaiah 61 is especially clear on this matter, because this is the text which our Lord Himself cited at the outset of His public ministry and which He said was fulfilled in the hearing of His audience (cf. Luke 4:14-21). The Lord’s public ministry commenced with His baptism by John, and with His being endued with power from on high by the Holy Spirit, who descended visibly upon Him.

Second, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in relation to Messiah would accomplish the atonement for the sin of the world and thus inaugurate the new covenant, on which the kingdom of God was based. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in relation to this is not as clear in the Old Testament, but it is hinted at in texts such as Isaiah 42:1 and 52:13–53:12. The wisdom which Messiah is said to manifest (52:13) is that which comes, as I understand it, from the Spirit (cf. 40:13; 11:1-5). The writer to the Hebrews clearly links the atoning sacrifice of our Lord with the ministry of the Holy Spirit when he wrote,

How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:14)

Third, the Holy Spirit will grant the Messiah the wisdom and power necessary to judge the world, to overthrow the wicked, and to reign in justice and righteousness. Isaiah 11:1-5 speaks of the “Spirit of the Lord” who will rest on Messiah, who will be a “Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and power.” This wisdom and power is that by which Messiah will reign in righteousness and peace.

The Holy Spirit’s Ministry
and the Salvation of the Gentiles

There remains yet one final facet of the Holy Spirit’s ministry with respect to the hope of Israel, and that is the salvation which the Holy Spirit will bring not only to Israelites, but to people of every tongue and nation and tribe. When Jesus first presented Himself to Israel as their Messiah, as recorded in Luke 4, He was quick to point out to these Jews that the blessings He came, in the Spirit, to bring to them, He came to bring to the Gentiles as well. This was most unacceptable to these Jews, as Luke’s account makes very clear, but it was a part of the purpose of God announced long before by the prophets, who spoke of the Spirit of God coming upon people of all nations, and not just the Jews. Of those texts which speak of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Gentiles, Joel 2 (cf. “all people,” verse 28), Haggai 2 (cf. “all nations,” verse 7), and Isaiah 66:18-24 make it clear that God’s salvation and His Spirit will be poured out on the Gentiles, as well as on the Jews.


We have only begun to scratch the surface of these Old Testament texts, but it is enough too see that the ministry of the Holy Spirit in Israel’s history, and the promises of the prophets of Israel pertaining to His future ministry, provide us with a firm foundation for approaching Pentecost in Acts 2, which Peter will explain to the Jewish spectators as a fulfillment of the promise of the Old Testament prophets, and which Jesus spoke of as the “promise of the Father.” Before we proceed to Pentecost, however, we must first consider the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels. This will be the subject of our next lesson.

4 Allow me to make a suggestion for your personal study of the Holy Spirit in both the Old and New Testaments. Look up all the references to the Holy Spirit, and then seek to categorize in each the work which He is said to perform. Mark a chart with two columns, the left being for those categories of work which are described in the Old Testament; the right being those categories described in the New. See if there is not a great similarity between the two columns.

5 There is an interesting reversal here. Here, God bestowed the Spirit on Saul but commanded him to wait for seven days, until He instructed him as to what to do. After His resurrection, our Lord told the disciples what they were to do (e.g. the Great Commission), but instructed them to wait for the Holy Spirit to empower them. I conclude, therefore, that there are times when we have the “plan,” but must wait for the “power,” and there are other times when we might have the “power,” but we must wait for the “plan.”

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3. Putting Pentecost in Perspective (Part 2) The Holy Spirit in the Gospels (Acts 2:1-13)


In Acts 1 our Lord promised the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost by indicating three ways in which the event was anticipated:

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5).

The first prophecy of the Spirit’s coming was referred to as the “promise of the Father,” which I understand to be the prophecies of the Old Testament pertaining to the coming age of the Spirit. The second line of prophecy came from our Lord, for He spoke quite often of the Spirit and of His future role in the lives of His disciples and of those who believed in Him. The third line of prophecy came from John the Baptist. Almost every time we read of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” we do so in the context of John’s baptism and John’s words.

Our last lesson focused our attention on the ministry of the Holy Spirit as described in the Old Testament and as prophesied by the Old Testament prophets. In this lesson, we will turn our attention to the ministry of the Holy Spirit as depicted in the Gospels. We will concentrate on three aspects of the ministry of the Holy Spirit:

(1) The role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people other than Jesus;

(2) The role of the Holy Spirit in the teaching of John the Baptist; and

(3) The Holy Spirit in the ministry and teaching of the Lord Jesus.

We will thus be prepared for the event of Pentecost as described and explained in Acts chapter 2.

Those Filled with the
Holy Spirit in the Gospels

In a manner very similar to the “filling” of the Old Testament personalities, there were a number of people who were described as being filled with the Holy Spirit:

15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:15-17).

80 And the child {John the Baptist} grew and became strong in {the?} spirit {Spirit?}; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel (Luke 1:80).

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed … (Luke 1:41-42).

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied … (Luke 1:67).

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying …” (Luke 2:25-28).

From the passages above we learn that John the Baptist was “filled with the Holy Spirit” while still in his mother’s womb. His “filling” was with the “spirit of Elijah.” I understand this to mean that it was the same Spirit which empowered Elijah, the Holy Spirit, and that it was the same essential ministry and message. As Elijah was sent to call the nation Israel to repentance in preparation for God’s future blessings, which would be prophesied by Elisha, so John was sent to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah.

I believe John was “filled with the Spirit” in his mother’s womb for two main reasons. The first reason was that his first inspired (“Spirit filled”) ministry was carried out from the womb—his introduction of Messiah, who was also in the womb of Mary (cf. Luke 1:39-41). Here was a “Spirit-filled” leap, of such proportions that it was recognized as divinely enabled. The second reason was that he would need to grow up, instructed by the Spirit (in seclusion from society in the wilderness), so that his ministry and message was an indictment of the evils of that day, calling his culture to repentance, rather than simply confirming or reiterating their evils (which were a part of the fabric of their society, especially in their religious culture). John, much like Paul in later days (cf. Galatians 1:13-24), would learn the things of God in solitude and isolation and not as a student of the religious leadership of that day.

At the times of the conceptions and births of John and Jesus, there were several “Spirit-filled” utterances spoken, so that they were to be received as a direct word from God. Specifically identified as such were the utterances of Elizabeth (Luke 1:41-45), Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79), and Simeon (Luke 2:25-35). Also implied to be “Spirit-filled” utterances were the “magnificat” of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and the praise of Anna (Luke 2:36-38).

The Holy Spirit as
Prophesied by John the Baptist

In His ministry, John seemed to speak frequently about the future ministry of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with the ministry of Messiah. The “baptizing” ministry of our Lord was closely linked with the baptism of John, both by comparison and contrast. It was indeed by the baptism of Jesus that He was divinely disclosed to be the Messiah:

Then John gave this testimony: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’ (John 1:32-33).

Thus, the “Spirit baptism” of Jesus at the time of His water baptism was a divine designation, a divinely ordained identification of Jesus as the promised Messiah, whom John was to publicly introduce as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

While John baptized with water, a baptism of repentance, he spoke of Messiah as baptizing men as well, a baptism that was both similar to and different from his own:

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).

I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:8).

John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:16-17).

The ministry of John was intertwined with the ministry of Messiah. His message was two-fold: burning or blessing; the outpouring of divine wrath on the disobedient, or the outpouring of divine blessings on those who are faithful. John’s ministry and message were shaped by the final words of the Old Testament, spoken through the prophet Malachi:

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,” says the Lord Almighty. “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:1-6).

In addition to fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy, John’s words reiterated the warnings of other Old Testament prophets:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9).

Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it, or the saw boast against him who uses it? As if a rod were to wield him who lifts it up, or a club brandish him who is not wood! Therefore, the Lord, the Lord Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors; under his pomp a fire will be kindled like a blazing flame. The Light of Israel will become a fire, their Holy One a flame; in a single day it will burn and consume his thorns and his briers. The splendor of his forests and fertile fields it will completely destroy, as when a sick man wastes away. And the remaining trees of his forests will be so few that a child could write them down (Isaiah 10:15-19).

“Moreover, say to the royal house of Judah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord; O house of David, this is what the Lord says: “‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it. I am against you, Jerusalem, you who live above this valley on the rocky plateau, declares the Lord—you who say, “Who can come against us? Who can enter our refuge?” I will punish you as your deeds deserve, declares the Lord. I will kindle a fire in your forests that will consume everything around you’” (Jeremiah 21:11-14).

John spoke of the two options of Israel’s destiny as “baptisms” of Messiah, either the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” or the “baptism of fire.” The Old Testament prophets did not use the term “baptism,” however. The Old Testament counterpart for John’s term “baptize” was “pour out.” Note these specific prophecies which speak of the two “outpourings,” the two “baptisms,” of “fire” or of the “Spirit”:

The Baptism of the Fire of Divine Wrath

So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart (Isaiah 42:25).

“‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground, and it will burn and not be quenched’” (Jeremiah 7:20).

4 Like an enemy he has strung his bow; his right hand is ready. Like a foe he has slain all who were pleasing to the eye; he has poured out his wrath like fire on the tent of the Daughter of Zion.… 11 The Lord has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations (Lamentations 2:4, 11).

“I will pour out my wrath upon you and breathe out my fiery anger against you; I will hand you over to brutal men, men skilled in destruction” (Ezekiel 21:31).

“‘As silver is melted in a furnace, so you will be melted inside her, and you will know that I the Lord have poured out my wrath upon you’” (Ezekiel 22:22).

“So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 22:31).

“I will execute judgment upon him with plague and bloodshed; I will pour down torrents of rain, hailstones and burning sulfur on him and on his troops and on the many nations with him” (Ezekiel 38:22).

Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him (Nahum 1:6).

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord, “for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger” (Zephaniah 3:8).

He, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb (Revelation 14:10).

The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire (Revelation 16:8).

The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit

Till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest (Isaiah 32:15).

“For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants” (Isaiah 44:3).

“I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 39:29).

“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29).

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son (Zechariah 12:10).

“Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33).

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles (Acts 10:45).

John the Baptist could not have put the matter more concisely. Summed up in the fewest possible words, the ministry of Israel’s promised Messiah would be either (1) a baptism of the Holy Spirit, on those who believed in God and received Messiah by faith, or (2) the baptism of fire, on all who rejected Him and who had rebelled against God and His word.

John’s ministry and message were similar to that of Jesus in that both were “baptizers.” Theirs was a similar ministry in that both came to the nation Israel, and both spoke with reference to the kingdom which God had promised His people. Their ministries were different in that John’s was an introductory one—he was to prepare the way for Messiah. Jesus’ ministry, on the other hand, was to bring matters to their consummation, either the baptism of the Spirit and times of refreshing (the promised kingdom and its blessings) or the baptism of fire and God’s wrath on sinners. Put differently, John’s ministry terminated the old order, for he was the last of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus’ ministry inaugurated a new order by the enactment of a new covenant, a covenant in His blood.

Incidentally, that “baptism of the Holy Spirit” of which John spoke was only possible because Jesus, the Messiah, personally experienced the “baptism of fire” of which he and the prophets spoke. He bore the penalty of the fire of God’s wrath:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!” (Luke 12:49-50).

The Holy Spirit and Jesus, the Messiah

We have already seen from our study of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament that the Spirit would play a very decisive role in the ministry of the Messiah. This is clearly the case when we come to the Gospel accounts of the birth, life, ministry, and teaching of the Lord Jesus. We first see the Holy Spirit’s role in the conception of the Christ:

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35).

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18).

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20).

It is not until the time immediately preceding the public presentation of Jesus as the Messiah that we again see the Holy Spirit at work in the life of Messiah. At the time of Jesus’ baptism by John, the Spirit came upon Him in a visible form:

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him (Matthew 3:16).

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove (Mark 1:10).

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22).

Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’ (John 1:32-33).

I find it noteworthy that while the descent of the Spirit came in close proximity to the baptism of our Lord by John, it was not at the moment of His baptism but afterwards, thereby distinguishing His water baptism from His “Spirit baptism.” Matthew’s account, along with that of Mark, makes this distinction clear. Luke does also, adding the additional detail that the Spirit came upon Jesus as He was praying, thus associating the descent of the Spirit more closely with our Lord’s prayer than with His baptism. Since Jesus will later promise the gift of the Spirit in response to the disciple’s prayer (Luke 11:11-13), this should come as no surprise.

John’s Gospel supplies us with another important insight. John says that he would not have known the Messiah apart from the visible descent of the Spirit upon Him. It was revealed to him that the One on whom the Spirit descended and remained was the Messiah whom John was to introduce to the nation Israel. Thus, Jesus’ baptism (if we would choose to call it that) was the indication of His identity and of His endowment with power, in a way not unlike what we have seen in the Old Testament. Luke will tell us that from this time on Jesus went forth “full of the Holy Spirit” into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1ff.), and He commenced His public ministry “in the power of the Spirit” (4:14ff.).

At the outset of His public ministry, Jesus claimed to be Messiah and to have the anointing of the Holy Spirit to empower His ministry. He did this by citing Isaiah 61:1-2 and claiming that it was fulfilled in Him that day:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed (Luke 4:18).

This Jesus did in the synagogue at Nazareth, in the village where He had grown up. Nowhere would this power be more evident.

Elsewhere, Jesus maintained that the evidence of the Spirit’s power in His life was proof that He had come down from heaven as Messiah:

“The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. The man who has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit” (John 3:31-34).

Repeatedly the presence and power of the Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus was presented as proof of His identity as Israel’s Messiah:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations (Matthew 12:18).

28 “But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).

Thus, to reject Jesus as the Messiah required some explanation as to where His power came from. As no one could deny that His miracles were genuine and that there was the evidence of supernatural power, men who persisted in rejecting Christ as God’s Messiah had to attribute His power to Satan. In so doing, they became guilty of the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. (Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, as I understand it in the Gospels, is attributing the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ to Satan.) Since this sin was against the instrument by whom God saved men, those who blasphemed the Spirit were forever doomed.

“And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:31-32).

“But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.” He said this because they were saying, “He has an evil spirit” (Mark 3:29-30).

“And anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (Luke 12:10).

In His teaching ministry, Jesus had a great deal to say about the Holy Spirit. For example, He taught that David spoke by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:

He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, … (Matthew 22:43).

David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet”’ (Mark 12:36).

Somehow I have come to the conclusion that Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit only (or at least primarily) to His disciples. He did speak much of the Spirit to them, and we will look into this in a moment. But first let us consider some of what our Lord taught more broadly about the Holy Spirit. The most interesting and crucial text is that found in John’s Gospel:

On the last and greatest day of the Feast {Tabernacles, v.2}, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If a man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified (John 7:37-39).

These words of our Lord were spoken in Jerusalem on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. They were not spoken in private to a select group of his disciples, but rather they were cried out publicly to all who would hear. These words are a public promise of the Holy Spirit to all who “thirst.” The words which Jesus spoke are a direct allusion to two Old Testament prophecies pertaining to the Holy Spirit:

“But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen. This is what the Lord says—he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams. One will say, ‘I belong to the Lord’; another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’ and will take the name Israel (Isaiah 44:1-5).

“Come, all yo who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1)

I have come to the conclusion that one of the symbols used to represent the Holy Spirit is that of water. Jesus’ offer of water to those who thirst is no new use of this symbolism, but rather His use of it as a familiar image. Isaiah’s prophecies contain many allusions to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, the books of the Law, as written by Moses) and to the work of God as recorded there. Thus, in Isaiah, God is often referred to as the Creator, for that He is. He is also spoken of as the One who brought Israel through the Red Sea. In that incident, God caused the sea to part, and the Israelites walked through on dry ground (not muddy ground). Poetically, it is described as God making a desert in the sea. This imagery is frequently found in Isaiah, but it is also reversed so that God is described as the One Who not only made a desert in the sea but Who will make a watered place, an oasis as it were, in the desert—streams in the desert. This imagery is utilized to depict the future outpouring of the Spirit of God on Israel, on dry and thirsty ground, bringing new life and vitality. This is that to which our Lord has made reference in John 7.

This “thirst” imagery is found throughout the Bible, beginning very early in the Old Testament. For example, God caused water to flow from the rock in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 17:1-6; Numbers 20:2-13). Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:4 that that “spiritual rock” was Christ. I am inclined to think that the “water” which came from the smitten rock (Rock = Christ) was the Spirit of Christ. Notice that in our Lord’s offer of “water” to those who “thirst” in John chapter 7, the “water” comes through “Christ,” not apart from Him. He is the source of the water, which we are told, was the Spirit. He sends the Spirit, Who quenches our thirst.

This passage in John 7 opens up a whole new world to me. It informs me that Jesus spoke often and openly of the Spirit, not just to His disciples but to men in general. Thus, when I go to earlier chapters in John’s Gospel, I am not surprised to find references to the Holy Spirit. When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, a leading teacher in Israel (John 3:10), He spoke of the Holy Spirit’s role in the new birth, which came as an unknown matter to this teacher. And when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well in the next chapter, He spoke of the “living water” which He would give, which would quench her thirst. This “water,” once again, was the Holy Spirit, I believe. And for this Samaritan woman, who thought of worship in terms of a certain place, Jesus taught that true worship must be enabled and inspired by the Holy Spirit:

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).

When Jesus was dying on the cross, John reports that He uttered the words, “I thirst” (John 20:28). These words, John tells us, were spoken in order to fulfill the Scripture, apparently the text in Psalm 69:21. I think it may also be true that Jesus’ “thirst” here was very significant. If Jesus bore the wrath of God on the cross, and there He was abandoned, for a time, by God (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46), then would the Spirit not have departed from Him? Would He not have thirsted in a much deeper sense, in the sense of which our Lord spoke in John 7 and elsewhere? I think so.

Little wonder that in the closing words of the Bible the matter of thirst and its satisfaction occur again:

“Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; He will lead them to springs of living water.

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17).

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life” (Revelation 21:6).

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves were for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2).

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life (Revelation 22:17).

The Holy Spirit is the “water of life” which comes without cost through Christ, and which gives life and satisfaction to all who will take of it.

And so it is that in His teaching, Jesus indicated that men are saved by means of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who communicates and illuminates the truth of God, and who brings men to life:

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit… The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-6, 8).

“The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63).

“When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned” (John 16:8-11).

Jesus not only taught men generally about the Holy Spirit; He also taught His disciples a great deal about the Holy Spirit and the ministry which He would play in their lives and ministry to come. Earlier in His ministry He promised the Holy Spirit to those who would ask for Him:

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

As the time for His departure approached, Jesus spoke more of the Spirit’s coming, and especially of the ministry which the Spirit would have in manifesting His presence and power to His disciples:

“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:15-18).

The Holy Spirit, Jesus said, would teach and guide them in His absence (perhaps I should better say that He would be present with them, teaching and guiding them through His Spirit):

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26).

“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:13).

“All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (John 16:15).

When the disciples were arrested for proclaiming the gospel, the Holy Spirit would give them the words to speak in their defense, thereby eliminating the need to worry or think about this before hand:

“For it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:20).

“Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).

“For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (Luke 12:12).

The Great Commission which Jesus gave the disciples just before His ascension, was predicated on the power which He gave them through His Spirit. Thus, they were also commanded to wait for the Spirit to come upon them, enduing them with power:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

“You are witnesses to these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48-49).

And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).

“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me; but you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:2-27).


The Holy Spirit played a central and crucial role in the life and ministry of our Lord. It was He, the Spirit, Who brought about the miraculous conception of Jesus. It was He Who endued Him with the power by which He conducted His earthly ministry. And it was He, as well, Who would comfort, encourage, and empower in the absence of the Lord Jesus, after His ascension. The Holy Spirit was (and is) the divine solution to the “thirst” which men have for God, and that thirst can only be quenched through the Spirit. Men are seeking to quench it in other ways, but it never satisfy. And the “living water” which the Spirit will give comes only through Christ, the Rock, Who was smitten on the cross of Calvary. Have you had your thirst quenched with this water? The offer of the Book of Revelation still stands, until the day of judgment comes:

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life (Revelation 22:17).

For a more complete outline of the texts referring to the ministry of the Holy Spirit as found in the Gospels, please see Appendix A.

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4. Putting Pentecost in Perspective (Part 3) Peter’s Interpretation of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-40)


Joe Bayly is now with the Lord, but he is a man I have always respected. He used to write a regular article in “Eternity” magazine, entitled, “Out of My Mind.” He wrote an excellent book on a topic few wish to consider—that of death and dying. It was first entitled, The View From a Hearse, but has in later printings been entitled, The Last Thing We Talk About. He has taken a stand on some issues which others have avoided. I can well remember one occasion when Mr. Bayly challenged his readers to beware of the logic which tested truth in terms of what it might lead to. Biblical truth in particular needs to be accepted as such, regardless of its implications.

There are some people who will openly acknowledge that the reason they reject Jesus Christ as their personal Savior is because they know that to accept Him would mean that He must be Lord of their lives, and they have no intention of giving up their lifestyle. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day put Him to death, to a large degree, because of what allowing Him to live would lead to—the end of their power, prestige, and positions.

While we may be willing to admit the folly of rejecting a particular truth because of its implications, we often repeat the same folly ourselves. For example, when we approach the second chapter of the Book of Acts, we know that this passage is a kind of proof text for some Christians. And we may not be very disposed to give their position or practices any ground whatsoever. I am going to ask you to acknowledge to yourself, before we even look at our text, that you probably have some strong feelings about the interpretation and application of this text. I am going to ask you to momentarily set these aside, as best you can, and to pray that the Spirit of God will open your eyes to the truth that is recorded for us here, whatever that might be, and wherever that might lead us.

For those who come with a charismatic theology and practice, I am going to challenge you to be willing to set this aside, even to reject it, if the text clearly says otherwise. For those who are strongly anti-charismatic, I will ask you to be willing to admit that the charismatics are right if this text teaches that they are. I am enough of a realist to know that few will allow this text (or any combination of passages) to totally reverse their thinking—though it has happened, and hopefully it will continue to do so where needed. I would hope, however, that the gap between charismatics and anti-charismatics (many non-charismatics I know of are also anti-charismatic) would somehow narrow, and that we would be willing to give some ground where it is required, even if we would not take the implications as far as our brother or sister might.

There is another related danger here which we must first recognize and then deal with. There is the danger of “reading back” into Acts from the Epistles, rather than “reading forward” from Acts to the Epistles. Let me illustrate what I mean. We are all waiting for the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” to occur here at Pentecost. But when we look for it, we look for a “baptism” that is defined in the Epistles, rather than to read the Epistles in the light of Acts. We therefore look for a “baptism of the Spirit” by the church at Pentecost, but we will run headlong into several difficulties.

First, we do not find a description of the “church” being baptized here, but only the apostles, and perhaps a few others. The “baptism” which is described here is not of those saved, but the occasion for those who are saved. It is the cause, not the result of the salvation of the 3,000. The message which Peter preached was very Jewish, and the promise was that the kingdom of God might come.

Second, we think of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” as being very distinct from the “filling of the Holy Spirit,” but in our text they are not carefully distinguished. In this text, which describes the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” (anticipated in Acts 1:4-5 and looked back on in Acts 11:15-16) the term “baptized” is not found. Instead, the text tells us that they were all “filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4).

Third, we think of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” in terms of John the Baptist’s baptism and of believer’s baptism, and thus we come to this text thinking in terms of immersion. This is not based upon the origin of the expression “baptized” as John the Baptist used it, but upon later references to “baptism” in the New Testament. Being an immersionist, it troubled me greatly to discover that the term baptism is not found in the Old Testament (in the NIV and NASB concordances at least). Would you like to know the Old Testament term which John speaks of in terms of baptism? It is the expression found several times in our text—“pour out.” It is difficult for an immersionist (I think I still am one, incidentally) to admit that the Old Testament terminology for baptism has a strong kinship to sprinkling or pouring.

This danger of “reading back” into Acts from the Epistles must be acknowledged. Instead of “reading back,” let us look at Acts as giving us a foundation, a historical context for that which will be more formally stated in terms of definitions and doctrines. And let us beware of those definitions or doctrines which ignore or contradict the content of Acts.

The Approach of this Lesson

In this lesson, I will first explore what happened at Pentecost, as described by Luke in verses 1-4. We will consider also who those were who experienced the “outpouring of the Spirit” and who those were who witnessed it. Then we will turn our attention to the meaning of Pentecost as Peter explained it in his first sermon. The meaning of this event and sermon to that generation of Israelites will be summarized along with the response to Peter’s sermon. Finally, we will very briefly consider the broader meaning of this event to Luke’s first readers, as well as to those in our present age. This will be done by emphasizing the placement of this passage in the overall content and context of the Book of Acts.

Observations on the Passage as a Whole

First, the context is clearly “Jewish” in Acts chapter 2. The events take place in Jerusalem. The apostles are all Jews (Galileans, too). Peter’s message is rooted in Old Testament prophecy, prophecies given to Israel. Peter speaks of God’s coming judgment on Israel, and calls on the “men of Israel” to repent, offering not only forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, but the kingdom as well (clearly implied).

Second, Luke’s emphasis is not on the spectacular phenomenon of the sound of a rushing wind, or of tongues, but on the meaning of the phenomenon. We cannot deny the phenomenon which are described here, but these are not the focus or the emphasis. A simple observation of the amount of space (the law of proportion) devoted to these spectacular events shows this to be true. There are but four verses in this long chapter which deal with the phenomenon. There are nearly twice as many verses devoted to the places from which the men witnessing the events have been born. And there is by far the most attention given to the meaning of the event, as explained by Peter in his sermon.

Third, even when the text deals with the spectacular, the focus is not on the individual on whom the Spirit has fallen, but on those who witness it. So often the subject of tongues, for example, is dealt with largely in terms of the tongues-speaker, but here the emphasis is only on the tongues-hearer. The gifts of the Spirit are not primarily for our benefit, but for the edification of others. Self-centeredness can quickly arise in this area, as elsewhere. Was this, in fact, not the problem of the disciples? When they thought of power, they thought of their position and prestige, and of their ranking with others. Jesus talked of power in terms of service. The strong are to minister to the weak, not to themselves.

Fourth, the “Pentecost” of Acts chapter 2 is but the first of four “pentecosts.” There are four “pentecosts” in Acts: Acts 2:1-4; Acts 8:14-25; Acts 10:44-48 (cf. 11:15-18); Acts 19:1-7. It is my conviction that we cannot understand the first “Pentecost” of Acts 2 apart from a study of all of the “pentecosts” of Acts. Thus, our study is but an introduction, and our conclusions must be subject to further information, which Luke will supply.

Fifth, Peter’s explanation of Pentecost here is given to a specific audience, telling them all that they needed to know, but not all that there was to know. Peter has not given a full explanation of the meaning of Pentecost in chapter 2. It is Luke, in this Book of Acts, who will supply much more of an explanation of its long-term meaning. Peter told this group of Jews what they most needed to know. Peter himself does not yet seem to understand the full implications of Pentecost, as can be seen from chapters 10 and 11, and beyond.

The People and the Phenomenon of Pentecost

When Jesus told the disciples to wait until they were endued with power, He only told them that it would not be many days until this took place (Acts 1:5). The actual day was the “day of Pentecost.” Pentecost was one of the three major celebrations of Israel,6 which every Israelite was to observe:

“The day of Pentecost was so called because it fell on the fiftieth day after the presentation of the first sheaf to be reaped of the barley harvest, that is, the fiftieth day from the first Sunday after Passover (pentekostos being the Greek word for ‘fiftieth’). Among Hebrew- and Aramaic-speaking Jews it was known as ‘the feast of weeks’ (Ex. 34:22a; Deut. 16:10) and also as ‘the day of the firstfruits’ (Num. 28:26; cf. Ex. 23:16a) because on that day ‘the firstfruits of wheat harvest’ (Ex. 34:22a) were presented to God.”7

It seems worthy of note that this is the only major feast of Israel which was not directly rooted in some event in Israel’s history. We know from Paul’s words in Colossians that it was, at least, a “mere shadow of what is to come” (Colossians 2:17). While there must be a typological or symbolic deeper meaning in the feast of Pentecost, Luke does not inform us of what this was. Thus, I shall pass on as well, knowing that there is more here than meets the eye.

The phenomenon of Pentecost was spectacular. First, there was a loud sound, like the sound of a mighty, rushing wind, but only “like” it. This perhaps “tornado-like” sound seems to be that which drew the large crowd to the place where the apostles were gathered. The sound of their speaking in tongues was probably not that loud. There was also the sight of the fire-like tongues which divided themselves among those present in that room. This sight was surely seen by those present in the room. It is not so certain whether or not the spectators who were attracted there by the great sound saw it—perhaps so (cf. verse 33).

This loud sound and the accompanying flames which descended8 may well be a fulfillment of prophecy, or at least have some Old Testament background as a symbol of God’s coming judgment:

“What is my beloved doing in my temple as she works out her evil schemes with many? Can consecrated meat avert your punishment? When you engage in your wickedness, then you rejoice.” 16 The Lord called you a thriving olive tree with fruit beautiful in form. But with the roar of a mighty storm he will set it on fire, and its branches will be broken. The LORD Almighty, who planted you, has decreed disaster for you, because the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done evil and provoked me to anger by burning incense to Baal (Jeremiah 11:15-16).

The Lord Almighty will come with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire (Isaiah 29:6; cf. also 30:27-33).

Most significant was the speaking in tongues. These “tongues” were languages, the native tongues of those who had gathered. Everyone who on whom the Spirit fell seems to have spoken in tongues. No other gifts or manifestations are mentioned. The precise logistics of how this took place is not clear, but every man did hear a Galilean speaking in his own native language. This, of course, would exclude the native Hebrews, who prided themselves for not ever having lived outside of the land of promise, and who would thus have no foreign tongue which he could understand. While the languages differed, the content of the utterances was the same in essence: the “mighty deeds of God” (2:11).

This is, in my estimation, the first instance of “tongues” in the Bible. While the “filling of the Spirit” produced prophecy and other phenomenon in the Old Testament, only now is tongues found. Why? Because I think this was, in and of itself, a sign. It was a sign that the gospel was going to be proclaimed to and received by men of every nation. God was to be praised not only in the nations, but by them. This, incidentally, was something which the apostles did not fully grasp either. Peter will only slowly, and not irreversibly, come to—ala Acts 10-11, Galatians 2.

It is interesting that while these men all heard the “mighty deeds of God”9 in their native languages, they heard the gospel in Peter’s native tongue. The gospel was not preached in tongues; it was preceded by tongues. The gospel was proclaimed in the native tongue of the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, which I assume to be Aramaic.

I wonder if those who were speaking in tongues understood what they were saying. These who were speaking in tongues were all Galileans (2:7). It would seem that they would all be speaking languages they did not know and would not understand apart from the gift of interpretation. We are simply not told what the speakers felt or understood, for the focus of Luke is on the audience.

All of the spectacular phenomenon that are described come about suddenly and take the group by surprise. It is nothing which they particularly expected. It is nothing which they brought about. God sovereignly poured out His Spirit, with the manifestations He chose. The disciples were “sitting” as this took place, indicating their passivity. They were, as it were, at rest as this happened. God works in us, not due to our striving, but due to our resting and abiding in Him.

One of the problems is determining just who is to be included in the “all” that Luke spoke of—”And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues” (verse 4). From the immediate context of chapter one (verse 15 in particular), we might conclude that the number of those on whom the Spirit was poured out was one hundred and twenty, which would have included the apostles. On further study and consideration, I have come to the conclusion that it was only the apostles who experienced the gift of tongues at this moment. I will try to explain why I have come to this conclusion.

The event described in verses 15-26 of chapter 1 takes place during the (approximately) ten days between the ascension of our Lord and Pentecost. There were one hundred and twenty gathered when Matthias was selected as the twelfth apostle. Statements prior to this seem to suggest that those on whom the Spirit fell, or at least who spoke with tongues at Pentecost, were only twelve in number. When Jesus gave the Great Commission to the disciples and promised them power from on high, He did so to the eleven, according to Matthew (28:16ff.), the eleven by themselves, according to Mark (16:14ff). Luke’s Gospel is more ambiguous because all of our Lord’s post-resurrection appearances, as well as His ascension, are lumped together, not distinguishing different times, places, or groups of people.

The account of Acts 1:1-5 also seems to set the apostles apart. Those referred to by “they” or “you” in verses 6-11 is not defined until we get to verses 12 and 13. Take note of who is named as the “they”:

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers (Acts 1:12-14).

The “they” are thus defined as the eleven, shortly to become the twelve, once again, with the addition of Matthias.

It was the apostles who were called to be witnesses to the resurrection of the Lord, and it was they who were to lay down the terms of salvation (cf. Matthew 16:18-19). It was the apostles who were especially given the promise of the Holy Spirit, who would bring Jesus’ words and teaching to their remembrance. All those who spoke in tongues were, according to the witness of those present, Galileans (2:7). Those who rejected the sign of tongues accused those who thus spoke of being drunk. Only Peter and the eleven took their stand and were defended by Peter (2:14). When Peter was finished, those who wanted to be saved looked to Peter and the eleven for the answer to the question, “What must we do to be saved?” (2:37).

As the seventy, who were to carry out much of the work of Moses, were set apart, empowered and accredited by the descent of the Spirit of Moses upon them (Numbers 11:17, 25-29), so here as well the apostles, who were to carry on with the work of the Lord Jesus, who were to speak for Him, with complete authority, were endowed with power from on high and accredited before the nation. Pentecost here is primarily a matter of the apostles. We are not told that the Spirit fell on the newly-born church of 3,000 but that the Spirit fell on the apostles and, as a result, the church was born.

Now let us pause to reflect on those who witnessed Pentecost, those for whom Pentecost was publicly performed. The emphasis of the text falls far more on those who were witnesses to Pentecost, than on those who were participants. The audience at Pentecost was made up, to a large degree at least, of “devout men” (verse 5). These were not only Jews, but devout Jews. I would understand this to mean that they were, like Simeon and Anna, Elizabeth and Zecharias, Mary and Joseph, looking for the kingdom of God and for its Messiah. Many of the spectators had come from all over the world. Some may have come just for this feast, but the great distance and their piety would suggest that they had immigrated to Israel, knowing that the King would manifest Himself here, and that their hopes were to be fulfilled here. It would seem then that they were originally from other parts of the world (and thus their native tongues were those in which the apostles spoke of the mighty deeds of God), but whose faith and hope caused them to move to the promised land.

In verse 14 Peter referred to his audience with these words: “Men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem.” My inclination is to see this as Peter’s recognition of the two major groups present: (1) those who were native Hebrews (“Men of Judea”), and (2) those who had immigrated to Jerusalem and were living there (“Hellenistic Jews”).10 This two-fold division is evident in Acts chapter 6. Indeed, this distinction seems to have been the basis of discrimination and bitterness:

Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food (Acts 6:1).

It may very well be that the devout Jews, who were largely Hellenistic Jews, were the ones who sincerely wanted to know what Pentecost meant. It may also be that the native Jews were those who not only did not speak any foreign tongues (and thus could not hear the praise of God in these tongues) but were those who accused the apostles of drunkenness. As the power of the Spirit in the life of Jesus was attributed to Satan by those who rejected Him, so the manifestation of the Spirit here was attributed to alcohol. There is always a ready excuse for those determined not to believe.

Peter’s Explanation of Pentecost

The question has been asked of Peter and the other apostles: “What does this mean?” (verse 12). Peter will now take his stand, along with the rest of the apostles, and give them the explanation of Pentecost, its meaning, and its implications.

The first thing Peter did was to answer the charge of some that they were drunk. He denies this charge, not on the basis that none of them ever touched wine, but on the fact that it was too early in the morning—the “third hour of the day” (verse 15), or 9 a.m.11 It was not only untrue (a simple denial probably would not have convinced them), it was unreasonable (this would carry greater weight).

Peter did not hesitate to tell his audience what Pentecost did mean. He quickly turned their attention to the prophecy of Joel and specifically to his words recorded in Joel chapter 2, verses 28-32:




The phenomenon of Pentecost was not the result of “spirits” (alcohol), but the Spirit. The prophet Joel foretold of the time when the Spirit of God would be poured out on all mankind. If the Spirit of God had been poured out in the Old Testament times, it was on a few people who had specific tasks to perform. In the future, however, the Spirit would be much more widely poured out and not just upon Jews, but upon “ALL MANKIND” (Acts 2:17).

Peter was thus claiming that what these Jews had witnessed was the outpouring of the Spirit which Joel foretold. But there was much more to it than that. The question was not so much the source of this phenomenon, but the meaning of it. Peter would tell them, but it was not all good news. In the context of Joel’s prophecy, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a sign which was to precede the coming “day of the Lord” ( Acts 2:20; cf. Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14). The “day of the Lord” was not only the day when the kingdom of God would be established on the earth and God’s promised blessings would be poured out on His people, Israel. It was to begin with judgment.

It is of this judgment which Joel spoke in his prophecy. It is very evident in that portion of Joel which Peter quoted. He spoke much more of the judgment of God than of His blessings. Israel must first be judged and purged of her sins and then blessings could come. The outpouring of the Spirit was said by Joel to be a warning that the time of judgment was at hand. Fortunately, the last verse cited by Peter was the promise of salvation, to all who called upon the Lord (2:21). Before Peter will tell his audience about this salvation, he will explain the specifics of the judgment which looms large before them, from which they could be saved.

In verses 22-24 Peter lays the charge against the people of this city, the people who stand before him:

22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—23 this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. 24 “And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its powers.

Jesus the Nazarene presented Himself to His people in Jerusalem, even as the prophets had foretold. Jesus came not only with the claim to be the Messiah, but God Himself testified to His identity and authority through the signs and wonders He performed through the Holy Spirit.

In spite of this, Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah. And not “Israel” in some general sense; those hearing Peter rejected His claim to be Messiah. The One whom God accredited, they rejected. Worse yet, they nailed Him to a cross. This was all within the sovereign plan and purpose of God, but they put Him to death in an evil conspiracy which involved the Gentiles as well. God’s purposes were not overthrown in all of this, for He raised Jesus from the dead.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Peter will first demonstrate the necessity of Christ’s resurrection and then he will spell out its implications. He told this audience that it was impossible for Him not to be raised. As proof, Peter turns to Psalm 16, a psalm of David. He quotes these words from the psalm:


In this psalm, David reveled in the inheritance which God had prepared for him and promised to him. The blessings to which David looked forward were largely “heavenly blessings” as I understand his words. Note the words in verse 11 which conclude David’s psalm:

Thou wilt make known to me the path of life; In Thy presence is fullness of joy; In Thy right hand there are pleasures forever (NASB).

What is the basis of David’s confidence in these future blessings? How can he know he will experience them? Will they not be terminated by his own death? David’s answer seems to be this: “My future rests in God, and specifically in my own offspring, the Messiah, whose kingdom will be eternal” (cf. 2 Samuel 7:14). “I know that I will die, but my future rests in God’s Holy One, who cannot be held by death or the grave.” David somehow knows that His Savior will die, but this does not shake his faith, for he also knows that death cannot hold him. His Savior may die, but he will not stay dead. He will die, but His flesh will not see corruption. Since David’s future rests on His Messiah, his future is secure, even after his own death, for God has made known to David the “path of life” (verse 16). David will rise from the dead, to enjoy the blessings God has promised him because His Messiah will rise from the dead.

When David spoke of resurrection in this psalm, Peter pointed out, he was not speaking of his own resurrection but of his Son’s resurrection. David’s tomb was still there, and it was occupied—with David! The empty tomb was that of Jesus, the Nazarene. David was speaking of Jesus in Psalm 16, and the empty tomb was proof of that. The Old Testament taught both the necessity of the death of Messiah and of His resurrection.

If prophecy was one line of evidence, pointing to the resurrection, Pentecost was another. Pentecost was not just a fulfillment of God’s promise, it was the pouring out of the Spirit as proof that Jesus had risen from the dead. John the Baptist had said that Jesus would pour out the Spirit, that He would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit. And he was absolutely right! Having been raised from the dead, He was also ascended into heaven. The outpouring of the Spirit was from above, where Jesus now was, at the Father’s right hand. Both prophecy and Pentecost were proof of Jesus’ resurrection.

The death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ is not only a fact, it is a truth loaded with implications, very distressing implications. If Messiah is now in heaven, at the right hand of the Father, for what is He waiting? The answer was given in Joel chapter two, but it is also to be found in Psalm 110:1, which Peter now cites:


Having been raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father, the Christ is now acclaimed Lord. He is given full power and authority, the right to reign. Then what delays the establishment of His kingdom? Psalm 110 tells us: before He can reign, the Father must put all of His enemies under His feet. The delay in the establishment of the kingdom is only until the enemies of the Messiah are put down. To sum it up, God has made this Jesus “both LORD and Christ” (verse 36). This is a very pregnant expression, but at minimum it means that Jesus is not only the Messiah who was rejected and put to death, but He is the LORD who is returning to reign, just as soon as His enemies are put down.

And just who might those enemies be? The answer to this question was all too clear from Peter’s message. They had rejected and crucified the Messiah. God had raised Him from the dead, and He was soon to subdue all of Messiah’s enemies. God was soon to bring judgment upon this generation. Jesus had spoken of this. Joel foretold it. And Psalm 110 spoke of it as well. The outpouring of the Spirit was not good news, but bad news. All except for the last verse of Joel’s prophecy which Peter cited,

“And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved” (verse 21).

No wonder Peter’s audience is cut to the heart (verse 37). They need no prompting, no persuasion, to ask what it is that they must do to be saved and to be delivered from the wrath of God. The answer is short, but profound. They must repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Jesus the Christ, the anointed One, the Messiah). Doing so, their sins will be forgiven, they will be saved from God’s wrath, and they will receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, the firstfruits of the kingdom to come.

Verse 40 is a further clarification of Peter’s words of application. What is most important to see in these words is that there are two senses in which the Israelites of that day were saved by their repentance and faith. They were saved, first of all, from the coming wrath of God upon that city and that generation, for rejecting Messiah and putting Him to death. They were also saved from God’s eternal wrath and assured of eternal life and the blessings of His promised kingdom.


The application for Peter’s audience was simple and straight-forward. The day of God’s judgment was near. They were guilty of rejecting Jesus of Nazareth, who had the testimony of God that He was Israel’s Messiah. If they repented, they would be saved from God’s coming wrath, and better yet, they would enter into the promised kingdom. If they did not, judgment was imminent.

It’s simple, but there is no more important decision, no more urgent matter, than this. The application for us is identical, in principle. While God’s wrath was poured out on Jerusalem in 70 A.D., there is a coming day of judgment which will precede the establishment of the kingdom of God on the earth. You and I have also learned of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the King who will come to judge and then to reign. He is also the One who bore the penalty for our sins. While we may not have been in that crowd which called for His death, we have just as wickedly rejected Him, and were we given the chance, we would have done just as Peter’s audience had done.

There is a coming day of judgment for us, one way or the other. That day of judgment may come before our death or it may come after, but there is a day of judgment (Hebrews 9:27). To the threat of eternal judgment is God’s offer of salvation, to all who will “call upon the name of the Lord.” By admitting your sin, and by trusting in Jesus of Nazareth as God’s Messiah and your Savior, you will be forgiven, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and look forward to the coming kingdom of God and all of its blessings. Have you, in simple faith, done this? I pray that if you have not, you will, even now.

6 “It was the second of the three great annual feasts which every male Israelite was required to attend (Deut. 16:16).” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 28.

7 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 49-50.

8 Jesus was described in chapter one as being taken up, into heaven. Now, in this verse the phenomenon is described as “coming down” from heaven. The connection is deliberate and necessary. The one who was taken up has sent down the Spirit.

9 I would imagine that the “wonders of God” which were proclaimed in these foreign tongues were seemingly similar to those praises of Mary, Elizabeth, Zacharias, Simeon, and Anna.

10 I take it, then, that these Hellenistic Jews would not leave Jerusalem immediately after Pentecost, taking with them the good news of the gospel. They would probably stay in Jerusalem, for they were still expecting the kingdom to come at any moment. In fact, their expectation and hope would have been enhanced by Peter’s promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It would not have been until the persecution resulting from the stoning of Stephen that these saints would have fled, now taking the good news along with them (or at least some may have done so. Cf. Acts 11:19-21).

11 It is, of course, possible that the group had carried on an all-night prayer vigil. We might have expected the Spirit to fall on them after a long day of fervent prayer. The impression I get is that the Spirit fell upon them before they even got started that day. This would be just like God, answering before we have even called to Him.

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5. Putting Pentecost in Perspective (Part 4) The Firstfruits of Pentecost (Acts 2:41-47)


Suppose for a moment that you walked into the church foyer, and it was filled with booths. One or more of those were real estate booths where you could list your home for sale without even leaving church. There would also need to be a pawn shop, a used car lot, and so on. If you had not expected to find such things in the church, you might well turn to someone and ask what all these booths were doing there.

The response to your question might be that these businesses had been set up in the church to facilitate Christians who wanted to be obedient to the teaching of Acts chapter 2. In responding to just what this “teaching” was, it could be explained that the early—indeed the oldest—church (isn’t older always better?) was one that sold all of its possessions and gave the money to those in need. Thus, today you could come to church, sell your house and all your goods, give the proceeds to the church, and worship, all at one time.

You need never worry about this kind of thing happening in our church, but it happens all of the time with the cults. There are many cults which require their “converts” to give up all their possessions as the “right of passage” into the group. They may or may not base their requirement on the Bible, but were they to do so, Acts 2:41-47 would probably be one of their proof texts.

(Incidentally, if we were to conclude that the practice of the first church, the church born at Pentecost, were indeed setting a biblical precedent, a biblical pattern for all Christians to follow, I wonder how many of us would be willing to obey? In our materialistic culture, this would probably be the acid test of true faith.)

The Book of Acts does pose a dilemma for anyone who reads it with a heart tuned to the will of God. What should one make of the example of the early churches? Is everything found in Acts chapter 2, for example, a kind of standard? If the Spirit fell on the apostles at Pentecost and on other groups of believers later on in Acts (i.e. chapters 8, 10, and 19), does this mean that we have a right to expect it to happen, in the same way, to us? And if the early saints sold their possessions and gave the money to the poor, is this saying that God expects the same practice of us?

The Bible poses many tensions for the one whose heart is tuned to God, and who seeks to obey not only His direct commands but also to do anything which pleases Him. What commands of the Bible are we to obey today? Are parents to bring their disobedient children before the church to be stoned? Are we to circumcise our children? Should we expect, and even demand, that signs and wonders occur in our church and through us? And when we read in the New Testament that we are to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” are we being disobedient when we do not literally carry out this instruction, found several times in the epistles and by more than one apostle? For those who want to take the instructions of the Bible literally, they will find that they cannot (e.g., stoning their disobedient children) or will not (e.g. selling their possessions and giving to the poor) do so. For those who have a quick and ready excuse for not taking the Scriptures literally, there will always be a logical explanation for our not doing the difficult or the painful. What then is the answer? How do we determine what practices and instructions of the Bible are for us to take literally? And what do we do with the practices and precepts which we do not take in a starkly literal way?

Our text provides us with an excellent opportunity to sharpen our biblical methodology, as well as providing us with a powerful message. If we are to come to grips with our text in a meaningful way, we must first understand what Luke is describing. We must understand what characterized the first church, the church in Jerusalem. Second, we must seek to understand what this means for us. How do we interpret and apply the practices of the first church? In order to do this, there is a third matter of great urgency, and that is to arrive at some set of guidelines, some kind of approach, to the practices and precepts which we find in the Word of God. If we do this, we will be much better able to determine whether, for example, we are all required to sell our possessions as these early saints did.

The Approach of this Lesson

The approach of this lesson will be to attempt to articulate a method by which we can study a passage of the Bible (not just in Acts) and seek to determine both its meaning (interpretation) and its message (application). After doing this, we will take one problem area from our passage and seek to determine its meaning and message. We will next attempt to articulate an approach to the Book of Acts (and other books of the Bible as well). Finally, we will conclude with a look at some of the characteristics of the early church and suggest their meaning and message for us.

A Suggested Approach to the Book of Acts

The Book of Acts is a description, a description of the birth of the church and of the expansion of the gospel as an extension of the Gospel of Luke. To put the matter in words more closely approximating those of the author, it is an account of all the Holy Spirit continued to do and teach through the apostles, which Jesus began to teach and to do in His earthly ministry. The Gospels are an account of Jesus’ teaching and practice. Acts is an account of the teaching and practice of the apostles. While the Gospels and Acts focus on practice, we might say that the epistles focus on principles.

If we are to understand any text in Acts, we must first begin with the text itself. What does the passage say? What is Luke describing? We must seek to understand this in the light of the entire book. We must therefore understand Pentecost in Acts 2 in the light of all of Acts. For example, is the phenomenon described in Acts 2 consistently found elsewhere?12 Does Luke inform us that what we see in Acts 2 is a general experience or a special one?13 Having carefully considered the preaching and/or practice of our passage in Acts, we must go back in order to look for a precedent. Jesus commissioned the apostles to “go therefore” not only preaching the gospel and baptizing, but “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Thus, we must look for a precedent in the Gospels to the practice of the church in Acts. Is what we see in Acts obedience to what Jesus taught in the Gospels? (We should also look even further back, as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount, to the teaching of the Old Testament. Paul and the other apostles did this also—cf. 1 Corinthians 9:8-10; 14:34.) Finally, we must go to the epistles of the New Testament to find principles and precepts which guide and govern that which is described in Acts.

The following approach to Scripture results in:

(1) A careful examination of the passage we are considering.

(2) A careful examination of the context of that passage, which includes the teaching of the book as a whole.

(3) Seeking biblical precedent in the Old Testament and the Gospels.

(4) Seeking precepts (commands) and principles in the epistles, pertaining to this matter.

A Case Study in Acts:
Having All Things in Common

44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (Acts 2:44-45).

Let us take this one segment of our text, and seek to deal with it using the approach spelled out above. We will first consider the background of our text and then make some overall observations about the passage.


Pentecost began with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, resulting in a great noise, tongues of fire, and the apostles speaking the praises of God in the native tongues of those present. Peter’s sermon explained what had taken place in a very forceful way. He told his audience that what they saw and heard was part of the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Their speaking in tongues was an evidence of the outpouring of the Spirit of which Joel foretold. If Joel’s prophecy was being fulfilled, it also meant that the “Day of the Lord” was approaching, a day which would end in blessing for Israel but which would commence with judgment. Peter went on to suggest exactly what that judgment would entail (2:22-24). They had rejected the One whom God attested to be the Messiah, through miracles, and wonders and signs. Within the plan and purpose of God, they had put God’s Messiah to death—Jesus of Nazareth. God had raised Him from the dead, however.

The resurrection of Jesus should not be regarded as anything new, for David had spoken of this as a prophet. In his psalm, Psalm 16, he spoke of his hope as being based on the presence of God. His offspring would carry on the Davidic line, and one of His seed would fulfill God’s promise to him (David—2 Samuel 7:14) of an eternal throne. But how could this be if David’s son died, just as he would? His “Son,” David knew, would be his Lord, and thus He would be God in the flesh. As the living God, His flesh would not be allowed to corrupt. Even if He died (or was put to death), He would be raised. David was not speaking of himself, for his grave was nearby. He spoke of Jesus, his Son, whose empty tomb was nearby.

The final punch came from Peter’s reference to Psalm 110. Not only had Jesus been raised from the grave; He had ascended to the right hand of the Father. Psalm 110:1 indicated what was next on the program. God was to put the enemies of His Son under His feet. The next step, indicated by Joel 2 and Psalm 110:1 was the judgment of God’s enemies, and those enemies were those who had rejected His Son.

The impact was incredible. Cut to the heart, they asked Peter and the other apostles what they should do. Peter told them to repent and to be baptized, and thus to be saved from that evil generation and the horrible fate which would someday befall them. Approximately 3,000 did believe and were baptized. It is this group of people who will now be in focus.

Some Initial Observations Concerning our Text

First, Acts 2:41-47 is but the first description of the earliest church. Acts 2 is the beginning of the book, a part of the whole. If we are to understand Luke’s meaning in chapter 2, we must do so in the light of his entire work and not just this first portion.

Second, there is a clear process of development in the Book of Acts. If the doctrine of progressive revelation applies to the whole Bible, so it applies to the whole of any one book of the Bible. Luke is recording the progressive development of the church and even of the apostles’ understanding of the gospel. We cannot come to broad, general, conclusions apart from studying the entire book. We must withhold judgment and comment until we have considered the part in the light of the whole.

Third, it will become increasingly clear that there is a very obvious parallel between the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke. If the ministry of the apostles parallels that of their Lord, so does the response of the people of Jerusalem and their leaders to the apostles parallel Israel’s response to her Messiah. There will be other parallels evident later on as well, such as the parallel drawn by Luke between Peter, his preaching and ministry, and Paul.

Fourth, we are still in the first section of Luke’s account of the birth and development of the church, which is the Jewish phase. We are still in Jerusalem. The apostles and the church are daily going to the temple to worship and pray. That will end in chapter 8, but not until then. The Gentiles will be drawn into God’s plan of redemption and into His church, but that is yet to come.

Fifth, the emphasis of these verses is corporate, not private or individual. The focus of these verses is on the church as a whole, not on the individual aspects and outworkings of faith in Christ.

Sixth, the description of the character and conduct of the earliest church, found here in Acts 2, is that of its total life and lifestyle, not just that of its corporate worship. This is, for me, a critically important realization. I thought for a long time that the four elements found in Acts 2:42 were those elements contained in its gathering for worship. But interestingly enough, worship is not one of the four ingredients. I now believe that these four elements are the four fundamentals of Christian life, but they need not be found in the church meeting.

This is very important when it comes to church growth. We have often struggled with the maximum size of the church. Is there a certain optimum size for our church? Is there a size that is best? Can a church get too big? Can one be too small? The Scriptures never tell us of an ideal size. In fact, we find the church is very large in Jerusalem in its earliest days, and yet the churches described in the epistles seem to be “house churches” and thus quite small. How then can we conclude that there is a certain ideal size for a church?

The Jerusalem church met both “in the temple” and “from house to house.” I am now of a mind that some things can be better done in large groups, while other things may best be done in small groups, or even in private. Thus, matters like the teaching of the apostles’ doctrine might just as well be done in a large class as in a small one (granted, interaction will be affected, but there will be much greater efficiency—think of how many times Peter would have had to teach the same lesson if he taught in classes of 5!). Sharing and prayer may be more effective in small groups. I have seen large prayer meetings in India where all prayed at the same time, but this seemed confusing (perhaps this is only my cultural bias).

Seventh, these verses are a description of the conduct of the earliest church, in response to the miracle of Pentecost and to the preaching of the gospel by Peter. This is an account of the first preaching of the gospel and of its results in the lives of those who believed and were saved.

Eighth, this description provided by Luke focuses our attention on three specific groups: (1) the apostles; (2) the church; and, (3) the unbelieving community of people who looked on, but who did not, as yet, come to faith. We will begin our study of this text by looking at each of these three groups and what Pentecost did to them.

Case Study:
The Practice of the Church and its Progress in Acts

One of the biggest problems with understanding the practice of the early church here is rooted in a failure of some translations. For example, the New Jerusalem Bible renders our text,

The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed.

From this rendering, one would conclude that all the saints sold all their possessions, all at one time, and then lived together in some kind of communal dwelling. This is clearly not the case. In their commentary on this text, Carter and Earle point out that the tenses of the verbs, if properly rendered, would produce this translation:

“And from time to time they were selling their possessions and goods, and were parting them to all, according as from time to time any man had need.”14

Thus, there was not one great sale, but an on-going process, in which needs which arose were met by the sale of some property. People retained ownership of their goods but sold goods from time to time to meet the pressing needs of others.

Several things characterize the generosity of the early church as described here.

(1) The sale of goods was voluntary. There is no indication of this taking place by compulsion. This will be confirmed in Acts 5.

(2) The sale of goods took place spontaneously and not in some orchestrated way.

(3) We may well conclude that giving was done directly, from the donor to one in need. This is no intermediary mentioned here, no “middle man.”

(4) The emphasis falls on the church caring for its own. Luke informs us that they shared everything in common, and this is explained by the fact that when one was in need, another sold some possessions and met the need. Thus, the church was taking care of its own here.

As the Book of Acts proceeds there is a development, a clear sense of progress evident. In Acts chapter 4 we have a further definition. Here we are told,

… not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common to them (Acts 4:32).

This is a very significant detail. It was not that people gave up possession of all their goods but that they gave up ownership of them. Their things still belonged to them; they had them in their possession, but they did not claim to own them. They regarded themselves as stewards of their possessions, and thus they did not seek to hoard them. When another was in need of their possessions (or the money the sale of them would produce), they put that item up for sale and gave the money to meet the need.

Another development is found in Acts chapter 4. In this case, the meeting of the needs of others in the church was handled more institutionally. The money was not given directly to a needy person, but was “laid at the apostles’ feet” (4:35). Now there seems to be a kind of “needy fund” which is managed and disbursed by the apostles.

The incident with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter 5 (verses 1-11) sheds further light on Acts 2:44-45. Peter made it very clear to Ananias that the sale of his property was a “free-will decision” on his part. He was not in any way obliged to act as he did. He neither had to sell his property nor to give any of the proceeds if he did. Further, he could have given any part of the proceeds, rather than all of them (v. 4). His sin was not that of keeping part of the money, but of lying that he had given all of it (v. 4).

In Acts chapter 6 (vss. 1-6) we find even further institutionalization. The care of others becomes more and more organized and structured. The meeting of the needs of others was diverse. Some had occasional, emergency, needs. Others, like the widows, had a daily need. Thus, the widows were cared for consistently. Somehow, however, things were not as orderly as they should have been and some were discriminated against while others seemed to be more favored. Thus, the apostles appointed a group of spiritual men to oversee this task, so that it was done in a more orderly and impartial way.

Two more observations seem justified in the light of several of these texts.

(1) We are not told that everyone sold their possessions.

(2) We are not told that people sold all their possessions

Luke’s description is a general one. He is describing the conduct of the church in general, not the conduct of all the saints, without exception. Thus, Peter could speak to Ananias and Sapphira as he did about their possessions. They did not need to sell them, and they did not need to give all. Barnabas, we are told, “owned a tract of land” and sold it (4:36-37). This does not mean, necessarily, that Barnabas did not own other property. The church in Jerusalem continued to meet “from house to house,” so they surely did not live in one big communal house. It would seem obvious that many retained the possession of their homes and that this is where they met.

Acts chapter 11 provides us with information about a significant expansion in the vision and generosity of the church. Here it is the church at Antioch which, on hearing of a coming famine in Judea, determined to share with the saints in need there (11:27-30). While the church is still caring “for its own”—for fellow believers—it is now demonstrating a much broader definition of the church. The generosity has developed from helping one’s neighbor, one whom a person knew well and to whom he directly gave (Acts 2), to a more collective sharing (Acts 4), and finally to a kind of “international” generosity (Acts 11).

A Precedent for the
Practice of the Church in Acts

Luke has given us a description of the generosity of the early church. We now need to look for a biblical precedent for their conduct. Time does not permit us to search out the Old Testament, but I believe it is clear that God instructed His people to care for the needy, especially the “widows and orphans,” but also the “strangers,” the foreigners, the “Gentiles.”

When we come to the Gospels, we discover that Jesus had much to say about material possessions. Let me list just a few of the texts I believe serve as a precedent to the practice of the early church:

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:10-11).

Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33).

“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “ ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” 20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth (Matthew 19:17-22).

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means (Luke 8:1-3).

“As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. 9 Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10 take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep” (Matthew 10:7-10).

Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. 36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” 38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied (Luke 22:35-38).

Even before the public appearance of Jesus as Messiah, John was preaching about money and material possessions. As can be seen, he did not call for people to give up the necessities, but he did teach that when one had a spare garment, it should be given to one who had none (Luke 3:10-11).

When Jesus began to preach and teach, He made it clear that material possessions were not the essence of life. Thus, those who were to be His followers were called to turn from materialism and to trust in Him to provide for them. Not all were called to sell all that they had, but some, like the rich young ruler, were. Those who did believe in Him, such as Zacchaeus (Luke 19:8), demonstrated this by their readiness to give to those in need.

When Jesus sent out the disciples, He had them take along only the bare necessities without anything extra. They were to trust in Him to provide, and they were to be supported by those who received their message. Later on in Luke (chapter 22), however, Jesus modified His instructions. The disciples were now told to make provision for their own needs. This was because Jesus’ popularity was waning, and because many who might once have welcomed them may now oppose them. There is then some change in how much the disciples should accumulate and provide for themselves, dictated by the society in which the disciples were to minister.

Put as simply as possible, material possessions were never to be an end in themselves, a goal, or a “god.” They were a means. They could be a means of proclaiming the gospel or a means to ministering to the needs of others. It seems to me that Jesus called on all men who would follow Him to give up material things as a goal, but that those who had possessions as their god, He called upon to sell all they had. This was for the good of those so directed, like the rich young ruler. Men could not serve two masters, and thus if money were the master of a man, Jesus called on him to get rid of it so that He could be his master.

New Testament Precept and Principle

The early church can be seen to have been taking the teaching of Jesus seriously, and in many cases, quite literally. But does this mean that every Christian must do likewise? We have already seen that the practice of the churches in Acts do not provide us with a uniform, consistent practice in this matter. In Acts chapter 20, Paul instructed the Ephesian elders to follow his example in working with his own hands and thus not becoming a burden to others. In addition, he worked with his own hands to support others. It is not just by selling our possessions that we can generate the money needed to help others; it is by rolling up our sleeves and going to work (cf. also Ephesians 4:28).

The New Testament epistles have much to say on the Christian’s attitude toward material things and his responsibility to care for the needs of others. Consider these passages:

Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality (Romans 12:13).

What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Galatians 6:10).

You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions (Hebrews 10:34).

And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Hebrews 13:16).

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17).

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (1 John 3:16-17).

There is, as I understand these texts, a priority to be given to those who are members of the household of faith. This is similar to the practice of the church as we have seen it in Acts. We are to help others as well, but especially those within the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). Both James and John make it clear that true, living faith will respond to the needs of a brother, and that those who avoid meeting these needs may only be claiming faith, rather than possessing it.

It would seem to me that Paul’s words, recorded in 1 Corinthians 7, are the most directly applicable to the early church in Jerusalem, as described in Acts 2. In the light of the shortness of the time, and the nearness of our Lord’s return, men ought to live in the present in the light of the future. Those who are married, as though they were not; those who possess, as those who did not. From our Lord’s warnings and from Peter’s message at Pentecost, it was clear that those who dwelt in Jerusalem would soon see the wrath of God coming upon that generation and that city, which had rejected Messiah and put Him to death. They lived as though the time was short, and it was. The nearer we believe the Lord’s return to be, and the more eager we are to see it come, the less we will cling to the things which are seen, looking rather to those things which are not seen but which God has promised those who trust in Him and who wait patiently for His return.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 5:1 Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 4:16–5:10).

While I do not see the Bible to be teaching that every Christian should sell all of his or her possessions, I do see it teaching (Old and New Testament) that all that we have has been given by God and that we are merely stewards of it. We are to use what God has given as faithful stewards. When we have more than enough and another has less than enough, we have the obligation to give that which we have in excess to meet the deficiency of another. I think this is the principle which Paul has laid down in 2 Corinthians:

For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. 13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality (2 Corinthians 8:12-14).

While the charity of the church in Acts chapter 2 does not prove to be the “rule” for all churches or for every Christian, it does serve as an excellent example and illustration of the change in values which the gospel brings. God may well prompt some to do likewise today, and it will be their joy to do so, just as it was a joy to the Jerusalem saints. He may not prompt others to do this. But in either case, what we have is what we have received from God, and we are required to be good stewards of it. The strong (the advantaged) are always under obligation to minister to the weak (the disadvantaged):

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves (Romans 15:1; cf. also Galatians 6:2).

The Fruit of
Pentecost in Three Dimensions

Having looked more carefully at the matter of meeting the material needs of others, let us now look more generally at the character and conduct of the earliest church. Without going into the detailed study we have in the matter of material ministry, let us make some general observations about this infant church and suggest some areas of application to our own church and to our walk with the Lord. I have chosen to approach our text through a consideration of the character of the three groups distinguished and described in the text: (1) the apostles; (2) the general unbelieving population who looked on and who witnessed what was taking place through the apostles and the church; and, (3) the church itself. We will look most carefully at this last group, the church.

The First Dimension: The Apostles

The first group to be affected by Pentecost were the apostles. It was here, at Pentecost, that they were endued with power from on high. Peter, who formerly denied his Lord, now spoke boldly, indicting his audience, squarely placing the guilt for rejecting Christ on them, and speaking of the wrath of God that would fall on them if they failed to repent. So too for the other apostles.

The apostles (by my way of understanding Acts 2:1-13) were those on whom the Spirit fell and those who spoke in tongues. It is they who all stand before this group, with Peter as their spokesman (2:14). It is they who are asked what they should do by the crowd, under conviction (2:37). It is the apostles, as I understand 2:42-43, through whom God worked miracles, signs, and wonders, thus accrediting them as His spokesmen. It was the apostles who proclaimed the way of salvation, and it was the apostles who were regarded as the authoritative source of teaching and doctrine. Pentecost, and the special power which came to the apostles on this occasion, set the apostles apart from the rest. Luke clearly distinguishes the apostles as a group from the church, the rest of the saints.

This is completely consistent with what Jesus had said during His sojourn on the earth and what He taught the apostles then.

And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hades shall not overpower it. It will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:17-19, NASB).

It is also consistent with the teaching of the epistles. All of Acts confirms this fact as well.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard. God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Hebrews 2:3-4; cf. Ephesians 2:20).

It is, I think, of special significance that the author of Hebrews sets the apostles apart from others and from those who would follow, later on. The task of an apostle (at least of this specific task of apostleship) was a temporary one. They laid the foundation. They were the instruments whom God used to inscripturate that which Jesus had spoken and taught while on earth and which He purposed to reveal in His absence, so that the foundation of the church would be laid, once and for all. Apostolic succession is not biblical (in my opinion), and neither is it necessary, since this apostolic task is finished.

The Second Dimension: The People of Jerusalem

The teaching and preaching of the apostles was instrumental in the salvation of many—3,000 thus far. But there were also many who did not, as yet, come to faith and repentance. If the ministry of the apostles did not serve to convert these people, it did seem to have some impact on them nevertheless. The scoffers (2:13), who explained the phenomenon of Pentecost as the result of too much wine, seem to have been silenced, at least for a time. If the signs and wonders performed by the apostles did not convert them, they certainly caused many to stand in awe of them, nevertheless (2:43). If there was not faith, there was at least a measure of fear (this is what the text literally says, cf. the marginal note for verse 43 in the NASB). In verse 47, Luke adds that the saints had “favor” (literally, grace) with the people. Christianity may not have been personally held, but it was held in high regard, for the time being.

The popularity of the church will pass, even as our Lord’s popularity waned. Shortly, many will seek out the apostles, in hope of being healed (cf. 5:12-16). There will be “mixed emotions” it would seem, for apparently as a result of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira there was an even greater fear of the apostles (if not the church), such that at least some unbelievers feared to associate themselves with the church (or is it the apostles?—the text is a little vague here—cf. 5:13). The opposition of some of the leaders of Jerusalem quickly flared up (4:1ff.; 5:17ff.). By Acts 6-8 there are those who are eager and willing to silence the gospel by death.

The Third Dimension: The Church

The third and most important group described here is the emerging church, that body of new believers who repented and placed their faith in Jesus as the Messiah as a result of Pentecost and the preaching of Peter. Let me draw your attention to a few of the characteristics of the church as described here by Luke.

1. Identity

The church in Jerusalem, though it was newly born, had a distinct identity. Those who were in and of the church knew it, and those who were without recognized the difference between the Christians and the rest of the population of the city. Even though many of the Jews were religious and though both believers and unbelievers still went to the temple and participated in the temple worship (cf. Acts 3:1), there was a discernible difference. Those who were saved were baptized, marking themselves out. By this they indicated that it was not by law-keeping or by their good works, but rather by faith in Jesus alone as their Messiah that they were saved.

Sadly, though we hear a fair bit of talk about separation, it is very difficult to tell the saints from the heathen these days. There are some saints (or so they claim) who refuse to identify themselves with the church. And there are all too many unsaved who have entered the formal ranks of the church. The church has become almost indistinguishable from the world, and the world has greatly infiltrated and infected the church. There is not the clear identity of a Christian today as there was then.

2. Commitment and Consistency

One of the most striking characteristics of the newly-born church in Jerusalem was their commitment. They were committed to Jesus, the Christ. They were committed to one another. They were committed to meeting the needs of others. They were committed to gathering together. The key expression here is “continually devoting themselves” (2:42) and the same term rendered “continuing” (2:46, NASB). The other key term or expression is “daily” or “day by day.” Day after day these saints pressed on, committed to the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. Day after day they went to the temple and ate from house to house.

How different the church is today. People hop from church to church, looking for that group which most ministers to them. And when it is not convenient, they stay at home. When the weather permits, they go out to the lake. I am not opposed to good times, but I am saying that we are not marked by the consistency and diligence of the early church. We need little or no excuse for “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25). We need little prompting to do things which are more immediately gratifying.

3. Community

If the first church had a strong sense of identity, they also had a strong sense of community. During our Lord’s early life, the disciples, due to personal ambition, were competitive and even argued among themselves. They argued, for example, over who was considered the greatest of them. But Jesus told them that the badge of discipleship was to be their love one for another. They would, through the Holy Spirit, have a deep unity, which would be expressed by a strong community among them. One of the strongest impressions we gain from Luke’s description of the first church was their sense of community. They were continually together, in the temple, and from house to house. And they also shared everything together. They “had all things in common” (according to the definition given above).

In our culture, community is not a strong emphasis, even in the church. We live in a very individualistic age. We are, by the definition of some, an “independent Bible church.” Unfortunately, this can simply mean that we are a church of independent, autonomous people—a group of rebels. While the early church was to be characterized by diversity, the “Lone Ranger” mindset was not considered a virtue. Community is a desperate need, not only in our church, but in every church which names the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.

4. Spontaneity

I have chosen the term spontaneity, not because I find it the best term to describe the church in Jerusalem, but because I could not think of a better term. What I mean by this characterization is that the church did what it did spontaneously. It did not act out of compulsion or out of a command, but out of desire and joy. People did not begrudgingly give up their possessions and minister to the needs of others. They jumped at the chance. It was an evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

It is interesting to note that while Peter promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who repented and were baptized (2:38), we read nothing in this characterization of the church about “signs and wonders” or even the gift of tongues being spoken by the congregation. I am not suggesting that phenomenon such as tongues may not have happened, but only that Luke does not bother to report that it did.

There is a very good reason, I feel. The gift of tongues was the evidence of the outpouring of power on the apostles, just as Jesus had promised (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). But the power of the Spirit in one’s life is not necessarily proof of piety. Charisma is not the same thing as character. The qualifications which are laid down for elders and deacons in the New Testament do not mention the possession of any particular gift, and certainly not of particularly spectacular charismatic gift. They do require Christian character. Luke’s description of the church here focuses on its conduct and its character, not on its charisma (other than that evidenced through the apostles). I believe this is a clear evidence of what is most important. Samson was a man on whom the Spirit came in power, but he was no example of godly character. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was demonstrated by the miracle of generosity.

5. Celebration

Closely related to the spontaneity of the conduct of the church was its mood and atmosphere of celebration:

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:46).

It was not a morbid sense of duty or obligation which motivated the conduct of the church but a deep sense of gratitude and of praise. If I struggled with the term “spontaneity,” I find the term “celebration” precisely the term to employ here. Everything the church did, it did as a celebration, including its sacrificial giving. Evangelism was not merely a command, a task, or a ministry; it was the praise of God, the joy of the Lord overflowing, so that men and women could not help but to speak of the Savior.

Here is perhaps the most desperately lacking ingredient of all—celebration. Worship has become a fad, and celebration can be a part of worship, but celebration is not seen only in worship; it is seen in everything we do. Celebration is the fruit of the Spirit of God, perhaps a blend of love, joy, and peace. It is that which comes when we are aware of the grace of God at work in and through us. May God grant us a Spirit of Celebration in our church and in our individual lives.


As I compare our church and my life with that of the first church, I find many shortcomings. These characteristics are not goals to strive for so much as they are fruits. We should not work at celebration so much as we should seek to know Him. We should, in Jesus’ words, abide in Him and in His words. We should pray that we may not grieve the Spirit, but that the fruit of the Spirit might become evident in us. May those attitudes and characteristics of the first church be found in us, by His grace, and through His Spirit.

12 In 1 Corinthians 4:16-17 Paul argues on the basis of his consistent teaching and practice, not on some exceptional basis. We should seek, then, to determine what is consistently taught and practiced, and then follow that example.

13 In Acts 2:41-47 we find the church meeting daily. But this is not the consistent practice of the churches in Acts. It would seem, from Acts 20:7, that the established pattern of the church was to meet once a week, on the first day of the week, to break bread and for instruction.

14 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 40.

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6. A Lame Excuse For Preaching the Gospel (Acts 3:1-26)


According to Cornelius a Lapide, Thomas Aquinas once called on Pope Innocent II when the latter was counting out a large sum of money. “You see, Thomas,” said the Pope, “the church can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” “True, holy father,” was the reply; “neither can she now say, ‘Rise and walk.’”15 This story, it seems, has a somewhat anti-Catholic flavor, so let us even the scales a bit.

We Protestants pride ourselves for not having money, and yet we are seldom heard saying one word which Peter and the apostles frequently used—“give” Peter said, “But what I have I give to you.” I see help offered in the name of Jesus, but for a price. We cannot repeat Peter’s words either, not if we are honest. Observe also the way the church today tries desperately to draw crowds, but not by means of miracles; today it is done with magic shows, pony rides, and circus acts. Just this week I heard a radio commercial for special services at a church, and the drawing card, among other circus acts, was that there would be strong men showing their brute strength by blowing up hot water bottles!

The story of the healing of the lame man in Acts chapter 3 is one of the delightful accounts of the power of the risen Christ at work through the apostles. This miracle will be the second occasion in Acts for the gathering of a large crowd, and this will be the occasion for the second sermon Peter is said to have preached to the people of Jerusalem. Both the miracle and the message of Acts chapter 3 are quite different from those described in Acts chapter 2. And the results will be somewhat different. There will be a number of people saved (we see this from Acts 4:4), but there will not even be time for the people to ask what they must do to be saved. A party will arrive, as recorded in 4:1-3, who will arrest Peter and John, put them in jail, and then bring them up to stand trial the next day. Opposition to the gospel has now begun.

You will notice that there are great similarities between the miracle which we find in our text and the miracles performed by Jesus (Matthew 21) and by Paul (Acts 14). That is because, as I understand it, the Lord Jesus was at work in each case, fulfilling the Messianic promise of healing(s) of the lame, as found in Isaiah 35. Thus, when John the Baptist wavered in his faith as to whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, He pointed to the healing of the lame (for one thing) as evidence to the fact that He was the Messiah (Matthew 11).

The Structure of the Text

The third chapter of Acts falls into two major sections: (1) the miracle of the healing of the lame man, verses 1-10; and, (2) the preaching of Peter in response to the crowds who had gathered, verses 11-26. Chapter four follows immediately on: (3) the results of the miracle and Peter’s preaching, verses 1-4; (4) the trial and threatening of Peter and John, verses 5-22; and, (5) the response of the church to persecution, verses 23-31.

The Approach of this Lesson

In our study of this chapter, we shall first consider the miracle of the healing of the lame man (verses 1-10). Then we will study the message which Peter preached when the crowd gathered in response to this miracle, and the testimony of the man who was not only healed but who was dramatically demonstrating it by his leaping and praising God. We will then consider the contribution of this incident to the developing argument of Acts. Finally, we will attempt to demonstrate the relevance and application of these events to our own lives.

The Miracle

1 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer, 2 And a certain man who had been lame from his mother’s womb was being carried along, whom they used to set down every day at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, in order to beg alms of those who were entering the temple. 3 And when he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple he began asking to receive alms. 4 And Peter, along with John, fixed his gaze upon him and said, “Look at us!” 5 And he began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!” 7 And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up; and immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened. 8 And with a leap, he stood upright and began to walk; and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 And all the people saw him walking and praising God; 10 and they were taking note of him as being the one who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate of the temple to beg alms; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

For over forty years (cf. Acts 4:22) a man had suffered from an ailment which made him lame. He was born that way (3:2). He had never known the freedom of going anywhere without petitioning others to carry him there. It would seem that this man had been a beggar for many, if not most, of those forty-plus years (cf. 3:2). It may be that he had staked out a certain “territory” at the temple. At least we know that for some time this man daily was carried to the gate of the temple, a gate identified here as the “Beautiful” gate.16 It seems the gate was this lame beggar’s station, much as a newspaper boy would find a suitable location and return there day after day.

We are not told what this man had heard about Jesus or whether he had ever tried to reach Him to be healed. It would seem that the man would have given considerable thought to Jesus during those times when He visited Jerusalem and especially that final week of His public ministry, before His death. This was a week characterized not only by daily appearances in the temple for teaching but also to heal:

And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the children who were crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant, and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘OUT OF THE MOUTH OF INFANTS AND NURSING BABES THOU HAST PREPARED PRAISE FOR THYSELF’?” (Matthew 21:14-16)

Is it possible that this man had made efforts to reach Jesus and thus to be healed? The problem was that he was immobilized by his ailment. Men carried him to the temple to beg each day. There they would leave him. Then in the evening (it would seem) they would carry him back home. Perhaps Jesus passed by this lame man, but he was unable to press through the crowds or to call out loudly enough to be heard by the Master. It sounds something like a “Catch 22” problem to me. The man needed to be healed. Jesus could heal him. But he had to get to Jesus to be healed, and his lameness kept him from getting there (not unlike the situation described in John 5:1-9).

It is not altogether clear whose faith it was (primarily) that was instrumental in this man’s healing, but it would seem this man had some measure of faith (cf. 3:16). Could it be this man had hoped Jesus would heal him, but just could not get to Him? How this man’s hopes of healing must have been crushed when Jesus was led outside the city to that cross! And yet, after the death of Jesus, it was Jesus who had healed him. Let us see how it came to pass.

It was the ninth hour (cf. the “third hour” in Acts 2:15), which would have been 3:00 P.M. Peter and John were on their way to the temple to observe a regular time of prayer.17 As they were heading toward or into the temple, the lame man was being carried to his normal post, at the “Beautiful” gate. He was not, as we so often visualize him, sitting or laying down at the gate, but only on his way. As he is approaching his station, he observes two men nearby about to go into the temple. Beggars generally seem to get attention by calling out to those who would pass by. Almost instinctively, I think, he called out with his usual petition. Here were two prospects. He might as well get right at his task.

I am not certain we can understand this account apart from having experienced a beggar or two. On my two trips to India, I saw a large number of beggars. There were so many beggars there was no way one could respond to all of them. The solution was often not to “see” any of them. But the beggars made this difficult. Those who were mobile would press themselves on you. They would approach your taxi at an intersection, tugging at your sleeve and pleading for help. Those not mobile would call our for charity. The beggar would be aggressive, something like the salesmen as you try to walk through the appliance section at Sears. You would concentrate on not seeing them as they converged on you, and you hurried to get through the section before you were trapped.

In this instance, the roles appear somewhat reversed. The beggar called out all right, but he doesn’t seem to expect anything to happen. After all, he has not yet reached his station, and they are nearly out of his territory. I think the beggar hardly looked up, for he simply expected to be ignored. Had he been directly in front of them, perhaps he would have stood a chance, but not here.

Peter and John18 did not respond typically, however. It was not the beggar who fixed his eyes on Peter and John, but they who first fixed their eyes19 on him. He may not have expected anything from them, but they fully intended to do something for him. It is noteworthy that Peter and John had no money to give him. Surely it was not that they were opposed to giving to the poor, but they could not give what they did not possess. They did give what they had. How fortunate for the beggar. The best he hoped for was a little money. He did not get money, but he did receive his health and mobility.

Peter seems to know from the outset (and John too) what he was going to do for this man. Somehow he knew that he had the power to heal this man, and also that it was God’s will for him to do so. There is a deliberateness to everything which Peter and John said and did. They looked intently at him. They instructed him to look at them. They said that they possessed no silver or gold, but they did have that which they would give to him. Immediately Peter commanded the man to stand up and walk in the name20 of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene. Peter then seized the man by the right hand and raised him up.

The man who had never walked before in his life stood up with a leap, and he didn’t quit leaping.21 What a sight that must have been. Some men would probably have dealt with such a miracle with great dignity and composure. Here was a man who had, for his whole life, been a spectacle. He earned his living by making a spectacle of himself, by drawing men’s attention to his pitiable state. Now this man would surely care little that everyone was staring at him, for he leaped about, clinging to Peter and John, praising God. It was a sight no one in the vicinity could have avoided. No wonder a crowd was attracted.

God had marvelously prepared this scene. The healed man had spent his life (or a good deal of it, it would seem) around the temple, begging. Everyone knew him—they couldn’t have avoided him. The man, and his condition, were well known by all who frequented the temple (cf. 4:16, 21). And the fact that he had been crippled from his mother’s womb was more than ample evidence that he was hopelessly disabled, and thus the miracle was a spectacular one. The people who witnessed this were understandably filled with wonder and amazement (verse 10).

The Message

11 And while he was clinging to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them at the so-called portico of Solomon, full of amazement. 12 But when Peter saw this, he replied to the people, “Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this, or why do you gaze at us, as if by our own power or piety we had made him walk? “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered up, and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. 14 “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses. 16 And on the basis of faith in His name, it is the name of Jesus which has strengthened this man whom you see and know; and the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect health in the presence of you all. 17 “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also. 18 “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ should suffer, He has thus fulfilled. 19 “Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; 20 and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, 21 whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. 22 “MOSES said, ‘THE LORD GOD SHALL RAISE UP FOR YOU A PROPHET LIKE ME FROM YOUR BRETHREN; TO HIM YOU SHALL GIVE HEED in everything He says to you. 23 “And it shall be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.’ 24 “And likewise, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors onward, also announced these days. 25 “It is you who are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘AND IN YOUR SEED ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH SHALL BE BLESSED.’ 26 “For you first, God raised up His Servant, and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.”

A crowd gathered, filled with wonder, not unlike that which occurred after the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. Only here, there were no skeptics as there were before. In fact the problem the healing of this lame man created was that people thought too much of the apostles, Peter and John, not too little. Peter and John were heroes, first to the lame man and then to the crowd. It was they who were given credit for the miracle. Peter’s first words to the people, as at Pentecost, were spoken to correct a misconception. Before, it was the conclusion that they were drunk. Here, it was that they were too “divine,” that is, that the healing was the result of their own power or piety.22 Peter quickly and flatly denied this. Far from taking credit for the miracle, Peter gave the praise to God, through His Servant, Jesus.

Israel’s Guilt:
A Study in Contrasts

It is most interesting to study Peter’s message in Acts chapter 3 in comparison to his message at Pentecost as recorded in Acts chapter 2. While there are definite similarities between the two sermons, there are these contrasts. Peter’s first sermon, in chapter two, was the result of the phenomenon of Pentecost. The second sermon was the result of a healing (both manifestations of the power of the Holy Spirit, but quite different manifestations). Peter’s first sermon was longer and was complete with specific instructions as to what men must do to be saved, in response to their question. The second sermon is interrupted by the arrest of Peter and John. While a number of people seem to have been saved, they must have been converted “on their own,” because Peter and John were not there (cf. Acts 4:1-4). Furthermore, Acts chapter two tended to focus on the last days, the “day of the Lord” as prophesied by Joel, while the second sermon tends to go back to the early days of Israel’s beginnings, to the days of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, 3:13,25) and of Moses (3:22-23). Finally, the primary theme of chapter 2 was judgment (with a secondary theme of blessing), while the primary theme of chapter 3 is blessing (with a secondary theme of judgment.

In spite of (and perhaps because of) the popularity of Peter and John due to the healing of the lame man, Peter came down very strongly on the guilt of his audience for having rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Peter’s words in chapter 3 are even stronger (in my opinion) than they are in chapter 2. It is my opinion that many of those who heard this second message may well have been present at Peter’s first sermon, at Pentecost. If they had heard his first message without repenting, it is no surprise that this second message would come down even harder on his hearers.

The guilt of the people of Jerusalem is described by means of a series of contrasts. Let me point out a few of them.

First, Peter contrasted the glorification of God’s servant in His resurrection and ascension with his audience’s disowning of Him as their Messiah:

“The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His Servant23 Jesus, the one whom you delivered up, and disowned … (Acts 3:13a).

Second, Peter contrasted Pilate’s desire to release Jesus because he felt he was innocent, with their insistence that He be put to death, convinced He was guilty, and thus worthy of death:

“… you delivered up, and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him” (Acts 3:13b).

In chapter 2, Peter had spoken of the death of Jesus as a joint-conspiracy of the Jews and the Gentiles (2:23), but here Pilate is represented as wanting to release Jesus but being pressured into putting Him to death, making the guilt of the Jews greater in the sense of their accusation of His guilt and being worthy of death.24

Third, Peter contrasted the One whom they wished to crucify with the one they wished to release:

“But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, …” (Acts 3:14-15a).

Imagine it. They wanted a murderer to be set free, a wicked and violent man—a murderer, a thief, a revolutionary! They wanted the Holy and Righteous Son of God, the Prince of life, to be put to death! What an incredible evil.

Fourth, they dealt with Jesus, who was the promised “prophet like Moses,” as though He were a false prophet. Peter reminded his listeners of these words, found in the Book of Deuteronomy:

22 “MOSES said, ‘THE LORD GOD SHALL RAISE UP FOR YOU A PROPHET LIKE ME FROM YOUR BRETHREN; TO HIM YOU SHALL GIVE HEED in everything He says to you. 23 “And it shall be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.’

Let us take a look at the fuller context of these words:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.” 17 The Lord said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account (Deuteronomy 18:15-19).

When God was about to bring the people of Israel into the land of promise, the land of Canaan, He warned them through Moses not to do as those who lived in Canaan before them, those that He was about to expel from this land. They listened to their false gods and idols, something which the Israelites must not do (Deuteronomy 18:9-13). Instead, they must listen to God’s prophets. God would raise up, Moses said, a prophet like him, to whom they must listen (verse 15). This was in accordance with their own request on Mt. Sinai (verse 16), a citation worth reviewing:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” 21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).

The people of Israel were terrified at the holiness of God, as they beheld the thunder and lightning and smoke on the mountain. They feared any direct contact with God, and they begged Moses to be their intermediary, something which God commended. The prophet, like Moses, would be an intermediary as well. And, like Moses, the carrying out of his mission would cost him His life.25

Peter’s use of this quotation from Deuteronomy 18 has a two-pronged impact. It was, in the first place, a reminder of Israel’s guilt. In the context of Deuteronomy 18, Israel was warned not to listen to the gods of the Canaanites. They were to listen to the prophets, particularly the prophet “like Moses.” In the final verses of Deuteronomy 18 the people were told how to discern a false prophet from a true one. That which the true prophet foretold would surely come to pass. If the prophecy of the prophet did not come to pass, that person was a false prophet26 and should not be heeded. Indeed, that “prophet” should be put to death. Israel’s guilt was to be seen by the fact that they listened to the words of their leaders, rather than to the words of Jesus. They followed their leaders and they put to death the “prophet like Moses.” They had done the exact opposite of what God had commanded the Israelites through Moses in Deuteronomy 18.

In the second place, this quotation served as a strong word of warning. Those who failed to heed the words of Jesus, the “prophet like Moses” were warned that they would bear the consequences for it. Peter spelled it out. Those who failed to heed His words would be “utterly destroyed.” Let those who heard Peter take heed.

Israel’s Glory—Promised Blessings

Very quickly I sense an even stronger indictment in chapter 3 than I did in chapter 2. Peter did not go easy on his audience. And yet, when one looks carefully at this chapter, the dominant theme is not judgment, but blessing. While the phenomenon of Acts 2 was a sign of coming judgment, the healing of the lame man was an evidence of blessing, a foreshadowing of the messianic blessings of the kingdom (cf. Isaiah 35:4-6 above). The suffering which is most prominent in this chapter is that of Christ, not that of Israel. While the resurrection and ascension of Christ was interpreted in terms of His return to judge His enemies, here the glorification of the Lord Jesus was interpreted as a prelude to His return to bless those who have trusted in Him. The coming of the Christ is viewed as for Israel, not against her (verse 20). These blessings are called “times of refreshing” in verse 19, the “restoration of all things” in verse 21, the “blessings” promised in the Abrahamic Covenant in verse 25, and God’s blessing in verse 26.

There is a principle evident here in this emphasis on Israel’s blessings, in spite of her sin and guilt before God. It is that stated by the apostle Paul:

But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20b).

Israel’s guilt was great, but it could never outrun the grace of God. Christ died according to the plan of God, so that the sins of men might be atoned for. All those who would repent of their sins would find them “wiped away,” so that the promised “times of refreshing” might come (Acts 3:19).

Graciously, Peter attributed the sinful actions of his audience to ignorance, and ignorance it was. Where there was ignorance, there was both guilt and grace:

They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts (Ephesians 4:18).

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief (1 Timothy 1:13).

He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness (Hebrews 5:2).

But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance (Hebrews 9:7).


At first, I saw the healing of this lame man as only an “excuse” for Peter’s preaching of the gospel. I now see it as far more than this. This miracle did attract a large crowd, to whom Peter preached. But the miracle of the healing of this man also illustrated the salvation of which Peter preached. This lame man typifies man’s helpless state, and the grace of God which reaches out to touch and to save sinners. Let us conclude by giving consideration to the way in which the lame man typifies the state of lost men.

The lame man of our text typifies lost Israel

The lame man was in a hopeless condition. He was helpless, immobilized, broken. He needed to be healed. His only “salvation” was Jesus, and yet his ailment disabled him, it kept him from coming to Jesus. He would never get to Jesus on his own. He looked to the temple and to the goodness of men, but this could not deliver him. The help which the man cried out for was merely monetary—he cried out for money but hardly seemed to expect that. When Jesus was put to death, it appeared that this man’s hope of healing was gone. And yet it was the risen Jesus whose power healed him.

The Israelites, like this man, were in desperate need, and from birth. From birth, the Israelites were sinners. They were enemies of God. Their sin kept them from getting close to God, even from wanting to be near Him. This was seen by the Israelites’ request that Moses serve as a mediator between them and God. They looked to such things as the temple and their rituals. They sought God’s blessings, but these were primarily physical, material. And when Jesus came, their hopes were initially raised, but when He spoke of spiritual salvation and of giving up one’s material goods, they wanted no part of Him. They put Him to death. But through this death, man’s sins were atoned for. It was through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, that Israel’s spiritual healing was made possible.

The lame man of our text typifies all who are lost

It is not just Israelites who are lost, but all men. To play on words for a moment, when it comes to our relationship to God, to our approaching Him, we “don’t have a leg to stand on.” Our sins have separated us from God and keep us from approaching Him. But just as the apostles reached out to the lame man, giving him far more than he hoped for, or asked for, so the Lord Jesus has taken the initiative to come to fallen men, lost and helpless in their sins. While lost men do not seek God, God has sought out the lost, in the coming of Christ. By His death, man’s sins are atoned for. He takes hold of us and draws us to Himself. All those who have faith in His name, who repent of their sins, and who trust in Him, are healed and are made whole.

To all who believe, who “take heed” to the words of Jesus, there is salvation, wholeness. But to all who refuse to heed His words, there is only the expectation of the judgment which will befall all those who refuse to heed the words of the “prophet like Moses.”

The lame man also typifies many Christians

Unfortunately, this lame man also typifies many Christians. We, like him, may be in great need, and in a pitiable state—beggars. The apostles had their eyes fixed on the beggar, but they had to command him to look intently at them. He cried out for help, but of the most meager and material kind. How often do we come to God in prayer for only material things and hardly believing that God cares or that He will provide. We seem to think that our problem is getting God’s attention, when His eyes are fixed on us, to bless us. And what He wants to give us is so much more than anything we might ask or think (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-13).

And we so often attempt to attract a crowd by circus-like antics, rather than by genuine manifestations of divine power. It is not God whose attention we need to attract. It is our attention which needs to be riveted on Him. And we should believe that what He desires to give us is far greater than what we expect to get.

There is a clear evidence of the “supernatural” hand of God in our text. But there is also a clear sense of the “natural.” The disciples were acting naturally; that is, they were on their way to the temple to pray. They did not go out of their way nor did they attempt to attract a crowd. They did not have any money, but they did possess the power of the Holy Spirit, which the Lord Jesus had poured out on them. And so, when they encountered a man in need, they gave what they had; they did what they could. And when a crowd gathered, they shared their faith. A very supernatural thing took place from some very natural actions. That is the way God often works, using vessels of clay through which to manifest His grace and power. May we be faithful as vessels of clay, to be instruments in His hands, to produce marvelous things.

15 Cited by F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 77-78.

16 There is no clear identification of this gate, but many have concluded that it was the gate commonly known as the “Nicanor Gate”:

“This may be identical with the Nicanor Gate, as it is called in the Mishnah, leading into the Court of the Women; the name here given to it may be more readily understood if it is further identified with the gate of Corinthian bronze described by Josephus, of such exquisite workmanship that it ‘far exceeded in value those gates that were plated with silver and set in gold.’”

F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 77, citing Josephus, BJ 5. 201. Bruce further comments in his footnote: “Josephus, BJ 5.184-247, and the Mishnaic tractate Middot are our principal sources of information about the temple before its destruction in A.D. 70.” (p. 77, fn. 10).

“Josephus says, concerning this gate: ‘its height was fifty cubits, and its doors were forty cubits, and it was adorned after a most costly manner, as having much richer and thicker plates of silver and gold upon them than the others.’”

Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), pp. 49-50.

17 It was the “time of the evening sacrifice”. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 41. “There were three hours of prayer (third, sixth, ninth).” Ibid, p. 41.

The apostles (and the rest, it would seem) continued to observe Jewish ceremonies at the temple. This is evidence of continuity between that which the church was doing here and that which God began in the Old Testament. The reason the apostles and the rest ceased to attend the temple is because they were thrown out, not only of the temple, but of Jerusalem. Coming to faith in Christ (Christianity) did not necessitate the Jews’ throwing off all of the rituals, all of the practices, of Judaism. Put in different terms, the coming of the Spirit on the apostles did not replace the normal routines and disciplines of life with pure spontaneity.

18 Peter and John seem to become “partners” of sorts. One would expect these two men, both of whom had brother/disciples (Peter and Andrew, Matthew 4:18; James and John, Matthew 4:21) to be with their brothers, but they were not. Peter and John were sent out together by our Lord in Luke 22:8 to prepare for the Passover meal. Could they possibly have been paired together when the twelve were sent out two by two? The two are listed together in Acts 1:13, for what that is worth. They were arrested together in chapter 4 (cf. vv. 13, 19), and they were the two sent down to Samaria by the Apostles.

19 This expression, “fixed his gaze” (verse 4), or something similar, is found also in Luke 4;20, and in Acts 1:10; 10:4 and 13:9. If it tells us anything it is that Peter and John riveted their attention on this man, fully intent on his healing. They were much more attentive to him than he was to them. Thus, they commanded him to look at them. They did not wish him to miss any of what was to happen. I think, in particular, they did not wish him to miss the statement that it was Jesus who was healing him.

20 There is a strong emphasis in Acts on the name of Jesus. Below is a list of references to the name of Jesus in Acts: 2:21; 4:17-18; 9:21; 19:5; 2:38; 4:30; 9:27-28; 19:13; 3:6; 5:28; 10:43; 19:17; 3:16; 5:40-41; 10:48; 21:13; 4:7; 8:12; 15:17; 22:16; 4:10; 8:16; 15:26; 26:9; 4:12; 9:14-16; 16:18;

21 “Leaping up repeatedly” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, III, p. 42.

22 How often those who are the instruments through whom the power of God is manifested begin to lay claim to that power, as though it were their own. How quick God’s servants are to deny this (cf. Paul in Acts 14:8-18). How often, too, power and piety are associated. That is, men are quick to conclude that if God’s power has been manifested through a human instrument, it must be the result of his or her piety. This is not necessarily so. Spiritual gifts and spiritual power do not equate to a person’s piety. The Corinthians had all the gifts and many manifestations of God’s power, but they were also a carnal lot in many ways. Nowhere is the power of God working in men viewed as the result of man’s piety. Look at men like Samson and Jonah, for example.

23 The statement of Peter that God had glorified His Servant is a very significant one, for these two terms seemed contradictory to the Israelites. The “suffering” and the “glory” themes of the Old Testament seemed to be so inconsistent that they could not be applied to the same person, Messiah. Thus, Peter wrote,

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow (1 Peter 1:10-11).

When it came to “the Christ,” the Messiah, the two themes of “suffering” and “glory” did not seem to fit, not together anyway.

When Peter, in Acts 3:13, said that God had glorified His Servant Jesus, he said a great deal. He identified Jesus as the Messiah, who was the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 52 and 53 (and elsewhere), as well as the glorious King, who would reign in power and in glory. The reason why “glory” and “suffering” were combined in one person, Jesus, the Messiah, was because he first suffered, and then was glorified; He first was rejected and put to death on the cross, and He then was glorified by His resurrection and ascension. Here was the answer to the mystery which baffled even the prophets who wrote of Messiah’s suffering and glory.

24 One might argue, with some force, that Pilate’s guilt was just as great, for he allowed an innocent man (by his judgment) to be put to death wrongly.

25 God promised Moses that he would serve Him on the mountain where he encountered him, from whence his call originated (Exodus 3:12). In the exercise of his duties as a mediator, Moses became angry at the people of Israel and smote the rock. This cost Moses his life and the opportunity of leading the people of God into the promised land (Numbers 20; Deuteronomy 32:48-52). In this sense, Moses died in the exercise of his duties. His task cost him his life. The difference is, of course, that Moses sinned and thus died, whereas Jesus was sinless and died.

26 When a prophet’s words failed to come to pass, one would definitely know that he was a false prophet. But if one’s words did come to pass, it was no sure sign that he was a true prophet. This matter was taken care of in Deuteronomy chapter 13, where the ultimate test of a prophet was given. A true prophet was one whose prophecies came to pass, and whose words were in accordance with what God had revealed (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).

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7. Truth or Consequences (Acts 4:1-31)


I can’t help it. When I read this chapter in the Book of Acts I think of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice—Walt Disney’s version. I see Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice, using magic powers to do his work. And then, when Mickey tries to put an end to it, it only grows and grows. So it is with the gospel. Jesus came to Israel as her Messiah. There was a moment in time when Jesus’ kingdom appeared to be appealing, but it wasn’t long before Israel’s leaders decided they wanted to have nothing to do with Jesus or with His kind of kingdom. Finally, they succeeded in putting Him to death. “That’s that!,” they must have said to one another. But that wasn’t it. First of all; there was the problem of the empty tomb. Then there was the problem of the apostles, transformed by Pentecost. And now, there was the problem of a well-known beggar, crippled for more than forty years, who was healed in the name of Jesus, the One the Jews of Jerusalem rejected and put to death. The harder they tried to “lay to rest” Jesus of Nazareth, His claims and His teachings, the more the matter multiplied.

The story really begins at Pentecost, when the Spirit of God was poured out on at least the apostles, and perhaps other saints too. Filled with the power of the Spirit, Peter and John were on their way to the temple to pray, at 3:00 in the afternoon. As they approached the temple gate, the gate called “Beautiful,” they encountered a man being carried to the gate on a stretcher, a man born lame, over forty years before. This man asked for money, but he received much more. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, Peter instructed the man to get up and walk. The spectacle of this man clinging to Peter and John, following them as they walked, leaping and walking and praising God, caused a large crowd to gather. Peter preached to this crowd, giving the gospel but not fully concluding, when a party of temple guards came up and arrested them. And this is where our story takes up—in chapter 4 of the Book of Acts.

The Structure of the Text

The structure of our text, in its context, can be outlined as follows:

  • The healing of the lame man—3:1-10
  • The proclamation of the gospel—3:11-26
  • The results of Peter’s preaching—4:1-4
  • The trial of Peter and John—4:5-22
  • The response of the church to persecution—4:23-31

The Approach of this Lesson

Our approach to this text will be to consider the results, positive and negative, of the miracle and of the message of Peter as described in verses 1-4. We will then try to analyze the opposition to Peter and John and the response of these apostles to their accusors. Then we will consider the response of the church (or at least to those who gathered with Peter and John) to this opposition. Finally, we shall seek to determine the meaning and the application of these things to our own Christian experience today.

The Aftermath of
the Miracle and the Message

And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees, came upon them, 2 being greatly disturbed27 because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they laid hands on them, and put them in jail until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.

As they28 were speaking, the captain of the temple police29 and some of his men30 arrived31 and abruptly led Peter and John off to jail for the night. The trial was held the next day. Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin,32 the highest Jewish civil and religious court in the land. This should signal us to the importance of this incident and to the intensity of the opposition.

Several features of this opposition from the Jewish leaders need to be noted. First, the opposition comes from the highest, most powerful civil and political body of the Jews. That which the Jewish leaders oppose is of such import that they employ the efforts of the Sanhedrin to resist it. Second, it is an opposition focused, for the time being, on the apostles, and specifically on Peter and John. Only these two apostles were arrested33 and brought to trial the following day. Third, Luke tells us the real reason for the arrest of Peter and John: they were teaching. They were teaching the people, Luke tells us. They were teaching them in the temple. And, they were teaching as their doctrine the resurrection of the dead through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the One Whom they had rejected and put to death.

Teaching was regarded as the right possessed only by themselves or at least “franchised” by them to those whom they approved, those who had been trained by them and whose teaching would be acceptable to them. Peter and John were not accredited by them, and yet they were teaching in the temple—their turf—and they were teaching the people, the masses. The ability to control men has always been based upon the ability to endoctrinate them.34 For the people to be taught by someone other than themselves, and to be taught something different from that which they taught, was to lose control of their power over the masses. This was a great threat to them.

And this teaching was surely opposed to their doctrine. They had rejected Jesus as the true Messiah. They had finally convinced the masses that Jesus was a fraud so that the masses cried out for Jesus’ crucifixion. They knew that Jesus had promised He would rise from the dead (cf. Matthew 27:62-64) and that this would be the “sign” which would prove He was who He claimed to be (cf. Matthew 12:39-42). They had been unable to satisfactorily explain the empty tomb of Jesus, and now they could not explain the healing of the lame man in Jesus’ name. For the disciples to teach a resurrection from the dead through Jesus was to teach that the Jewish leaders had been wrong—dead wrong.

The fourth characteristic of the opposition to Peter and John is closely related: those who carried the torch of opposition to the gospel change from the Pharisees in the Gospels to the Sadducees35 in Acts.36 If all the Jewish leaders of the nation resisted and rejected the resurrection of Jesus in particular, many of these leaders rejected the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead in any form. The Pharisees rejected the resurrection of Jesus, for this would have proven them wrong, but they at least held to this doctrine in principle. The Sadducees rejected the resurrection of the dead in general and in total.

The Pharisees were the “pit bulls,” who were given a long leash by the Jewish leaders so that they persistently attacked, accused, and challenged Jesus at every point. But now the Pharisees become virtually invisible and silent. Now, it is the Sadducees who take up the torch of the opposition. The “marriage” of the Pharisees and the Sadducees was short-lived, lasting only long enough for this coalition to put Jesus to death. But now, after His death (and resurrection!), the Pharisees have a falling out. They seem to have lost heart. They will shortly turn to their former animosity and opposition to the Sadducees, as can be seen later on in Acts:

But perceiving that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” And as he said this, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. And there arose a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 23:6-9).

Fifth, the opposition of the Jewish leaders was a continuation and extension of their opposition to Jesus, though they may not have immediately recognized it as such. Jesus told His disciples there would persecution and resistance to their proclamation of the gospel:

“If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me” (John 15:18-21).

“And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not become anxious about how or what you should say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11-12).

“But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute” (Luke 21:12-15).

Because of this, there are, as we might expect, distinct parallels between the response of these leaders to Jesus and their response to the apostles as we find in our text. Note some of these parallels:

(1) Jesus, due to His teaching and miracles, was enthusiastically received by the masses, which quickly led to jealousy and reaction by the Jewish leaders (compare Matthew 5:1ff.; 8:1-17; Mark 1 with Acts 2:43, 47; 3:11; 4:2).

(2) These leaders began to accuse and to attack Jesus, especially pertaining to His authority and teaching (compare Matthew 9:2-3; 21:23 with Acts 4:7).

(3) The Jewish leaders were accused of sin and misleading the people (Matthew chapters 5-7 and 23 with Acts 3:17; 4:11).

(4) The religious leaders were especially indignant and finally took action when Jesus “took possession of the temple,” teaching and healing people there, and thus threatening the position and authority of the leaders (compare Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:41-48 with Acts 4:1-22).

(5) These leaders wanted to do away with Jesus, but they feared the crowds and were thus kept from achieving their goal of getting rid of Jesus (compare John 7:32, 45-49; 11:45-57; 12:9-11 with Acts 4:13-22).

Having stated that the opposition of the Sanhedrin to the apostles was really a continuation of their opposition to Jesus, I must also suggest that this fact was only gradually recognized by the Sanhedrin and Jewish leaders, as I understand our text. Luke tells us they …

“… began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

As I understand these words, this means that these leaders only gradually realized that that which they opposed was a continuation of the initial “problem” they had with Jesus.

Initially, I think the apostles’ teaching and ministry was opposed by the Sanhedrin for the same reasons that Jesus was opposed, but without realizing it was the same cause. We marvel at the statement that they were slow to recognize the apostles as having been with Jesus, but this can be explained. Many, perhaps most, of the top leaders of Israel (who were members of the Sanhedrin) did not come into contact with Jesus. A man like Nicodemus, for example, sought out Jesus, but secretly. These leaders did not wish to dignify Jesus by recognizing Him or His authority. They would not be seen in the crowds, listening to Him teach nor asking Him to perform some miracle. This would have indicated their own impotence.

The top leaders of Israel had their ways of infiltrating and even of opposing Jesus, without direct involvement—the Pharisees. These men (more “laymen” than official religious leaders) followed Jesus everywhere, challenging and opposing Him and His ministry. Because of men like the Pharisees and of agents like the “temple police” (Acts 4:1; cf. John 7:32), the religious leaders did not have to “lower themselves” to directly deal with Jesus. This explains why Judas was needed as a “guide” to lead the temple guard and the rest to the place where Jesus could be found and to identify Him with a kiss (cf. Acts 1:16).

If these religious and civil leaders would not have recognized Jesus, how would they have recognized His followers? It was only as the teaching of these men became a matter of public knowledge that they “pieced together” the fact that these men, whom they were now opposing, were the followers of Jesus, and thus they were still fighting the One Whom they thought they had gotten rid of—Jesus of Nazareth.

If the miracle and the message of Acts chapter 3 got the attention of the Sanhedrin, it was not overlooked by the crowds. In spite of the opposition of Israel’s top leaders, many came to faith in the Savior as a result of what happened there at the temple. Luke tells us that there were now 5,000 men who believed. It would appear to be a much larger number than the 3,000 converts mentioned in Acts 2:41, since that number seems to include men and women, whereas the 5,000 figure appears to include only men. Some of this 5,000 may have been saved before the miracle and message in the temple (cf. 2:47), but we are given the distinct impression that while some opposed the gospel in chapter 4, many accepted it. The gospel was spreading, and the church was growing, in spite of (perhaps even because of) the opposition of Israel’s top leaders.

The Apostles on Trial

Jesus had promised that it would come, and as always, He was right. Those who opposed Him and who had brought about His execution were now joining forces to do away with these two men who would cause trouble in the temple. It was a veritable “who’s who” gathered against the apostles. The rulers and elders and scribes of Israel37 were present, along with the high priest and the whole group of those of high-priestly descent. These people made up the Sanhedrin. Most of these we have seen before at the various trials of Jesus.

There is no specific charge made against the apostles. Rather, the “trial” seems to be more of a “fishing expedition” in which the religious leaders seek to find some transgression of the law or of their traditions, giving them a handle on the situation. There is plenty of innuendo and a great deal of intimidation evident here. Perhaps they can at least succeed in scaring these men into giving up their activities. Putting the men in the center, they demand to know, “by what power, or in what name, have you done this?”

The issue is a familiar one—that of the authority of the apostles. How often Jesus was challenged in the same way. As the highest religious body in the land, this group felt they should authorize all teaching and ministry in their midst, especially that which was done in the precints of the temple. Just who did these two “nobody’s” think they were, going into the temple as if they owned the place, doing and teaching whatever they wished? There is a clear indication that any ministry performed required their approval, which was not granted. There may also be the inference that the power by which the miracle was performed (a miracle which they could not deny) was other than the power of God.38 If they could establish any demonic involvement, they would have a case against these men.

The question, as posed by the Sanhedrin, is an especially informative one for us, for it establishes a very important definition. It links the authority or power of someone with the name by which they perform an act. In other words, to act in the name of Jesus is to act with His power, with His authority. In the Great Commission, Jesus told His disciples that all authority, both in heaven and on earth, was given to Him (Matthew 28:18). Thus, when they ministered in His name, they ministered with His authority. The apostles’ authority was none other than that of Jesus.

Peter’s response to this challenge was incredibly short and to the point. It was a response empowered by the Holy Spirit (v. 8), just as Jesus had promised (Luke 12:12). He begins by pointing out that, far from doing any evil, a sick man has been made well (verse 9). This can hardly be a crime. And as to the power through which this benevolent deed was accomplished, it was that of Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Nazarene, the very One they had rejected and put to death, but whom God had raised from the dead (verse 10). In rejecting Jesus of Nazareth, these leaders fulfilled the prophecy which foretold that the very cornerstone of God’s building would be rejected by the builders (verse 11, cited from Psalm 118:22). This cornerstone must be accepted, and those who rejected Him must repent, if they would be saved, for it was only through this name that one can be saved (verse 12). Jesus was the name by which the man was healed and through which the apostles ministered. Jesus was the only name by which any person could be saved.39 The resurrection of Jesus proved these men to be wrong and Jesus to be the chief stone. The resurrection made the healing of this man possible, and so too the salvation of all who would believe.

It should be said that this very brief explanation and citation from Psalm 118 had a great deal of impact, for it served to remind these men of an encounter Jesus had with some of His opponents in Jerusalem shortly before His crucifixion. In Matthew chapter 21, we read of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (verses 1-11), followed by His “cleansing of the temple” (verses 12-13) and His healing and teaching there (verse 14). This resulted in the opposition of the chief priests and scribes (verse 15). When later challenged as to the authority by which Jesus acted (verse 23), He responded with a question of His own, pertaining to the authority with which John baptized (Matthew 21:23-32). It was evident that the religious leaders refused to accept John’s authority (but were unwilling to publicly reject it, due to the masses). Jesus told a story of a man with two sons, the first of which promised to obey, but did not, and the second who rebelled, but later repented. The second son, Jesus extracted from His questioners, was the better. The second son, as well, seems to represent the Gentiles, while the first represents the Jews. It was the Gentiles, Jesus said indirectly, who would be given the position of the first.

Jesus then followed up with another parable in verses 33 and following, which depicted the sins of the leaders of Israel (specifically, in the context, of those who were attacking and challenging Him). He told of a vineyard which the landowner (representing God) possessed and which he gave into the care of the vine-growers (the religious leaders of the nation Israel). In his absence, the landowner sent back for the produce of his vineyard, but his servants were all beaten and sent away or put to death. Finally, he sent his son (Jesus), whom they also rejected and put to death. Jesus got these men to say that when the owner of the vineyard returned, he would be expected to punish the evil vine-growers and to replace them with others.

It was at this point that Jesus turned their attention to Psalm 118:22 and to the fact that the “chief corner stone” would be rejected by the “builders,” just as the son of the owner of the vineyard was rejected. Jesus then went on to say to His opponents that the kingdom would be taken from them and would be given to another “nation producing the fruit of it” (21:43). Furthermore, this stone which they had rejected would fall upon them, destroying them (verse 44). The chief priests and scribes understood that Jesus was referring to them, and they wanted to seize Him on the spot, but they were prevented from doing so by the crowds who thought Jesus was a prophet (verses 45-46).

For Peter to have brought up this passage from Psalm 118 was to remind these leaders of that unpleasant confrontation with Jesus. It was to say, in effect, “Jesus told you so.” How this citation must have stung in the ears of the Sanhedrin. The One they thought they had rid themselves of was still speaking to them, through the apostles.

Just as the chief priests and scribes were powerless, at that time in the past, to do away with Jesus, so now the Sanhedrin could not do with the followers of Jesus (Peter and John) as they wished. Their inability to act decisively was, I think, the result of a combination of factors. First, the religious leaders were faced with the unpleasant (to them) fact that no crime had been committed. If anything, a good deed had been accomplished for which Peter and John should have been commended. Second, I believe these leaders were not in very good standing with Rome. They had virtually forced Pilate to put Jesus to death when he wished to release Him (Acts 3:13). If they suggested to the Roman rulers that the death of Jesus would bring peace and quiet to Jerusalem, this had not proven to be the case. They had “gone to the well” with Rome too often. They could not go back, yet another time, this quickly. Third, there was a growing gap between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, which created a lack of unity among those on the Sanhedrin. The marriage between all the various political and religious factions which was formed to do away with Jesus was short-lived. Now the Pharisees were apparently backing off. These leaders did not have the clout to pull off another execution. Fourth, the crowds were still in favor of the apostles, and the leaders knew they could not act without a measure of popular support.

Peter and John, along with the healed man, were sent out of the room. What a special delight to be left in that room, as it were, as a “fly on the wall,” overhearing the frustrated response of the Sanhedrin to the teaching and ministry of the apostles.40 Notice that not even once did they deliberate as to what “the truth” of the matter might be. They did not ask if they could have been wrong, and Jesus (and now His disciples) could have been right. They did not even discuss the resurrection of Jesus41 and whether or not it was true. They could not deny the fact that a most significant miracle had been performed. All they did was to consider the “consequences” of letting this movement continue. When the decision came as to whether they would pursue the “truth” or the “consequences” (to play on the name of a one-time television game show of years gone by), they opted to try to suppress the consequences, but not to consider the truth.

The actions of the Sanhedrin can thus be described as “harassment,” for this was all they could do. They could (and did) threaten the apostles. They could attempt to intimidate them. But they could not punish them. They were, at this point in time, only able to hound them which they did to the best of their (well-developed) ability.

The response of Peter and John to this trial is most enlightening. In the first place, they were not intimidated as was expected. Their boldness42 was disarming to the Sanhedrin, who expected these men to cower and to collapse under pressure. They were particularly impressed because it was not the education, status, or accreditation of these men which made them so bold. The only thing which these men knew about the two apostles was that they had been with Jesus. Their authority was directly tied, once again, to Jesus’ authority.

Peter’s answer is a vitally important one, for it points the way to all who are forced to choose between obeying God or men. The choice between “right” and “wrong” is not left to Israel’s leaders. Peter’s words indicate that the ultimatum given them forced them to choose between obeying their authority or God’s (verse 19). Whether or not their actions were wrong in the sight of God (a crime) was a matter which they must decide. As a religious/political governing body, this was their God-given responsibility, one for which Peter implies (“before God”) they will give account. And the inference of Peter’s words is that regardless of their decision, Peter and John would persist in preaching the gospel. When man’s authority over men contradicts obedience to God, men must disobey men and obey God. The threats of the Sanhedrin are thus swept aside due to a higher authority. No human authority can order another human to disobey God and expect him to obey man, rather than God. As stewards of the gospel, they cannot be silent.

A Biblical Response to Persecution

23 And when they had been released, they went to their own companions, and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is Thou who DIDST MAKE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, 25 who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Thy servant, didst say,


27 “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel. 28 to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur. 29 “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bond-servants may speak Thy word with all confidence. 30 while Thou dost extend Thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Thy holy servant Jesus.”

31 And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.

After one final and futile attempt to intimidate and silence the apostles, they were released. Peter and John returned to a group referred to (as the NASB renders it) “their own companions.” We do not know who all was included in this number, but surely it was not the entire church now consisting of 5,000 men. The two reported all that had happened to them and all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.

The first response of this group of believers may strike us as being a bit unusual. They immediately turned their attention to Old Testament Scriptures pertaining to God as the Creator of all. The marginal note in the NASB might be understood to imply that the text referred to can be found twice, once in Exodus 20:11 and again in Psalm 146:6. This is far from the case. The truth that God is the

Creator of all is a theme frequently found throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New.43

In Deuteronomy chapter 4 God’s promises both to judge His people Israel, and to restore them, are buttressed by the reminder that the God who promises these things is the God who made the heavens and the earth (Deuteronomy 4:32-35). In response to Assyria’s threat to beseige Jerusalem and to take Israel captive, Hezekiah prayed to the Lord for deliverance from the kingdoms of men. His prayer began,

“O LORD, the God of Israel, who art enthroned above the cheribim, Thou art the God, Thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. Thou hast made heaven and earth” (2 Kings 19:15).

The psalmists (and others) contrasted the One True God, Maker of the heavens and the earth, with the gods of the nations made with human hands (cf. Psalm 115). In Psalm 146, men are encouraged to place their trust in God, who made the heaven and the earth (verse 6), and not in princes, who are mere mortals (verses 3-4). Consistently in Isaiah (especially chapters 40 and following), the promise of Israel’s restoration and glorious salvation is guaranteed by the fact that the One who promised to accomplish this was both the Creator of the heavens and the earth, but also Israel’s Creator (cf. Isaiah 44:24).

Jeremiah chapter 32 contains a rather striking parallel to our text. Here Jeremiah is thrown into jail by Zedekiah, king of Judah, for prophesying that Jerusalem and Israel would fall to the Babylonians. The people of Israel were instructed not to resist this (32:1-6). In response to all that happened, Jeremiah prayed, beginning with these words:

“‘Ah Lord God! Behold, Thou hast made the heavens and the earth by Thy great power and by Thine outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for Thee, …’” (Jeremiah 32:17).

The key phrase, based on the fact that God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth is this: “Nothing is too difficult for Thee.” To Jeremiah and to the other Old Testament saints who found assurance in the fact that God is the Creator, the bottom line was simply that He who could create all things could also control them. Here he was predicting the downfall of Jerusalem, just as the apostles would do centuries later. And just as the king was persecuting Jeremiah, so the political and religious authorities were persecuting the apostles. And just as Jeremiah prayed to the Creator of the heavens and the earth, so did the early church.

The New Testament follows through with this theme of God as the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Paul wrote this in his Epistle to the Colossians:

For in Him {Christ} all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:16-17).

Here, according to Paul, the Lord Jesus was the Creator, one with God the Creator. Paul represents Christ not only as the Creator of the heavens and the earth but of all things, including thrones and dominions. He is the Creator and the King of all things. He is the Creator of kingdoms. As such, He is greater than all things and creatures, and thus He is in control of all things. All things were created by Him and they were also created for Him. He is also the sustainer of all things. No one is greater than this!

In the final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, God is worshipped as the Creator of heaven and earth:

And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created” (Revelation 4:9-11).

What comfort the church could find in the fact that the God to whom they prayed was the Creator of heaven and earth, who was the Sovereign God, totally in control.44 Would mere men threaten them and seek to stamp out God’s kingdom? It could not be done. They were on the right side, the side of God, the Creator of heaven and earth. What could mere men do to them?

The truth of God as Creator was thus extended by the church to that of the futility of men’s efforts to oppose the Creator and to resist the establishment of His kingdom. Thus, the saints turned their thoughts to a text from Psalm 2:


The apostles understood this psalm, not so much as a specific prophecy fulfilled when Pilate and Herod45 collaborated in the execution of Christ, but as a principle (or a more general prophecy) which had, as one of its fulfillments, the collaboration of these two rulers. How futile was the effort of the rulers of this world to attempt to resist the establishment of God’s kingdom. The apostles and the early church saw the persecution they were facing as an on-going resistance to Christ and to His kingdom. And in the light of this psalm, they saw such resistance as futile and foolish. The kingdom of God could not be stopped, and thus, they could not be silenced.

One further observation is in order. They saw this passage, a passage which referred to Gentile opposition to the kingdom of God, as applying to the Jewish leaders of their nation. And rightly so. They understood that when the Jews rejected their Messiah, they became, for all intents and purposes, Gentiles. The people who were once known as “my people” (Jews) were now seen to be “not my people” (Gentiles—cf. Hosea 1 and 2).

These saints were undergirded with a deep sense and conviction of the sovereignty of their God. This is evident in the word “Lord” in verse 24 and in the words of verse 28:

“To do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur.”

Thus, in verse 29, these saints refer to themselves as God’s “bond-servants.” Whatever these rulers purposed to do would be overthrown. Better than this, their actions would be used by God to achieve His own purposes. Just as the death of the Lord Jesus had made atonement for the sins of the world, so the persecution of the church would further God’s purposes as well. This we shall soon see.

The first response of the church to persecution was praise, praise directed to God as the Sovereign ruler of the universe, whose purposes could not be resisted and whose promised kingdom was sure. Verses 29 and 30 move from praise to petition. Here is what this persecuted group prayed for. Note first of all what they did not ask for. They did not ask to be delivered from persecution. They did not even ask that God judge or punish their opponents (although asking God to “take note of their threats,” verse 29, leaves room for this). They asked, in effect, that the gospel be promoted in the midst of this persecution.

For themselves, they asked that God’s bond-servants46 be given confidence and boldness to proclaim God’s Word (verse 29). If the kingdom were to be established, the good news of the kingdom must be proclaimed. This should be done with confidence, not with cowardice. These people understood that persecution would not and could not thwart God’s purposes. They understood as well that persecution would naturally incline men to draw back, to soften up on the message which they preached. Thus, the prayer for boldness and confidence was an admission of the fallibility of Christians. How easy it is to draw back and to “lighten up” when the heat is on. They asked God to enable them to do otherwise. Further, these saints asked that God bear witness to His Word with continued manifestations of His power, through healings and signs and wonders (verse 30). In brief, they asked for a clear message, proclaimed on their part with confidence, which was accompanied by a divine “Amen.”

Verse 31 is the inspired record of God’s response. The phenomenon accompanying this subsequent “filling of the Holy Spirit” is different from the previous “filling” at Pentecost, and yet it also has a familiarity to it as well. God made His presence known through the shaking47 of the building where they were meeting, just as He had manifested His presence before with the sound which was like a mighty, rushing wind, and the appearance of what seemed to be tongues of fire. And the evidence of the filling of the saints with the Spirit here was not speaking in tongues, but their native tongues speaking the message of the gospel with boldness. In other words, the filling of the Spirit was God’s means to answering their prayers for boldness.


The dominant theme of this passage is one that is new to Acts, but not new to the Scriptures—the theme of persection. As we conclude, let me first of all attempt to summarize some of the “principles of persecution” which this text teaches us.

(1) PERSECUTION HAPPENS TO PIOUS PEOPLE. Even when we are “Spirit-filled” and doing the will of God, persecution will come. Any prosperity gospeler’s promise to the contrary flies in the face of the facts of Acts.

(2) PERSECUTION MAY WELL BE CARRIED OUT BY SEEMINLY PIOUS PEOPLE IN THE PRACTICE OF PURE RELIGION. Some of the most cruel and aggressive persecution that this world has seen has been carried out in the name of “religion,” often “orthodox” religion. We are surely taught to endure persection but never are we commanded to inflict it on others.

(3) PERSECUTION FOLLOWS THE PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL. Men are naturally opposed to Christ and the gospel. When it is proclaimed, unbelieving man’s lifestyle and thinking is challenged. Persecution is often the result.

(4) PERSECUTION TEMPTS US TO PLAY DOWN THE PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL. The Book of Hebrews, among others, is testimony to the fact that when the “heat is on,” the saints can be tempted to clam up. If persecution follows the proclamation of the gospel, then the saints may be tempted to be silenced.

(5) PERSECUTION MUST BE VIEWED FROM A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE. That perspective will include the sovereignty of God (as evidenced by the fact that He is the Creator of all things). It should also be viewed from the perspective of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who Himself was rejected and persecuted by His own people. In the final analysis, biblical suffering is suffering for His sake (cf. 1 Peter 2;18-25). Thus, experiencing persecution for His sake is a privilege that we can experience (cf. Colossians 1:24; Philippians 2:10).

(6) PERSECUTION IS TO BE FACED VICTORIOUSLY BY THE CHRISTIAN, THROUGH THE MEANS WHICH GOD HIMSELF PROVIDES US. By His grace, and through His Spirit, we can face persecution with boldness and confidence, looking to Him to bear witness to His Word in His own way. Three of the principle means which God has given us to deal with persecution are praise, petition, and proclamation.

(7) PERSECUTION CANNOT AND WILL NOT PREVAIL OVER THE GOSPEL—ULTIMATELY IT WILL ONLY PROMOTE IT. The disciples knew that men cannot resist the promises and purposes of God. Even their rebellion against Him will only further God’s purposes. Thus, we can face persecution with confidence.

For some, like the apostles, persecution was a very typical experience. For others, like the Hebrew saints (to whom the Epistle to the Hebrews was written), it was a threat. The writer speaks of some losses (cf. Hebrews 10:32-34), but not of any bloodshed (12:4). But to us, the threat of persecution is merely theoretical. The most we have to fear (in most cases and for the present time) is an uplifted eyebrow. May God give us boldness to proclaim the gospel, even if persecution were a very real possibility. May God give us the kind of boldness which precipitates persecution!

27 “The verb diaponeo means ‘worked up, indignant.’ It is rendered ‘annoyed’ in the Revised Standard Version. Moulton and Milligan translate it ‘upset’ in a papyrus.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 56. A. T. Robertson also points out that this term is found only here and in 16:8. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 49.

28 Note the “they” here, rather than “he,” indicating that while Luke chose to record only the words of Peter, both Peter and John spoke.

29 “The captain . . . of the temple is referred to in rabbinical literature as the sagan, or sometimes as . . . (‘the man of the temple mount’). He belonged to one of the chief-priestly families, and in the temple he ranked next to the high priest. The temple guard which he commanded was a picked body of Levites. Cf. 5:24, 26.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988) revised edition, p. 88, fn. 4.

30 “Twenty-four bands of Levitees guarded the temple, on guard at a time. They watched the gaates. The commander of each band was called captain (strategos). Jesephus names this captain of the temple police next to the high priest (War. VI. 5, 3).” A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 49.

31 “Burst upon them suddenly or stood by them in a hostile attitude here (Luke 20:1; 24:4; Acts 6:12; 17:5; 22:20; 23:11).” A. T. Robertson, III, p. 49.

32 “‘The Jerusalem Sanhedrin administered Jewish law covering civil, criminal, moral, and religious questions. Its civil authority was limited to Judea. It could make arrests and its authority over Jews, provided they did not possess Roman citizenship, was practically unlimited except in the matter of capital punishment, which reuired the procurator’s approval. However, the Jews did have the right to kill on the spot any gentile who entered the sacred courts of the temple beyond the Court of the Gentiles. The Jerusalem Sanhedrin consisted of seventy members. The high priest was its head. Apparently it was a self-perpetuating body, filling its own vacancies by members chosen from the ranks of the high-priestly families, the scribes, and the elders. The religious prestige of this body extended wherever there were Jews.’” Elmer W. K. Mould, Essentials of Bible History (New York: Ronald Press Co., rev. ed. 1951), pp. 467, 468, as cited by Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 59.

33 It may very well be that the man who was healed was also arrested. The charge might have been something like “disturbing the peace.” He was reticent to leave Peter and John, and was certainly a significant force in drawing the attention of the crowds to them. He probably would not be silenced as to what had been done for him as well. If this man were arrested, it was a most serious blunder. (The Jews could have killed the man, thus removing the proof that a great miracle had been performed, as they planned to kill Lazarus and “deaden” the effect of his raising--cf. John 12:9-10.) How could they deny that a great miracle had been performed when the miracle was standing there in front of them? Arresting the man only assured his being there at the trial of Peter and John, and proved to be most embarrassing.

34 No wonder so many movements begin in the universities or in an academic setting.

35 “The Sadducees held by tradition the high-priestly office. Collaborators with the Roman order, rationalists in doctrine, they were sensitive of everything likely to disturb the comfortable status they had won (cf. Jn. xi. 47-50), and especially saw danger in popular excitement arising from such Pharisaic teaching as that of the resurrection. (Note the lead they assumed over the Pharisees in persecuting Christ, when the question of Lazarus arose (Jn. xii. 10).)” E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company {photolithoprinted}, 1966), p. 64.

36 “The Sadducees are mentioned only fourteen times in the New Testament -- seven times in Matthew, once each in Mark and Luke, and five times in Acts. In contrast, the Pharisees are named 100 times.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 56.

37 “Rulers is evidently equivalent to ‘chief priests’ (cf. Mark 14:53). They are named first, since they were the leading members of the Sanhedrin. . . Elders (presbyteroi) is a general word for members of the Sanhedrin, which is sometimes designated as the presbyterion (cf. 22:5; Luke 22:66). They ‘owed their position not to office but to blood or wealth or religious prestige.’. . . The scribes (grammateis) were ‘a class of learned Jews who devoted themselves to a scientific study of the Law, and made its expostion their professional occupation.’ They were mainly, but not exclusively, Pharisees.” Carter and Earle, p. 57.

38 “. . . the prosecutors use dunamis, not exousia, which contains the notion of authority. The implication is that the apostles had acted by illegal incantation and the processes of magic.” E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company {photolithoprinted}, 1966), p. 67.

39 F. F. Bruce renders this term “saving health.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 91. The Greek term used here is one with a wide range of meanings, as indicated by Carter and Earle: “The same verb, sozo, is translated ‘saved’ in verse 12. Occurring some 111 times in the New Testament, it is translated ‘save’ 94 times in the King James Version. It is found some 56 times in the Gospels and 14 times in Acts. In the Gospels it usually carries the idea of physical healing. In Acts the dominant emphasis is on spiritual salvation.” Carter and Earle, p. 60.

40 The information given here by Luke could have been received by direct revelation. My suspicion is that it was provided by one of those present at this session. For example, Gamaliel seems to have been present (he was present in 5:34), and he could have reported this private session to Paul, his student (Acts 22:3).

41 “It is particularly striking that neither on this nor on any subsequent occasion did the authorities take any serious action to disprove the apostles’ central affirmation--the resurrection of Jesus. Had it seemed possible to refute them on this point, how eagerly would the opportunity have been seized! Had their refutation on this point been achieved, how quickly and completely the new movement would have collapsed! It is plain that the apostles spoke of a bodily resurrection when they said that Jesus had been raised from the dead; it is equally plain that the authorities understood them in this sense. The body of Jesus had vanished so completely that all the resources at their command could not produce it. The disappearance of his body, to be sure, was far fromproving his resurrection, but the production of his body would have effectively disproved it. Now the apostles’ claim that Jesus was alive had received public confirmation by the miracle of healing performed in his name.” Bruce, p. 96.

42 “Normally prisoners before the Sanhedrin were very submissive. Josephus quotes a member of that court as saying that a defendant usually appeared ‘with his hair dishevelled, and in a black and mourning garment (Ant., XIV. 9, 4).” Cited by Carter and Earle, p. 59.

“The word for bodlness, parresia, means ‘freedom of speech, plainness, openness.’ . . . The first adjective, agrammatoi, literally means ‘unlettered.’” But this does not indicate that the apostles were illiterate. Rather, they were ‘without technical training in the professional rabbinical schools.’” Carter and Earle, p. 61.

43 There are many, many references to God as the Creator, some of which are listed below, for your consideration and study: Genesis 1:26; 2:4; 5:1-2; 6:6; 7:4; 14:19,22; Exodus 20:11; 30:17 Deuteronomy 4:32-40; 5:8; 32:6 ; 2 Kings 19:45; 2 Chronicles 2:12; Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 74:17; 89; 104:14, 24, 30; 115:15; 124:8; 134:3; 135:7; 139:13, 15; 146:6; 148:5; Proverbs 8:26; Ecclesiastes 12:1; Isaiah 13:13; 27:11; 37:16; 40:18-31; 41:20; 42:5-13; 43:1-7, 15; 44:24; 45:4-18; 48:7; 54:5, 16; 57:16, 19; 65:17-18; 66:22; Jeremiah 10:11-12; 27:5; 31:22; 32:2, 17; 51:15; Ezekiel 28:15; Amos 4:13; Habakkuk 3:6; Malachi 2:10; Acts 14:15; 17:24, 26; Revelation 4:11; 14:7;

44 “Lord is despota. It is the opposite of doulos, ‘slave’ (cf. Luke 2:29). Thayer says that despotes ‘denoted absolute ownership and uncontrolled power.’ ((p. 130).” Cited by Carter and Earle, p. 64.

45 “The reference to Herod harks back to the account in Luke 23:7-12, where Pilate, learning that Jesus is a Galilaean, performs a diplomatic courtesy by referring him to Herod. Luke is the only one of the four evengelists who gives Herod a role in the passion narrative.”

46 It is possible that here that the term “bond-servants” refers specifically to the apostles, but since we are told in verse 31 that “they all were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness,” it would seem that the reference is to the whole church.

47 “This {shaking of the house} was one of the signs which indicated a theophany in the Old Testament (Ex. 19:18; Is. 6:4), and it would have been regarded as indicating a divine response to prayer.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 107.
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8. Profession and Possession (Acts 4:32—5:11)

32 And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need.

36 And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), 37 and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

5:1 But a certain man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land? 4 “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God.” 5 And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 And the young men arose and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him. 7 Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” 9 Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they shall carry you out as well. 10 And she fell immediately at his feet, and breathed her last; and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.

12 And at the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico. 13 But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. 14 And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number; 15 to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets, and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. 16 And also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits; and they were all being healed.48


A young man was once told by my friend Fred that he had a problem—he did not know the difference between “sin” and “crime.” “There are,” Fred explained, “a number of crimes that are not sins, and a number of sins that are not crimes.” An illustration of Fred’s point can be found in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, recorded at the beginning of Acts chapter 5. This couple had committed no crime, but they had committed a sin. They had not stolen money, nor extorted it, nor embezzled it. They had simply kept a part of that which was theirs. They must have kept back only a small portion of it, but in so doing, they had lied. And for this, they died.

Is lying a capital offense? In our society, most lying is hardly seen to be a sin, let alone viewed as a crime. Why then did God take this sin so seriously? If the punishment for this sin was unusual, the sin surely was not nor is it rare today. Deception has become an accepted way of life. Why was lying a capital offense? That, my friend, is the “tension of our text.”49 As we study our passage, let us seek to understand why lying is such a serious sin to God.

The Structure of our Text

Our passage is located between two status reports. Verses 32-37 describe the progress of the gospel, through the preaching of the apostles and the lifestyle of the church. The gift of Barnabas (4:36-37) is provided as an example of the gracious spirit which prevailed in the church as a whole. It serves other purposes too, which we shall point out later. Verses 12 through 16 of chapter 5 provide us with yet another status report, describing the condition of the church, the power of God manifested through the apostles, and the response of men to this. And in the middle of these two status reports is the account of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, struck down in divine judgment for their sin of lying (5:1-11).

The Approach of this Lesson

Our approach in this lesson will be to seek to understand the events which are described in the light of the context. We will therefore consider the giving of possessions in general, then in the case of Barnabas, and finally in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. We will then seek to find the answers to the following questions:

(1) To what extent is the practice of the church in selling its possessions a pattern for the church today?

(2) Why was God so severe in dealing with Ananias and Sapphira?

(3) What was wrong with what this couple did?

(4) How does one lie to the Holy Spirit?

(5) What is the relationship between “lying to the Holy Spirit” (5:3) and “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (5:9)?

(6) What is the relationship between the purposes of one’s own heart and the spiritual influences of both Satan and the Holy Spirit?50

(7) What are the lessons in this passage for us?


In obedience to the command of the Lord, the disciples waited for the promised Spirit, who would empower their witness of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They selected the twelfth apostle—to replace Judas (Acts 1). Then the Spirit fell upon them, and they spoke in foreign tongues. This led to the first public proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, the descent of the Spirit, the coming day of judgment, and the salvation which God offered to those who repented and put their faith in Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 2). On their way to the temple, Peter and John encountered a lame man who asked for alms but received healing from his life-long malady of lameness. Once again, the gospel was preached (Acts 3), but this time Peter and John were interrupted by the temple guard who were sent to arrest them. This led to a trial before the Sanhedrin, with warnings not to continue preaching in the name of Jesus, and threats of future punishment. To this the two apostles calmly responded that they must continue to tell of what they had seen and heard. On returning to their own and giving a report of all that had happened, the assembly rejoiced at suffering for the sake of the Savior, confident of the fact that men could not prevent God’s purposes from coming to pass. In response to their prayers for boldness, the presence of God was manifested by the shaking of the building where they were and a subsequent filling of the whole group by the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:1-31).

Bold With their Possessions

32 And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them.51 33 And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need.

36 And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), 37 and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

The church had prayed for a boldness in their profession of the gospel, and God graciously granted their request. But the boldness of the church in its profession was also practiced with regard to its possessions.52 The church had been given the grace to live dangerously (not foolishly). The saints knew all too well that to boldly profess Jesus as the Christ, Israel’s Messiah, risen from the dead, was to incur the wrath and the strong opposition of the Jewish leaders. When they prayed for boldness, they prayed knowing that boldness would lead to painful consequences. But this did not stop them.

It was this same spirit of boldness which permeated not only the profession of the church but its practice with regard to earthly possessions. From a purely human point of view, to sell their possessions to meet the needs of others was folly, certain future economic disaster. Surely one must be financially prepared for the future. With one heart and soul, the saints continued to give of their resources to meet the needs of others.

This was really a continuation of that first described by Luke in Acts chapter 2:

And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart (Acts 2:44-46).

There were a couple of differences, however. We are no longer told that all the saints were together. It may still have been the case, but the church had grown considerably, and this might no longer have been possible. In the former days, the saints sold their goods as needs arose and personally met them. But now, with a much larger church and more needs, they sold their possessions and brought the money to the apostles, leaving it to them to administer the funds. Giving had, in one sense, become more institutionalized, out of necessity. In one sense, this was more of a test. It is much easier to be motivated to give to one’s neighbor, whose needs are immediately evident to us, than it is to give to those we do not even know. There had to have been a high level of confidence in the apostles for the money to have been laid at their feet.

One may very well wonder what it was that prompted such generosity. The more I read these passages, the more I am convinced that the saints were not demonstrating generosity as much as they were practicing unity. If a member of my family has a serious need, I do not think long about meeting that need, if I can, and I do not think of myself as being generous for doing so. As Jesus put it,

“Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or, if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he?” (Luke 11:11-12).

The response of this man to the request made of him is not the response of a generous man; it is the response of a father. Being a part of the family is what makes the difference. The early church looked upon themselves as a family, and they lived like a family. Thus, if one member of the “family” had more than enough possessions and other member had less than enough, it was natural to share these possessions within the family. “Private property” is viewed differently within the family than without.

As Luke makes clear, ownership of property still remained, but the claim to ownership was relinquished. That is, one owned his possessions, but he gave up that ownership the moment it became evident another member of the family required them. It was a simple matter of sharing what you had with those who did not.

My wife and I saw a great deal of this while I was a student in seminary. Very often, it was not those who had the most who shared with those who lacked, but it was those who had just a little more than the one who lacked who shared. How many times I can remember one family sacrificially sharing what little they had with someone who had even less. And what a joy that was to both families. This is what I see taking place in the early church. It was a real community of believers.

There were other factors involved in the spirit of sharing which I find underlying the actions of these early Christians. There was, for example, the words and teaching of our Lord. The early church was, in its sharing, simply taking Jesus literally. For example, Jesus taught,

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:32-34).

The actions of these saints were completely consistent with the words of the Lord. They were taking Jesus simply at His word.

Furthermore, one should remember that Jesus and the apostles taught that Jerusalem would be destroyed, in that generation:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you shall not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!” (Matthew 23:37-39).

And Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He answered and said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (Matthew 24:1-2).

“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled. Woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people, and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Luke 13:20-24).

In no way do I wish to minimize the boldness of the early church regarding the sale of its possessions and its giving to the needy, but I do wish to point out that the early church should have been aware of the coming judgment of God on that city. We should not treasure that which will not last. They knew that their possessions would not last beyond their own generation (cf. Matthew 23:36).53

There is at least one more explanation for the conduct of the early church regarding possessions and the poor. The church acted unanimously, as a community, in the way it ministered to the poor among them,54 and it did so, I believe, because “abundant grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). I understand “grace” to be a very broad term, but here, as elsewhere (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:6-7,8,14,19), it can refer to grace as manifested in giving to meet the needs of others. Grace is always that abundance poured out on those who are in need, whether it be material or spiritual in form (cf. Hebrews 4:16).

The mention of Barnabas55 and his donation serves several purposes in the Book of Acts. First, in the immediate context, it serves as an illustration of the kind of benevolence Luke has described in general terms. Barnabas is a concrete illustration of a general statement. Further, this reference to Barnabas is a backdrop, against which the sinful actions of Ananias and Sapphira will be depicted in the next verses of chapter 5. And finally, the mention of Barnabas serves as an introduction of this remarkable man of God, whose ministry of encouragement to Paul and many others will be described later on in the book.56 It is no wonder that this man who gave generously of his own means would be chosen to carry a generous gift from the saints in Antioch to the needy saints in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 11:27-30).

There is a great deal of discussion (and debate) concerning the practice of the church in giving its possessions to help the poor. Frankly, much of the discussion is an effort to avoid any need for us to follow the example of this church in this matter. It would seem to me that we should strive to retain the simplest, most literal, straightforward interpretation of the text of Scripture as possible, here, and elsewhere. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the practice of the early church here was not a uniform practice of the church so far as the New Testament accounts are concerned. There was to some degree a unique situation here, with the destruction of Jerusalem at hand, in the lifetime of these saints. And it should be pointed out that in the providence of God, letting go of their possessions was a source of great blessing to the saints in Jerusalem. Not only did it free them of the material “pull” of their possessions, which would have hindered them from leaving the city (cf. Acts 8:1ff.), but it saved them from the torture of the Romans, who quickly recognized the affluent when they sacked the city and who tortured them until they told where their possessions were hidden.

Let us recall that the practice of the church here was not binding upon Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:4). They were not required to sell their property or to give any particular portion of it. This was a matter of personal freedom and guidance. Thus, I would take it that we are not bound to do what the members of the first church did either. But I must also say that, in principle, we have precisely the same obligations and opportunities. Jesus’ teaching to sell one’s possessions and to give to charity are just as applicable to us as they were to the early church. And when we have a brother or sister in need, and we have the resources to meet that need, we are obliged to do so.57

The Sin of Ananias and Sapphira

1 But a certain man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land? 4 “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God.” 5 And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 And the young men arose and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him. 7 Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” 9 Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they shall carry you out as well. 10 And she fell immediately at his feet, and breathed her last; and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.

We are not specifically informed that Ananias and Sapphira, his wife, were true Christians, but the weight of the inferences (in my judgment) is that they were. This man and his wife had conceived of a plan, a plan which seemed to offer the most benefits. They agreed to sell a piece of land which they owned. They decided that they would give most of the proceeds of that sale to the apostles, to meet the needs of the poor. They also determined to keep back a small amount for themselves. The worst part was that they also agreed that they would lie about the amount which they gave to the apostles, so that their gift would be thought of as being the entire amount they were paid for their property. In other words, they wanted to appear to be giving all the money they received, but they were keeping part of it and pulling it all off by lying about it. It was, in short, a conspiracy of deception.

Sapphira was not with her husband when he presented the money to the apostles, but Luke lets us know from the beginning that she was fully aware of what Ananias was doing and was a party to it (5:2). He presented the portion as though it were the whole. We do not know whether his deception was only by inference (he wanted the apostles and others to draw the conclusion the money he brought was the whole amount of the sale of the land) or whether he made an outright statement. I am inclined to think that he directly lied.

It would not have been difficult for Ananias’s deception to have become public knowledge. The purchase price of the property could easily have been known to others and thus to the apostles. The amount that Ananias presented could also have been a matter of public record. Also, Peter could have discerned that the amount given did not seem to be enough for the property which was sold. In spite of these normal means of discerning the deception of Ananias and Sapphira, one has the impression that Peter’s knowledge was supernaturally revealed to him. In addition, it seems apparent that the Spirit of God moved him to openly rebuke Ananias.

Peter’s indictment of Ananias is most informative. With respect to Ananias, Peter’s words give a clear indication of what this man was guilty, and likewise what was not sin. Peter rebukes the man for his lying, not for keeping back a portion of the money he gained from the sale of his property. Peter’s words to Ananias not only show him to be free to use his property as he chooses, but they also clarify the freedom which all of the saints had in the matter of their possessions.

In the first place, Peter affirmed the right of private property. The practice of the church was not communism, for each individual owned his possessions. Ananias (and all of the other saints, by inference) had complete freedom to use his property any way he chose. He could have kept it, or sold it, without sin. And even when he sold it, he was just as free in the use of the proceeds obtained from the sale. He could have kept it all or any part of it. His sin was not in the amount of money he gave or in the fact that he kept some of it back. His sin was that he lied, so that it would appear that he gave all of the money when he did not.

Peter’s words must have caught Ananias by surprise. He did not ask Ananias if he had lied or if he had kept back some of the price of the land. He did not ask Ananias why, from a human point of view, he was motivated to act as he had.58 Peter quickly took this matter to its spiritual roots and to its spiritual fruits. The ultimate source of this deception was Satan. That must have been news to Ananias, who thought this was entirely his idea (with the collaboration of Sapphira, of course). But it was Satan whom Peter said had “filled his heart” (verse 3). And the fruit of the matter went far beyond what this man had thought. He had not simply lied to Peter (and to whoever else was present at the time); he had lied to the Holy Spirit. What must have seemed to Ananias and his wife as a trivial offense, a “little white lie,” was revealed to be a matter of great proportions. A simple plan between a man and his wife, carried out in the church, had now involved Satan and the Spirit of God.

Peter did not pronounce the death sentence on Ananias as he did with his wife. He simply exposed the man’s sin for what it was. I do not know that Peter expected Ananias to drop dead, but he did. It was apparent to Peter and to the rest that God had smitten this man, which led him to conclude that his wife would die in the same way, if she were guilty of the same offense. Great fear came upon all who beheld what happened. Here was a “sign and wonder,” performed at the hands of an apostle, which was of a very different kind.

The body of Ananias was quickly removed and buried, without his wife’s knowledge. When she arrived some three hours later, it may have been to look for her husband. But for whatever reason she came, it provided Peter with the opportunity to determine the woman’s role, if any, in this scheme. He asked (according to the record) only one question—did she sell the land for the price which her husband had indicated?59 When she verified the amount as that which her husband had claimed, Peter quickly pronounced sentence on her. He guilt was quickly summarized. First, she and her husband conspired together. She was as guilty as he was in this matter. She was guilty for taking part (or at least consenting) in this deception. Their conspiracy was one that was against the Holy Spirit, of “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (verse 9). Just as her husband had died for his sin, so she would die for her role in this.60 Fear was the result, in the church and without (verse 11).61


What then are we to make of this text? Let us return to those questions which were stated at the beginning of this lesson which have not yet been answered62 and seek to answer them now.

(1) Why was God so severe in dealing with Ananias and Sapphira?

(2) What was wrong with what this couple did?

(3) How does one lie to the Holy Spirit?

(4) What is the relationship between “lying to the Holy Spirit” (5:3) and “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (5:9)?

(5) What is the relationship between the purposes of one’s own heart and the spiritual influences of both Satan and the Holy Spirit?63

(6) What are the lessons in this passage for us?

Let us consider the first two questions together. God dealt severely with the sin of Ananias and Sapphira because of its seriousness. The sin which was so serious to God was the sin of lying. Now here is a very fascinating thing. God’s values are much different than ours. We can discern the severity of an offense (in the mind of those who impose the penalty for it) by the severity of the punishment. Since God pronounced and performed the death penalty on lying, it must be a most serious offense. And since God did not care about the amount Ananias and his wife gave or kept back (this was a matter of liberty to him, as Peter pointed out), material things were not nearly as important.

How different with men than with God. Men, with the exception of some cases, do not even consider lying a crime and hardly a sin. We speak (or at least think) of deception as a way of life; we call deception a “little white lie.” We almost expect dishonesty. When we don’t want to talk to someone on the phone, we don’t tell them the truth; we may have our secretary tell them we “are not in.” Now when it comes to money and material things, then we start taking these sins seriously, in fact we call them crimes. And the more money or possessions are involved, the more severe the crime and its punishment.

But why is lying such a serious offense to God? Why was this deception, which seems to have hurt no one, so drastically disciplined by God? I think the answer is quite evident: the church is founded upon truth, and it grows by means of truth. The unity of the church is also dependent upon truth. Deception is an attack on the truth, and it is also one of the primary means of attack employed by Satan, the liar and deceiver. To tolerate even a small deception is to open the door to an attack on the truth which would be devastating. Notice just a few of the references to truth64 which we find in the New Testament:

The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him (John 7:18).

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you (John 14:16-17).

“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me (John 15:26).

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come (John 16:13).

Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth (John 17:17).

Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:30).

If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

He is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain (1 Timothy 6:14-15).

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart (1 Peter 1:22).

We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood (1 John 4:6).

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth (3 John 1:4).

Almost 80 times in the gospels65 the Lord is quoted as saying, “I tell you the truth.” If there was anything which characterized Him it was “truth.” Thus, He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is also said to be “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The Holy Spirit is called the “Spirit of truth” (John 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:6). Satan, on the other hand, is a “liar” and the “father of lies” (John 8:44), as well as a “deceiver” (2 Corinthians 11:3; Revelation 12:9-10). The first temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan involved Satan’s denial of the truth which God had revealed to them. The church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” in the world (1 Timothy 3:15). The saints are built up in their faith as each one “speaks the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:16), and “lays aside falsehood” (4:25). Is it any wonder then that truth is so important and that lying is considered such a serious offense?

Let us move on to our next two questions. How does one “lie to the Holy Spirit,” and in what way does this relate to “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test”? We first must see that “lying to the Holy Spirit” began with lying to men. When Peter said, “You have not lied to men, but to God” (Acts 5:4), he was saying, in effect, “You have not merely lied to men, but you have ultimately lied to God.”66 From Acts 5:3, we know that their lying to God was to God, the Spirit. I believe that the people lied to the Holy Spirit by lying to the apostles (and to the church as well), because the Spirit of God indwells the church. The church of God and the Spirit of God are intertwined, in the sense that the Spirit dwells in the church (Ephesians 2:22).

If lying to those who are fellow members of the body of Christ is lying to the Holy Spirit, then this seems to be related to “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (Acts 5:9). How does one put God to the test then, and how does this relate to lying to one another and to the Holy Spirit?

The Old Testament defines the meaning of “putting God to the test.” The key Old Testament texts are Exodus 15:25; 16:4; 17:2 and Deuteronomy 6:16. Key New Testament texts are those in the Gospels, which depict the temptation of Jesus by Satan (Matthew 4:7; Luke 4:12). Significantly, all of these passages deal with times of hunger and/or thirst, including the temptation of our Lord. The nation Israel was delivered from slavery in Egypt by God and led into the wilderness. Only days after crossing the Red Sea, they came to the waters of Marah, where they could not drink because the water there was bitter. Here, the people grumbled, and God put His people to the test to see if they would trust and obey Him. Their task was to obey God, and His promise was that He would take care of their needs.

In Exodus 16 they came to another point of need, and the people began to complain, because they did not believe that they would eat as they had in Egypt. Again, God put them to the test to see if they would obey His commands. In this chapter, it is clearly indicated that Israel’s grumblings against Moses and Aaron were really grumbling against God (16:8). In chapter 17, they came to a place which would be named Massah and Meribah (17:7), where the people quarreled with Moses and thus put God to the test (17:2). They accused Moses of leading them into a place where they would die. They demanded water and seemed to threaten Moses’ life if he did not produce what they demanded.

It is to this incident that God later referred when Israel was about to enter into the promised land:

“You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, for the LORD your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the LORD your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth. You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah. You should diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and His testimonies and His statutes which He has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may be well with you and that you may go in and possess the good land which the LORD swore to give your fathers, by driving out all your enemies from before you, as the LORD has spoken” (Deuteronomy 6:13-19).

When our Lord was tempted by Satan, He had been in the wilderness, without food for 40 days (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:1-2). Satan sought to induce Jesus to act independently, indeed, disobediently, seeking to produce what He wanted His own way, rather than obeying the Father and waiting for Him to produce what He had promised, in His own way and in His time. Specifically, Satan suggested that Jesus leap from the pinnacle of the temple, based upon God’s promise of protection. Jesus refused, based on the fact that this would be to “put God to the test” and thus would be disobedience to God.

Taking all these factors into consideration, it seems to me that men are inclined to put God to the test in the area of God’s provisions—specifically food. God has promised to provide, and He has called upon men to obey His commands and to wait upon Him to provide in His time. Men put God to the test when they doubt His provision and when they act independently, when they act disobediently, seeking to provide for themselves in their own way.

I can see this backdrop as fitting into the situation of Ananias and Sapphira quite directly. Others were selling their possessions and giving all they made from them to the apostles to meet the needs of poor brethren. I assume that people were selling their extra possessions and property, not their own dwellings. The property they were selling was their security, their “nest egg,” that which assured them that there would be provisions for the future. Ananias and Sapphira may well have said to themselves, “If we sell all that we have, we will have nothing to fall back on.” Keeping back a little of the money they obtained from the sale of their property would give them a little security, they must have reasoned. And, so long as they were honest in their dealings, it would have been their right to do so. But in order to carry this off, and to look as “spiritual” as the others, they had to lie, saying they were giving their all when they weren’t. They were, in the process of providing for themselves, not trusting in God, and they were not obeying His commandments, for they were lying. No wonder this could be called “putting the Spirit of God to the test.”

Now to another question which we have posed earlier: “What is the relationship between what we conceive in our hearts, and that which either the Holy Spirit or Satan fills our hearts to purpose and perform?” Peter asked Ananias why Satan had filled his heart to conceive of this sin (5:3). He then asked Ananias why he conceived this deed in his own heart (5:4). There must be a relationship between that which we conceive in our own hearts and that which either God’s Spirit or Satan prompts us to do.

I think we see here that there is a very close link between what we decide (supposedly on our own) and what we are encouraged or prompted to decide. I believe that when we act “in the flesh,” prompted by self-interest and human wisdom and values, we are really doing Satan’s bidding. We are doing “our will,” in one sense, but we are also doing Satan’s bidding. Satan prompted Adam and Eve to act independently of God, theoretically “on their own” and “in their own interests,” but in reality they were doing his bidding. When men act in the flesh, they serve Satan.

You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the dumb idols, however you were led (1 Corinthians 12:2).

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among then we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:5-8).67

Whether or not we like to admit it, we cannot do anything that is truly independent of some kind of spiritual guidance. When we act “naturally,” according to the flesh, we serve Satan, who utilizes the world and the flesh to influence our behavior. When we act supernaturally, in the Spirit, we are guided and prompted by God’s Spirit, to do His will. Thus, what man decides to do in his own heart is also that which either the Spirit or Satan has prompted as well. While the rest of the church was following the prompting of God’s Spirit, Ananias and Sapphira were following the promptings of Satan, and this led to death as the text indicates.

Lessons to Learn

There are a great many lessons to be learned from our text. Let me conclude by mentioning a few which may provide fuel for further study, meditation, and prayer.

(1) Serious sins often have subtle beginnings. It would be easy to come away from our text with the impression that Ananias and Sapphira sat down one day at the dinner table and said to each other, in effect, “Let’s come up with a plan to sell some property, give some of the money to the needy, keep some of it for ourselves, and lie about it.” This is not what the text tells us or even implies. Neither is it true to life nor to the subtle ways in which Satan works.

Let me suggest a very fictional scenario, but one which is at least believable, which also demonstrates the way in which we find ourselves deep in sin before we even know it. Suppose that Ananias and Sapphira had determined to sell a piece of property, like the rest of the church, and for good reasons. And, let’s suppose, they decided to have the property appraised and learned that a fair asking price was $40,000. Ananias, feeling certain that he can get the asking price of $40,000, mentions to some of his fellow-saints that he is soon to sell a piece of his property and give $40,000 to the apostles. As it turns out, two supermarket chains want to build a store on the same property. The price is bid up, and finally Ananias sells his property for $50,000. Now comes the decision as to what to do with the extra $10,000. Do they give this, too? Or do they consider this windfall a gift from the Lord? Or do they simply decide to hold this money back, saving it for a “rainy day”? Doing so, as Peter pointed out, would have been no problem. The decision is now made to keep the extra money for themselves. But when he gave the money to Peter, Peter asked him pointedly (remember, this is fiction, not fact—although it is clear from the text that Peter knew the exact amount for which Ananias claimed to have sold the property) whether he sold the property for $40,000. Now Ananias had to make a decision. Did he tell Peter what he actually sold the property for and that he and his wife decided to keep the extra money back? If he did this, he would not appear to be as spiritual as others, like Barnabas, who gave all of the money. Or he could lie and make Peter think that he had given all. After all, who would ever know?

Do you see how easy it is for us to start out with pure motives and good deeds, only to have Satan step in, appeal to our fleshly desires, and end up with us committing a very serious sin? Satan is not known as the “deceiver” for nothing. Here is where he does his finest work. And it looks as though he really did a number on Ananias and Sapphira. This is not to minimize their guilt but only to show how subtle the process can be which brings us to a point of blatant disobedience to God’s Word. I am convinced that many terrible sins started out as “good works,” but ended up as sin through Satan’s subtlety and our flesh. Nowhere does our text teach that this sin started out as a genuine act of benevolence, but it could have.

(2) Counterfeit spirituality works best alongside the genuine. Even at this high point in the life of the ancient church, when so many were acting in accordance with the teachings of Jesus and with the promptings of the Spirit, counterfeit spirituality emerged, within the church. Satan often seeks to introduce that which is his work, that which is counterfeit, in the midst of an outpouring of divine grace and power. Thus, whenever a revival breaks out, deviations and distortions appear as well.

(3) Grace is never to be a pretext for sin. This period in the life of the church was characterized by “abundant grace” (4:33). Even so, sin raised its ugly head. This is the way Satan works. But if our text teaches us anything, it is that while God’s grace abounds, God always takes sin seriously. Grace is God’s remedy for sin, not the pretext for sin. Grace was given to put away sin, not to promote it. We should never think that by holding fast to the “grace of God” that there is any diminishing of God’s hatred for sin or of the need for divine discipline. God took the sin of Ananias very seriously. So must we, who have experienced God’s grace, live in it. As Paul said it, we who have died to sin should no longer live in it (cf. Romans 5:20–6:14).

(4) Christian ministry should be performed with simplicity. We are clearly taught in Scripture that giving should be done with “simplicity,” that is, with singleness of purpose and motive:

… he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality {“simplicity,” margin, NASB} … (Romans 12:8).

There is a danger of giving with mixed motives. The motive we have for giving should be a simple one: love for one another. When we add into this a motive of self-gain or self-interest, our giving is corrupted. I believe further study of the Scriptures would bear this out. I further believe that much of the giving of the saints is motivated by some kind of self-serving benefit. For example, how many requests for funds do you hear that also include a “free offer” or some “gift of appreciation” in return? I believe we do people a great disservice when we seek to motivate them to give by offering something in return. I further believe this same principle of “simplicity” applies to all service.

(5) Sin thrives in the soil of deception and error, but godliness only grows in the soil of the truth. Wherever you find sin, you will find error and deception. Wherever you find salvation and sanctification, you will find the truth. There is no place in Christianity for deception.

(6) The manifestation of sin may be more important than its motivation. Situational ethics seems to say that it doesn’t matter so much what we do as why we do it. Immorality (by biblical standards) may be the “right” thing to do, we are told, if it is done out of love. Our text seems to say that whatever our motive might be (little time is spent on the motivation of Ananias and Sapphira) if the act is a violation of God’s Word, then the act is sin. Peter’s emphasis is that Ananias and Sapphira lied, not only to men, but to God. Regardless of why they lied, they lied, and that was a sin worthy of death. From a Christian point of view, one may do “the right thing” for the wrong motive and thereby sin, but one can never do the wrong thing for the right motive and do that which is pleasing to God.

(7) A desire to appear spiritual is often at the root of the sin of deception. It would seem to me that Ananias and Sapphira would never have gotten into the trouble they did unless they wanted to appear, to others, as though they were spiritual. This is a preoccupation with external appearances and man’s approval, not God’s. It was for this that our Lord condemned the Pharisees (Luke 16:14-15). How many times have we acted deceptively because we wanted others to think we were more spiritual than we really were?

Key References to Truth

Listed below are some of the key references to truth in the Bible:

PSA 15:2; PSA 25:5; PSA 26:3; PSA 31:5; PSA 40:10-11; PSA 43:3; PSA 45:4; PSA 51:6; PSA 86:11; PSA 96:13; PSA 119:30; PSA 119:43; PSA 145:18; ISA 45:19; ISA 65:16; JER 5:3; JER 7:28; JER 9:5; JER 26:15; DAN 8:12; DAN 9:13; DAN 10:21; ZEC 8:3; ZEC 8:16; ZEC 8:19; JOH 1:14; JOH 1:17; JOH 3:21; JOH 4:23-24; JOH 5:24; JOH 5:33; JOH 6:47; JOH 6:53; JOH 7:18; JOH 8:32; JOH 8:40; JOH 8:44; JOH 14:6; JOH 14:17; JOH 15:26; JOH 16:13; JOH 17:17; JOH 18:37; JOH 19:35; ACT 20:30; ACT 28:25; ROM 1:18; ROM 1:25; ROM 2:2; ROM 2:8; ROM 9:1; ROM 15:8; 1 CO 5:8; 1CO 13:6; 2CO 4:2; 2CO 11:10; 2CO 12:6; 2CO 13:8; GAL 2:5; GAL 2:14; GAL 4:16; GAL 5:7; EPH 1:13; EPH 4:15; EPH 4:21; EPH 5:9; EPH 6:14; COL 1:5-6; 2TH 2:10; 2TH 2:12-13; 1TI 2:4; 1TI 2:7; 1TI 3:15; 1TI 4:3; 1TI 6:5; 2TI 2:15; 2TI 2:18; 2TI 2:25; 2TI 3:7-8; 2TI 4:4 ; TIT 1:1; TIT 1:14; HEB 10:26; JAM 1:18; JAM 3:14; JAM 5:19; 1PE 1:22; 2PE 1:12; 2PE 2:2; 1JO 1:6; 1JO 1:8; 1JO 2:4; 1JO 2:8; 1JO 2:20-21; 1JO 3:18-19; 1JO 4:6; 1JO 5:6; 2JO 1:1-4; 3JO 1:1; 3JO 1:3-4; 3JO 1:8; 3JO 1:12

48 This last section, verses 12-16, will be dealt with in greater detail in our next lesson. I include it here because it describes the “fear” that this incident (and perhaps others) brought upon the church and upon those outside as well.

49 There are two more tensions, as I understand this text. The first is this: How did Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Holy Spirit, and how did their actions put Him to the test? More generally stated, how and when does lying to men constitute lying to the Holy Spirit? The second tension is: How can Peter say that Satan filled the heart of Ananias, and yet, at the same time speak of Ananias as conceiving this sin in his own heart? Simply put, how can the purposes of a man’s heart be both his own and those of Satan? These, I believe, are worthwhile questions to ponder, although the answers may not be easy ones.

50 This question arises from the fact that Peter attributes the source of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira both to what they have conceived in their own hearts (5:4) and to the work of Satan in their hearts (5:3). In addition, one would think that had they acted in a godly way, the Spirit would have filled their hearts. Thus, the issue of the relationship of one’s own heart to the influences of the Spirit of God and Satan.

51 Here is a good place to point out a very crucial difference between communism and Christianity. Communism would say, “What’s yours is mine.” Christianity says, quite differently, “What’s mine is yours.”

52 As I have studied the boldness of the church in its profession, as well as in its use of its possessions, I have discovered that one’s profession, persecution, and the use of one’s possessions are often found in close proximity. Cf. Luke 12:1-12, and verses 13ff.; Hebrews 10:32-39; James 2; 1 John 3:13-24.

53 The same principle, of course, applies to us. While we do not know for certain that the return of the Lord will come in our generation, we do know that when He comes, material possessions will be destroyed. This should greatly impact the way in which we live and the value which we attach to things (cf. 2 Peter 3:8-12).

54 I think it can be demonstrated that the poor who were being cared for were primarily poor believers. The church cared for its own. This was taught as a priority (cf. Galatians 6:10). If we grant the fact that there were many poor and needy in the church (cf. also Acts 6:1), then we must admit that even when the church was at its spiritual high-water mark, there were those who were not prosperous. The “gospel of the good life” or the “prosperity gospel,” the teaching that if men are spiritual, they will materially prosper, simply does not stand up under scrutiny nor does it conform to biblical revelation.

55 It is interesting that Barnabas is described as a Levite. The Levites had no portion or inheritance in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 12:12).

56 Luke seems to have a habit of introducing men early with some brief comment and then to pick these characters up later on in his writing. Thus, he introduced Paul first in Acts 8:1-3, only to wait until chapter 9 to describe his conversion, and then wait until chapter 13 to give him prominence.

57 My understanding of the practice of the church, as described in Act 2 and 4 is that people sold those possessions which were above and beyond their immediate needs. As the person who has two coats is obliged to give one to a brother who has none, so a person with a home in the city and a summer place on the lake may be obliged to give up one residence if a brother in need has nowhere to live. I do not think that Luke is telling us that a person who owned only one house (assuming it was not excessively large or luxurious) sold that house, to help others, only to make himself homeless. The goal was not to create additional poverty but to minister to the poor.

58 I find Peter’s avoidance of the motivation of this man and his wife most interesting. It seems in our own day that motivation has become an obsession. We want to pursue why people act as they do. We seem almost to excuse some actions on the basis of motivation. This is precisely the basis of situational ethics. An act is right or wrong, based on its motivation, the situationalist will say. But Peter differs with this. Regardless of the motives of Ananias and his wife, they consciously purposed to lie. They knowingly sinned. It was a pre-meditated sin. While Peter could surely have been supernaturally informed as to their motivation, it is never mentioned. Perhaps we should learn from this.

59 This indicates, to my satisfaction, that Ananias said much more than Luke recorded. He must have told Peter that the amount he was contributing was the purchase price of his land. Peter then used this figure to get a direct statement from Sapphira.

60 There is a lesson here, by inference, on submission, one which flows from the previous chapter. The Sanhedrin had great authority in Israel, but when this body commanded the apostles to cease preaching in the name of Jesus, they had to reject this order as being one that was outside of this body’s realm of authority. They (as Peter will soon say in chapter 5) had to obey God rather than men. This woman was to be in submission to her husband’s authority, but that authority ended when it came to lying. Her guilt was not minimized because she was a wife, in submission to her husband. So was equally guilty with her husband, because she acted in accord with him, when she should have refused to do so. Peter’s dealings with this woman show that submission to authority ends when such submission would lead to sinning against God. Thus, her guilt and her fate is precisely the same as her husband’s.

61 This is a repetition of what Luke has already written in 5:5. One can safely conclude that the first “fear” was reinforced and underscored by the “second.” One can also conclude that one of God’s purposes in this instance of divine discipline was His intent to produce such fear, as a healthy ingredient in the life of the church.

62 The first question: “To what extent is the practice of the church in selling its possessions a pattern for the church today?” has already been answered on page 7.

63 This question arises from the fact that Peter attributes the source of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira both to what they have conceived in their own hearts (5:4) and to the work of Satan in their hearts (5:3). In addition, one would think that had they acted in a godly way, the Spirit would have filled their hearts. Thus, the issue of the relationship of one’s own heart to the influences of the Spirit of God and Satan.

64 At the end of this lesson there is a more extensive list of verses that emphasize the importance of truth to our faith. I encourage you to look these up and study them in more detail.

65 A number of these instances would be parallel passages and thus the same statement may be found in two or three Gospels.

66 A similar situation can be found in Exodus 16:6-8 and 17:1-7. Israel’s grumblings against Moses and Aaron are exposed as grumbling against God.

67 This text may not precisely substantiate my point, and the thrust of this passage is to show Christians that they are not in the flesh any longer, but in the Spirit (8:9). It is possible, however, to revert back to the impulses and guidance of the flesh. It is not necessary, but it is possible.

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9. The Great Escapes (Acts 5:12-42)

This passage we are studying has a certain “feel” to it which is hard to pin down—there is an obvious contest going on between the Sanhedrin (the Sadducees in particular) and the apostles—over the issue of authority. The best analogy I can think of is the television series, “The Dukes of Hazard.” The high priest is, unflatteringly, “Boss Hogg.” He is the alleged leader, at least in terms of his position. He is also “the law.” The Duke boys are the apostles—those “country folk” who don’t have the education and the sophistication to be great (or so we suppose), and yet they always end up out-foxing Boss Hogg. True, Boss Hogg may put the Duke boys in jail for a few days, now and then, but his trumped-up charges always fail to hold water and to accomplish his sinister purposes.

The more I read this account of the “great escapes” of the apostles, the more the analogy to this television series seems to fit. There have been many “great escapes” in history, but this escape is one of the most harmless and enjoyable. In reality, there are two escapes and not one. The first escape of our text is the miraculous deliverance of the apostles from prison by the “angel of the Lord.” This will not be the last of this kind of escape, for in chapter 12 of Acts Peter will again be delivered from confinement in prison by an angel. But there is a second “escape” for the apostles in Acts chapter 5. It is an escape from death. The chief priests of the Sadducean party were so angry with the persistent preaching of the apostles that when they refused to stop preaching, and when they persisted in claiming that the religious leaders had murdered the Christ, they wanted to kill them on the spot. From all appearances (especially when viewed in the light of the stoning of Stephen in chapter 7), they would have carried out their intentions, except for the intervention of a rather strange ally, a highly respected teacher of the Pharisees, named Gamaliel. This is the one under whom the apostle Paul was instructed (cf. Acts 22:3). Gamaliel appealed to his brethren on the Council to show restraint and to entertain the possibility that the movement they were trying to suppress was actually ordained and sustained of God.

The key players in this drama are the apostles—all twelve of them—and the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, and the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish governing body (both legislative and judicial) in Israel. The Sanhedrin is actually a coalition group, composed both of those who are Sadducees and those who were Pharisees. The Sadducees were the liberals who did not believe in the supernatural—things like resurrection from the dead and angels. The Pharisees were more conservative and orthodox in their theology, believing in resurrection, angels, and the supernatural in general. The chief priests were all of the Sadducee party. The Pharisee party was well represented by the teacher of the Law, Gamaliel.

The conflict between the apostles and the Jewish leaders started long before this, as you know. It began with the appearance of Jesus and with His teaching and healing. He was quickly challenged as to His authority. For example, when Jesus told the man who was lowered through the roof that his sins were forgiven, the Pharisees immediately recognized Jesus’ claim to deity, and they began to oppose Him (Luke 5:18-26). And when Jesus entered Jerusalem as her Messiah, accepting the praise of men and throwing the merchants out of the temple precincts (Matthew 21:1-17), He was challenged by the chief priests and the elders of the people as to what authority He had to do such things (Matthew 21:23).

This led to a rather comprehensive response from Jesus. He first raised the question of the authority of John the Baptist, whether it was “from God” or “from men” (Matthew 21:24-27). This was to show these leaders that they really were not willing to accept any authority other than their own. But Jesus then went on to tell the story of a man who had two sons, one of whom promised to obey his father, but didn’t, and the other who initially refused to obey, but later repented (Matthew 21:28-32). The first son represented them, the leaders of the nation. The second son represented, Jesus said, the sinners, whom the leaders despised. In the final analysis, Jesus showed them, the “sinners” were better than the “righteous” because they repented and received Him.

The response of Jesus is not yet finished. Jesus pressed on to tell the parable of a man who owned a vineyard and who went away (Matthew 21:33-44). The man left vine-growers in charge. The owner of the vineyard was God, the vineyard was Israel, and the vine-growers were the leaders of the nation—those who opposed Jesus. When the owner of the vineyard sent men to collect that which the vineyard had produced, the vine-growers rejected the owner’s authority and claim to this fruit, and they beat and killed those who were sent (the prophets of Israel). Finally, when the son of the owner was sent, they killed him, thinking that they could gain possession of the vineyard for themselves. Jesus interpreted this story so that they would understand that He was the Son who was rejected, but that He, as the stone whom they rejected, would eventually crush them. He also taught them that their leadership would be taken from them and that another nation would become God’s kingdom. They were thinking of getting rid of Him, Jesus told them, but God would get rid of them. Their authority and leadership was about to end, just as the kingdom in Israel was about to be done away with, at least for a time. These things, which Jesus foretold, are seen to be taking place before our eyes in our text. The authority of the Jewish leaders is rapidly eroding, while the authority of the apostles is increasing.

The whole issue of the authority of the apostles and their conflict with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem is evident in the Book of Acts thus far. When Jesus was about to ascend to His Father, after His resurrection, He gave the apostles the “Great Commission” which was first a statement concerning His authority, and theirs, and then a commission to preach the gospel to all nations in this authority. With the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the preaching of the gospel began with thousands coming to faith in Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 2). When Peter and John were on their way to the temple to pray, they encountered a man who was born lame, and who had suffered from this ailment for over forty years. Healing him in the name of Jesus brought together a large crowd (at Solomon’s portico), where Peter preached the gospel. Here too Peter and John were arrested and taken to stand trial before the Sanhedrin on the following day.

When the leaders challenged Peter and John as to their authority (much as they had challenged Jesus), these two apostles made it clear that this good deed they had done was accomplished through the power of the risen Christ, the Christ they had rejected and crucified, but whom God had raised from the dead. Seeing the healed man before them, they could not deny that a great miracle had taken place. All they could do was to threaten the two and command them not to teach or minister in the name of Jesus any longer, an instruction which Peter and John made it clear they could not obey, for in so doing they would fail to be witness of that which they had seen and heard.

On their return to the fellowship of believers, Peter and John shared what had been said and done. The response of the saints, as described in Acts 4:24-30, is most relevant to our text in Acts chapter 5. The saints praised God for His sovereignty. He was the Creator of heaven and earth. He was in charge of that which He made. And they then praised Him from the words of Psalm 2, which spoke of the futility of the efforts of world powers to resist God and His purposes. They then prayed for boldness in their witness and for God’s confirming testimony by signs and wonders through the apostles. The answer to those prayers begins in Acts 4:31, but it is increasingly evident in our text.

I would like in this lesson to approach the account as though we were seeing a movie. There will be several scenes. The first scene will be in the temple area, at the so-called “portico of Solomon,” where the saints met daily, and where multitudes of unbelievers gathered in the hope of a healing. The second scene is in the Council, the meeting of the Sanhedrin. We will be there as the Council convenes, and as they call for the prisoners to be brought forth, only to learn they have escaped. We will then stand by as the apostles are escorted into the Council from the temple area, where they have been preaching. We will hear their accusations and threats and the response of the apostles. We will be present when the courtroom is cleared, and the Council hears the recommendation of Gamaliel. We will witness the threats of the Council and the beating of the apostles. And, in the third scene, we shall see the apostles leaving the Council joyfully, grateful to be found worthy to suffer for the name of Christ.

Scene One:
Solomon’s Portico

12 And at the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico.68 13 But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. 14 And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number; 15 to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets, and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. 16 And also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits; and they were all being healed. 17 But the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy;69 18 and they laid hands on the apostles, and put them in a public jail.

Let us look at this first scene at the temple as though it were a movie (as I call it, a “mental movie,” one which we play in our heads as we read the text). We first of all “zoom in” on the large crowd gathered at Solomon’s portico, or porch. This crowd, as I see it, is made up almost entirely of Christians. They have come to a greater appreciation of the holiness of God due to the deaths of two saints, but they do not fear gathering together in the name of Jesus. They come together for a variety of purposes, including prayer and worship and teaching (by the apostles). These are very happy faces, faces which reflect the grace of God and cleansed consciences, through faith in the shed blood of Jesus, the Nazarene, the promised Messiah, whom Israel rejected and put to death but whom God raised from the dead.

As the camera angle begins to widen, we see another crowd gathered. This crowd is composed of those who are not believers, who are reticent to join the Christians in their worship, prayers, or teaching, but who do want to be healed of their infirmities. They would find it difficult to press through the crowds to get to the apostles anyway, but they know, from reports and experience, that the apostles must come to the temple area and depart from it each day. They also hear reports which indicate that one does not even have to ask to be healed, but only to be in close proximity to the apostles. Stories abound of those who have been healed only by falling in the shadow of Peter (5:15). And so, knowing the ingenuity of man, people begin to employ clever means of coming into contact with the apostles and thus receiving divine healing.

I can imagine that all of the routes which Peter and the others took to the temple were known and even any predictable patterns in their goings and comings, which would give an ailing person an edge. People were placed at all of the likely places, where the apostles were likely to pass by. It seems that where the shadow of Peter and the others would fall would be taken into consideration, so that one would change sides of the street as the position of the sun changed. And, amazingly, the efforts of all who were so diligent were rewarded. Luke seems to indicate that all such people who encountered the apostles were healed. This phenomenon was not merely a local one. Word got out, so that people from surrounding towns and villages began to congregate in Jerusalem.

We have focused on three groups of people thus far. First, the apostles, through whom signs and wonders were being performed. Second, the Christians, who congregated at Solomon’s portico. And third, the multitudes who came for healing. But there was yet another group, a group not nearly so enthusiastic about all of the miracles that were taking place—the chief priests and their party, who were all members of the Sadducee party (5:17). They would not have dignified the apostles by being seen in the crowd, but they surely had their spies, watching closely for an infraction of the rules. Finally, the whole situation became untenable for these opponents of the apostles.

If our camera were to catch the facial expressions of the priestly party, we would see, as Luke informs us, that their underlying motivation was jealousy. This, of course, is nothing new. It was out of jealousy that the chief priests delivered up Jesus to be crucified (Mark 15:10). Why should it be any different with His apostles? These priests saw that their power and position were under siege. They had sought to scare the apostles into backing off, but it wasn’t working. Thus, they sent a party to arrest the apostles and to put them in jail. The success (or should we say, the authority) of the apostles, as depicted in verses 12-16 was the cause of the stepped-up opposition of the chief priests.

Scene Two:
The Trial Before the Council

17 But the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy; 18 and they laid hands on the apostles, and put them in a public jail. 19 But an angel of the Lord during the night opened the gates of the prison, and taking them out he said, 20 “Go your way, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life.” 21 And upon hearing this, they entered into the temple about daybreak, and began to teach. Now when the high priest and his associates had come, they called the Council together, even all the Senate of the sons of Israel, and sent orders to the prison house for them to be brought. 22 But the officers who came did not find them in the prison; and they returned, and reported back, 23 saying, “We found the prison house locked quite securely and the guards standing at the doors; but when we had opened up, we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them as to what would come of this. 25 But someone came and reported to them, “Behold, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” 26 Then the captain went along with the officers and proceeded to bring them back without violence (for they were afraid of the people, lest they should be stoned).

27 And when they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered and said, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 31 “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”70

33 But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and were intending to slay them. 34 But a certain Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time.71 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. 36 “For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody; and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. And he was slain; and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 “After this man Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away some people after him, he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. 38 “And so in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.” 40 And they took his advice, and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, and then released them.

The growing numbers of those who joined the apostles in trusting in Jesus as the Messiah, along with the preaching and popularity of the apostles, further aggravated by the crowds who gathered to be healed in the name of Jesus, was simply too much for the Sadducean priests to bear. They arrested the apostles, intending to bring them to trial before the Sanhedrin the following day. They would have no problem here, they were certain, for they had already arrested Peter and John and detained them overnight, without incident.

This brings us to our second scene, which took place in the courtroom of the council. Secret planning sessions must have been held so that the proceedings of the next day, in the courtroom, were already carefully orchestrated. I have the impression that those meetings may have included only the high priests of the Sadducean persuasion. These men must have assumed that the Pharisees on the Council would follow their lead. Very likely, the plan was to intimidate the apostles by letting them spend the night in jail. That would soften them up. And then, on the following day, they would be brought before the highest authority of the Jews—the Sanhedrin, where they would be duly impressed with this august group of men. The apostles would be reprimanded, and if they promised not to preach again in the name of Jesus, they would be released, after a good beating. And if they refused .… Well, then they would simply have to get tough with them. They had faced this situation before. They knew what to do.

There were some surprises in store for these men, however. The members of the Sanhedrin probably entered the courtroom with all of the pomp and circumstance to which they were accustomed and which they enjoyed.72 With all deliberate dignity, they entered the courtroom. They took their seats. And with a note of authority, they called for the prisoners to be brought in. The seriousness of the situation was sure to be grasped by this unrefined group of Galileans.

But something had happened of which none of the Council (let alone the guards) were aware. During the night, God had “released” the apostles whom the priests had placed in prison. An “angel of the Lord” had let them go in the night, yet without the guards having any knowledge of it. The specifics of this escape are not given, but it could well have been similar to the more detailed account of Peter’s release in Acts 12. In both cases, the prisoners were released by the angel opening the doors of the prison, but the guards were somehow prevented from seeing it happen.73 Until the doors of the apostles’ cell(s) were opened, no one had a clue that they were no longer in confinement in the prison.

The angel did more than release the apostles. He gave them a specific commission. They were released, not so much for their own safety (for they were yet to stand before the Sanhedrin the next morning), but in order to continue to proclaim the gospel.74 They were not to “tone down” their preaching as a result of their arrest and imprisonment. They were to return to the temple, not to some place less visible and less dangerous. And they were to proclaim the “whole message of this Life” (5:20). In other words, they were to keep on doing precisely what they had been doing. They were not to be intimidated by the persecution of the Jewish religious leaders.

Meanwhile, “back at the ranch,” the high priest and the other dignitaries of the Sanhedrin were waiting in the courtroom for the appearance of the prisoners. They hoped for a frightened group of men who had lost all of their courage over the course of that night in the prison. The scene must have been a bit like that in the “Sound of Music,” when the Von Trapp family disappeared from the music hall, and the Nazi soldiers came running in to announce that they were gone.75 How “red faced” the guards must have been. And how puzzled the Council members would have been to hear them affirm that the cell doors were securely locked and that no one had passed them in the night. How could this be? And even more of concern, to what would this lead? Where was this all going? There seemed to be no end.

It is a little difficult to have a trial when the prisoners are missing. There must have been some very uncomfortable moments of silence in that courtroom, with all of these dignitaries shaken by this turn of events. They were not in control, as they so much wanted to convey to the apostles. The apostles were not even present to try to intimidate. Into that courtroom, stunned by these events, came those who reported that the apostles were back in the temple, doing exactly what they had been arrested for doing the previous day.

Very carefully, the temple guards were dispatched to the temple, where they politely and with a cautious eye on the crowd, escorted the apostles to the courtroom where they would be tried. Do you suppose that someone asked them, “How did you guys get away, anyhow?” “Oh, God sent an angel,” the response might have been. How difficult it would have been for the Council members to regain their composure, enough to sound in control and as a force to be taken seriously. It was like the “defendant” had just given the judge a hotfoot, or set his jurors’ robe on fire, watching him run from the courtroom in flames.

Gathering together all of the severity he could muster, and probably revealing a great deal of frustration and anger, the high priest began to badger the apostles. The offenses which he detailed were all “personal.” That is, the charges were not concerning violations of the Law of Moses or of the traditions of the Jews, but rather of disregarding the orders of the Council, and, even worse, of charging them with the murder of Messiah. They had commanded the apostles no longer to teach in the name of Jesus,76 yet they had filled all of Jerusalem with the same teaching as before. And they further sought to place the responsibility of Jesus’ death squarely on the shoulders of the Sanhedrin. The apostles have disregarded the warnings and instructions of this duly-authorized body and have even accused them of wrong-doing. This was too much.

Peter’s response was brief, to the point, and polite (5:29-31). They had done exactly as they had said previously (4:19-20). They must obey God above men. They had disobeyed the Sanhedrin in obedience to the Lord Jesus, the Messiah. They were obeying the One whom the Sanhedrin had put on the cross and the One whom God had raised from the dead. Their choice of obeying Jesus above the Sanhedrin was based on the facts. Jesus was the key to all of Israel’s hopes. It was He alone who could forgive Israel and grant repentance and the forgiveness of their sins. Their ministry was testimony to this, and to their witness was added the witness of the Holy Spirit, through whom the signs and wonders were accomplished. The Holy Spirit was given, not to the priests or to the members of the Sanhedrin, but to those who obeyed God (5:32).

The response of the priests and others in that courtroom was highly volatile. They were, as Luke tells us, “cut to the quick,” the same expression used only one other time, in chapter 7, to describe the reaction of those who heard the indictment of Stephen (Acts 7:54). This response is quite different from the conviction of sin which led to the conversion of thousands at the first sermon preached by Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:37). Here it was an exposure of sin which so angered some members of the Sanhedrin that they could not even see straight. They wanted blood, and they wanted it quickly. These leaders, the highest Jewish authorities in the land, were totally out of control. They lacked impartiality and clarity of thought. It was they who were indicted, not the apostles. How incredible that these leaders had literally lost their grip. They cared little for the law or for “due process”; they only wanted to see these men dead. This was no “cool and calm” decision. It was one made in the heat of the moment. If these jurors were, at the outset of this trial, disarmed by the supernatural release of the apostles from prison, they were now completely rattled by the role reversal taking place before their own eyes. It was not the apostles who were on trial, but the court itself. God, through His apostles had passed judgment on the very court which had condemned Him to die. They were the criminals, not the apostles, whom they had momentarily placed under arrest.

The apostles had not spoken in their own defense, but there was one present who would—Gamaliel. This man was apparently a well-known and highly-regarded teacher, who was a member of the Pharisee party. He was also the teacher of none other than Saul, later to be saved and known as Paul (Acts 22:3). We are not told what his motives were, but only the substance of his message. With a skill and coolness that could only be contrasted with the “hot-headedness of the Sadducees,” Gamaliel first had the courtroom cleared. He did not want the apostles hearing what he had to say. We do not know the source of the report which Luke gives us here, but we do know the substance of it. These are most interesting and unexpected words, from a source that would have seemed most unlikely.

After they had been put out of the room temporarily, Gamaliel pled with his fellow Council members to calm down, to get their wits about them, and to come to a more reasoned decision. Though he was a teacher of the Law, his argument was not really theological nor did he appeal to the Scriptures. He appealed to history instead. His premise was an interesting one:

Movements founded by men die with them, but those founded by God live on, beyond the death of their leader.

From the relatively recent past, Gamaliel drew upon the demise of two movements that momentarily found a following from among the Jews.77 In each case, the men died. In neither case do we get the impression they died naturally. But in both cases, after the death of these men, their movements died along with them. The followers of these men were scattered. The groups the founders brought together lacked the cohesiveness to continue. The movements disappeared, in time.

Gamaliel appealed to the Council to give this movement which Jesus founded a little time also. If this movement was like the others, it would pass away—it would collapse under its own weight. The more the movement was attacked, the longer the process might take. Why make martyrs of the followers of Jesus? They were already regarded as heroes by the people. To put them to death now would be unwise. If only men were behind this new movement, it would bring on its own demise.

There was another option, however. It was one that Gamaliel, as a Pharisee, was more willing to grant than were his Sadducean colleagues. There was the possibility that God was behind this movement. From a pharisaical point of view, Messiah would come to the earth, and men could rise from the dead. This movement had some of the earmarks of one that had a divine origin. If it was of God, there was nothing they could do to stop it.

In either case—if it were a movement of men, or if it were of God—it would be better for the Sanhedrin to take a “wait and see” stance, rather than to act precipitously. They would not need to oppose a man-made movement, and they would certainly not want to be found opposing a divinely-ordained movement. So let them back off, cool down, and see what would come of it all.

It is, I think, an amazing thing that Gamaliel would even entertain the possibility that the apostles were a divinely-ordained and divinely-empowered group. This was something which no self-respecting Sadducee would ever consider. It was, however, evident that many Pharisees were not so sure, any more, that this Jesus was a fraud, as they had once thought.

Gamaliel was a man who acted like a member of the highest court in the land should act. He seems to manifest a clear head, a measure of impartiality, and good, sound, judgment. Yet, in spite of his objectivity and his good advice,78 there is no evidence that Gamaliel took the gospel or this movement seriously enough. If the Sadducees were, so to speak, “atheists” with respect to the gospel preached and practiced by the apostles, Gamaliel was an “agnostic.” It may be better to be an agnostic than an atheist, but neither will get to heaven. How sad it is that Gamaliel was willing to consider the hypothetical possibility that God was behind the church, but not willing to take the evidence seriously enough. Many are those who, like Gamaliel, may be willing to grant that God may be speaking through men, but who are not ready to accept and act on the message. Gamaliel is a man who is, on the one hand, a hero here, and yet he is a tragic hero, for he has not repented of his sin and trusted in the Savior.

The Council took the advice of Gamaliel. I am not convinced that it was entirely due to the wisdom of his advice, however. The Sadducees were hopping mad. They wanted to kill the apostles. I doubt that Gamaliel’s words really changed anything, other than the immediate action the Council would take. The Sadducees were both pragmatists and politicians. It may be that they were not convinced at all by this man, who was their opponent, philosophically speaking. They may only have recognized that he spoke for the rest of the Pharisees and that there was no way they could, as a Council, come to a unanimous verdict to execute the twelve. They did take his advice, not to act as they wished, but they may not have agreed with his reasons.

The intensity of their anger and evil intentions can be seen by what they did do to the twelve. On the one hand we are told they took the advice of Gamaliel, yet we are further told that they beat the twelve79 before releasing them. Imagine what they intended to do, if this was “letting the twelve off the hook easily.” They were still trying to impress the twelve with their authority and with what they could do if their instructions were not followed. Once again, the apostles were commanded to stop preaching in the name of Jesus.

Scene Three:
Back to the Temple

41 So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

Without interruption or modification, the apostles went to the temple day after day, proclaiming the gospel in the courts of the temple and from house to house. This was, we should note, the first instance of physical suffering for the name of Christ, and the apostles were able to rejoice in their sufferings because it was for the name of Christ and for the sake of the gospel. It was the beginning of a course of action that would continue throughout the history of the church. The disciples were, for the first time, able to rejoice in response to suffering and persecution, just as Jesus had taught them:

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Mark 5:11-12).


The thrust of our text can best be seen from the vantage point of its context. It is, in the first place, a dramatic illustration of God’s faithfulness in answering the prayers of the saints, as recorded in Acts 4:29-30:

“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bond-servants may speak Thy word with all confidence, while Thou dost extend Thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Thy holy servant Jesus.”

The church has been bold in its witness. They have all continued to gather in the temple precincts, at the portico of Solomon. Many more have come to faith. And, through the hands of the apostles, the Holy Spirit accomplished many signs and wonders, confirming their message. The manifestation of God’s power through men was at an all-time high.

In addition, the things for which the saints praised God in Acts 4:24-28 are also dramatically illustrated in our text:

And when they had been released, they went to their own companions, and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is Thou who DIDST MAKE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Thy servant, didst say,


For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:24-28).

In their prayer, the church understood that God was sovereign, both in the suffering of Jesus and in their own persecution. Seeing in the wording of Psalm 2 a biblical and poetic expression of the futility of man’s efforts to thwart the plans and purposes of God, they referred to this psalm in their prayer of praise. In particular, they realized that even when nations conspire to resist God’s plans and purposes, it is futile.

The conspiracy of the Sanhedrin was equally futile, as our text in Acts chapter 5 makes very clear. The chief priests arrest the apostles, and an angel of God releases them. They forbid the apostles from preaching and ministering in the name of Jesus, and yet, by their own admission, the apostles have filled Jerusalem with their teaching. The Sanhedrin attempts to find the apostles guilty of some offense, so that they can punish them, and yet it is they themselves who are indicted by the apostles.

It is at this point that the account of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, at the beginning of Acts chapter 5, begins to come into focus. The Sanhedrin (at least the Sadducees who were a part of the Sanhedrin) strongly desired to put the apostles to death, and yet they were unable to do so. On the other hand, the apostle Peter, without even trying to do so, rebuked Ananias, and God disciplined him, causing him to die at Peter’s feet. The Sanhedrin is powerless, and yet Peter and the other apostles are used as God’s instruments to heal men and women, even if it is by their shadow falling upon the ailing, so that they are made whole. The Sanhedrin is working hard to regain control, and the apostles are not trying to take charge, but God is working mightily in and through them.

I believe this chapter is a vivid illustration of that which Jesus had warned the Jewish leaders in Matthew chapter 21. In their rejection of God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus, the leaders of the nation were rejecting God and His authority. Because of this, as Jesus had warned, God was going to reject the nation and was going to replace them with another people, the Gentiles. God was going to reject Israel’s leaders as well, removing them and putting others in charge. If Acts chapter 5 teaches us anything, it is that the leaders of Israel are no longer in charge. They are powerless to stop or resist the apostles, who have been given authority by the risen Messiah, the One the leaders rejected and put to death. They may still retain their position for a short time, but they have already lost their power. The apostles may not have the position or standing of the Sanhedrin, but they have the power and the authority.

This text has a great deal of relevance and application to us. Christians seem to have become secularized in their thinking, supposing that one must have position, or human power, or clout, in order to have authority. The first thing we must say is that it is not our authority that matters; it is Christ’s authority that counts. As we obey Him and faithfully proclaim the gospel with boldness, His Spirit bears witness to that message. His authority is bound up with the message, with the gospel, which Paul says, is the “power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16).

Christians seem to think they need to “get the power” before they can proclaim the message, but it is in proclaiming the message that the power of God is released. It is true that the power of God through the message and through the apostles was unusually great in these days. It is also evident that later on in the New Testament, the results of preaching the gospel are not as dramatic (cf. Acts 17), but that is because the degree to which His power is evident and manifested is determined by the sovereign will of God, and not by men. It is not our faithfulness which regulates God’s power; it is God’s sovereignty which regulates that. God does not need faithful servants to do great things, as the salvation of the Ninevites by the foot-dragging, rebellious, Jonah aptly illustrates. God’s power is in the message itself. If we proclaim that message, He will, according to His sovereign plan and purpose, use it. And if we refuse to proclaim it, He will arrange for the “rocks to cry out.” Let us faithfully proclaim the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation.

Our text has a great deal to say about persecution. Persecution is often the result of the proclamation of the gospel. Not only may men repent and be saved, but others will likely be angered, react, and resist. That is a part of the price of proclaiming the gospel. But the apostles did not think of their suffering so much as a “price to pay,” but as a privilege. In suffering for the sake of the gospel, the apostles found the privilege of a deeper identification with the One whose suffering had brought salvation to them. To suffer for His name is a privilege. Let us view it this way as well.

I see in our text, and in the on-going proclamation of the gospel to the people of Jerusalem, an illustration of the long-suffering and the grace of God. How patient God was to persist in proclaiming to His people, the Jews, their own sin, and the salvation which He had made possible through the Messiah. It was roughly forty years from the time Jesus was put to death to the time that Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans. During much of that period of time, the gospel was proclaimed. No one who lived in Jerusalem could say that they had never heard the gospel.

Are we not like the Jerusalemites in this regard? Many people in our country have never heard the gospel, but most have heard, or have had the opportunity to hear. And many who will spend eternity in Hell, apart from the Savior, will have heard the gospel many, many times. I pray that you will not be one of those hard-hearted people, like the chief priests, who refused to listen. I pray as well that you will not be open-minded and tolerant, like Gamaliel, but never coming to a personal repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior. I pray that you, like so many in the days of the apostles, will acknowledge your sin and turn to the Savior for life eternal.

68 Solomon’s portico is the same place mentioned in 3:11, where the people gathered in response to the healing of the lame man, where Peter preached, and where he and John were arrested.

69 Cf. Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10; Acts 7:9; 13:45; 17:5.

70 This statement greatly aggravated the chief priests in particular. They listened very carefully to what Peter and the apostles said in reply. When Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men,” the inference was clear that to obey the orders of the Sanhedrin (not to preach) was to disobey God. They had gotten accustomed to giving orders to men as though God was speaking through them, but Peter’s words shocked them into reality. Their orders were not from God, but from mere men. Peter’s final words, which referred to the witness of the Holy Spirit through the signs and wonders God accomplished through them, was another painful point. Their power (which they had been challenged about by this group) came from the Holy Spirit, who was given to those who obey God. Thus, if the apostles had the Holy Spirit, then they were obeying God and the Sanhedrin (who lacked power) was acting in disobedience to God. This Council, intent on indicting the apostles, was instead indicted by them. They were the guilty ones. No wonder they were so angry.

71 The apostles (at least Peter and John) were getting used to “leaving the room” (cf. Acts 4:15). I can almost hear Peter saying to his fellow-apostles (fictionally speaking, of course), “You might as well bring a sack lunch. We’ll eat it when they send us out of the room--which they always do.”

72 I like this proverb, which seems apt: “There are three things which are stately in their march, Even four which are stately when they walk: The lion which is mighty among beasts And does not retreat before any, The strutting cock, the male goat also, And a king when his army is with him” (Proverbs 30:29-31).

73 This scene must have been humorous as well. Prison doors never open and close quietly. Metal against metal is the cause of much noise. There is the clang of doors shutting and of locks being secured. There is also the squeaking of rusty hinges. If this were the first experience of the apostles inside a prison and if they walked past the guards, somehow miraculously asleep or unaware of their departure, the noise of doors opening and closing must have been distressing. Can’t you see Peter whispering to John, “I wish I had brought my can of WD-40?”

74 Paul spoke of his “deliverance” from prison in Philippians 1:19-26, and when he did it was not of deliverance from suffering, but deliverance for the purpose of service. So it should be for us as well.

75 If I were casting this scene, I would have chosen Don Knotts to be the soldier to announce the disappearance of the prisoners during the night. His big bugging eyes and frazzled look would have been perfect.

76 Notice that they do not use the name “Jesus,” but instead they refer to Jesus indirectly, speaking of “this name.”

77 There is a considerable amount of discussion in the commentaries about these two men. Some say that Luke has his facts confused, based upon statements by Josephus or others. The fact is we do not know that the two men Gamaliel referred to are men whose movements are a matter of historical record, or, if they are, that the record is accurate. Luke has shown himself to be a meticulous historian. There is no reason to doubt that from the text, and, based upon the inspiration of this author and his work, there is every reason to believe him to be completely accurate here and elsewhere.

78 His advice is “good” from the standpoint of preserving the life of the apostles so that the gospel could continue to be proclaimed by them in Jerusalem. I am not sure that his premise is correct, however. Many movements, such as communism, have survived for a long time after the death of the founder. Indeed, a number of movements have grown greatly after their deaths. And so I am not so sure that his premise was correct, even though his advice may have been, in this instance.

79 Notice how little emphasis is placed on this flogging. It was undoubtedly a serious beating, and the pain and injuries sustained would have been substantial. No “slap on the wrist” would have been sufficient for the Sadducees here. And yet, as bad as their beating was, very little emphasis is put on it. That is because it was a privilege to the apostles, not a “cross to bear.” How much we make of pain today, and how little we make of the privilege of suffering for the sake of His name.

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10. Waiting on the Widows (Acts 6:1-7)


We have all had the opportunity recently to watch a problem handled very badly. From one perspective, the problem was a serious one—the Dallas Cowboys were in a slump. Team morale seemed to be at an all-time low. The morale of the fans was no better. Ticket sales and attendance at the games were equally as bad. Team management and coaching were being questioned. The team was up for sale. And then a buyer from another state came along. He came with quick, guaranteed solutions, or so he assured us in a hastily-called press conference. The team’s only coach was summarily and unceremoniously sacked, and another coach was already waiting in the wings. This coach, we were assured, was better than five first-round draft choices. Many Cowboy fans were not so sure. And when the new coach arrived, he spent much of his time apologizing for the man who hired him.

There were many things the press and fans did not like. The buyer was a newcomer to football ownership. He was also a foreigner to Texans. And he was making all the decisions. He tried to put our minds at ease by telling us he would continue to exercise “hands-on leadership,” seemingly not being left out of any decision, even the calling of plays (we feared). While the new coach was born in Texas, he was new to the Cowboys. In time, we who are fans will cool down, but it appears, at this time, that all the wrong moves were made.

This man’s method of solving the “Dallas Cowboys’ problem” serves as an instructive backdrop for our text in which the apostles’ method of solving an even more serious problem arose in the church. On the surface, it appeared to be a simple problem involving some of the widows in the church. But because these widows were all a part of the same group, it became an occasion for the “Hellenistic Jews” to grumble against those who made up the other dominant group, the “native Hebrews.” The outcome could have been disastrous, but the apostles, supported by the church, brought about a decisive remedy which resulted in even greater growth for the church.

While our text is not a large one, it is a vitally important one. The problem which the Jerusalem church faced was unique, and it will certainly not be one which we face in our church. Nevertheless, the cause of the problem is one we have already experienced. And, we will find, neither is the nature of the problem unique. The problem which arose between the “Hellenistic Jews” and the “native Hebrews” originated because of the growth of the church—and the resulting failure of the church to minister to a particular segment of its congregation. We, as a church, have already experienced similar failures, and we have experienced some legitimate criticism in my opinion. A careful study of this text and an understanding of the principles and process by which this problem was solved could save us a great deal of heartache and division. And the lessons to be learned are not merely those which apply to church leaders, so let us all listen and learn what the Spirit of God is saying to us in this passage.

The Problem

Now at this time while the disciples80 were increasing in number, a complaint81 arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews,82 because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving83 of food.

A Suggested Scenario

It may be difficult at first to understand how a problem such as this could have arisen in the church at Jerusalem. Our text does not tell us how the problem arose, and thus it must not be that vital to understand. Nevertheless, let us consider how such a problem might arise so that we can see how easy it is for things to “fall through the crack,” even in a church which is growing, which is “Spirit-filled,” and in which people love one another.

Suppose you were a devout Jew who had been born in some Gentile nation. You would worship in a synagogue with others of like faith if you lived in a city which had a sizable Jewish population. You could not, however, worship at the temple. You knew that God’s covenants and promises were to be fulfilled in the land of Israel and that the Messiah would sit upon His throne in Jerusalem. Your life’s dream would be to relocate and to live in Israel, to worship in the temple, and to await the kingdom of God.

Years of hard work, sacrifice, and savings had made it possible to go. You and scores of other “Hellenistic Jews,” arrive in the land of promise. Your dream would be to live in the holy city of Jerusalem, so it is there you first go in search of property. Finding a long line at the real estate office, you learn that all of the others who have immigrated to Israel desire to live in or near Jerusalem as well. All the property in and near the holy city is owned by the “native Hebrews,” and they have no desire to sell, regardless of the price. The best you can do is to buy property (or at least a house) somewhere in the suburbs of Jerusalem, a number of miles from the city.84 A visit to the holy city of Jerusalem would thus require a rather substantial “hike.”

If you were a “Hellenistic widow,” things would likely be even worse. The widows who were “overlooked” must not have had any immediate family, and neither did they have any financial resources. One can hardly expect such people to be living in the heart of the city of Jerusalem. They were very likely living in the suburbs, a good distance from the city. The “native Hebrew widows” would have a much better chance of living “close in,” in the holy city itself. After all, they were there first. And even if the price of land greatly increased, the Law would give them some measure of protection against losing their property.85

So the day of Pentecost came, and the church was born. Many of those saved were “Hellenistic Jews,” and the rest were “native Hebrews.” As time went on, more and more were added to the church. The saints immediately began to share their goods with those in need. I understand the texts in Acts to indicate that both “native Hebrews” and “Hellenistic Jews” gave, just as both received charity from their brethren. Eventually, the needs of the widows became so great that some system for feeding the widows came into existence (either by design or by a kind of “evolution”). In any case, Acts 6:1 seems to indicate there was a system in operation intended to provide daily rations for the needy widows.

I would imagine that some central location was secured in the city of Jerusalem, where the daily portions of food were either prepared or brought. Here the widows came for their provisions, either eating them at that place along with other widows, or taking their food home to eat there. Perhaps hundreds of widows were thus provided for in a reasonably efficient way. Who could complain when so many were being helped?

But such a system would favor the “native Hebrew widows,” who lived in or near Jerusalem, while it would not benefit the “Hellenistic widows,” who lived a distance away. If you were an elderly widow, miles removed from Jerusalem, would you attempt a walk of several miles each day for a free meal? I doubt it. And so, I suspect, it began to dawn on the “Hellenistic Jews” that, while many of the “native Hebrew widows” were being cared for (with the help of their funds), their own widows were receiving no help at all. The longer this went on and the more these “Hellenistic Jews” thought of it, the more angry they became. And this led to a growing bitterness on the part of the one group toward the other. The unity and joy which these saints once shared in common, in giving toward the needs of others, began to weaken. Something needed to be done—quickly and decisively.

Again I hasten to remind you that my “scenario” is purely hypothetical, but it does provide an illustration of how the problem in the Jerusalem church could have arisen, without malice or intent on the part of the “native Hebrews” and yet in a way that systematically overlooked the needs of a large group of widows who were “Hellenistic Jews.”

Observations on the Problem in the Jerusalem Church

What I have suggested is a mixture of fact and fiction, a suggestion of how the problem in the church could have come to be. Our text does provide us with a great deal of information that is factual. Let us now turn to those things Luke has told us about the problem which arose in the church so that we can base our interpretation and application on fact and not on fiction. Some of the important facts or inferences which we must keep in mind are:

(1) The Jerusalem church consisted of two major groups: the “native Hebrews” and the “Hellenistic Jews.” The “native Hebrews” were those who were born and raised in the land of Israel. They took great pride in this. As a rule, they would have spoken Aramaic (probably not Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament was written) and perhaps some Greek (as a commercial language). The “Hellenistic Jews” would be those Jews whose ancestors had been dispersed from the land in Israel’s captivities (primarily Babylonian). These Jews were drawn back to Israel by their Jewish faith and their expectation of the coming of Messiah and the establishment of His kingdom, in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises made to the patriarchs, and the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets. They would likely not have spoken Aramaic but would have spoken as their native tongue the language of the nation from which they had come. It is my understanding that both “native Hebrews” and “Hellenistic Jews” were present at Pentecost:

1 And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.

5 Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and marveled, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 “And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? 9 “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” 12 And they continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others were mocking and say, “They are full of sweet wine” (Acts 2:1-13).

It is also my understanding that those identified in chapter 2 as “devout men from every nation” were, by and large, Hellenistic Jews. I would also suspect that those “others” (2:13), who mocked and who concluded that the apostles were drunk, were mainly “native Hebrews,” who did not come from these “foreign lands” and thus did not understand the foreign languages spoken by the apostles, but who heard it only as drunken babbling.

One can very well imagine that while these two groups shared their Jewish lineage and faith in common, as well as the rituals of temple worship, they had many differences which kept them apart. Not sharing the same native tongue, they probably attended different synagogues and had separate teaching services. There was a strong potential for snobbery on the part of the “native Hebrews” and for friction between the two groups.

(2) There is evidence here of a long-standing friction and animosity between these two groups of Jews, the “native Hebrews” and the “Hellenistic Jews.” The discrepancy in the way the widows of these two groups were cared for was, as it were, the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” When relationships between two people or two groups are strained, it does not take much to create an incident.

(3) Initially, however, in its early days the church in Jerusalem was characterized by its unity and oneness in soul and spirit and thus in its generosity to others in need. When Pentecost came and the church was born, it should go without saying that there were men and women converted from both groups. Initially, there was a wonderful spirit of unity and harmony in the church as can be seen from Luke’s repeated references to the “oneness of heart and mind” of all the saints:

And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart (Acts 2:44-46).

And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them (Acts 4:32).

And at the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico (Acts 5:12).

(4) The church in Jerusalem had already organized a program for feeding the needy. This program may have “evolved,” but there had to be some kind of organized program, which Luke referred to as the “daily distribution” (the added explanation, “of food,” is not found in the original text, but the text clearly implies this is the meaning, and thus the translators of the NASB supplied this explanation.) This program was very likely not to be limited to the feeding of widows alone, however. It was probably a program to feed all of the hungry in the church (and perhaps some outside the church).

(5) In spite of the good work this “feeding program” had accomplished, there was one group of people who were not being cared for in the same manner as the other. The Hellenistic widows were, as a group, being neglected. The text does not say that every Hellenistic widow was overlooked, but many of them were—enough so that it appeared to be discriminating against the Hellenistic widows.

(6)The neglect of these Hellenistic widows was apparently not deliberate but merely an oversight. The good news about this oversight or neglect of the Hellenistic widows is that it seems to have been unintentional. Administratively we might say this one group, for one reason or another, “fell through a crack” in the church’s program. The “sin” was not one of commission (a deliberate act), but one of omission (an accidental, unintentional act). There is no indication these widows were purposely neglected. It was a de facto discrimination.

(7) The neglect of the Hellenistic widows seems to have been the result of the rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem. The expression, “while the disciples were increasing in number,” precedes the statement that a complaint arose due to the discrepancy in the care of the two groups of widows. This suggests rather strongly that the growth of the church (and thus the number of widows) was one of the precipitating factors. If the church had not grown so large, the problem may never have occurred. Indeed, the problem did not exist earlier when the church was smaller.

(8) The grumbling of the Hellenistic community is directed against the “native Hebrew” community. The bitterness is not directed toward the other widows nor toward those who may have been in charge (alone), but toward the entire community of “native Hebrews.” This is evidence of a strong “class” feeling, the tip of the iceberg of a long-standing dispute or friction. It has a “cold war” feeling.

(9) We are not told that the widows grumbled but that those in the broader Hellenistic Jewish community grumbled. It is possible, of course, that the grumbling began with the widows, but this is never stated. In my opinion, the widows would not have done so but would have suffered silently. That is the way it usually works with the needy and the powerless. This is why God gave the Israelites (in the Old Testament, e.g. Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 24:19-22) and Christians (in the New Testament, e.g., James 1:27) the responsibility of caring for the widows and the orphans.

(10) We are not told that the “native Hebrew” portion of the church grumbled against the “Hellenistic Jews.” It was a one-way grievance, and understandably so, if the “native Hebrew widows” were being well-cared-for. What would the “native Hebrews” have to complain about?

(11) The grievance of the “Hellenistic Jews” was based on the fact that what they (or their widows) received back was not up to par with what they gave. They seemed to get back less than they gave. This would be especially distressing if their needs were greater than those of the “native Hebrews.” The mindset here is that of a “taxpayer” in America. We hope to get back from the Federal Government in services or benefits at least as much as we paid in. We do not want what we have paid in to go to someone else.

(12) The grumbling of the “Hellenistic Jews” was not unfounded, but neither was it the proper response. The translation of the term, “complaint” (6:1) of the NASB would be better rendered “grumbling.” Every reference to grumbling in the Bible is looked upon as sin.86 While there was an evil, and men should rightly be distressed over its existence, the response of the “Hellenistic Jews” was not a proper one.

(13) It is implied that the widows who are in view, both the “native Hebrews” and the “Hellenistic Jews,” are believing widows, those who are a part of the church. I do not mean to say that the needs of unbelieving widows were ignored, but rather to suggest that the principle concern of the church was to care for its own. This, I believe, has been implied all along (cf. Acts 2:41-47; 4:32, 34-35).87

(14) The apostles promptly and decisively took action, implying that there was basis for the grievance, and that it was a problem the church needed to solve, a matter in which they needed to exercise leadership.

(15) There is an implied assumption that the apostles should personally take care of the problem. The apostles were financially supported in their ministry as 1 Corinthians 9 makes clear. It would not be surprising for the congregation at Jerusalem to look to the “paid staff” to solve the problem since “they had to work for a living.”

(16) The problem which faced the apostles was one that could potentially turn them from doing what they were commanded to do, to preach the gospel. The response of the apostles was to point out the danger which this problem posed. They did not focus on the disunity which resulted but on the distraction which it presented to them in carrying out their primary task.

(17) The apostles gathered all the church together, which therefore included all sides of the issue.

(18) The apostles called for the men of the church to solve the problem. The men were instructed to select seven men. It was women who were neglected. It was a problem which may have aggravated the women more than the men. Did the women of the church take the lead in the grumbling? It would seem that if women could lead in any task, it might be here. The apostles called for men to take the lead and to solve the problem.

(19) This is not the final apostolic word on the care of widows. James chapter 1 speaks strongly of the Christian’s responsibility to care for widows, and 1 Timothy chapter 5 speaks clearly about who should be cared for and by whom.

The Response of the Apostles

2 And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. 3 But select from among you,88 brethren, seven men89 of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,90 whom we may put in charge of91 this task.92 4 “But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.”

The apostles’ response to the problem which had surfaced was, from every indication, a good one. The continued growth of the church, as described in verse 7, is an apparent evidence of the wisdom of the decision which was reached. Let ut pause to consider the response of the apostles, making some observations based on Luke’s report.

Observations Concerning the Response of the Apostles

(1) The apostles led the church. If leadership was ever needed in the church at Jerusalem, it was now. And leadership is precisely what the apostles provided.

(2) The apostles led as a group. In the past Peter has often spoken for the twelve, but not here. I believe Luke wants to emphasize that this was a problem facing the whole church, and it was a problem dealt with by the twelve, together.

(3) The apostles led by involving the whole church in solving the problem. The whole church was called together, appraised of the problem, and given a significant role to play in the solution. The apostles gave clear instructions as to what they required (for example, seven men were to be chosen, and their qualifications were spelled out), but they also appear to have given freedom in other areas (for example, who was to be chosen and how the choice was to be made).

(4) The apostles led with wisdom and skill.

  • They quickly recognized the problem and its seriousness.
  • They accurately appraised the problem.
  • They promptly acted on the problem, to bring about its solution.
  • They had a clear grasp of their own responsibilities and priorities.
  • They wisely delegated, to avoid over-taxing themselves.
  • They clearly communicated their position, their priorities, and the courseof action which was to be taken by the church.

The Basis of the Apostles’ Actions

It is not only important to observe what the apostles did in response to this problem in the church but to discern why they acted as they did. The actions of the apostles were based upon principles, principles which it would be good for us to review.

(1) The care of widows was the responsibility of the church.93

(2) The ministry of the church should not discriminate against any group or individual. If it was right for the church to feed its widows, it was wrong for the church to fail to feed a certain group of widows, even if that failure was not deliberate. De facto discrimination was understood to be wrong and was seen to be in need of correction.

(3) The primary responsibility of the apostles was the ministry of the Word of God and prayer. While the widows were in great need of food and the discrimination against this one group needed to be corrected, the disciples must not be distracted from their principle calling—proclaiming the Word of God and prayer. It is most interesting to observe here that this problem in the church could easily have produced the same result as the threats of the Sanhedrin—the cessation of the preaching of the gospel by the apostles. The apostles would not allow this problem in the church to deter them from their God-given task any more than they would allow the threats of their opponents to do so.

(4) The apostles must choose to “neglect” some things in order to “devote” themselves to others.

(5) The choice as to what the apostles should “devote” themselves to should be based on their priorities, and these priorities should be based upon their God-given task.

(6) That which the apostles chose to personally neglect as their personal ministry, they must see to having done by exercising oversight through administration and delegation.

(7) The task required men of high caliber, spiritual men who possessed practical wisdom.

(8) This was a problem affecting the whole church, and thus the whole church needed to be involved in the solution of the problem.

(9) The apostles had faith in the Holy Spirit to guide and empower men other than themselves.


Before we press on, let us give some thought to the implications of this text and to the actions taken by the apostles and the church.

(1) The greater the size of the church, the more structure is required to facilitate its ministry. Added size requires additional structure. The problem which arose in the church seems to have been a by-product of church growth. As the church got larger, things could not be handled spontaneously or informally. When a church is small, many of its tasks can be handled with little or no structure. But as a church grows, more structure and programming may very well be needed. Church growth thus requires an increase in structure. Church growth consequently requires constant evaluation and change in the way things are done. How often we resist change with the words, “But we’ve always done it that way!” Growth requires change in the way the church goes about its ministry.

(2) The leaders of the church are ultimately responsible for what the church does or does not do. While there is no indication that the apostles94 were directly responsible for the failure in the feeding of the Hellenistic widows, they assumed responsibility and took charge of the matter in order to rectify this wrong. Church leadership is ultimately responsible for what goes on in the church, so long as it is in their power to deal with it.

(3) The leaders of the church are not obliged to personally do all that for which they are responsible. The apostles were “overseers.” Their job was not to do everything in the church which needed to be done. Their actions and their words in our text underscore their conviction that while they were responsible to see that the widows were all fed (fairly and equitably), they were not responsible to do the feeding themselves. The responsibility of church leaders is often administrative—that is, they are responsible to see to it that the tasks of the church are carried out. They are not responsible to do all the ministry in the church. The expectation of many church members—today, as in the days of the apostles—seems to be that the leaders should be doing what needs to be done but is not being done.

(4) Church leaders, like all others, must chose to do some things to the neglect others. The apostles’ words reveal their understanding of the fact that if they were to take on the task of “waiting tables” they would neglect the “ministry of the word.” Reversed, they knew that in order to minister the Word, they must refrain from waiting on tables. How often we feel guilty for that which needs doing but which we do not take upon ourselves to do. Life is such that there are far more things which need doing than we can ever do ourselves. Leadership is seeing to it that the important and vital things we do not do personally will get done. Delegation is required at this point, and administration sees to this delegation.

(5) In order to know what to do and what to avoid, we must have a clear sense of our calling, from which our priorities are the outflow. The apostles were convinced that their primary calling was to proclaim the Word of God, with its related requirement of prayer. Knowing what they were called to do gave the apostles a clear grasp of what they could not do. Our priorities should govern what we do as well as what we abstain from doing, and these priorities flow out of our particular calling and purpose. Just as the apostles would not allow the threats of the Sanhedrin to keep them from proclaiming the gospel, so they would not allow the feeding of the widows to turn them from their task. But they did take administrative measures to see to it that the widows were cared for.

(6) Levels of leadership or ministry are needed in the church to assure that all vital tasks are carried out, without the neglect of tasks of the highest priority. It is my opinion that the apostles were acting with respect to their “job” responsibilities. The apostles were supported financially. Ministry was their job (1 Corinthians 9:1-18), but not just any ministry. Their task was to “proclaim the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14), as later on teaching elders were paid to “work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17-18). If it would have taken an excessive amount of time for twelve men to “wait tables,” one can safely assume that a great deal of time was required of the seven who were put in charge of this task. In my opinion, these men were very likely paid by the church to administrate the feeding of the widows.

While these seven men were not called “deacons,” their function in the church and in relationship to the apostles was very similar. The apostles had certain priorities as apostles, and taking on the care of the widows would have resulted in the neglect of their primary tasks of the ministry of the Word and prayer. These seven deacon-like men were brought into a leadership position to carry out this ministry but in a way that did not burden the apostles.

The same relationship and function exists in our church today with the elders and the deacons of this body. The elders have a general responsibility for the overall health and functioning of the church and of its members. In this sense, they are responsible for all that takes place in the ministry of the church. But in order to focus their attention on their priority ministries (including the ministry of the Word and prayer), they must appoint deacons and others to be put in charge of many of the ministries of the church. The role of the deacons, then, is to exercise oversight in those areas delegated to them by the elders, enabling the elders to focus their attention and efforts on those ministries which are a priority for them. As I presently understand 1 Timothy chapter 5, not all elders would be gifted as teachers and devoting their full time to this ministry, but some of them would. Thus, the function of all the elders in a church might not be identical to the function of the apostles.

In addition to the need for deacons and other leadership personnel, I believe that our text supports, in principle, the need for what is known today as “church staff”—people who are paid to minister in and for the church. I am inclined to believe that these seven men were paid to minister full-time. Assuming this to be true, these men might not only be thought of as “deacons” (or their prototypes), but also as “church staff.” Church staff becomes necessary as the size of a church increases and as the demands upon those who minister the Word increase as well. I think that I am expressing the view of our elders when I say that we, as elders, are willing to add to the “church staff” when the ministries they perform are vital, when the task they will perform requires the full or undivided attention of people, when the task needs to be done during the daytime (as the feeding of the widows would require), when the addition of staff frees up others to minister more effectively, and when the overall ministry of the church is enhanced, rather than usurped.

(7) The ministry of the Word and prayer were not to be the “private priority” of the apostles alone but are to be a priority for every saint. The Word of God and prayer were not simply the priority of the apostles. These were a high priority for the entire church:

And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).

Other texts in Acts could be understood to imply the same (cf. 4:12).

Luke is quick to tell his readers that two of the seven men who were put in charge of the feeding of the widows (so that the apostles could devote95 themselves to the ministry of the Word) were powerful preachers of the Word themselves. Thus, at least two of the seven had preaching the Word as a high priority of their own. Giving attention to the Word of God and to prayer should be a high priority in the life of every saint. The only difference between the saints is that a few are to devote themselves to this as their job, while all others are to devote themselves to it as a high calling, but not as their occupation. The difference is that between one’s avocation and another’s vocation.

What is it that keeps us from the Word of God and prayer? I would wish it were a cause so important and so noble as the feeding of widows. Unfortunately, it often is something far less noble, such as watching television, or indulging in some fleshly pleasure, or perhaps even in the upkeep of our body, as good as that might be (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Such “good” pursuits are worthwhile, until and unless they become a priority in our life which cause us to neglect the Word of God and prayer.

(8) The ministry of the Word and prayer were a priority to the apostles because the proclamation of the gospel was a priority. I mention this here for an important reason. Here, the priority of the advancement of the gospel required the apostles to refrain from working and to devote themselves to the “ministry of the word and prayer.” The priority of the apostles was the advancement of the gospel, not just preaching the gospel. Thus, they ceased working to support themselves so that they could devote themselves to preaching and prayer. The advancement of the gospel was Paul’s priority too, and it required the opposite of him. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul made it clear that while he and Barnabas had the right to be supported as apostles, they declined to do so, working with their own hands, supporting themselves, because this was the best way for the gospel to be advanced (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:15-23). This can be seen from other texts as well (cf. Acts 20:33-35; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-10). How sad it is today that so few think of advancing the gospel by refraining from being supported, while so many wish to be supported to preach the gospel. If the advance of the gospel is our priority, we will determine whether we support ourselves or whether we are supported on the basis of what most adorns and advances the gospel.

(9) The equality and unity which the gospel demands, and the Holy Spirit produces, is not complete until leadership is shared by the various parts of the body of Christ. This inference may not be as clear or as universally accepted, but I believe that it is valid. Before significant evangelization takes place outside Jerusalem, leadership in the church in Jerusalem is expanded to include those who were likely excluded previously. Equality is not really present until it is reflected in leadership.

The Outcome

5 And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.96 6 And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.97 7 And the word of God kept on spreading;98 and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.99

The proposal of the apostles found favor with the entire congregation, and so the church set about its delegated task of selecting the seven men. While there is no indication that the apostles suggested or required that some of these men be Hellenistic Jews, it would appear from their names that they all were Hellenistic Jews, with the exception of Nicolas, who was a proselyte. When these men were brought before the apostles, they prayed and laid their hands on them. I believe this was to indicate that they were acting in the authority of the apostles. The inference is that the problem was solved and that the rift which was threatening the church was healed.

What Luke does tell us is that the church continued to grow. The proximity of this “progress report” to the matter of the feeding of the widows would suggest that growth continued in the church at Jerusalem because the problem was properly handled. If the threats of the Sanhedrin could not deter the apostles from preaching the gospel, neither could the problems in the church. The apostles persisted in preaching, and the Holy Spirit persisted in converting men and women and adding them to the church.

Luke gives us a very interesting detail concerning the added growth of the church. He informs us in verse 7 that “a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” At this point in my understanding of Acts, I am not certain what to make of this statement, although I am convinced it is not an idle word. Luke’s words are always well chosen. It is possible, in the light of the next portion of Acts, that Luke is demonstrating that one era is drawing to a close. Initially the Pharisees adamantly opposed the Lord, but they have been silenced, to some degree, by His resurrection. The Sanhedrin too has aggressively opposed the Lord and His apostles, but they have now backed off, taking the advice of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-40). Finally, many of the priests have actually come to faith in Christ as their Messiah. The religious system of Israel has changed its stance considerably. But now, at a time when the “old guard” has backed off, a new source of opposition is about to emerge—the Hellenistic Jews. The first appearance of these opponents will be in Acts 6:9, where those from the “Synagogue of the Freedman” will oppose Stephen, and will spearhead his stoning. Not only will we find the torch being passed to the Hellenistic Jews (beginning with Stephen and Philip, with Saul close behind) to proclaim the gospel, but the torch will also be passed from the “native Hebrews” to the “Hellenistic Jews” in carrying on the opposition to the gospel.

This brings us to a very significant, and final, observation concerning the outcome of this apostolic action of the feeding of the widows. While the apostles appointed seven men to be in charge of the feeding of the widows so that they could preach, the Spirit of God sovereignly selected and empowered two of these seven to become workers of signs and to be powerful preachers themselves. It should not be overlooked that the action of the apostles was taken so they could continue to preach, but the outcome of their action was that Stephen and Philip became great preachers, whose ministry reached beyond Jerusalem and Judaism. Stephen’s preaching resulted not only in his death, but in the scattering of the church abroad, and the gospel as well (Acts 8:1). It also impacted and involved a Hellenistic Jew named Saul, who was to become God’s instrument to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 8:1; 9:1ff.). And the scattering of the church from Jerusalem also served to launch the ministry of Philip, who proclaimed the gospel in Samaria (Acts 8:4-40).

I love the way the Spirit of God sovereignly works in and through the church. This incident in Acts 6 reminds me of the previous incident in Acts 1, where the apostles acted (again, with the consent of those gathered) to appoint the twelfth apostle. God nowhere condemned this action, but the Book of Acts will reveal that God had other “apostles” to add. This certainly included Paul, but it may also be understood to include Stephen and Philip. All of these men performed “signs and wonders”100 and preached the gospel with great power.

The plans and purposes of God are always greater than our anticipation or understanding of them. Thus, the apostles acted in such a way as to enable them to be able to preach the gospel. In this, I believe, they acted wisely. But God was still free to raise up two of the seven they selected for ministering food to the task of ministering the Word. The apostles did not plan for this. They did not appoint these two to this task. They did not give them the power to work signs and wonders. They did not “disciple” these men, with the hope that they would take over a part of their task—of preaching the gospel. All of this was the sovereign purpose and work of the Holy Spirit. Men could not take credit for Stephen and Philip, or for the expansion of the gospel beyond Jerusalem, as a result of their ministries. The sovereign God was, once again, evident in the expansion of the gospel to Gentiles, as well as to Jews. What a mighty God we serve! Let us, like the apostles, seek to act in a way that is wise and pleasing to God. And let us, like the apostles, look for God to work in ways that we would never have anticipated, asked for, or acted upon.


As we seek to conclude this message, let me simply recap some areas of application, as stated or implied by our text.

First, there is a very literal application of our text in its stress on the need to care for believing widows. We have been talking about the neglect of a certain group of widows from a historic point of view, but let us not think only in terms of the past. I fear that the widows are a group who have always been neglected, and in some cases abused (cf. Matthew 23:14). Is it not possible for widows to be neglected by us, in our church, today?

The danger of widows, or at least a certain group of them, being overlooked by the church today is even greater now than it was then, in my opinion. Let me explain why. There was but one church in Jerusalem, which encompassed all members, regardless of race, culture, class, or economic level. There was but one church in Jerusalem, but in the city of Dallas, for example, there are virtually hundreds of churches, many of which are evangelical. The division of the church into many churches in one city has masked the problem of “overlooked people” even more today than in those days. The saints in Jerusalem saw the discrepancies in the care of the two groups of widows, because both groups were present as a part of the church. Today, the church in the city of Dallas is divided into geographical (North Dallas, Garland, South Dallas, etc.), racial and cultural (black, white, hispanic, Asian, etc.), socio-economic (middle, upper, lower class), and denominational segments, so that the whole church is never assembled in one place at one time (nor could it). The result is that poor black Christian widows in South Dallas may be doing without food, and yet we white Christians in North Dallas may never even see it or become aware of it. It is my personal opinion that the chance of widows being overlooked in our day is much greater than in the days of the first church in Jerusalem. Here is a text which we need to take very literally, to begin with, and very seriously in its implications.

Beyond our responsibility to feed the widows, let’s assume that there are well-fed believing widows in rest and retirement homes. They are not probably not mobile enough to find their own way to church. They will miss out on worshipping together with us, on worship and communion. And all too often, just as they cannot come to us, we do not go to them. I dare say that we are guilty of neglecting some of the widows today, and we may not even have gotten as far as to recognize it. We may not even have a group of people in our congregation who are, like the Hellenistic Jews, upset about it.

And if we let our concern for widows be expanded to the widows in our city, let us not restrict our vision or compassion to those within our own borders. Some of the greatest needs are those which are to be found in the Third World. In the developing argument of the Book of Acts, the vision of the church for the poor will become evident in Acts 11. We must, therefore, have a concern and a compassion for all widows, especially believing widows, wherever they might live.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this text in Acts as it relates to its context and to the developing argument of the book as a whole. There is a very obvious transition taking place in chapter 6, a transition from Jerusalem to Samaria, and from “native Hebrews” to “Hellenistic Jews.” The torch of leadership is in the process of being passed. Leadership in the proclamation of the gospel is being passed from the twelve apostles (who will remain in Jerusalem, Acts 8:1), to all the rest, and especially the Hellenistic believers (such as Stephen and Philip, and later, Paul), who will be scattered abroad, preaching the gospel to “Hellenistic Jews” and also to Gentiles (cf. Acts 8:1-4; 8:5-25; 11:19-21). The torch is leadership is also being passed from the religious leaders in Jerusalem to the “Hellenistic Jews.” The stoning of Stephen is initiated by “Hellenistic Jews” from the “Synagogue of the Freedmen.” Others, like Paul, who take up the torch of opposition, are Hellenistic Jews. Thus, we find we are at a point of transition in Acts. We are on our way from Jerusalem to Rome and from the evangelization of the Jews (primarily) to Gentiles (primarily).

Another prominent theme to which this text in Acts contributes is that of the “progress of the gospel.” If the opposition of the Jewish leaders could not keep the apostles from preaching and ministering in the name of Jesus, neither could the problems within the church and the expectation that they personally solve them. The problem of the neglect of some widows, which was the result of the growth of the church, was also the cause of greater growth, by the way in which the church dealt with it. The gospel marches on, in spite of opposition and difficulty, indeed, because of it.

There are many other applications of this text to our lives which are apparent by implication, based upon the principles taught or assumed in our text. We learn from this text that as a church grows, its problems increase, and its structure must change. While the leaders of the church are responsible for seeing to it that problems are handled in a godly way, they are not responsible to personally solve them. Elders (like apostles) must see to it that many problems are handed by dealing with them administratively—by defining the problem, determining biblical principles and priorities, and communicating guidelines and standards for its correction. The elders must see their priority as that of the “ministry of the word and prayer.” Leaders, like deacons, are God’s means for freeing up the elders to focus on their principle tasks.

One of the greatest lessons in this text, in addition to others in Acts, is that of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Men have been given certain tasks and responsibilities by our Lord, who is the head of the church. He has given us His Spirit, who will enable us to perform these tasks. If we fail, it is not because He has failed to provide all that we need. If we fail, His work will go on and His purposes will be accomplished, for He can achieve His purposes through man’s disobedience and failure as easily as through his “successes.” And if we appear to succeed, and to carry out His will, God is not limited to our victories, any more than He is hindered by our failures. When the apostles chose Matthias as the last apostle, God had other apostles (like Paul) in mind, which He added in His way and in His time. When the apostles appointed these seven men to administrate the feeding of widows (and perhaps others), so that they could preach the gospel, God was free and able to take two of these seven and make great preachers of them. God works, in spite of our failures and successes, as well as by means of them.

We are obliged and responsible to undertake every task as unto Him, to do our task according to His principles and His power. If we fail, we will be accountable to Him for our failure, though His work will go on. And if we appear to succeed, it will have been by His grace. It will have been His work. It should be viewed as for the sake of His glory and praise. And even though we should appear to have handled the matter in the best possible way (as the problem of the widows was handled in our text), God may accomplish much more than we would ever have expected and in ways we would never have predicted nor planned. Man is responsible, but the sovereignty of God assures us that His purposes and plans will be achieved, in spite of us, through us, and by means of others than ourselves. What a God we serve!

80 “The name disciples occurs here for the first time in Acts. The Greek mathetes literally means ‘learner’ (from the second aorist stem math of manthano, ‘learn’). It is the most common designation in the Gospels for the followers of Jesus, occurring 74 times in Matthew, 45 in Mark, 38 in Luke, and 81 in John. Outside the Gospels it is found only in Acts, where it appears 28 times, making a total of 266 times in the New Testament. It is always translated ‘disciples.’ It is ‘perhaps the most characteristic name for the Christians in Acts.’ Other names in Acts are ‘the saved’ (2:47), ‘saints’ (9:13, 32, 41; 26:10), ‘brethren’ (e.g., 1:15), ‘believers’ (10:45), ‘Nazarenes’ (24:5).” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 85.

81 There is considerable discussion in the commentaries over the precise makeup of each of these groups. The description which is given above is an attempt to focus on the main features of the groups, and to show how friction could easily arise between the two.

82 The term used for “Hebrews” is found only here and 2 Corinthians 11:22 and Philippians 3:5. In each case, at least the last two, there is an aura of superiority attached or implied. The bitterness and grumbling against the “native Hebrews” would have included, as a matter of course, the apostles. Notice that they did not react negatively or defensively to this, as they could have done.

“The terms Hebrews and Hellenists (9:29; 11:20 mg.) are obviously to be defined as contrasts. After much discussion there is a growing consensus that the Hebrews were Jews who spoke a Semitic language but also knew some Greek. It can be safely assumed that nearly every Jew knew at least a little Greek, since it was the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean world. The Semitic language which they spoke was probably Aramaic rather than Hebrew itself. But contrast, the Hellenists were Jews who spoke Greek and knew little or no Aramaic. These groups would tend to worship as Jews in their own languages, and this practice would carry over when they became Christians. The former group would be principally of Palestinian origin, while the latter would be principally Jews of the Dispersion who had come to settle in Jerusalem. The latter group were more open to syncretistic influences than the former, but it should be emphasized that they had a strong sense of their Jewishness; Hellenistic Jews were strongly attached to the temple. The complaint which the Hellenists made concerned the lack of attention to their widows in the provision made by the church for the poor; it has been noted that many widows came from the Dispersion to end their days in Jerusalem. They would not be able to work to keep themselves, and, if they had exhausted or given away their capital, they could be in real want.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), pp. 125-126.

“The Grecians were Hellenists, or Jews who had imbibed the Greek culture, including language, of the countries in which they were born in the dispersion. They were considered inferior by the Hebrews, or Palestinian Jews, who were in a majority in the church.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), pp. 86-87

83 The “daily distribution of food” was not necessarily restricted to widows.

84 This does not seem to be altogether hypothetical. Not only does this seem to fit the facts as we perceive them, but to fit in with the inferences of Scripture. For example, Simon of Cyrene (a Hellenistic Jew?), on whom the cross of our Lord was placed, was said to be “coming in from the country” (Luke 23:26). Did he, like many others, find that he was forced to live some distance from Jerusalem, and to make a trek to this city? So, also, we find the two “disciples” to whom our Lord appeared, on their way to a village, named Emmaus, about seven miles distant from Jerusalem (Luke 24:13). I suspect that many who wanted to live as close as possible to Jerusalem found it necessary to live a number of miles distant.

85 It is this fact which makes the indictment of our Lord against the scribes and Pharisees even more forceful, for they were taking advantage of these widows, and gaining possession of their houses, while they were duty bound to protect them (cf. Matthew 23:14).

86 The references to grumbling in the NIV are: Exodus 15:24; 16:2, 7-9, 12; 17:3; Numbers 14:2, 27, 29, 36; 16:11, 41; 17:5, 10; Deuteronomy 1:27; Joshua 9:18; Psalm 106:25; Matthew 20:11; John 6:41, 43, 61; 1 Corinthians 10:10; James 5:9; 1 Peter 4:9; Jude 1:16.

87 The priority of meeting the needs of believers is stated in Galatians 6:10, in a general way. In 1 Timothy 5:3-16 the widows who were to be permanently cared for by the church had to be elderly, godly, and without other means of support. Thus, it is only believing widows to whom Paul is referring in this text.

88 We are not told the precise process by which this decision was reached by the apostles. It seems that there was no one “correct” process, one “formula” for determining the “will of God” here, as elsewhere. It would seem, however, that the “will of God for the church” is evident when the decision is consistent with biblical principles and practices, unanimous with the leaders of the church, and which is found acceptable by the congregation.

89 There is a masculine element here, which should probably not be overlooked. It was the men “brothers” (v. 3) who were instructed to choose the seven, and it was men who were to be chosen. Here, one might think, would be a legitimate place for feminine leadership, but it was, in fact, prohibited.

90 The apostles did not require or even recommend that the men who were “put in charge” of this ministry be Hellenistic. The fact that they were (or seem to be) must be credited to the church who chose them. I take it that there was a broadmindedness evidenced by the church in this.

“Full of the Spirit and wisdom.” There are several ways to take this. One could understand that being full of the Spirit was to have wisdom. I am inclined to see that one could be full of the Spirit and yet not wise. There are many people who may be, at the moment, “spiritual,” but who do not have the maturity and wisdom of years behind them. There was the need for spiritual sensitivity and practical wisdom (as Solomon possessed and practiced, for example, cf. 1 Kings 3).

91 The 7 men are not said to be given the task of waiting tables. The apostles not only declined to personally “wait on tables” (verse 2), but they did not delegate this task to the seven men, either. They were rather “put in charge of” this matter. The is a difference between doing a job and seeing to it that a job is done. It may well be that the whole church needed to be involved in this, and that the administration of it was to assure that it was well done.

92 I must admit that I am not sure whether “this task” was the overall responsibility for the “daily distribution of food” or whether it was the daily distribution of food to the Hellenistic widows.

93 We know from 1 Timothy chapter 5 that only certain widows qualified for permanent care by the church. There were age and character qualifications, in addition to the fact that these widows were “widows indeed,” without a family to care for them (cf. 1 Timothy 5:3-16). It is interesting to note that the church’s responsibility to its widows is dealt with in the same chapter as the church’s responsibility to its teaching elders (5:17-20).

94 The apostles are the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Elders do not appear in Acts until 11:30, followed by 15:4. It would seem that the apostles functioned, for all intents and purposes, as the first elders of the church, just as the seven men functioned as deacons.

95 The key word here may be “devote,” which in Acts 2:42 seems to imply spending most of one’s time to something.

96 “All seven appear to have been Hellenists (this conclusion does not rest merely on the fact that they all have Greek names); indeed, they were probably the recognized leaders of the Hellenists in the church.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 121.

The last of the seven was not a Jew by birth, but a Gentile proselyte.

“Prochorus is pictured in Byzantine art as the scribe to whom John dictated his Gospel.” Carter and Earle, p. 88.

97 “The rite indicated a conferring of authority, and the accompanying prayer was for the power of the Spirit to fill the recipients (cf. Dt. 34:9). A similar rite was used in the appointment of rabbis, but there is some uncertainty whether this goes back to the first century. Se further 8:17; 9:17; 13:3; 19:6.” Marshall, p. 127.

98 Marshall (p. 127) refers to the phrase, “the word of God increased,” as “a favorite phrase (12:24; 19:20).”

99 “The priests were presumably those attached to the temple in Jerusalem, of whom there was a great number (estimated at 18,000 priests and Levites; they were on duty for a fortnight each year according to a rota; Lk. 1:8).” Marshall, pp. 127-128.

“Josephus claims that there were 20,000 priests in his day (Against Apion, II 8). So mention of a great company of the priests is not preposterous, as some have held.” Carter and Earle, p. 89.

100 We are told that Stephen performed “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). We are only told that Philip performed “signs” (Acts 8:6). Up to this point, these are the only two men to do so, other than the 12.

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11. The Stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8-8:1)


I have a confession. I feel a little bit like those two nuns in the “Sound of Music.” You remember, when the Von Trapp family was trying to get away from the Nazi’s and the two nuns helped them by stealing the distributor cap and wires from their cars. The nuns said something like, “Mother Superior, we have sinned,” as they held up the wires which they had “borrowed.”

Well I too have a confession. It was with great conviction last week that I taught on the first seven verses of Acts 6. One of the points which I tried to make was the priority of the preaching of the Word of God for the apostles. The apostles informed the church that it was not right that they neglect the Word of God and prayer in order to wait tables. It was a good point. I still believe it—but that is where my confession comes.

You see, for several weeks now I have been trying to complete the demolition of the little white house our church recently purchased. The demolition has all been done by hand, with the help of some of the men. Foul weather, a bad back, and some other problems has greatly hindered our work. This week, one of the men sent out a bulldozer, and a driver, to finish the job. The first part of the week I spent standing nearby, signaling to Oscar, the driver, what I wanted him to do. The last part of the week, I got to do what I really wanted to—drive the dozer myself. It was such great pleasure. If the dozer had not broken down, you would have known it from this message. But the truth of the matter is that I didn’t practice this week what I preached last week. Pushing stumps, for a time, took priority over preaching.

Our text for this week takes up where we left off in chapter 6. Our passage is indeed a large portion of Scripture, but because it is to be understood as a whole, and not merely in parts, I have decided to deal with it in one sermon. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, and so we shall endeavor to work through the text in its entirety. You will, of course, recognize that we are not able to go into great detail. I encourage you to make this text a matter of careful study. You will not be disappointed in the results.

The Structure of our Text

The structure of our text is simple and clear-cut and may be outlined as follows:

  • The Setting 6:8—7:1
  • The Sermon 7:2—7:53
  • The Stoning 7:54—8:1a
  • The Scattering 8:1b - 8:4ff.

Stephen has already been introduced in the first seven verses of chapter 6. The setting for Stephen’s arrest (if one could dignify his being “dragged off” by calling it an arrest), trial, and execution, is given to us in the remaining verses of chapter 6 (6:8-15) and the first verse of chapter 7. Stephen’s sermon is recorded in

7:2-53, with his stoning as the immediate and impassioned response of his audience (7:54—8:1a). The result is the scattering of the church (all but the apostles), in verses 8:1b and following.

Our Approach in the Lesson

Our approach in this lesson will be to first consider the setting of the sermon as we attempt to learn what brought about Stephen’s arrest and trial. Next we will look at Stephen’s sermon as a whole to identify some of its more important characteristics. We will then walk through the sermon noting some of its important points and seek to understand how it answers the accusations made against Stephen. Finally we shall seek to determine what the sermon meant—to the audience of Stephen, to Luke’s initial readers, and to us.

The Setting of Stephen’s Sermon

8 And Stephen full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. 10 And yet they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Council. 13 And they put forward false witnesses who said, “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.” 15 And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel. 7:1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”

The “Hellenistic Jews”—those Jews born outside of Israel who migrated to Israel but who still had a separate language and culture derived from their exile—have already been introduced in Acts. They were those Jews who, at Pentecost, heard the apostles “speaking of the mighty deeds of God” in their own native tongues. It would not be unreasonable to assume that it was some of the “native Hebrews”—those Jews born and raised in Israel who spoke Aramaic or some Semitic language—who thought the sounds they heard (since they could not understand these foreign languages) were the mere mindless babblings of those who had had too much to drink (Acts 2:13).

Not until the neglect of the Hellenistic Jewish widows did this group actually emerge as a distinct entity in Acts. Here, in chapter 6, they had developed strong feelings of resentment toward the native Hebrews whom they held responsible, in some way, for the neglect of those widows from their own (Hellenistic Jewish) group. In the appointing of the seven men who would oversee the feeding of the widows from this point on, Stephen and Philip were selected, and their names were listed first (cf. Acts 6:5) with greater details given about them, especially Stephen.

Stephen was described as a man who was both “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3) and as one who was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5). His ministry to Hellenistic widows seems to have put him in contact with a great many Hellenistic Jews. Among these people especially, and through Stephen, God accomplished many “great wonders and signs” (6:8). Feeding the widows gave Stephen a much greater exposure and the opportunity to function in a way that was similar to the twelve apostles.

The mention of Stephen’s ability to perform “signs and wonders” is very significant. It seems to imply that Stephen was, or at least functioned similarly to, an apostle. Up to this point, only the apostles were said to have worked signs and wonders. Since the twelve apostles would remain in Jerusalem after the church was scattered (Acts 8:1), it would seem that Stephen (here) and Philip (Acts 8) would serve as apostles to a more diverse group.

We are not told how the power to perform signs and wonders came upon Stephen. Had we been told, we would probably find this viewed as a formula by which saints are to manipulate or persuade God into acting as we would desire. Every indication is that both Stephen and the apostles were surprised by his ability to perform such miracles. It was not because Stephen “prayed through” or went through the right formula that he was empowered by the Spirit as he was. Neither was it because of the apostles, of their training, of discipleship, or ordination that these signs and wonders were performed. The simplest explanation for the mighty power which Stephen possessed was that the sovereign God had purposed to make him an apostle, in His own time, and in His own way.

Characteristics of Stephen’s Sermon

Before we begin to study the sermon of Stephen in greater detail, let us pause to look at the sermon as a whole and note some of its characteristics. Taking note of these will help us to understand its parts.

(1) This sermon is the longest recorded sermon in the Book of Acts. Stephen’s sermon is twice as long as Peter’s sermon delivered at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36).

(2) The sermon is not a defense but a response to the charges against him. If anything, Stephen’s words are an indictment, not a defense. It is Stephen’s answer to the question posed by the chief priest, “Are these things so?” (7:1)? The charges leveled against Stephen had to do with “this holy place”101 and the “customs handed down by Moses.” These are two of the major themes in Stephen’s sermon.

(3) The sermon is not an evangelistic appeal. This may sound strange, but I believe it is clear, once one looks carefully at the text of the sermon. The content of Stephen’s message is quite different from previous sermons in Acts. There is, for example, less emphasis upon Christ. There is also no reference to Christ’s resurrection. And the conclusion of the sermon is very unique. There is no call to repentance but only a very strong accusation of guilt.

(4) Stephen’s sermon is Scriptural.102 One cannot imagine how any more Scripture could have been packed into this message. Much of the sermon is a direct quotation of Old Testament texts.103 Virtually all of the rest of Stephen’s words, as recorded in 7:2-50, are Stephen’s summation of Scripture. Stephen is not like so many contemporary preachers who begin with a Scripture text never again to return to it. All of his message was Scripture. His conclusion was but an application of these Scriptures to his accusers.

(5) Stephen’s sermon is a survey of the Old Testament and of Israel’s history. Stephen begins his message with the call of Abraham, found in Genesis 12. He deals with a number of the major periods in Israel’s history and with several of its prominent figures, including Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and the prophets.

(6) Stephen’s message has a geographical orientation. Stephen’s preaching seems to have focused to some degree on the coming judgment of God on Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple. The charge against him was that he spoke against “this holy place.” Stephen’s message thus has much to say about the places where God dealt with Israel. The sermon is a kind of “walk through the Old Testament,” from Haran, outside the land where Abraham was called, to Egypt, back to Shechem where the patriarchs were buried, to the wilderness where Moses fled, to the holy mount where Moses was called, to Egypt again from which God delivered the enslaved nation of Israelites, to the wilderness, to the promised land, and finally to Babylon.

(7) Stephen’s sermon was Spirit-filled. Stephen was described as a man who was “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (6:3) and also as a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5). Finally, he was described as “full of grace and power” (6:8). His opponents were unable to refute the “wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (6:10). His face shown like the face of an angel” (6:15). At the time of his death he was said to be “full of the Holy Spirit” (7:55). Surely no one can doubt that his sermon was Spirit-filled. And though it was Spirit-filled, no one is said to have come to faith as a result of hearing it.104 Instead, Stephen paid for this sermon with his own life. It would be well for each of us to note that a man who was “full of the Holy Spirit” could find nothing better to say than the words of the Scriptures themselves.

(8) The sermon of Stephen supplies us with some details which the Old Testament does not supply. For example, Stephen tells us that Moses was “a man of power in words and deeds” (7:22). From Moses’ excuses to God, for not serving as His spokesman to Pharaoh, one would have concluded that Moses was a poor public speaker (cf. Exodus 4:10). Furthermore, we are told (by a literal rendering of the text) that when Moses was placed in the basket, he was really “put out to die” (Acts 7:21).105 Stephen’s sermon is an inspired commentary on certain parts of the Old Testament Scriptures.

(9) In spite of the fact that Stephen’s sermon had a very strong message of divine judgment, it was motivated by a loving and gracious spirit. Stephen was “full of grace,” and the words of Stephen at the time of his death are a testimony to this fact. He was not an “angry young preacher,” a hostile fellow belching forth the fire of hell. He was a man who loved his listeners, who prayed for their forgiveness and salvation. Paul was a delayed answer to this prayer. How the words and actions of Stephen must have stuck with Paul and even encouraged him in his hours of danger as he often brushed with death.

A Closer Look at Stephen’s Sermon

The charges against Stephen were false in the sense that they were not completely accurate, and they were based upon accusations of false witnesses (6:11, 13). There must have been some basis for the charges, however, just as there was at least a pretext for the charges against the Lord Jesus. Fundamentally, the charges were two-fold: Stephen was speaking against “the holy place,” and he was advocating an alteration of the customs handed down by Moses.

In one sense, these two charges were absolutely correct, and there were very much intertwined. These Jews, who may have spent their life’s earnings to return to the “holy land” (including, especially, the temple), must have believed that no one could worship God as well from foreign soil as from the sacred soil of Israel and from the sacred temple. This worship, they would have insisted, was rooted in the Law of Moses. But the coming of Jesus did mean that radical changes had come and that since the Law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ, rigid observance to the Law was no longer required in many instances. As a case in point, Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4-42) that worship was no longer a matter of being in the “right place” (whether that were Mt. Gerazim or the temple in Jerusalem) but a matter of the “right person.” Thus, those who were to worship “in spirit and in truth” must worship the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. And so the temple was set aside as the only place of worship, and the customs of Moses were being altered.

Stephen’s sermon is his inspired response to these two primary charges pertaining to Jerusalem and the temple as the “holy place” and to the customs of Moses.106 As Stephen led his accusers on their trek through the history of Israel, he was seeking to demonstrate two fundamental concepts: (1) The history of Israel bears out the fact that much of the life of the Jews was spent outside of the land; and, (2) that for all their smug self-righteousness, Israel had always shown themselves to be rebels against Moses and against the Law which was given through him. Consequently, as we work our way through Stephen’s sermon, we will cover many generations of Israelites, a number of well-known Old Testament personalities and places, and a good number of years. All of this will demonstrate that the conclusion which Stephen reached and preached was irrefutable and well-documented.

Stephen begins with the forefather of the Jews, Abraham, and he begins in Mesopotamia, the place where God appeared to Abraham and instructed him to leave that place and his family and to go to that (“holy”) place to which He would lead him. God spoke to Abraham in a foreign land (from the Jewish point of view). He promised Abraham the land of Canaan as his possession, and yet Abraham never possessed it in his lifetime, having to purchase even his own burial place. Abraham lived in Canaan as a sojourner, as a pilgrim.

Furthermore, God told Abraham that his offspring, his descendants, would live in an (as yet) unidentified foreign land for four hundred years (7:6). Here, Abraham’s descendants would be misused and persecuted, but afterward they would serve God in “this place” (7:7). The sign of this covenant was circumcision (7:8). Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, had twelve sons, who became the patriarchs of the nation Israel (7:8). The only problem was that they became jealous of Joseph and sold him into slavery in Egypt. No thanks to his twelve brothers, Joseph was sent to Egypt to which they would all be summoned after Joseph’s identity was revealed. It was while in Egypt for these four hundred years that this small party, who were seventy-five in number when they arrived in Egypt, left a mighty people, as the sand of the sea, as the stars of the heavens, just as God had promised. Abraham and Sarah, and later on Joseph, were buried in Shechem in the heart of Samaria, not far from Mt. Gerazim. This was that despised land through which the Jews would not pass (cf. John 4:4; Luke 9:51-55).

Moses, the man whose customs the Jews prided themselves for preserving and practicing, was persistently rejected by the Jews of his day. First, he was rejected by his own family who put him out to die (Acts 7:19-22). This Moses who was educated in Egypt, outside the land of promise, was God’s chosen instrument to lead His people from bondage to freedom and from Egypt to the promised land. His second rejection came from two of his brethren. When he attempted to mediate between two Jews who were fighting with each other, they both rejected his intervention and his leadership. They wanted nothing to do with him, and they wished him to keep out of their business. They could care less about the customs of Moses. They told him to stay out of their lives. They also reminded him that they knew he had killed an Egyptian the day before (Acts 7:27-28).

Moses fled to the land of Midian. It was here that God appeared to Moses and commanded him to return to Egypt, to free His people and to lead them into the land of promise, the “holy land.” Like Joseph, Moses was rejected by his brethren, but it was he whom God had chosen to save his brethren. This Moses told the Israelites that God would raise up another prophet, like him. In which way was this prophet to be like Moses? I believe that He was promised to be like Moses in being rejected by His brethren. As Moses performed “signs and wonders,” so this prophet by doing likewise would be like Moses. This Moses passed on more than mere “customs” to the Jews; he passed on “living oracles” (7:38).

The third rejection of Moses came in his absence from the people. Having given the people clear instructions, Moses went up on the mountain. The people refused to obey and induced Aaron to fashion for them a god which they could see. In their hearts, they had already turned back to Egypt, the place of their bondage. Rather than to worship the true God, whom they could not see, they rejoiced in and worshipped a god they could see, a god that was nothing but the work of their own hands (7:41).

I must pause at this point, when Stephen is speaking of Moses, to remind you of a very interesting comment included by Luke in the last verse of chapter 6:

And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15).

One can hardly fail to notice the similarity of this with that which Moses recorded in the Book of Exodus:

And it came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand as he was coming down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him. So when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him (Exodus 34:29-30).107

It was this “glowing of the face of Moses” which bore testimony to the fact that he had communed with God “face to face” (Exodus 33:11) and which caused the people of Israel to fear him. It was the same “glowing” which was on the face of Stephen, but they did not fear him. This one whom they accused of blaspheming against Moses was the one whose face was like that of Moses. Surely his face indicated that Stephen had communed with God and that they should hear him if they would understand Moses. But they would not hear. They saw his face, but they went on with their plan to put him to death. And when they would hear his sermon they would close their ears to it.

Here we reach a turning point, for Stephen turns from the law, that is the history of Israel as recorded in the five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), to the prophets. He cites the words of two of the prophets, who by divine inspiration interpreted the events of Israel’s history in the light of the law. They took the way the Israelites behaved and showed how they sinned, according to the law. They also told God’s people how the law was meant to be understood and practiced.108

In verses 44-50, Stephen will turn to the temple, comparing it to the tabernacle, the place of God’s presence, the “holy place” for the Israelites. Verses 42 and 43 provide a prophetic interpretation of Israel’s conduct in the wilderness when they had the tabernacle, God’s “holy place,” among them. Did God’s presence among them cause them to be more spiritual, more obedient to His law, as given by Moses? It did not. In fact, we are told by the prophet Amos that they were busily engaged in the worship of heathen deities. It was because of this idolatry, an idolatry that was not given up when they reached the land, the “holy place,” that God sentenced His people to captivity. The dispersion of Israel and the Babylonian captivity were the result of Israel’s sin (Acts 7:43).

Now Stephen turns to the “sacred cow” of the Israelites, the temple (in particular) and Jerusalem (in general) which the Hellenistic Jews revered so highly and for which they had sacrificed much to be able to worship God here. It was this “holy place” which they accused Stephen of blaspheming. Did Stephen, like Christ, warn the people of Jerusalem about the coming wrath of God upon this city and upon this temple (cf. Luke 19:41-44; 21:5-24)? What value was one to place on this city and upon this temple? To the Israelites, these had virtually become their gods. No wonder Stephen’s words seemed like blasphemy!

In verses 44-50, Stephen spoke about the temple, comparing it to the tabernacle. The tabernacle, Stephen reminded them, was that which God designed, which God initiated. It was the special place of His presence among His people. It did not, as previous verses indicate, make anyone obedient to God for they disobeyed God openly, in His presence. The temple was the “inspiration” of David. It was his desire, his conception. God granted David’s request to build a temple, but it was his son, Solomon, who was to build it.

Now Stephen turns to the words of the prophet Isaiah, in the last chapter of his prophecy, to remind his accusers of a very important theological fact: God does not need a building built by human hands in which to dwell. Nothing which man can build would be adequate. Why would the Creator need man to create a dwelling place for Him? Why would the God who inhabits heaven as His throne and who has the earth as His footstool need a temple?

I think I know why the Jews of Stephen’s day (and other days as well) thought so. They knew that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem and would reign as King from His holy temple. They thought that Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple were all necessities for the kingdom to come. No wonder these Hellenistic Jews were willing to give up all that they possessed to reach the “holy place.” How blasphemous it must have seemed to them to hear Jesus (first), the apostles, and now Stephen speaking of the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem. They understood this as a rejection of the kingdom. With the dashing of Jerusalem, all of their messianic hopes were dashed as well.

The problem, however, was that their understanding of the kingdom, and of how it was to be established on earth, was wrong. Indeed, in the context of this quotation of Isaiah 66:1-2, several important truths are revealed. First, God would bring judgment upon Jerusalem and the temple. Second, that God would bring salvation to the Gentiles. Third, when God came to the earth to establish His kingdom, He would create a new Jerusalem and a new temple. Israel’s man-made temple would be destroyed along with the city of Jerusalem. God would create His own Jerusalem and His own temple, which He would bring down from heaven. The destruction of Jerusalem and the demolition of the temple was not a rejection of the kingdom, or a hindrance, but a prerequisite to it. This was a necessary step, clear the ground as it were, so that God’s temple could be brought to the earth. God is not a remodeler. He will destroy the old earth and the old heavens so that the new heavens and earth may come.

Had the people heeded the prophets, they would have known this, and they would have welcomed the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles. The problem was the sinfulness of God’s people. And so, Stephen reached the conclusion of his message, recorded in verses 51-53. Israel’s history was one consistent account of God’s grace and of Israel’s sin and rebellion. God had given the Law, and they disobeyed. God sent His prophets, and they rejected them. These prophets spoke of the coming Messiah, and they were killed, just as these people were guilty of the blood of Jesus, the Messiah who had come just as the prophets had promised. The “holy Law,” which they claimed to revere and to defend, was not kept throughout Israel’s history, and it was not kept by Stephen’s accusers either. It was not Stephen who was worthy of death, but his audience.

The Stoning of Stephen

54 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. 55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ 57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears, and they rushed upon him with one impulse. 58 And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And they went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And having said this, he fell asleep. 8:1 And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. 4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.

The message was too much to bear. Just as they had done before,109 they rejected God’s spokesman. They would do away with him in an effort to do away with his message and His Messiah. The description of the crowds is one of near insanity. They were out of their minds. Logic and reason would have agreed with Stephen, for his message was merely a recitation of the Old Testament. But they would have none of it nor of him.

What an illustration we have here of “dying grace.” The death of Stephen can rightly be called, “Spirit-filled dying.” I have heard many speak of being “Spirit-filled,” but few speak of it in the context of death. Stephen’s death, because it was experienced by a “Spirit-filled” man, is a model for all saints to desire to follow in their hour of death.

It was a peaceful death, even though the surroundings and the circumstances were violent and chaotic. It was a time of great intimacy and communion with God. Stephen was enabled to see the heavens opened and to see the Savior standing at God’s right hand, ready to receive him into His presence. The grim scene around Stephen faded away in the light of the glory of God before him. As Stephen spoke of these things, the crowds went wild. All pretense of “due process” and of a legal trial were swept aside. They dragged him out of the city and stoned him, with the consent and assistance of Saul. Stephen, like his Savior, called upon God to receive his Spirit. His last words, like those of Jesus, were words of compassion. He prayed for the forgiveness of those who had sinned by taking his life. The salvation of Saul, while it would be at a later time, was, I believe, an answer to this prayer.


We have only seen the “tip of the iceberg” in this message, and so it will be with its interpretation and application. Let me suggest some of the areas of interpretation and application which may be a starting point for your continued study and meditation.

In the developing argument of the Book of Acts, the sermon and the stoning of Stephen is very significant. It is a transition point, as we can see, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. It is the end of the “Jerusalem phase” and the beginning of the “Samarian phase.” Soon, with the conversion of Saul, the gospel will spread to the “remotest part of the earth.” But for now, God’s dealings with the city of Jerusalem are winding down. The apostles will remain, we are told, but the church is dispersed. The time for the destruction of Jerusalem draws near. The reason for the destruction of Israel is apparent in Stephen’s message and even in his own death. His sermon, much like the ministry of Isaiah the prophet (cf. Isaiah 6), was not intended to turn men to repentance but to seal their doom. The judgment of God on Jerusalem is not far off, and for very good reason. Now that the gospel has been preached to the Jew first, it will go to the Gentiles.

There are some very direct applications of this message to us. First, just as Jerusalem was rushing on to its own destruction, so is our own world, our own nation, and those around us. The judgment of God is soon to fall on our world, and for the same reasons that it fell upon Jerusalem—men reject God’s word.

Second, the “dying grace” that is evident in Stephen’s death can be ours as well. How often we pray that we will not die or that our death would be painless and quick. Stephen’s death should challenge us here. We should pray for grace that our death will be a glimpse of heaven, and our dying thoughts should be for the salvation of men around us. May our death, like Stephen’s, be a glorious event, regardless of the circumstances, for it is our entrance into the glorious presence of our Savior, who is still standing at the right hand of the Father, awaiting us.

Third, there is for us in Stephen’s sermon a lesson in how to use and interpret Scripture. Stephen’s message was drenched in Scripture. There was much of God’s thoughts and none of Stephen’s. Stephen had a grasp of the Scriptures, as a whole, and in large portions. While the scribes and Pharisees “strained the gnats” and focused on the obscure points, on the unknown, Stephen focused on the “camels” (cf. Matthew 23:24). While the Jews leaned heavily on their own traditions (and rejected the interpretation of the prophets), Stephen took his views from the prophets. May we imitate Stephen in his handling of the Word of God!

Stephen’s sermon deals with a number of the themes which Luke has been developing in the book. The sovereignty of God is evidenced in the results of this sermon. In previous sermons in Acts, many have been saved. Here (and for the first time), the preacher is put to death. God prospers some sermons in the salvation of many, but He also uses sermons for other purposes, as here. We also see that there is an evangelistic thrust, resulting from this sermon. This is an evidence of God’s sovereign control. Those who are saved are not the audience of Stephen, but the Samaritans and Gentiles who will be saved because of the persecution resulting from Stephen’s death. Without knowing it, these Jews are propelling the gospel beyond Jerusalem to the very places from which they have come. Many will be saved because of the sermon and the death of Stephen. And the one who was a part of Stephen’s death—Saul—will be God’s chosen instrument to reach the Gentiles. What a God we serve! How His ways are beyond ours (cf. Romans 8:31-39; 11:33-36).

In principle, the problem of the Jews (of Stephen’s day and of those described in his sermon) was one of materialism. That is, they wanted to worship and to obey only what they could see. They made idols which they could see. The minute Moses was “out of sight,” they turned to idols. The temple was a kind of idol. It was something physical, something which they could see. They preferred this temple to that temple which is, as yet, unseen. It is no wonder that Hebrews 11 is devoted to the subject of faith, and that, at the very outset, we find faith described as that which is based upon and which looks forward to the unseen. The kingdom for which the Old Testament saint looked forward was not an earthly one but a heavenly one:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

No wonder Stephen, a man who was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” did not fear death and did not revere the physical temple in Jerusalem. He was a man who “saw” a better temple and whose hope was not earthly. He was free to die, as were the saints of old, because of His faith in God and the promises which were sure to come. May we be more like this great man of old whose life and ministry were short but significant.

101 It is my understanding that the expressions “this holy place” (Acts 6:13) and “this place” (6:14) refers to the temple, but is not restricted to it. I believe that the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel (to a lesser extent) are also included.

102 Notice that Stephen began at the beginning, with the patriarchs, and then turned to the interpretation of these events in the early days of Israel’s history, as given by the Old Testament prophets. Finally, Stephen relates the Old Testament events and their interpretation to the present, to the response of those who had opposed him and brought him to trial, showing how it was consistent with the actions Israelites in the past.

103 In the NASB this is indicated by quotations in caps.

104 Paul, of course, was saved later on, but it was never said to be because of this message. The message of Stephen, along with his death, had a great impact on Paul, I believe, but his sermon was not the immediate means of his conversion. It was, instead, his divine encounter with the risen Christ which brought about his repentance.

105 The term, rendered “exposed” by the NASB in Acts 7:19 is literally rendered “put out to die” in the margin. It is this same term which is found, in reference to Moses, in verse 21, with the same marginal note that the literal meaning was “put out to die.” Thus, just as all the other Israelites were putting their infants out to die, so Moses’ parents were putting him out to die, for all intents and purposes.

106 From the background we have been provided in the gospels, I would understand the phrase, “the customs which Moses handed down to us,” as not referring to the Law of Moses, but rather to the traditions of the Jews, which were added to the Law, and indeed were held above the Law in practice.

107 We should remember that Paul was present, and must have seen the face of Stephen. This must have later been understood as being a repetition of that which took place with Moses, for in 2 Corinthians chapter 3, Paul referred to this event in the life of Moses (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). Paul used it to illustrate the greater glory of the new covenant over that of the old, the very thing which Stephen’s opponents refused to accept.

108 In the same way Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapters 5-7).

109 Notice that Stephen’s words in 7:52 indicate not only that his accusers were guilty of the same kind of sins and their fathers, but that they were actually guilty of the sins of their fathers. Jesus taught the same thing in Matthew 23:34-36. To reject the Messiah and His messengers is to become guilty of the sins of rejection of those who have gone before us. When we reject Christ, we reject all those who have spoken of him. When we reject the gospels, we reject the Old Testament prophets.

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12. Simon and Simon (Acts 8:1-25)


There are three distressing facts when it comes to cults. The first is that Christians are prime targets for cults. All too many cult members appear to have been genuinely saved, but poorly grounded in the Scriptures, and thus were easy marks for cult leaders who professed to be “in touch” with God. I am told, for example, that Southern Baptists are some of the most likely prospects for Mormonism. The second distressing fact is that a number of cult founders and leaders have had some involvement with evangelical Christianity, but have departed from it. One of our close relatives was involved in a cult, and when she showed us the book written by the cult leader, he openly admitted an evangelical background. A third distressing fact is that some of the cults are so close to Christianity, at least in their professions and in their propaganda, that it is difficult to determine whether they are really Christian or not. I will not name a particular group, but you may easily be able to think of one or more which fall into this category.

Simon the magician was believed by some of the ancients to have been the founder of a very dangerous cult, one which dogged the heels of Christianity for a period of its history.110 It is difficult to determine with any degree of conviction, whether or not he was even a Christian. From Luke’s words (“even Simon himself believed,” verse 13) we would conclude that he was saved, but from the words and actions of Simon himself, and from the severe warning of Peter, one would surely have some second thoughts on the matter.

Simon is, unfortunately, similar to many of those who are cultists or false prophets and apostles, as described in the Scriptures. Simon was a man who once practiced magic, but who never seemed to fully give it up. He was thus plagues with a “magic mindset” which can be seen in what he says and does, as recorded by Luke. This mindset is not just that of the cultists; it is a mindset which characterizes many Christians today. There is a world of difference between magic and Christianity, as we shall see here, in our text, and later on in the Book of Acts (13:4-12; 19:13-20). Let us look carefully at Simon, then, to see if any of his ways of thinking or of acting are our own, or are characteristic of others, who profess to be Christians. And let us look as well at the ways in which God is bringing about the growth of His church, from Jerusalem and Judea, to Samaria.

The Source of the Samaritan Revival

And Saul111 was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.

It was a remarkable chain of events, one which no one would have conceived of in advance. The problem of the neglected Hellenistic widows was solved by the appointment of seven men. Prominent among them in Luke’s account are Stephen and Philip. Stephen’s ministry exploded and expanded beyond overseeing the care of widows to the powerful proclamation of the gospel, accompanied with signs and wonders. This ministry led to opposition, which ultimately led to his execution. And Stephen’s death snowballed into a massive reaction to the entire church in Jerusalem. This intense persecution which broke out against the church caused the saints to scatter. All but the apostles fled, but these men stayed behind.

The result was a massive missionary expansion, without any missions committee, without any “support,” and (remarkably) without the leadership and presence of the apostles. Acts 1:8 was being fulfilled in Acts 8:1, but not in the way we would have expected. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 was given in the form of a command. Acts 1:8 was given in the form of a promise. In reality, the evangelism of the Samaritans and the Gentiles did not take place because men actively sought to obey the command of our Lord, expressed in the Great Commission, but rather providentially, brought about by the Sovereign Head of the Church, through persecution. The saints went about, sharing the gospel, not so much out of obedience as out of necessity. Persecution brought about proclamation. How God’s ways surpass our own!

According to Luke’s account, the persecution of the church in Jerusalem which brought about the Samaritan revival112 was, in large measure, the result of one key individual—Saul. No other names are mentioned. And, after the conversion of Saul, the persecution ceases, and a new era of peace commenced (Acts 9:31). I take it that Saul was therefore one of the driving forces behind the persecution of the church in Jerusalem.

The significance of this must not be overlooked. As the ringleader of the opposition to the gospel and the persecution of the church in Jerusalem, Saul was instrumental in the first “missions thrust” of the church. Granted, this was not his intent, but it was the result. God uses the “wrath of men to praise Him” (cf. Psalm 76:10). How often we tend to think of the evangelization of the world of that day as the result of Paul’s “preaching,” rather than as a result of Saul’s “persecution.” Both are true. The sovereign God can just as easily employ the intense opposition of an unbeliever to spread the gospel as He can the faithful preaching of one of His saints. A sovereign God does not need the obedience of men to achieve His purposes, but how blessed it is when men obey, becoming a willing participant in God’s plans and purposes!

Philip’s Samaritan Ministry

4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. 5 And Philip113 went down to the city of Samaria114 and began proclaiming Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. 7 For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was much rejoicing in that city.

Samaria and the Samaritan people are not new to the gospels. John (chapter 4) recorded a very significant encounter between Jesus and the “woman at the well.” In this account, we are given some very pertinent insight into the views of the Samaritans, as well as their strained relationship with the Jews. When Jesus was passing through Samaria and was given an unfriendly reception, some of Jesus’ disciples asked His permission to “call down fire from heaven” on that village (Luke 9:51-55). Jesus told the story of the “Good Samaritan,” which contrasted the warmth and compassion of this “heathen” with the callused disregard of a Jewish priest and a Levite (Luke 10:30-37). While He forbade His disciples to go to Samaria with the good news of the kingdom initially, this was rescinded in the Great Commission (cf. Matthew 10:5-6; 28:18-20).

Philip’s arrival in the city of Samaria was but a part of a much larger program, whereby the persecution of the church scattered saints. Notice that this scattering occurs in such a way as to exactly follow the order of Acts 1:8:

“… and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

And so the church was born in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), it spread through persecution to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1, in that order), and then abroad (cf. Acts 11:19-21; 13:1ff.).

Those who were scattered may have fled Jerusalem in fear, but the message of the gospel was nevertheless proclaimed. I do not think that the gospel was proclaimed out of duty, but rather spoken as a truth which could not be kept secret. It would not surprise me that some of the saints who fled from Jerusalem purposed to keep quiet about their new faith in Jesus as their Messiah, but when they spoke with others, they could do nothing other than to speak of Him with their new neighbors.

Like Stephen, the hand of God was powerfully evident in the ministry of Philip. Great signs accompanied and underscored his preaching, so that the people gave attention to his message. Among the miracles which occurred were the exorcism of demons and the healing of the paralyzed. As God’s power was demonstrated and the gospel was received, there was great joy in that city (verse 8). The “Samaritan revival” had commenced.

Simon’s Past and His Profession

9 Now there was a certain man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city, and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; 10 and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” 11 And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. 12 But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. 13 And even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip; and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.

In the previous section, Philip’s overall ministry was summarized, and a general overview of its results was given. Now, in verses 9-13, one man is in view, a magician by the name of Simon. This “Simon” was a man who had once mystified the people of this Samaritan city (verses 9-11). By his magic arts115 Simon had managed to “pull the wool over the eyes” of the Samaritans for years. He made claims of being someone great, but it seems that he allowed the people to come to their own conclusions. Their conclusion, skillfully suggested and orchestrated by Simon, was that he was “the Great Power of God.” Given the religious views of the Samaritans, and the fact that they shared a messianic hope with their Jewish “half-brothers” (cf. John 4:25), I take it that Simon was claiming to be more than a representative of God, but that he was indeed deity. Was he actually claiming to be the Messiah? Such was not uncommon, and it may well have been Simon’s intent.

When Philip arrived in Samaria, Simon’s magic practice came to a screeching halt. The impression I gain is not that Simon gave it up, as something deceptive, evil, and anti-Christian, but rather that his practice merely died, outclassed by the real power of God manifested through Philip. Even Simon was amazed by the power of God at work through Philip. But because he did not forsake his magic practice, he seems not to have forsaken the “magic mentality” on which it was based. Simon is said to have believed, and to have been baptized (verse 13), but there seems to have been little repentance evident, that change of heart and mind which sees one’s past ways as those which must be rejected and put aside. If Simon was not saved, he surely appears to have come close to faith, and if he was a true believer, he seems not to have taken his faith far enough.

While the people of Samaria witnessed the miracles which God performed through Philip, they focused on his message. When the people of Samaria witnessed the “magic” of Simon, they focused on the man. Simon seems to have been more taken by the ministry and the power of Philip than with his message. Wherever Philip went, Simon tagged along, constantly amazed at the evidences of the hand of God in this man’s life and ministry. The power of Philip seems more fascinating to Simon than the person of Christ and the practical outworkings of the gospel. The magician seems to live on, focusing on a bigger and better power, rather than on a whole new way of life. He seems, still, to be too self-centered, and not Christ-centered.

The Arrival of the Apostles
and an Admonition from Peter

14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16 For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 “You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” 24 But Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

While the apostles in Jerusalem did not initiate this revival in Samaria, they did sense a responsibility for exercising oversight in the matter. Thus, when they heard of the Samaritan revival, they sent down Peter and John. (Ironically, it was John who was one of the disciples who asked permission to call down fire on the Samaritan village in Luke 9:54. How strange it must have seemed to John, now, to be going down to Samaria to recognize the church which was begotten there. I wonder if Peter and John had to pass through this same village on their way down, or back, and to preach the gospel to these people.)

We are not told that Peter and John were sent to Samaria to lay hands on the Samaritans and to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit. I think that they went on a “fact-finding mission,” not know what God would have them do when they arrived. When they arrived, they must have begun to interview these new saints, and in a way similar to that described in Acts 19:1-7, they must have learned that while these “saints” had believed in Jesus as the promised Messiah, and while they had also been baptized, they had not received the Holy Spirit, as had happened in Jerusalem. Learning this, they must have sensed that God had held back the descent of the Spirit until their arrival. They somehow learned that through the laying on of their hands and their prayers the Spirit would come upon the church.

There is a temptation for us to try to make this text conform to our pre-conceived ideas about the Holy Spirit, rather than to allow it to speak for itself. It would seem to me that the “coming” of the Holy Spirit here upon the Samaritans was very similar to (if not identical with) the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2). There is, however, no emphasis on the “ecstasies” of this event, and we are not told exactly what did take place. Surely something unusual and miraculous occurred, for Simon seems to be even more impressed at this event than with what he had seen taking place through Philip. I take it, then, that this is the second of four “pentecosts” in the Book of Acts (the remaining two being found in Acts 10 and 19).

For those who would like to view this event as normative, I would disagree. I do not think that this text suggests that the Holy Spirit comes upon men only after they have had the “laying on of hands.” Indeed, when we look at the four “pentecosts” in Acts, it is only here and in chapter 19 that the Spirit falls upon men through the laying on of hands. In Acts 2 and 10, no one expected the Spirit to descend on men, and nothing was done to prompt it. Elsewhere, the laying on of hands has nothing to do with the reception of the Holy Spirit.116 The point of the “laying on of hands” is identification, more than impartation. The laying on of hands was an act of identification. In laying their hands on Paul and Barnabas, the church at Antioch identified with them in their God-given task of evangelization (Acts 13:3). When the apostles laid their hands on the 7 (Acts 6:6), they were identifying themselves with these men and their task, thus giving them (their) authority to carry out the oversight of the feeding of the widows. In Acts, the reception of the Holy Spirit (a “pentecost” by my definition, at least) happens to four groups. These incidents are not the norm, but the exception. They occur so that it might be made clear that the gospel has been proclaimed and received by those outside Jerusalem, and by those other than Jews (i. e. Gentiles). In the epistles, the norm is that men receive the Holy Spirit at the time of their salvation (cf. Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 1:7; 2:6-16; 12:13). The fact that Luke has to tell his reader that these Samaritans had not yet received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:16) strongly suggests that this case was the exception, and not the rule.

The focus of this account is not to emphasize the reception of the Holy Spirit, but rather the undue attraction which this power to bestow the Holy Spirit has for Simon. Simon was amazed by the power of God at work through Philip, but he did not offer Philip money to have such power.117 Once the apostles arrived, it would seem that Simon quickly transferred his fixation on them, and on their power, rather than on Philip. To Simon, if their power was not greater than Philip’s, it was at least more desirable.

Simon “reached for his wallet” (at least figuratively), offering Peter and John money for the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit. It is not really surprising that he would do so. After all, would he not have paid to learn his magic arts. No one would be inclined to pass along such valuable knowledge without compensation. Learning to practice magic would be something like buying a franchise. Simon was used to thinking in terms of the buying and selling of abilities. He simply continued to operate as he always had—as a magician. The problem was that Christianity and magic are worlds apart, night and day. This he would learn from the lips of Peter.

Peter’s first words are strong indeed, signaling the seriousness of Simon’s sin. J. B. Phillips catches the flavor in a translation which closely resembles the sense of the original text:

“To hell with you and your money” (Acts 8:20).

It certainly casts some doubt on the salvation of Simon. If this man were truly saved, you would also be eternally secure, but Peter’s words would not give him a false sense of assurance. Let us remember that Peter, himself, heard some very strong words of correction from the lips of his Lord:

“Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).

Just as Peter was called “Satan” by his Lord for expressing his thoughts and desires, so Simon was addressed as a heathen, for he was acting like one at the time.

Peter’s rebuke is stinging, but it is not really what we might have expected. Simon was not admonished for improper motivation, though one can hardly doubt that his motives were impure. Did he not wish to obtain the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit to make money, or at least to gain power and prestige, and to further himself? I suspect so, but this is not what Peter condemned.

Peter’s indictment was not Simon’s motivation, but his mindset. It was not his attitude which was the most serious problem, but his assumptions. The bottom line was that Simon thought he could buy the gift of God:

“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20).

The ability to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit was a gift, as I understand it, a gift which was restricted to the apostles. This is why Philip could not bestow the Spirit upon the Samaritan saints. When Simon tried to purchase the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit on others, he based his actions on the assumption that the gift of God could be bought and sold.

Why is this such a serious matter? Because it is a misconception, a perversion of grace. There is a direct, one-to-one connection between spiritual gifts and grace. In fact, spiritual gifts are “graces.” The word used for gift is the word for grace. Any spiritual gift is a grace gift. That means that it cannot be earned or secured by man’s efforts. That is why gifts are sovereignly bestowed:

But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills (1 Corinthians 12:7-11).

The gifts of the Spirit and the gift of salvation are all gifts in the same sense that they are gifts of grace, they are gracious gifts of God that are not deserved, but which are sovereignly bestowed on men, with no consideration of one’s worthiness of receiving them. No gift of God is ever deserved by its recipient, and thus we must always be grateful to God for them. Thus, too, we can never have pride because of any gift we receive.

This is why Simon’s sin is so serious. It is a sin against grace itself, and thus a sin of the most serious type. Peter’s words are intended to shock Simon, to underscore the evil of his actions and to bring about repentance. As I understand the words of verses 21 and 22, Peter is not speaking so much about Simon’s sinfulness in general, but rather in terms of this specific sin, the sin of trying to purchase God’s gift. It is this sin which is in view, and it is this sin which Simon must repent of and seek God’s forgiveness and restoration.

Peter’s rebuke employs the terminology of Deuteronomy 29:18.118 Note this text in its broader context:

“Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here today (for you know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. Moreover, you have seen their abominations and their idols of wood, stone, silver, and gold, which they had with them); lest there shall be among you a man or woman, or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations; lest there shall be a root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood. And it shall be when he hears the words of this curse, that he will boast, saying, ‘I have peace thou I walk in the stubbornness of my heart in order to destroy the watered land with the dry.’ The LORD shall never be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and His jealousy will burn against that man, and every curse which is written in this book will rest on him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. Then the LORD will single him out for adversity from all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant which are written in this book of the law” (Deuteronomy 28:14-21).

The context of this word of warning is the approaching entrance of Israel into the land of promise. God has made a covenant with His people, a covenant which promises His blessings if they obey His commands, but which promises judgment if they rebel against Him by disregarding His laws. God’s people have been given the law to distinguish them from the nations around them. To act like the other nations is to disregard God’s covenant, and to be a “root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood.” It is to incur God’s judgment.

These words are most appropriate when referred to Simon. He was continuing to think and to act like the pagan he had once been. He was not obedient to God, and he was in great danger of divine disciple. No wonder Peter’s words were so severe! These words do not refer to Simon’s disregard of God’s old covenant, however, but to the new covenant, the covenant of grace. By attempting to buy the gift of God, Simon was setting aside the covenant of grace and seeking to influence God by magic, by manipulation, in a way that was like the heathen worship of the pagans. Simon was turning from grace to magic, and was in grave danger by so doing. Peter used the words of Deuteronomy 29 to cause Simon to think very seriously about his sin and the dire consequences which could follow, if repentance were not sincere and speedy.

The text that was cited, along with the words of Peter which were spoken to Simon are said in such a way as to raise serious questions about Simon’s salvation. A man who is truly saved should understand grace. A man who does not grasp the essence of grace is a man whose salvation is in question. I think that the reader is left to ponder Simon’s salvation, just as we wonder about the salvation of men like Balaam, in the Old Testament (Numbers 22-24). Simon is not only like Balaam of the Old Testament, but too much like the false prophets and apostles who are described in the New (cf. 2 Peter 2 & 3; Jude). No wonder Peter is so strong in his rebuke of this man.

Simon’s response is no cause for encouragement, either. His response is not one of deep repentance. He does not seem to express any sense of his sin against God, or his alienation from Him, due to his sin. Nor does he have any desire to go directly to Him for forgiveness. Instead, he is more concerned with the consequences of his sin than of the sin itself. He asks Peter to serve as his mediator. It is a most distressing note on which to end this account.


Our text is the beginning of an exciting new era in the history of the church. It depicts the expansion of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and from Jews to others—in this case, Samaritans, half-Jews. It is a further testimony to the sovereignty of God in the fulfillment of the Great Commission and the promise of Acts 1:8, which lays out the strategy and the structure of the Book of Acts. God persists at bringing about His plans and purposes in spite of men—like Saul—who oppose the truth and who persecute the church. God’s truth and His church, are marching on, yet in a way that no man would have predicted, and that no man would have believed, if he were told ahead of time.

This passage may have had a very practical application for the saints who first received and read it. Suppose that Simon did depart from the faith and establish a cult. That cult could have existed during the time when the apostles (including Paul) were ministering to the churches. This cult could have caused some of the saints to stumble. If this were so, mention of Simon, of his sin, and of his rebuke by Peter, could very well have served as a warning to any who might be tempted to listen to Simon and to follow his teachings. This is an inspired “reference,” and not a positive one at that.

This text also has a lesson for us in evangelism. Somehow, in Simon’s “profession” there was a lack of repentance, a lack of complete turning around, a failure to reject and forsake the evils of his past. Instead, Simon continued to think and to act as a magician, rather than as a Christian. He was interested in “spiritual power” at a price, not in servanthood as his own expense. He did not seek those gifts which would build up and benefit others, but those which would be a source of gain to himself. He did not think in terms of grace, but in terms of magic and manipulation.

How important it is for us to proclaim a clear gospel, a gospel which identifies men’s past thinking and actions as sin, and which calls upon men to repent and to forsake the past. How often the gospel is presented in a way that suggests that men do not need to radically change to be saved, but that they can simply add a belief in Jesus to their current lifestyle. Salvation, by it very nature, is a radical change. We will see this with Saul, but we do not see it with Simon.

I find it both interesting and informative to compare the “profession” (whether genuine or not) of Simon with the conversion of Saul. In both accounts, we are told a fair bit about the past of these men, but there is one critical difference. Paul renounced and rejected his past, leaving it behind as something which was worthy of death, and he began to live in an entirely different way (cf. Philippians chapter 3). Simon, on the other hand, simply brought his past along, persisting in it as a professing Christian. Christianity teaches that the old man must die, and that the old life must be left behind, and that the new man must be manifest, through God’s Spirit (cf. Romans 6-8).

We have said that Simon was wrong for not repenting of and rejecting his past ways. To be specific, that of which he should have repented was magic. Magic is contrary to Christianity, and yet it is often confused or combined with it. Luke deals with magic in the Book of Acts three times: here, in chapter 13, and once again in chapter 19. In all three instances, the “magic” which is exposed has a religious flavor. Here, the magic of Simon merits him the title, “the Great Power of God” (8:10). In chapter 13, Bar-Jesus, the magician, who attempted to keep the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, from turning to faith in Jesus, was a “false prophet” (13:6). Finally, in chapter 19, the beating which the exorcists (the sons of Sceva) received from the demonized man, caused many to turn to Christ and to renounce their magic practices (19:11-20). In chapters 13 and 19, the magicians were Jews.


In magic, God becomes man’s servant (the magic genie, who does man’s bidding). In Christianity, men become God’s servants. The difference is the sovereignty of God. God is not manipulated by men, for men have no claim on Him, on His grace, or on His power. God owes men nothing, and nothing men do can merit or cause God’s blessings.

Whenever men lose sight of the sovereignty of God, they begin to think and to act according to the rules of magic. And all of this can take on a very pious appearance. We believe that if we follow the right formulas God is obliged to act as we wish. If we pray, using the right formula (e.g. “in Jesus’ name”), or with enough persistence or sincerity, or the agreement of others, we can be assured that God will act in the way we desire. Magic focuses on the “right” methods. Christianity trusts in a God whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and whose ways are beyond our comprehension.

God’s grace and God’s gifts are a matter of His sovereign pleasure, but what a comfort it is to know that God acts independently of men, without being manipulated. What a comfort to know that God’s independence assures us that He will not only act independently of men, but in the best interest of His own. He is not manipulated by His children; He manipulates us, but in a way that is for His glory and for our best interest. His sovereignty will be evident in our next lesson, in the salvation of Saul, the rebel.

May we gratefully bow the knee in worship and obedience to the Sovereign God, who works all things together for our good, and in such a way as to achieve His purposes and plans.

110 “Simon Magus plays an extraordinary role in early Christian literature. The word ‘magus’ originally denoted a member of the Median priestly tribe, but it came to be used in an extended sense of a practitioner of various kinds of sorcery and even quackery, like Elymas, the sorcerer of Paphos in Cyprus, whom we meet later in the narrative of Acts (13:6-11). The ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’ from the east (Matt. 2:1), who saw the rising star of the newborn king of the Jews, were evidently astrologers. This Simon is depicted in postapostolic writings as the father of all Gnostic heresies. Justin Martyr tells how he secured a following of devotees not only in Samaria but in Rome, to which he went in the time of Claudius. In the apocryphal Acts of Peter (4-32) he is said to have corrupted the Christians in Rome by his false teaching and made the authorities ill-disposed toward them, but to have been worsted at last in a magical contest with Peter. But it is in the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions and Homilies that the Simon legend is most curiously elaborated: in them he not only appears as the untiring adversary of Peter but seems, to some extent at least, to serve as a camouflage for Paul, reflecting anti-Pauline sentiments among some of the Ebionites and similar Jewish-Christian groups.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 166.

“. . . Simon Magus (the magician, or sorcerer) -- is the subject of many legends in the Early Church. The most striking tradition is that he was the founder of Gnosticism.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 114.

111 “Saul, a native of the Cilician city of Tarsus, as we learn later (9:11), may have attended the synagogue in Jerusalem where Stephen engaged in disputation with the spokesmen for the old order (6:9).” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 161.

112 The persecution which sent men and women to Samaria, where the gospel was proclaimed, also sent others to more distant places, where the gospel was proclaimed not only to Jews, but to Gentiles as well. This resulted in the birth of the church at Antioch (Acts 11:19-26). Luke indicates that the same persecution results in both “waves” of evangelism, but saves the more “Gentile” phase until later in the book, to keep his account consistent with the geographical outline of the gospel’s expansion, given in Acts 1:8.

113 Of Philip: “The deacon (6:5) and evangelist (21:8), not the apostle of the same name (Mark 3:18).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 102.

114 “The city of Samaria” is rendered “a city” in some translations. There was in Samaria, a city whose name was Samaria. Thus, one could have spoken of Samaria (city), Samaria (country), just as one can presently speak of New York, New York. Of the city of Samaria, Bruce writes, “The ancient city called Samaria had been refounded by Herod the Great and renamed Sebaste, in honor of the Roman emperor, but it was a Hellenistic city, and the impression given by our narrative is that the people to whom Philip preached were genuine Samaritans.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 165. If the rendering, “a city” is correct, a number of cities could be proposed as the particular city.

115 I take it that Simon had no real supernatural powers. Some, such as the demon-possessed girl who pestered Paul and Silas (Acts 16:16-18), did have supernatural abilities, but it seems that this man had only tricks, deceptions, the slight of hand appearances of magical powers. His amazement at the power of God at work through Philip gives me the impression that he had no real power.

116 Ananias did “lay his hands on” Saul (Acts 9:12, 17), and this seems to be in conjunction with his receiving the Holy Spirit, but once again we are not told what phenomenon accompanied his reception of the Spirit, if any.

117 It is my opinion that Simon had little interest in this power to heal and cast out demons, because he was not as interested in ministering to others and he was in promoting himself. Thus, the “razzle dazzle” ability to bestow the Holy Spirit had more appeal to Simon than the less spectacular ability to heal and deliver others from Satan’s bondage.

118 Cf. also Deuteronomy 32:32; Lamentations 3:15; Job 16:14; Isaiah 58:6; Hebrews 12:15.

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13. The Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40)


This week I spent a great deal of time working on the church grounds—something I do not usually do. As David Mills and I were standing in front of the church talking, a woman who lives across the street from the church walked up to us and asked, “Do you men attend this church?” We told her we both were members of the church. She seemed satisfied by this and followed up with this request: “My husband and I went out for a walk and accidentally locked ourselves out of the house. Do you suppose that you could help us get back into the house?” David knew that I had some skill in this area, and so he went on back to his work. I told the woman I would be delighted to help her “break in” to her house if she would not tell anybody what I had done. In less than a minute she was back in her house, pleased to be in so easily, but a little distressed to see the ease with which I got past her front door lock.

Later in the day, David called. He asked if I had been successful. I told him that I managed to get in in less than a minute. It only later occurred to me that there might be a connection between this neighbor’s asking if we were from the church and her asking if we could help her break into her own house. She wanted someone to help her break in, but she also wanted some assurance that the person who did so was trustworthy. In effect, she wanted an honest “second story man.” I guess that was me.

It is strange how things like this work out, isn’t it? It reminds me of another time, when I was helping a friend “break into” his truck. It suddenly occurred to me, as I was standing there in the darkness, clothes hanger in hand, that my friend was holding the light, and I was doing the breaking in. That amused me because he had spent a fair bit of time in prison for dealing in stolen car parts.

The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch is similar, as I read this text in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts. Here was a man who had just been to Jerusalem, to worship the God of Israel there. And yet he was not saved in Jerusalem, but in the desert. And rather than being “led to the Lord” by one of the apostles there in Jerusalem, or even by Peter or John in a Samaritan city, he was converted through Philip, who was divinely directed to him in that remote desert place. One would think that the first Gentile convert (specifically mentioned in Acts) would have been won by an apostle. How strange the ways of God are! The salvation of this Ethiopian eunuch was clearly a matter of divine election and calling, as was the choice of the human instrument (Philip) a part of God’s sovereign will. The reasons for this are important, and we shall seek to discover them as we continue on with our study.

The Return of the Apostles

25 And so, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.

Stephen’s preaching resulted in his own death, and in the persecution of the whole church in Jerusalem, with Saul as a prominent and dominant force behind this. This brought about the exodus of the church, except for the apostles (Acts 8:1-3). Along with Stephen (and five others), Philip was one of those chosen to oversee the feeding of the widows, giving particular attention to the Hellenistic Jewish widows, who had previously been overlooked (Acts 6:1-6). This same Philip had fled from Jerusalem, and had gone to Samaria, where he performed many amazing signs (Acts 8:4-7). As a result of his ministry, many Samaritans were saved, including Simon the magician (8:9-13). When the apostles in Jerusalem learned of the revival which was taking place in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. These apostles laid their hands on the Samaritan believers and prayed that they might receive the Holy Spirit (8:14-15). When they had finished their task, they departed for Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in the Samaritan villages as they journeyed home (8:25).

The Conversion of the Ethiopian

26 But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, “Arise and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 And he arose and went; and behold, there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship. 28 And he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” 30 And when Philip had run up, he heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this: “HE WAS LED AS A SHEEP TO SLAUGHTER; AND AS A LAMB BEFORE ITS SHEARER IS SILENT, SO HE DOES NOT OPEN HIS MOUTH. 33”IN HUMILIATION HIS JUDGMENT WAS TAKEN AWAY; WHO SHALL RELATE HIS GENERATION? FOR HIS LIFE IS REMOVED FROM THE EARTH.”

34 And the eunuch answered Philip and said, “Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself, or of someone else?” 35 And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. 36 And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 37 (See marginal note.) 38 And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch saw him no more, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus; and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities, until he came to Caesarea.

We are not told how it was that Philip ended up in “the city of Samaria” (Acts 8:5). We can safely assume that Philip left Jerusalem because of the intense persecution that arose in connection with the death of Stephen (8:1). We are not told that Philip was divinely directed to this city. The impression I get is that he simply ended up there. When the power of God was manifested through Philip, both by means of his miracles and his message, many were converted. In the case of the conversion of the Ethiopian, we are very clearly told that Philip was specifically directed to this man, and to the meeting place, in a remote location in the desert.

This divine direction is given through the “angel of the Lord”119 (8:26) and through the Holy Spirit (8:29, 39). I think it is significant that both the “angel of the Lord” and the Holy Spirit are employed in guiding Philip to the eunuch. The “angel of the Lord” is perhaps God’s primary means of specifically guiding individuals in the Old Testament, while the Holy Spirit is the more dominant instrument of guidance in the New. Used together, the guidance of Philip and the salvation of the Ethiopian is shown to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and promises,120 pertaining to the salvation of Gentiles, as well as a New Testament phenomenon, brought about by means of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Old and New Testaments are demonstrated to be in harmony in this matter of the eunuch’s salvation.

There could be no mistaking it. God intended to save this one individual. He was an Ethiopian, a high government official, and possibly a eunuch.121 Had this man been saved in Jerusalem, it might have been looked upon as a kind of fluke, an exception. But this man was being sought by God. Here, in the midst of a Samaritan revival, and before the accounts of wide-spread evangelism of Gentiles, this Gentile was sought and saved by God, a kind of “first-fruits” of that which was to come. According to church tradition, this man was to become an evangelist among his own people. There is no mention of this in the Scriptures, however.

Obediently, Philip went to the place he was directed by the “angel of the Lord.” It was at this place that he saw the eunuch. Then, the Holy Spirit directed Philip to join himself with the chariot122 (8:29), and thus with its rider. While Philip was very precisely guided to the man, he was not told what to say. His message was to be indicated by the passage the eunuch was studying, and the question which he asked.

There is no doubt that Philip was guided to this man, in this remote desert spot. This is clear and it is emphatic in the text. While not so clear, nor so emphatic, it would seem that the eunuch was divinely prepared for Philip’s appearance as well. The man was not on his way to Jerusalem, but from the holy city. He had been there to worship. What could have happened in Jerusalem, which might have prepared the eunuch for his encounter with Philip, and with the gospel?

In the first place, the eunuch may have heard about Jesus. If this were the eunuch’s first pilgrimage to the holy land, he would have many questions. If the eunuch had been in Jerusalem before, he would likely have heard of Jesus, of His claim to be the Messiah, of His ministry, His rejection, His trial, His death and burial, and likely His empty tomb. He may have heard of the apostles, of their radical change after the death of Jesus, and of their ministry and message. At the time of the eunuch’s arrival in Jerusalem, the “headline news” would have had to do with Stephen’s ministry and martyrdom, and of the widespread persecution of the church, led (at least in part) by a Jew named Saul.

It would seem that the eunuch had a strong commitment to Judaism (his pilgrimage to Jerusalem was no small effort), and that he also had a strong sense of messianic expectation. Would he not have asked about Jesus? Would he not wish to look into this matter of Messiah personally, to see for himself what the Old Testament prophets had written? Did the eunuch purchase his copy of the Isaiah scroll (an expensive gesture) so that he could read the prophecies about Messiah? And who told the eunuch about baptism? We all assume that Philip did, but we do not know this to be so. The apostles had preached that Israelites must repent and be baptized, calling upon the name of the Lord to be saved. Is this why the eunuch was so eager to be baptized, when he saw the water? There may have been a great deal of groundwork already accomplished in the eunuch’s life, so that he was ready to receive the message which Philip would disclose to him, from the Scriptures.

What a thrill it must have been for Philip to hear the eunuch reading aloud from the prophecy of Isaiah. What an evidence of God’s leading. Indeed, this was the right man. When Philip run alongside the eunuch’s chariot and asked if he understood what he was reading, the Ethiopian quickly accepted his help. He needed, as he said, someone to guide him. The Old Testament only went so far as to prophecy concerning things to come. The gospel was the record of these prophecies having been fulfilled. Philip was about to tell this man that the prophecies of Isaiah concerning Messiah were fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Thus, he began with this text, proclaiming Jesus to him.

The prophecy which the eunuch was reading included these words, words which greatly perplexed him:


These words come from Isaiah 53:7-8. I would understand that these words were especially perplexing to the eunuch, and thus the focus of his attention and of his question. But I would also assume that the eunuch had read the entire text, and thus was well aware of the overall passage and of its context.

The problem which the eunuch had with this passage was wrapped up in the identity of the one referred to in the text:

“Please tell me of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself, or of someone else?” (Isaiah 53:34).

If the prophet was referring to himself, his suffering (and death) would not come as a surprise. After all, the prophets were rejected, despised, and persecuted (cf. Stephen’s words in 7:52). But how could Isaiah be speaking of himself? The immediately preceding verses spoke of the death of this mysterious figure, but a substitutionary death—a death for the benefit of others:

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).

If Isaiah could not be referring to himself, and he was referring to another, than was this person not Messiah? But if this was the Messiah, He was not the kind of Messiah that Israel was looking for. They looked for a hero, to rid Israel of her oppressors. In fact, this description perfectly portrayed the coming of Jesus, and His rejection by Israel. Jesus’ message, was rejected by Israel, just like the rest of the prophets (Isaiah 53:1). Jesus was not outwardly attractive, and indeed, He was rejected by men, who viewed His suffering and death as deservedly from God. He was, however, from God’s point of view, sinless. His suffering and death were for the sins of others, rather than His own. If these words of Isaiah were a description of Messiah, then Jesus was the Messiah. No wonder the identity of this One was so important to the eunuch.

Philip’s answer was to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, beginning with this text, and then from the rest of the Old Testament (Acts 8:35). The eunuch joyfully accepted Philip’s words. When he saw water (a rare thing in this desert place) he wished to make the best use of it. He wanted to be baptized.123 Who told him of the need for baptism is not stated, but he was right in seeing it as an important responsibility for a true believer. When the chariot stopped, both got out, and Philip baptized him.124

Even more quickly than he appeared on the scene, Philip disappeared. Some may doubt the fact of a miraculous disappearance and transporting of Philip, but the words strongly imply such. Philip was “snatched away”125 by the Holy Spirit, in a way that is similar to the transporting of Old Testament saints like Elijah, end even of New Testament personalities.126 Philip found himself at Azotus, some twenty or so miles distant,127 from which place he passed on to other cities, preaching the gospel as he went on his way to Caesarea (Acts 9:40).

The Ethiopian, on the other hand, proceeded in a more normal way, back to his native land. We are told no more of this man in the New Testament, although some ancients viewed this man as the father of evangelism in Ethiopia.128 What we are told is that this man went his way rejoicing (8:39). When the gospel comes and is received, there is great joy. Such was the case in the city of Samaria (8:8). It is always the case (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:6). This is, I believe, the “joy of our salvation” (cf. Psalm 51:12). Sin may rob of this joy for a season, but repentance will restore it to us, and us to God. It is difficult to believe that salvation has come when there is no joy.


There are a number of important lessons to be learned from this brief account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. First, let us look at this event in the light of the argument of the Book of Acts. It is a significant event in the transition from Jerusalem to Rome (cf. Acts 1:8) and from the preaching of the gospel to the Jews (only, at first) to the Gentiles. We have been prepared for the evangelization of the Gentiles throughout the Gospel of Luke and in Acts (thus far) as well. In Luke chapter 2, Simeon spoke of the Lord Jesus as a “light to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32; a citation from Isaiah 42:6). In Luke chapter 4, when Jesus was welcomed by His own people at the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus made it clear that the salvation He had come to bring was for Gentiles as well, a disclosure which reversed the attitude of the people, so that they now tried to kill Him (cf. Luke 4:16-30). The account of the good Samaritan (Luke 10), the prodigal son (Luke 15), and the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18) all put the self-righteous Jew in his place, while it elevated the despised “sinner” and gave him hope of God’s salvation, due to his repentance. In Acts chapter 2, speaking in tongues was a sign, a sign of “things to come” in the salvation of those from every nation, just as our Lord had given instructions in the great commission to make disciples of every nation (Matthew 28:18-20).

The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch was a very significant event, recorded in the midst of the great Samaritan revival. The Samaritans were regarded as “half-brothers,” so to speak, but were at least received by the church as saints. This Ethiopian was a kind of “first fruits” of the Gentiles. His race, along with his physical deformity (if, indeed, he was a true eunuch), would have kept him from approaching God, but God approached him, seeking him out in the desert, making it clear that he was a true saint, and the first of many more to come. Later on, Peter would be sent to the house of another Gentile proselyte, a God-fearer, but the Ethiopian was first brought near to God by his faith in Jesus as the Christ. And this man was not saved through the ministry of an apostle (Peter and John were on their way home), but rather through Philip. The sovereignty of God is once more emphasized.

This text is vitally important for it would seem that it is here, for the first time, that Isaiah 53 is clearly indicated as a messianic prophecy. It would not have been received (or welcomed) as such by those within Judaism who wanted a different kind of Messiah. Philip’s identification of the One of whom Isaiah wrote as the Messiah, Jesus, was that which opened the door to much further study, meditation, and apostolic preaching. But here this text is seen in what appears to be a new light.

This text is a key, I believe, to Jewish evangelism. It not only helps us understand why unbelieving Jews would reject Jesus (as Saul did), but also what an unbelieving Jew must do in order to be saved. This passage would require a Jew to repent (to change their mind about Jesus, and about Messiah), so as to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah (something Saul is going to do in chapter 9). They must recognize that their conception of Messiah was wrong, as was their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. They must see that Jesus was the innocent, suffering Savior, who came to be rejected and to die, not for His own sins, but the for sins of the world, so that men could be saved. They must see that it was their perception of Him that was wrong, and that in their sins they had rejected the One whom God had appointed. They must admit that God was utterly right, and that they were wrong in this matter of Messiah (as with all else). Jesus is the bone of contention, and rightly so. It is not that Jesus does not fulfill prophecy perfectly, but that Israel no more accepted Messiah than they did the prophets. To be saved required repentance—the admission that they were wrong—and trust in Jesus as the Messiah of God. Jewish evangelism should lean hard on this passage, for it says all that is needed to be said, and it point to Jesus as the Messiah, the only One who has perfectly fit this divine description and prophecy of the Savior.

I should also add that this text is they key to Gentile evangelism. The fact is that God’s Messiah was a Jewish Messiah. The salvation which we must accept for eternal life is, in a sense, a Jewish salvation. We are saved by trusting in a Jewish Savior, who perfectly fulfilled the Old Testament (Jewish) scriptures. We are not saved (as the Judaizers would insist) by becoming Jewish proselytes, for the Ethiopian was a proselyte. But while he was a religious Jew, he was not saved. People thus are saved by recognizing their sins, just as the Jews must, and by trusting in Jesus as God’s Messiah, just like the Jews. Gentiles must be saved as Jews are (so here), and Jews must be saved as the Gentiles are (so Galatians 2:15-21).

The salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch is an interesting commentary on the charges which were leveled against Stephen. He was charged with speaking against the law of Moses and against the “Holy place.” The Jews had an undue attraction and devotion to the “holy city” and to the temple. They attributed an excessive value to these places, not knowing (or refusing to accept the fact that) God was about to destroy them. It was a new “holy city” that would be the headquarters of the kingdom, not this city, which was to be done away with. The “holy place” did little for the eunuch. Instead, he was brought to faith in a remote “desert place,” although he had just been to the temple and to the holy city. Just as Jesus had told the woman at the well in John chapter 4, worship was not a matter of the “right place,” but of the “right person” and of the “right spirit.” We see this evidenced by the conversion of the Ethiopian.

Finally, the process by which God saved the Ethiopian eunuch provides us with an important lesson in divine guidance. Here, Philip is specifically directed to the Ethiopian eunuch, in a remote place, so that God’s election and salvation might become evident, in an undeniable way. And so it was necessary for the “angel of the Lord” and the “Holy Spirit” to direct Philip to the eunuch. But in the salvation of the Samaritans in the “city of Samaria” above (8:4-25), no statement is made that Philip was divinely guided to this place. It is clear that God “led” Philip, in an indirect way, but from all outward appearances, Philip went there out of pure necessity and on the basis of his own judgment.

My point is this: God guides. God guides supernaturally, at times. He specifically and undeniably guides men to do that which they would not have ordinarily have done. Thus, God guided Philip to set aside his Samaritan ministry for a time and to go to this remote place so as to bring about the conversion of an African. This guidance was necessary because Philip would have never chosen to do this on his own, and rightly so. But in many (I would say most) cases, God guides and uses men and women, who act on their own judgment, just as God used Philip to reach this Samaritan city, and many of the others who fled from Jerusalem to avoid the persecution of Saul and perhaps others. It may not seem like a very kind of pious guidance—this flight from persecution—but God succeeded in putting men and women where He wanted them. Why is it that we want the God’s particular direction, but we turn up our nose at His providential guidance? It think it is because we deem direct guidance to be more spiritual than indirect guidance. And this, in my opinion, is why we so often try to sanction our own decisions with the phrase “God led me to…” when, in all truth, this guidance is the indirect kind, and not that of a specific set of instructions given by an angel of the Lord. Let us be assured that God does guide, but that He is under no obligation to guide us as we might prefer, or as we might deem more spiritual. A God who is sovereign, who is completely in control, does not have to tell every Christian every step they are to take. And this is why we must walk by faith, and not by sight. Faith acts, based upon biblical principles, trusting that God is guiding. Faith does not presume to demand that God must give us verbal instructions from an angel or His Spirit, so that we can be sure He is with us. Much that is done in the name of faith is really its opposite—unbelief. Faith trusts God when we have not seen (an angel or a vision), and when we do not need to. Let us be men and women of faith.

One final word—about discipleship. I believe that discipleship is a divinely given duty, as stated, for example, in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Having said this, I must also point out that God sometimes provides for the discipling of men apart from the normal means. Saul, for example, was discipled by God in the wilderness, and not by the apostles, and for a good purpose (as we shall later see). So, too, this Ethiopian is not discipled by Philip or by any other saints, so far as I can tell. In these exceptional cases, God will meet the need. This Ethiopian had the Word of God and the Spirit of God. That was enough. And for those of us who become overly dependent on others (“accountability” is a word that makes me a little nervous—it is not thoroughly biblical), let me remind you that our primary dependence should be upon the Word of God and the Spirit of God as well, rather than upon men, even godly men.

The Ethiopian met God in a deserted place, when he came to realize that his religion was not enough, and that Jesus was the Savior, who died for his sins. Have you met the Savior yet? I pray that if you have not, today might be the day.

119 For a study of the “angel of the Lord” consult these texts: Gen 16:7,9,11; 22:11, 15; Exo 3:2; Num 22:22-27, 31-32, 34-35; Jud 2:1,3; 5:23; 6:11-12, 21-22; 13:3,13, 15-17, 20-21; 2Sa 24:16; 1Ki 19:7; 2Ki 1:3,15; 19:35; 1Ch 21:12,15-16,18,30; Psa 34:7; 35:5-6; Isa 37:36; Zec 1:11-12; 3:1, 5-6; 12:8; Mat 1:20,24; 2:13, 19; 28:2; Luk 1:11, 2:9; Act 5:19; 8:26; 12:7,23.

120 Cf. Deuteronomy 23:1; Isaiah 56:3-5; 66:18-21.

121 The title “eunuch” can be used of a government official who is literally a eunuch, but also for an official who is not. Thus, we cannot know for certain whether or not this man was literally a eunuch. If he was, indeed, a eunuch, he would have been forbidden to enter the “assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1).

122 Unromantic as it may be, this could also have been a mere ox cart.

123 Verse 37 is omitted in some texts. I am inclined to accept it as genuine. It may not add a great deal to the passage, nor would its absence do great damage to it. It may be that the words of verse 37, which stress the importance of the eunuch “believing with all his heart that Jesus is the Christ” are, to some degree, a result of Philip’s disappointing experience with Simon the magician, whose sincerity seemed a bit doubtful under close apostolic scrutiny.

124 I am an immersionist, by conviction, but the fact that both men are said to go down into the water does not necessarily prove that this man was immersed. They could have “gone down” into a creek or (more likely) an oasis, which was but a few inches deep. The “going down” need not refer to the depth of the water, but to the elevation of the water, with respect to the two men. And even though the water were deep enough to immerse the Ethiopian, this does not, in and of itself, prove that he was immersed. That is an inference derived from a number of lines of evidence. This text does not add much to these lines of evidence. After all, a man could have been sprinkled in a pool six feet deep.

125 Paul employs this same term for being his being “caught up” into the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 2:2, 4, and for the rapture of the living saints in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (cf. also Revelation 12:5).

126 We see something similar happening elsewhere in the Bible. Notice the marginal notes in the NASB here, referring to 1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:16; Ezekiel 3:12, 14; 8:3; 11:1, 24; 43:5; 2 Corinthians 12:2.

127 Cf. Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 122.

128 “. . . tradition has assigned to this man the early evangelization of Ethiopia.” Carter and Earle, p. 122.

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14. The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31)


Imagine for a moment that this is the week of Saul’s arrival at Damascus.129 By this time Saul has gained a reputation as the ringleader of the movement to make Christianity extinct. A devout Hellenistic Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul was a member of the Pharisees and was taught by none other than Gamaliel, whom we have already met (Acts 5:34-40). Saul did not agree with his teacher, Gamaliel, on how the Christians should be dealt with, however. Rather, he sought the arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment (with imprisonment the norm and death the ideal, it would seem) of those in Jerusalem. His career as a persecutor of Christians seems to have begun with Stephen, but it quickly spread to all of the Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 7:58–8:3). Saul was not content to punish some and to drive the rest from the “holy city.” He did not want to merely contain Christianity or to drive it from Jerusalem; he wanted to rid the earth of Christianity and its followers. Thus, his opposition to Christ and His church took on a “missionary” spirit. Saul went to other cities where he sought to arrest Christians and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Damascus, a city some 150 miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, was one such city. Word was out that Saul would soon be arriving.

Suppose you were a Christian who had just arrived in Damascus, and you had been able to learn the whereabouts of a group of believers. Let us suppose further that the church had gathered on this particular evening for a time of prayer, prompted by the news that Saul was soon to arrive, with all the necessary legal machinery (that is, the authorization of the chief priests and the Sanhedrin130) to arrest and extradite131 the saints who were in the city. What do you suppose the saints would have prayed at this special prayer meeting? We are given a little insight from the account in Acts 12 when Peter was imprisoned and it appeared he would soon be executed, as James had already been, and as we would infer Herod purposed to do with Peter (Acts 12:1-4). In this occasion, no one seems to have prayed for Peter’s miraculous escape. At least we can say that no one had enough faith to believe it, even as Peter stood at the door, knocking to get in (12:12-17).

I very much doubt anyone prayed that this Saul might be saved. I can believe someone might have prayed that Saul be waylaid, or “terminated,” in some divine act or providential accident (“act of God”). I can believe the saints who gathered to pray would have prayed for the protection of the church in Damascus and for the safety of individual saints, especially the leaders and the most visible Christians. No one, it would seem, was even thinking of what God was about to do. Ananias is not only surprised by his commission; he is resistant to it, at least initially.

There would likely be another group of people meeting on the evening before Saul arrived in Damascus—those who did not believe in Jesus as their Messiah, and who eagerly sought the eradication of the church in their city. Were these people as eager as Saul to destroy the church? Did they send for Saul? Or did they somewhat dread his arrival, knowing how zealous he was in his opposition to the church. If he were viewed as a reactionary, a trouble-maker, perhaps there were some unbelievers who thought Saul was too much trouble. Nevertheless, there must have been those who intended to use Saul’s coming to oppose the church. They may have been attempting to compile a list of known (and even suspected) Christians, along with addresses, to facilitate Saul’s task.

What a shock Saul’s conversion must have been to both groups! To the church, Saul turned out to be a friend, a fellow-believer, in fact, a flaming evangelist, who proclaimed Christ more clearly and powerfully than anyone had previously done in Damascus. The church did not shrink or suffer for Saul’s arrival, but it grew because of it. And the second group, who were waiting for Saul to come and help them deal with the followers of “the Way,” were about to discover that Saul had joined them, perhaps bringing other members of the opposition along with him. Did they think their task would be a simple one? They found that their cause was literally shut down by Saul’s arrival, and the wind was taken out of their sails by his conversion. What can you say about Christianity when its most outspoken and zealous opponent suddenly claims to have seen the risen Christ, and to have trusted in Him as the Messiah?

The importance of Saul’s conversion can hardly be overestimated. Three times in the Book of Acts it is reported, the first time in the third person (“he”) by Luke (Acts 9:1-31), the second time in the first person (“I”) by the apostle, as he spoke to his Jewish unbelieving brethren in defense of his ministry (Acts 22:1-21), and the third time, again in the first person, as his personal testimony to King Agrippa, Festus, and Bernice (Acts 26:1-23). This three-fold repetition is a clear indication of the importance of this event, especially in the themes Luke is seeking to develop in the Book of Acts.

It is not just in the Book of Acts that the importance of Saul’s conversion is evident. On various occasions in his epistles, Paul made either direct or indirect references to his former life of opposition and his radical conversion.132 Paul’s theology, his lifestyle, his ministry, and his methodology, all are rooted in his conversion. This text portrays one of the historical landmarks of the church.

Problems in the Passage

If this passage is profoundly important, it also poses its problems. There are differences between the three accounts given to us in Acts. All of these should be expected and can be rather easily explained. But there is a greater discrepancy between the accounts of Saul’s conversion in Acts and that which Paul gave in Galatians 1. I. Howard Marshall summarizes the problem in these words:

“Nevertheless, we obtain a different impression of things from Galatians 1:16-24, according to which (1) Paul did not confer with men after his conversion nor go to the apostles in Jerusalem, but (2) departed to Arabia and then returned to Damascus; then (3) three years later he went to Jerusalem for a visit lasting a fortnight during which he saw only Peter and James, and at this time he was unknown by sight to the churches of Judea; thereafter (4) he went to Syria and Cilicia. This account is accompanied by an asseveration of its truth which suggests that some people were contradicting it.”133

As I look at the problem, I believe several conclusions must be drawn. First, there are problems which appear to be serious. Second, we are not given enough information in the biblical text to solve them dogmatically. Third, these discrepancies may well have been evident to the writers, who did not see fit to remove or explain every problem. Fourth, if we had all the facts, there would be no problem. Fifth, faith must take the text on face value, as it is written, and believe it as God’s inspired, inerrant, authoritative word.

The Structure of the Passage

The passage which we are studying can be divided into these major segments:

  • Saul’s Arrest—Verses 1-9
  • Convincing Ananias—Verses 10-16
  • Ananias and Saul—Verses 17-19a
  • Saul’s Witness in Damascus—Verses 19b-25
  • Saul’s Witness in Jerusalem—Verses 26-30
  • Peace Returns to the Land—Verse 31

Our Approach

We will begin this lesson by making some general observations concerning this account of Saul’s conversion,134 after which we will examine the sequence of events leading up to Saul’s conversion, the events surrounding his conversion, and the consequences of his conversion as depicted by Luke. We will next seek to learn how this description of Saul’s conversion fits into and contributes to the development of Luke’s argument in Acts. We will also attempt to determine to what degree Saul’s conversion was typical and to what degree it was unique. We shall then seek to identify the characteristics of Saul’s conversion which are typical of every conversion. Finally, we shall attempt to focus on the application of this passage to our own lives.

Overall Observations

The first thing we shall do is to make some observations on the passage as a whole to attempt to see the forest before we scrutinize the trees. Note the following impressions gained from a reflection on the passage as a whole.

(1) There is considerable emphasis given to Saul’s conversion in the Book of Acts. To put it differently, the account of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9 is but the first of three accounts, the other two coming from the lips of Paul himself.

(2) While there is considerable emphasis on the conversion of Saul, there is very little detail given as to the precise time or the details of Saul’s conversion. We do not know the exact time when Saul was saved. It would seem not to be there on the road to Damascus. Here, Saul was only told that it was Jesus whom he saw, who was speaking to him, and whom he was persecuting. The details of what was said and done when Ananias arrived are fuzzy. There is clearly no attempt to establish some kind of pattern or formula for evangelism here, at least as far as methodology is concerned.

(3) Saul’s conversion experience was quick and dramatic in one sense, but it also involved a process, a process of at least three days.135

(4) More space is devoted to the process of getting Ananias to Saul than is devoted to getting Saul to Damascus and to the home of Judas. It almost seems harder to convince Ananias that Saul is (or will be) a Christian than it is to convert Saul.

(5) There is a good deal of emphasis on the results of Saul’s conversion. In fact, more is written of what Saul said and did because he was saved than is written of what he said and did resulting in his salvation.

(6) Little emphasis is placed on Saul’s reception of the Holy Spirit, and nothing is said about what happened as Saul received the Spirit. In our text Ananias was instructed to go to Saul and to lay hands on him so that he might receive his sight (9:12). The words which Ananias spoke to Saul indicate he was also to lay hands on him so that he would receive the Holy Spirit (9:17). In spite of this, we are not told here that Saul did receive the Holy Spirit or what happened when he did. I do not question that he did receive the Spirit, but merely observe that this receiving of the Spirit (accompanied by the laying on of hands) was not something Luke wanted to emphasize. If Luke had any “ax to grind” on this issue, here would have been a great place to stress this matter, but he did not do so. This silence is instructive, in my opinion.

(7) Those who were saved by Saul’s ministry were convinced by the power of the gospel message he preached and not by miraculous signs and wonders. Elsewhere in Acts, such as with the apostles, Stephen and Philip, the message of the gospel was underscored by signs and wonders which accompanied the message. Nothing is said in our text about any miracles being performed by Saul, as yet. We are simply told that the message itself was proclaimed powerfully and that people were amazed at the message and its miraculous impact on Saul’s own conduct.

(8) Saul was saved independently of the apostles. Ananias was used as God’s instrument in the conversion of Saul, but even he had to be pushed to go to Saul. There is not so much as a hint that anyone prayed for Saul’s salvation or took the initiative to bring it about. It was God’s initiative all the way. The apostles had nothing to do with Saul’s conversion, and they were reluctant to believe it had happened or to welcome him into their fellowship. Paul would make much more of this point in the first chapter of Galatians.

(9) On the road to Damascus, Saul did far more than to see a bright light and to hear a voice from heaven. Saul saw and heard the resurrected Christ. When one looks at all the references to this event, it was, in fact, a personal appearance of the risen, glorified Jesus to Saul (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:4-11).

(10) Saul’s encounter with Christ was not only a conversion, but it was also a call to a very specific ministry. Saul was told at the time of his conversion that God had chosen him to bear witness to the Gentiles, to kings, and to the Jews (9:15).

(11) Saul’s conversion was a watershed event which greatly affected the history of the church. From the fact that three different accounts of Saul’s conversion are recorded in Acts, we know this event had to play a crucial role in the expansion of the church.

(12) The same Saul who played a role in Stephen’s execution was to become, in large measure, his replacement. Saul, like Stephen, was a Hellenistic Jew. Saul, like Stephen, spoke with such power and authority that his opponents could not refute him. Saul, like Stephen, had a ministry which focused on the Hellenistic Jews. Like Stephen, the enemies of the gospel attempted to kill Saul when they could not silence him by means of debate.

(13) As Stephen’s death, instigated (or at least assisted) by Saul, resulted in an intense and widespread persecution of the churches in Jerusalem and elsewhere, so Saul’s conversion seems to have been directly related to the return of peace (cf. 9:31).

(14) There is an interesting symmetry or parallel between the conversion of Saul and the conversion of Cornelius.

“Conybeare and Howson {The Life and Times of Saint Paul, p. 77 (sic punct.)} remark on the symmetry with which Luke sets forth the two stories: ‘The simultaneous preparation of the hearts of Ananias and of Saul, and the simultaneous preparation of those of Peter and Cornelius,—the questioning and hesitation of Peter and the questioning and hesitation of Ananias,—the one doubting whether he might make friendship with the Gentiles, the other doubting whether he might approach the enemy of the Church,—the unhesitating obedience of each when the Divine will was made known,—the state of mind in which both the Pharisee and the centurion were found,—each waiting to see what the Lord would say to them,—this close analogy will not be forgotten by those who reverently read the two consecutive chapters. . ‘“136

Man Proposes—God Disposes
or Saul’s Intentions and God’s Interruption

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way,137 both men and women,138 he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4 and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5 And he said, “Who art Thou, Lord?”139 And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6 but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.” 7 And the men who traveled with him140 stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one.141 8 And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus.142 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Verses 1 and 2 vividly depict Saul’s intent, his intense desire and determination to rid the world of Christianity by taking active, aggressive, severe action against those saints who had fled from Jerusalem. While Paul may not have brought about the execution of all those whom he arrested, including women as well as men (verse 2), verse 1 strongly suggests that this was his desire and ambition. How true are two of the proverbs, which read:

The mind of a man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9).

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the LORD, it will stand (Proverbs 19:21).

God’s promises and purposes would not be stopped by this madman, Saul. Indeed, God would reveal His sovereignty by using Saul to further the gospel, first by his opposition (which scattered the church and spread the gospel), and then by his conversion (which resulted in his powerful proclamation of Jesus as Messiah).

We know from other accounts (22:6; 26:13) that it was “high noon” when Saul was stopped in his tracks by a bright light from heaven. This light would thus have been very bright indeed. It was bright enough to bring about a period of blindness. It was almost as though Saul had looked intently into the beam of an intensely powerful carbon-act light, the kind used as search lights.

This light was more, much more, than just a bright light. It is, in the Bible, the radiance of God’s glory. Frequent biblical texts speak of God in terms of light:

You are resplendent with light, more majestic than mountains rich with game (Psalm 76:4).

He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent (Psalm 104:2).

Who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen (1 Timothy 6:16).

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you (Isaiah 60:1).

He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him (Daniel 2:22).

Who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen (1 Timothy 6:16).

In the end, God Himself will provide the illumination so that the sun and the stars will not be needed for this function:

The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted (Isaiah 30:26).

The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory (Isaiah 60:19).

Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end (Isaiah 60:20).

The light of a lamp will never shine in you again. The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again. Your merchants were the world’s great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray (Revelation 18:23).

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it (Revelation 21:23-24).

There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever (Revelation 22:5).

Israel was called of God and set apart to proclaim the way of salvation to the Gentiles. They were to be a “light to the Gentiles,” but they failed. They wanted to keep God’s blessings to themselves. They too rebelled against God and forsook His word and persecuted His prophets. What Israel failed to do, Jesus, the Messiah would do. He was to come to the earth as the “great light,” the “light to the Gentiles,” and so He did. In His coming as “the light,” those who come to “the light” become lights to the world themselves:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned (Isaiah 9:2).

“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6).

He says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

“Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations (Isaiah 51:4).

After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:11).

Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light. Because I have sinned against him, I will bear the Lord’s wrath, until he pleads my case and establishes my right. He will bring me out into the light; I will see his righteousness (Micah 7:8-9).

“The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).

There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light (Matthew 17:2).

“A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it .… He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world (John 1:4-5, 7-9).

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (John 3:19-21).

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).

Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.” When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them (John 12:35-36).

I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness (John 12:46).

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard (Isaiah 58:8).

Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn (Isaiah 60:3).

When Saul was confronted on the road to Damascus, he saw the risen, glorified Lord. The light was the “light of His glory.” Saul, as it were, “saw the light,” but in addition, he was to become a light, a light to the Gentiles, as well as to his own people. Saul’s conversion was also his call to ministry, and this conversion experience is strikingly similar to that of one of his predecessors, Ezekiel:

1:4 I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, … 26 Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. 27 I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. 28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell face down, and I heard the voice of one speaking. 2:1 He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” 2 As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. 3 He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. 4 The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ 5 And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. 6 And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. 7 You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious (Ezekiel 1:4, 26-28; 2:1-7).143

Paul recognized that his ministry was that of bringing “the light” to those who were lost, including the Gentiles, kings, and his fellow-Israelites:

For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:47).

“‘… to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me’” (Acts 26:18).

The blindness to which Saul was subject for three days provided him with much time for reflection, meditation, and prayer. But his blindness was symbolic of his condition. Israel was also blind, and Paul’s blindness was but a specific example of this blindness:

The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind. At midday you will grope about like a blind man in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you (Deuteronomy 28:28-29).

“Hear, you deaf! And look, you blind, that you may see. Who is blind but my servant {Israel}, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the Lord?” (Isaiah 42:18-19).

“Lead out those who have eyes but are blind, who have ears but are deaf. All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame.

Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep” (Isaiah 43:8-10).

Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead (Isaiah 59:10).

Now they grope through the streets like men who are blind. They are so defiled with blood that no one dares to touch their garments (Lamentations 4:14).

Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14; cf. 23:16-17, 19, 24; 23:26).

This blindness was only removed by faith in Christ, a miracle brought about by divine action:

In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see (Isaiah 29:18).

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped (Isaiah 35:5).

To open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness (Isaiah 42:7).

“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them” (Isaiah 42:16).

It was just such a miracle which gave Saul his spiritual sight, as he received back his physical sight. One cannot help but wonder if it did not send chills up and down Paul’s spine when he cast the spell of blindness on the Jewish false prophet, Bar-Jesus:

And when they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a certain prophet whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for thus his name is translated) was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze upon him, and said, “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a time.” And immediately a mist and a darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking those who would lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed when he saw what had happened, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord (Acts 13:6-12).

Just as Saul had opposed those who believed, so Bar-Jesus opposed the proconsul’s conversion. Just as Saul was stopped short by his blindness, so was Bar-Jesus. And if Saul’s blindness led to his own conversion, at least the blinding of Bar-Jesus contributed to the conversion of the proconsul (and perhaps too his own conversion—who knows?). If the blinding of Saul was a major turning point in his life, so was the blinding of Bar-Jesus. It is here in Acts, for the first time, that Saul is called Paul. It is here that Paul took the leadership and became the dominant or leading individual, instead of Barnabas. The blinding of Bar-Jesus thus seems to be the second major turning point in the ministry of Paul. The casting of this spell on this false prophet could therefore have been an act of kindness, as God’s blinding of Saul had been, intended to cease his opposition and perhaps even to bring about his conversion.

The light from heaven brought Saul to the ground. It was surely fear (reverence), among other things, which prompted this. Jesus’ words, “Why are you persecuting Me?,” clearly implied that Saul’s persecution of the church was a persecution of the Lord. Did he still not realize who the Lord was? So it would appear. And so, Saul asked the LORD who He was. The LORD identified Himself as the Jesus, whom he had been persecuting. Jesus was alive and not still in the grave! Jesus was LORD and not a false prophet! And Jesus took the persecution of Christians very personally. To persecute them was to persecute Him.

Enough revelation for the moment. It was time for Saul to ponder what he had seen and heard. For now, he was told to proceed on to Damascus, where he would be given his next instructions.144 His blindness certainly gave Saul the opportunity to dwell on these events. Saul took this most seriously, not eating or drinking until after his confession of faith by means of his baptism.

The Arrival of Ananias

10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Behold, here am I, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Thy saints at Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Thy name.”145 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”

All of this account describes the two complementary divine visions which Ananias and Saul received. Saul’s vision prepared him for the arrival of Ananias, clearly indicating that he was the one God had appointed to reveal His will for him. Ananias’s vision was intended to direct him to the house of Judas and to Saul. There is more space devoted to convincing Ananias than there is to the conversion of Saul. It is difficult to estimate the amount of resistance Ananias would have had to this divine instruction to receive Saul as a brother in the Lord. Perhaps Ananias called a meeting of the church to discuss how they would deal with Saul’s arrival. He was a man of great respect and influence, and thus he realized that his actions would have broad ramifications. The ultimate issue was God’s ability to save—even the most committed unbeliever. How humorous it seems to hear Ananias informing the Lord that Saul was an enemy, one who had caused many Christians great suffering and adversity, as though He was unaware of this! Rather than attempt to pacify Ananias or to alleviate his apprehension, God went on to tell him that Saul would not only be a brother, but he would be His instrument for bringing the gospel to Gentiles too. Now this would have been a very bitter pill to swallow for many Jewish Christians. Nevertheless, Ananias obeyed.

The Meeting of Ananias and Saul

17 And Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he arose and was baptized; 19 and he took food and was strengthened.

The words and actions of Ananias are an evidence of his faith and obedience to the divine commission he was given, as outlined by Luke in the verses above. They are also very significant in what they conveyed to Saul. The words, “Brother Saul” must not have come easily to Ananias. They were based, as I understand it, on what the Lord had revealed to Ananias and not on any confession or actions of Saul, for these seem to follow these initial actions and words of Ananias. Saul was received as a true believer, as a brother.146 The laying on of Ananias’s hands, however, was a distinct act of identification with Saul. The result was the restoration of Saul’s sight and, it would seem, Saul’s reception of the Holy Spirit. Saul’s baptism followed, accompanied by his profession of faith, his “calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). After this, Saul broke his fast and was strengthened.

The Consequences of Saul’s Conversion

Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding147 the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.

23 And when many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. And they were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; 25 but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.

The remaining verses of this account describe the results of Saul’s conversion, all of which serve as dramatic proof of his radical transformation as a result of his encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. The first evidence of Saul’s conversion was his immediate identification with the church in Damascus. He who had wanted to kill these saints now wanted to fellowship with them. No doubt God had used Ananias to serve as Saul’s “first Barnabas.” Just as Barnabas would vouch for Saul with the apostles in Jerusalem, so Ananias, a highly respected Jewish Christian, would vouch for Saul here.

The second evidence of Saul’s conversion was in his bold proclamation of his newly found faith in Jesus as the Messiah. This man who had formerly cringed at the preaching of the gospel148 was now proclaiming the same message. The man who, days before, was persecuting Christ was now preaching Christ. Saul proclaimed Jesus to be the “Son of God” (9:20), a designation understood to refer to Israel’s awaited Messiah.149

The results of Saul’s preaching were predictable, very much like the response Saul would have had (or did have) to the preaching of the gospel before his conversion. Some were amazed, taking note of the dramatic turn-about in Saul’s faith and practice (9:21). But as Saul grew in strength and as his arguments were irrefutable, just as Stephen’s had been (Acts 6:10), his opponents realized that the only way to silence Saul was to kill him. They could not out-argue him. They could not prove him wrong from the Scriptures. They could only kill him, and this they were determined to do (9:23). When the plot became known to Saul, he made a successful, albeit undignified, escape from the city of Damascus. His disciples150 lowered him in a basket, from the window of a room which was in the wall of the city (9:25).

Saul’s Journey to Jerusalem

26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 And he was with them moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they were attempting to put him to death. 30 But when the brethren learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus.

There may well have been a long time between Saul’s conversion and his arrival at Jerusalem. This conclusion could be based upon Paul’s argument in Galatians 1 and 2, along with the expression, “when many days had elapsed” in Acts 9:23. Nevertheless, at some point in time Saul did arrive in Jerusalem. One thing was certain; no matter how much time had passed, the apostles were not yet convinced of Saul’s conversion. They, not unlike Ananias, were very reluctant to have anything to do with this Christian killer. It was due to the intervention of Barnabas, a man who would prove to be a lifetime friend of Paul, that the apostles risked a meeting with him and then granted him the freedom to associate with the saints in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, as in Damascus, Saul spoke out boldly proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ, the promised Messiah. Like Stephen, Saul seemed to gravitate toward preaching to the Hellenistic Jews (9:29). Some of the Hellenistic Jews responded to the preaching of Saul as they had to Stephen’s preaching; they wanted to kill him (9:29). He was, indeed, Stephen’s replacement. As at Damascus, Saul eventually had to leave the city of Jerusalem to save his life. The church sent him on his way to Tarsus by way of Caesarea. Those whose lives Saul would gladly have taken in his unsaved days now sought to save his life by sending him away.

Peace Returns When Saul is Removed

31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.

Saul seems to have been the instigator of the persecution of the church, which began at the death of Stephen in Jerusalem and worked outward from there. With the conversion of Saul, persecution of the church did not stop, for now some of the Hellenistic Jews were opposing his preaching (and no doubt, the church at large as well). It was only with the exit of Saul from the Holy Land, back to his native land (Tarsus), that peace once again returned. As persecution was no longer needed to disperse the church and the gospel, peace was restored to the land. There is surely a connection between Saul and persecution, and Saul and peace. In peace, as in persecution, the church was comforted and continued to increase.


The first question which must be asked with regard to the interpretation of this text is this: “What is the meaning of this text in the context of the whole book?” Luke has included this account of Saul’s conversion in order to contribute to the argument which he is seeking to develop. The argument of the Book of Acts is essentially this: The expansion of the gospel through the church as it is empowered by the Holy Spirit. The expansion is three-fold:

(1) The expansion from Christ, to His apostles, to His church

(2) The geographical expansion from Jerusalem to Rome

(3) The racial expansion from the Jews to the Gentiles.

Saul’s conversion was to play a crucial role in the expansion of the gospel. Paul’s opposition resulted in the scattering of the Christians from Jerusalem, thus taking the gospel to Judea, Samaria, and beyond (Acts 8:1; 11:19-21). The salvation of Saul was to result in the gospel being preached to distant people and lands, and in the extension of the church to many key cities. In the process, Saul was to greatly extend the outreach of the gospel to the Gentiles. It was his preaching that resulted in the conversion of many Gentiles, and it was his writing (his epistles) to these saints which greatly strengthened them in their faith. Saul’s conversion is a watershed event, catapulting the gospel to the Gentiles and to more distant places.

The conversion of Saul is important in another way. It is one of the few accounts of a conversion which is described with some detail (although this detail is much less than we would prefer). The question must be asked as to whether or not Saul’s conversion has a more general application and relevance. In other words, “Is Saul’s conversion typical and illustrative of the conversion of every saint, or is it unique, the exceptional case, which has little correspondence to most converts?”

The longer I study Saul’s conversion, the more convinced I am that his conversion is typical. Granted, his experience is unique and dramatic. Few Christians will encounter the risen, glorified Lord as Saul did here. We would readily grant that every conversion which is recorded is unique, to some degree. That is because our Lord always confronts, convicts, and converts men and women individually, in the light of their own actions and beliefs. Jesus dealt with Nicodemus (John 3) very differently from the Samaritan woman (John 4). Nevertheless, conversion has certain elements which are vital and which are to be present in any salvation experience. The common characteristics of conversion are those on which I would like to focus in the conversion of Saul.

Characteristics of Conversion

(1) Saul’s salvation was the salvation of a sinner. One of the most dramatic revelations of Saul’s Damascus road experience was that he was not serving God, but he was persecuting Him. The first words spoken to Saul were, “Saul, Saul, Why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4).

What a shock these words must have been to Saul, who up to this point, seems to have prided himself for his faithfulness to Judaism! Up till now, Jesus was the sinner, and Saul was the saint. Now that the Lord had identified Himself as Jesus, Saul recognized that he was the sinner. In fact, as Saul would later write, he realized that he was “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Saul was also blinded, which identified him with the blindness of the nation Israel of which the Old Testament prophets wrote (see above). In Saul’s account of his conversion to His Jewish brethren, he added that when Ananias arrived, he instructed him to “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). This expression, “calling on the name of the Lord” seems to be one used consistently in the Old Testament. It is the invitation for sinful Israelites to be saved, by repenting and calling on the name of the Lord for salvation:

Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:6-7; cf. also Psalm 50:15; Joel 2:32; Jeremiah 29:12; 33:3-8).

Later, when Paul looked back on his past “devotion and deeds,” all done in the name of Judaism, he came to view his apparent “righteous deeds” for what they really were—dung:

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. 7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith (Philippians 3:1-9; cf. also Isaiah 64:6).

What Paul learned about himself, personally, on the road to Damascus he came to understand and to preach concerning all men. Theologically, we know this as the doctrine of man’s total depravity.151 Paul surely believed that it was essential for men to begin with the understanding of their own sin, for in his Epistle to the Romans, he took the first two and one-half chapters to prove that “… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

There are no exceptions in this “all” of Romans 3:23, as Paul indicated in these Old Testament words, cited just before:


What a terrible revelation this is—that all are sinners, even the “best,” the most religious, the most righteous! But the gospel is good news for sinners. It is also bad news for the self-righteous. This is why Jesus was so receptive of sinners and so hard on the self-righteous. The good news of the gospel is that Christ Jesus came to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Those who think themselves worthy of God’s blessings (as many Jews did in that day) are those who are in trouble. Those who know themselves sinners, and who call upon Jesus for salvation, are saved:


Lest anyone think they are “too sinful” to save, let me remind you that when Paul wrote that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” he quickly added, “among whom I am foremost of all.”

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:12-16).

If the worst sinner (Saul) was not too sinful to save, then you are not too sinful for God to save. No sinner is beyond the grace and the grasp of God.

(2) Saul’s salvation was exclusively the work of a sovereign God. Our text presents Saul as a man who was not only running from God, but one who was actively opposing Him. Saul was not “seeking God.” Saul was saved in spite of himself. This Paul knew and testified to. God chose Saul and had his destiny planned, before He saved him. When God spoke to Ananias commanding him to go to the house where Saul was staying, he was to receive him as a brother; and he was told that he was called to suffer as God’s chosen vessel to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, kings, and to his fellow-Israelites. In Galatians 1, Saul wrote that God had called him “while he was still in his mother’s womb” (Galatians 1:15).

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:3-6).

Luke is emphatic in his representation of man’s salvation as having been ordained and orchestrated by God, as a manifestation of His sovereign grace:

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).

And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).

Those things in which Saul would have formerly trusted for his standing before God, he saw in an entirely different light after God found him and saved him:

4b If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. 7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Philippians 1:4-9).

There is a great basis for comfort in the sovereignty of God. We know that the salvation of men rests ultimately with God and not with us—and not even with the one whom we wish to see saved. How much better to petition God to save those whom we are concerned about, a God who desires all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). And what a comfort to know that God always finishes what He starts:

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

(3) Saul’s salvation was personal. The election of Saul to salvation was specific and thus, personal. It is evident in the way he was saved. The risen Lord selected Saul out of the group with which he was traveling to hear, to see Him, and to understand His words. Jesus did not address the entire group but said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” The others knew that something unusual was going on, but they did not grasp it (Acts 22:9). The approach the Lord took was one of dealing with Saul in the light of his sin, of his salvation, and of his ministry. The voice from heaven did not call out, “Have you ever heard of the four spiritual laws?”152 Ananias was sent to Saul only. The message which Saul received was not only a call to salvation, but a divine call to ministry.

There are two very important implications to the personal dimension of Saul’s conversion. The first is this: every saved person must have a personal conversion experience. We may not be able to identify the precise moment or the exact events which brought it about, but salvation does not happen in some kind of group way. Salvation may occur in a large group, such as those saved at the preaching of Peter at Pentecost, but each individual was saved because of a personal encounter with Christ. Have you had such an encounter?

Second, the gospel should be proclaimed in a way that is personal. When I look through the Gospels and the Book of Acts, I never find the gospel presented in the same way to different people. The message of the gospel, to be sure, is always the same, but the approach is not. Let us not fail to respect the individuality of the conversion experience and to deal with people in the light of their individuality. Let us avoid “cookie cutter conversions.”

(4) Saul’s salvation was miraculous. Saul’s conversion was a miracle, short and simple, but not so much the result of the external miracle of the bright light and the voice of the Lord as the internal transformation and illumination which God wrought:

15 But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man (Galatians 1:15-16).

When Paul spoke of his conversion here in Galatians 1, he did not speak of the light which shone without, but rather of the light which shone within. He did not say that God revealed his Son to him, but that He revealed His Son in him. This divine illumination is that miracle which God performs within a lost, blinded, dead soul, so as to bring about salvation:

4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4, 6).

Salvation is the miracle whereby God removes the blindness of sin and of Satan, whereby God replaces death with life. This is a miracle, a miracle which is all of God, and all of grace.

(5) Saul’s salvation was an act of divine grace. Saul recognized that he was a sinner, and that his “righteousness” was but “dung” before God. He realized that it was nothing which he had done—nor ever would do—but only by what Jesus Christ had done that saved him. Thus, whenever he spoke of his conversion and his call to ministry, he always spoke of this incident as an act of divine grace, of God’s unmerited favor, of an act of mercy toward him:

I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:15-16).

8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (1 Corinthians 15:8-11).

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 1:12-14).

The same grace which was shown to Saul in his salvation is shown to all whom God calls to Himself:

8 So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, 9 who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day (2 Timothy 1:8-12).

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast (Galatians 2:8-9).

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:5-7).

Throughout his life and ministry Paul marveled at the grace of God shown to him and to other sinners. He constantly defended the gospel against those who would diminish grace and seek to pollute it with works. The Book of Galatians is but one example of this. He also warned those who would corrupt grace, to make it a pretext for sin (cf. Romans 6).

Grace is not only the basis for one’s salvation, but also for one’s spiritual walk and service:

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude (Colossians 2:6-7).

Thus, it is grace which sustains the saint, in addition to saving him:

Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited (Hebrews 13:9).

Grace is also the source and the standard for our service:

Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person (Colossians 4:6).

As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God (1 Peter 4:10).

(6) Saul’s salvation was a conversion, a radical change. Salvation is a revolution, not an evolution. It is not a transition, but a transformation. It is a miraculous, dramatic reversal, first of one’s beliefs, and then of one’s behavior. This is very evident in the conversion of Saul. One moment, Saul was persecuting the church; shortly thereafter he was seeking to fellowship with the saints. One moment, Saul was opposing Jesus, as though He were the sinner; the next, Saul is on his face before this Jesus, calling Him Lord. One moment, Saul is inflicting pain and suffering on others who trust in Jesus as the Messiah, the next, he is enduring suffering for the sake of Jesus, the Messiah. Nothing is more evident in the account of Saul’s conversion than his radical reversal. Here is a graphic illustration of what true repentance is—it is a turning about, beginning with one’s belief and bearing fruit in one’s conduct. The baptism of Saul was his testimony to the change which had taken place. But beyond this, his conversion totally changed the remainder of his life. The life-changing implications of conversion are expressed in these words of Paul to Titus:

11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. 15 These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you (Titus 2:11-15).

Perhaps nowhere else is the radical change (of conversion) in Paul’s life153 more readily evident than in his attitude toward the saints. Saul sought them out to persecute, even kill them, as an unbeliever; but he sought them out to worship and fellowship with them as a Christian. More than that, he had a deep dislike and hostility toward Christians before his conversion. When we look at Paul’s great love and compassion for the saints, we have to remind ourselves of the hate he once had toward them. Only a radical conversion can produce this attitude in the life of a man like Saul:

For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:8).

But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7).

For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).

Over and over in his epistles, Paul spoke of salvation in terms of radical change. He spoke of it as the movement from darkness to light (Colossians 1:12-13; Ephesians 4:8-14) in which the new believer should now walk. He spoke of salvation as the change from death to life (Ephesians 2:1-3). He spoke of salvation as dying to the old manner of living and as rising from the dead in order to live an entirely new life (Romans 6). Christianity was described as putting off the old and putting on the new (Colossians 3). No change in life is greater than the change from unbelief to belief in Christ, from being lost and condemned to being saved and eternally secure, from being separated from God and others to being united with Him and with all believers.

The conversion of Saul, as depicted in our text, was not only a divine “call” to salvation, but it was also a “call” to service. At first, I thought this was unique with Saul. I was inclined to think that most of us, experientially, are called to faith in Christ only to gradually learn God’s will for our life, progressively revealed to us as we walk in Him. But as I see the “call of God” referred to in the New Testament, it seems that the “call of salvation” assumes other “callings,” to which Paul and other New Testament writers made frequent reference:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God (Romans 1:1).

6 And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. 7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 1:6-7).

1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours … 9 God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful (1 Corinthians 1:1-2, 9).

15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 17 Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 20 Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. 21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. 24 Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to (1 Corinthians 7:15, 17-22, 24).154

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13).

I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints (Ephesians 1:18).

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received (Ephesians 4:1).

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful (Colossians 3:15).

For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life (1 Thessalonians 4:7).

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith (2 Thessalonians 1:11).

Who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time (2 Timothy 1:9).

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).

Just as Saul was “called” to a live of suffering, so Peter tells his readers that they too, like all saints, are called to “suffer for His name”:

To this {suffering} you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21).

The “call” to salvation is also the “call” to a life of holiness and obedience. The “call” of salvation is a call to change.

(7) The salvation of Saul was Christ-centered. When all is said and done, the miracle which took place on the way to Damascus (and likely in Damascus as well) was that Saul saw Jesus as the Son of God, as the Messiah, and as his Savior and Lord:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? (1 Corinthians 9:1).

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

Saul’s salvation was focused on one thing and on one thing alone—Christ. He summed up life in this one word:

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to his death (Philippians 3:7-10).

For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him (Colossians 1:13-19).

It is no wonder then that this one who was Saul’s all in all would be the focus, the substance, of the gospel which he preached:

“But we preach Christ crucified …” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

“For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

And when the Galatians began to depart from the true gospel, Paul rebuked them for turning from Him:

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel (Galatians 6).

Note Paul’s summary of the gospel at the end of Galatians 2:

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me (Galatians 2:20).

Paul’s method was consistent with his message. He sought to preach Christ in simplicity and not in a way that would detract from Him. Thus, he did not use the method of many others, which was man-centered, not Christ-centered:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void. For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:17-18; cf. also 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2).

For Paul, the method of proclaiming the gospel must be consistent with the message itself, and so it was.

(8) The salvation of Saul made him a vital part of Christ’s body, the church. The first words of the Lord Jesus to Saul were intended to teach him the inseparable unity between Christ and His church. Saul could only be persecuting Jesus through the members of His body, the church. Thus, persecuting the church was persecuting Jesus Christ. If the unity of Christ and His body, the church, were a vital truth with respect to Saul’s persecution of the church, it was also a vital truth for him as a Christian. It is no wonder that a fair amount of the text is devoted to a description of Saul’s attempt to associate with the local church, first at Damascus, and then in Jerusalem. And if this was important for Saul to do, it was equally important for the church to accept him into their fellowship, as an expression of their unity in Christ. The laying on of Ananias’ hands was also an expression of unity, as was the later “right hand of fellowship” extended by some of the apostles to Saul (Galatians 2:9).

To Paul, his relationship, by faith, to Jesus Christ was also the beginning of his new relationship to the body of Christ, the church:

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:24-27).

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).

There are all too many “autonomous Christians,” those who feel that coming to faith in Christ does not necessitate identifying with His body, the church. They are “private Christians,” living like islands rather than as a part of His body. They do not understand the gospel well enough.

(9) Finally, I believe that Luke’s portrayal of Saul’s salvation is typical of that of the nation Israel, which is still future. I believe that as Luke portrays Saul in Acts, it is as a prototype, a picture of Israel. The Old Testament passages which I have suggested bear to Saul (“blind,” light”) are passages which speak of Israel in their original context. Saul, in my opinion, is portrayed by Luke as the first-fruits of these promises. Saul, like Israel, had been blinded as to the meaning of the law because of his rejection of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:14; cf. 5:3-4). Saul, the typical (albeit more zealous) Jew, opposed God in the person of Christ and His body, the church, even while he thought he was serving Him. And yet, even in opposing God, he furthered God’s purposes; he was instrumental in the evangelization of the Gentiles (Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19-21). And yet while God had foretold the rebellion of Israel and their rejection, so He had also foretold of Israel’s restoration (cf. the “light” and “blind” passages above). And thus, in God’s time, Saul was dramatically converted, seeing the Christ whom he had been persecuting, risen from the dead and in His heavenly glory. Israel too will look on Him whom they have pierced and mourn. Israel too will just as surely return to God; and when it happens, it will be all of God, all to His glory and praise:

15 Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. 16 He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. 17 He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. 18 According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes; he will repay the islands their due. 19 From the west, men will fear the name of the Lord, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory. For he will come like a pent-up flood that the breath of the Lord drives along. 20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the Lord. 21 “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,” says the Lord. 60:1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 59:15b–60:13).

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. 11 On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, 13 the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, 14 and all the rest of the clans and their wives. 13:1 “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity” (Zechariah 12:10–13:1).

The conversion of Saul is a very crucial event in this book, which spells out from a historical point of view (Romans, from a theological viewpoint) the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the plans and purposes of God. For the time being, God is using the disobedience of Israel to accomplish His purposes, but there is surely a time coming when Israel will be restored to the Lord, by faith in Christ. And when this time comes, God will use their obedience to serve Him:

“For if their rejection be the salvation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:15).

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,


From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all (Romans 11:25-32).

There is no more appropriate conclusion to our message than the words of the apostle Paul, which immediately follow those above, and which aptly express the response of the Christian to the wisdom, the grace, and the sovereignty of the God who has saved us, and who works all things together for His glory and for the good of His chosen ones:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! FOR WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? OR WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).


See Appendix B for information on Saul’s Theology in the Book of Romans.

129 “The history of Damascus goes back to remote antiquity. It was a city in the days of Abraham, and at the time of the Israelite monarchy it was the capital of the most important Aramaean kingdom. Later it was the seat of administration of an Assyrian province. In Hellenistic times it was completely replanned on the Hippodamian grid-system. From 64 B.C. on it belonged to the Roman province of Syria, but had a measure of municipal autonomy in the loose federation of cities called the Decapolis.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 181.

“Damascus was an important town, about 150 miles (242 km) from Jerusalem, with a considerable Jewish population. It lay within the jurisdiction of the Roman province of Syria, and it formed part of the Decapolis, a league of self-governing cities. In 2 Corinthians 11:32 Paul speaks of an ethnarch of Aretas, the king of the Nabataean Arabs, who guarded the city to prevent him escaping from it. It is not clear whether this official was a representative of the king resident in Damascus to look after the interests of the Arabs there, or whether Damascus at this time was under the control of Nabataea.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 168.

“This old city is the most enduring in the history of the world (Knowling). It is some 150 miles Northeast from Jerusalem and watered by the river Abana from Anti-Lebanon. Here the Jews were strong in numbers (10,000 butchered by Nero later) and here some disciples had found refuge from Saul’s persecution in Judea and still worshipped in the synagogues. Paul’s language in Acts 26:11 seems to mean that Damascus is merely one of other `foreign cities’ to which he carried the persecution.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 114.

130 In our text, we are told the Saul “went to the high priest” to ask for letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus (9:1-2), but in Acts 22:5-6 Paul indicates that the “Council” (the Sanhedrin) was also involved in providing him with letters of authorization to arrest Christians in Damascus. Furthermore, in Acts 26:10 Paul testifies that he received letters from the chief priests, not just the chief priest alone.

131 “. . . the Romans . . . required neighboring states to grant it the privileges of a sovereign state, including the right of extradition. A letter delivered at that time by a Roman ambassador to Ptolemy VIII of Egypt concludes with the demand: ‘If any pestilent men have fled to you from their own country {Judaea}, hand them over to Simon the high priest, so that he may punish them according to their law’ (1 Macc. 15:21). In 47 B.C. Julius Caesar confirmed those rights and privileges anew to the Jewish nation (although Judaea was no longer a sovereign state), and more particularly to the high-priesthood.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 180-181.

132 The impact of Saul’s conversion on his message and his ministry is testified to by A. T. Robertson:

“Luke evidently attached great importance to the story of Saul’s conversion as the turning point not simply in the career of the man, but an epoch in the history of apostolic Christianity. . . It is impossible to overestimate the worth to the student of Christianity of this event from every angle because we have in Paul’s Epistles his own emphasis on the actual appearance of Jesus to him as the fact that changed his whole life (1 Cor. 15:8; Gal. 1:16f.).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 115.

Acts 9, 22, 26; Romans 15:15-21; cf. also Romans 1:1-7, 13-17; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:3-11; cf. also 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 11:32-33; cf. also 2:14-17; 3:12-18; 4:1-18; 5:17-21; 6:13--7:1; Galatians 1:13-17; cf. 1:11--2:10; Ephesians 3:1-13; cf. 1:11--2:10; Philippians 3:1-14; Colossians 1:24-29; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; 6:13-16; 2 Timothy 1:8-12; Titus 2:11-15; 3:1-7.

133 I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 173.

134 Blaiklock comes to this conclusion concerning the time of Saul’s conversion:

“Probably the earliest acceptable date for the conversion on the Damascus road is AD 33. This would leave AD 33-46 for the visit to Arabia (Gal. 1. 17) and the restoration of the man after the shattering experience he had known, and for the early ministry in Tarsus, Syria, Cilicia, and Antioch, which prepared mind and method for the major assault on the pagan world. The splendid deliberateness with which God forged His human tool is the great lesson of these years. Impatient men forget that God is not bound by time. His conversion was by far the most vital influence in Paul’s life. Ancestry, Pharisaic training, Hellenistic education, were fused by it into the character which the Holy Spirit formed and fashioned over the fourteen years of training. At length, in God’s good time, the door opened, and the events of half a lifetime assumed final and complete significance.” E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company {photo-lithoprinted}, 1966), p. 90.

135 There are those who describe Saul as a “tormented man” after the stoning of Stephen. I am not at all sure how this can be determined from the text. I see a man who is confident, aggressive, and zealous, rather than a man troubled by inner doubts. The conclusion of many of the commentators is that Saul’s conversion was a much longer process than I see reflected in this account, or in any other. Blaiklock, for example (pp. 87-89), plays out the two views of Saul’s conversion, the first (and seldom held the view of Ramsay), that Saul was suddenly and radically converted; second, that there was a considerable process involved.

136 E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company {photolithoprinted}, 1966), p. 91.

137 “‘The Way’ is a designation for the new movement used several times in Acts 9:19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22; cf. also 16:17; 18:25-26). It was evidently a term used by the early followers of Jesus to denote their movement as the way of life or the way of salvation.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 181.

138 “Three times (8:3; 9:2; 22:4) this fact of persecuting women is mentioned as a special blot in Paul’s cruelty (the third time by Paul himself) and one of the items in his being chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 114.

139 A. T. Robertson writes, “It is open to question if kurie should not here be translated ‘Sir’ as in 16:30 and in Matt. 21:29 (30); John 5:7; 12:21; 20:15; and should be so in John 9:36. It is hardly likely that at this stage Saul recognized Jesus as Lord, though he does so greet him in 22:10 `What shall I do, Lord?’” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, pp. 116-117.

This can hardly be possible. If there is one thing of which Saul is now convinced (by what he has so far seen and heard on the road) it is that whoever he is talking to is LORD. The only question is who is the LORD? The answer is: Jesus. Saul was not aware, until after our Lord’s words, that the One who had interrupted his journey was Jesus, and that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah, the LORD, but he was certain, at this point, that whoever this One was, He was the LORD.

140 “They are called his sunodeuontes, `those who were in the caravan with Him’ (cf. sunodia, Luke 2:44).” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), fn. 28, p. 185.

141 Compare this voice with that in John 12:29.

142 “His companions therefore took him by the hand and led him through the gate of Damascus to the place where, presumably, arrangements had been made for him to stay.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 185.

Presumably this is the case, however I still wonder a bit about this. Could Judas have been a Christian? Could it be that God had also appointed someone to meet Saul as he entered the city, with specific instructions as to where he was to stay? There is a great deal of information we are not given, and thus we cannot be dogmatic about our conclusions.

143 “. . . a conversion of will, intellect, and emotion, which dictated the abiding purpose and direction of his subsequent life and activity. . . . There are affinities between his conversion experience and Ezekiel’s inaugural vision, in which the prophet saw the ‘likeness’ of the heavenly throne and above it ‘a likeness as it were of a human form’ (Ezek. 1:26); but for Saul the one who bore a human form identified himself as a historical person: `I am Jesus.’ Few of Saul’s distinctive insights into the significance of the gospel cannot be traced back to the Damascus-road event, or to the outworking of that event in his life and thought. “ F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 113.

144 Was Ananias the one who “told him what he must do”? Perhaps so, but I am not as confident of this as I once was. Who told Saul to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street? It was, of course, Ananias who instructed Saul to be baptized, calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16).

145 “We may note incidentally the two new descriptions of the Christians used here. The saints (9:32, 41; 26:10; cf. 20:32; 26:18) is a common term in Paul’s writings and describes Christians as people who have been set apart for God’s service and must show an appropriate character. Those who call upon your name echoes 2:21 (Joel 2:32) and recurs in 22:16 in a command to Paul himself to be baptized . . . .” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 171.

146 It is possible, however, to understand the expression, “Brother,” as referring to Saul only as a fellow Jew. Paul would later use this expression (in the plural) to address his unbelieving Jewish opponents, as in Acts 22:1.

147 “The more Saul preached, the more the Jews were confused. Proving (sunbibazon). Present active participle of sunbubazo, old verb to make go together, to coalesce, to knit together. It is the very word that Luke will use in 16:10 of the conclusion reached at Troas concerning the vision of Paul. Here Saul took the various items in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and found in them the proof that he was in reality ‘the Messiah’ (ho Christos). This method of argument Paul continued to use with the Jews (Acts 17:3). It was irresistible argument and spread consternation among the Jews. It was the most powerful piece of artillery in the Jewish camp that was suddenly turned round upon them.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 123.

148 I would assume that Saul was one of those who covered his ears so as not to hear the praise of Stephen, as reported in Acts 7:57. Even if he were not one of these men, he would surely have hated to hear the gospel. And now, he is preaching the same message.

149 “It is more significant than might be supposed at first glance that the only occurrence of the title `Son of God’ in Acts should be in this report of Saul’s early preaching. It was as the Son of God that Christ was revealed to him on the Damascus road (Gal. 1:16; cf. 2 Cor. 1:19; Rom. 1:4).” F. F. Bruce, p. 190.

“That our Lord’s contemporaries believed the Messiah to be in some special sense the son of God is rendered probable by the wording of the high priest’s question to him at his trial: `Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ (Mark 14:61 par. Matt. 26:63; Luke 22:67, 70). As applied to our Lord, then, the title `Son of God’ marks him out as the true representative of the Israel of God and as God’s anointed king; but it is no merely official title. As he himself understood the heavenly voice which said to him at his baptism, ‘You are my Son’ (Mark 1:11 par. Luke 3:22), it expressed his unique relationship and fellowship with the Father.” Ibid.

150 It is interesting to ponder the identity of these “disciples” of Saul. Were they some of those converted to Christ through his preaching? But why would they be called “his disciples”? Would the church not have undertaken the task of discipling these folks? Or could it be that these “disciples of Saul” were Saul’s disciples before his conversion, who accompanied him as he sought to capture Christians. It may be that Saul’s conversion was the instrument God used to convert these followers of Saul, so that they really were “his disciples,” in a two-fold sense.

151 The doctrine of total depravity is that every person, every man, woman, and child, has been affected (infected?) by the sin of Adam. Everyone is born in sin, and every part of their being is affected by sin (intellect, emotions, and will). This doctrine does not hold that men are as bad as they could be in each area of their life, but that sin has permeated every dimension of a person’s life.

152 I do not mean to criticize the four laws of Campus Crusade, which have been used of God to bring many to faith in Christ. But these laws, which seek to summarize the gospel in a concise way, should always be applied individually. The Lord seeks and saves individuals, and thus our methods should be personal.

153 Saul’s conversion did not bring instant maturity or spirituality, but was the point where growth commenced. We know from Romans 7, for example, that Paul had struggles in his spiritual walk. We know that Paul was not instantly a biblical scholar or a seasoned apostle. His conversion was the beginning of a life-long process of maturing and growth in the Lord.

154 What is both interesting and important about this text is that the “call of salvation” does not necessarily require a change of career. Some would like the excuse to make some “changes” to make their life more comfortable. The “call” of salvation is a call to holiness, and to obedience, and to fellowship, with God and with our fellow-believers. It may well be a call to live transformed lives in the same circumstances in which we were found. Indeed, this seems to be the rule. Let us be careful to discern what changes the gospel requires and what changes it does not.

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15. Is Cleanliness Next to Godliness? (Acts 9:32-10:23)

32 Now it came about that as Peter was traveling through all those parts, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda.155 33 And there he found a certain man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden eight years, for he was paralyzed. 34 And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; arise, and make your bed.” And immediately he arose. 35 And all who lived at Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.

36 Now in Joppa156 there was a certain disciple named Tabitha (which translated in Greek is called Dorcas);157 this woman was abounding with deeds of kindness and charity, which she continually did. 37 And it came about at that time that she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her body, they laid it in an upper room. 38 And since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, having heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him, entreating him, “Do not delay to come to us.” 39 And Peter arose and went with them. And when he had come, they brought him into the upper room; and all the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them. 40 But Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up; and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known all over Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 And it came about that he stayed many days in Joppa with a certain tanner, Simon.

Now there was a certain man at Caesarea158 named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort,159 2 a devout160 man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in to him, and said to him, “Cornelius!” 4 And fixing his gaze upon him and being much alarmed, he said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 “And now dispatch some men to Joppa, and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; 6 he is staying with a certain tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.” 7 And when the angel who was speaking to him had departed, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were in constant attendance upon him, 8 and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. 9 And on the next day, as they were on their way, and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry, and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; 11 and he beheld the sky opened up, and a certain object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, 12 and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” 15 And again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, {is not unholy to you}161.” 16 And this happened three times; and immediately the object was taken up into the sky. 17 Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate; 18 and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there. 19 And while Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 “But arise, go downstairs, and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.” 21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you.” 23 And so he invited them in and gave them lodging.

And on the next day he arose and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And on the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 And when it came about that Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshipped him. 26 But Peter raised him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am just a man.” 27 And as he talked with him, he entered, and found many people assembled. 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. 29 “That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. And so I ask for what reason you have sent for me. 30 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments, and he said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 ‘Send therefore to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.’ 33 “And so I sent to you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” 34 And opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him.”


Some years ago, I had the most unusual conversation with a person who professed to be a Christian. The individual had divorced some years before, and was hoping to re-marry another person. I asked what biblical grounds there were for the divorce. The woman responded, “Well, you know the Bible teaches that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’, and my husband was a very dirty man.” I’ve heard some pretty far out perceptions of what the Bible taught, but this statement caught me off guard.

But before we dismiss this woman’s statement too quickly, let’s think about it. Is cleanliness considered to be next to godliness? It certainly was in the minds of many Jews, not only in Peter’s day, but through much of Israel’s history. The difference between that which was “clean” and that which was “unclean” was vital to the devout Jew. It was obviously vitally important to Peter. In our text, when God Himself commanded Peter to “kill and eat,” Peter quickly responded (in his vision), “No way!” (Acts 10:14).

I would like to suggest to you that the distinctions between “clean” and “unclean,” as the Jews of Peter’s day practiced them, were unbiblical. I do not think, as many seem to feel, that a change in the rules is being made here by God, a “dispensational difference” from the way God had formerly required that things be done. Instead, I believe that Peter, along with his Jewish Christian brethren, had falsely equated “cleanliness” and “godliness,” and that this error was one of the greatest barriers to the expansion of the gospel. A barrier which had to be removed. A barrier which was, indeed, removed here.162

The incidents which Luke has chosen to record in the Book of Acts are not necessarily chronological.163 They tend to be geographical, following the scheme laid out in Acts 1:8. The events which Luke includes in this second volume of his two-volume series are those which serve as critical turning-points. The salvation of the Samaritans, and then of Saul, are two major milestones in the expansion of the church. The conversion of Cornelius is another milestone. Its importance can be seen by the fact that the details of Peter’s divine guidance to this Gentile’s house, along with the divine witness to the conversion of those who were present, are repeated in chapter 11, after already having been told in some detail in chapter 10. This is a very significant event, not only for Peter, but for the Jewish Christians, and for the church of Jesus Christ. We shall see how and why as our study unfolds.

Our Approach

In this lesson, we shall limit ourselves to the portion of the account which is found in 9:32–10:35. We will stop at the point where Peter has arrived at the home of Cornelius, at which time he explains what lessons he has learned in the process of getting this far. We will not look at the “gospel message” he preached in 10:36ff., nor of the response of the people, or of the Holy Spirit—until our next lesson. We shall seek to learn how God arranged for Peter to get to the home of Cornelius, and the lessons which had to be learned in order for Peter to be willing to go. We shall also seek to see of these lessons have any relevance to Christians today. (I will tell you now that they do.)

Jewish Prejudice, Its Precedent,
and its Problem for the Church

The Problem

The attitude of the Jews toward the Gentiles was far from a merely condescending mentality. There was a deep rift between Jews and Gentiles. It was one that the gospel would bridge, but not until after the lessons of our text were learned and applied. In the Book of Acts, and in the epistles of the New Testament as well, one of the most persistent and dangerous errors perpetrated against the church, and one of the most insidious errors which continued to find its way into the church was that of the Judaizers, that belief that Christianity must be subordinate to Judaism, that those who became Christians must also become Jews, by the rite of circumcision and by the keeping of the law. This false doctrine first appears in Acts in chapter 15:

And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue (Acts 15:1-2).

The outcome was a “council” held in Jerusalem, which came to be known as the “Jerusalem Council.” In this council, as we shall see in chapter 15, the Judaizers’ doctrine was publicly renounced, but the problem nevertheless persisted, because of those who could not divorce the errors of their Judaism from the truths of the Bible (as Paul did, as seen in Philippians 3).

Peter’s experience, as described in Acts 10, and as repeated in chapter 11, and the lessons which he learned, are the first comments reported by Luke at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6-8). The remarks of Paul and Barnabas, and then of James, simply confirmed what Peter said (Acts 15:12-21). These two chapters, then, are foundational to the doctrinal stance taken by the church in the Jerusalem Council. Surely this incident is a “watershed,” a milestone in the expansion of the church.

The Roots of the Problem

The roots of this problem of Jewish separatism164 go very deep into the Old Testament. They begin in the distinctions which God drew between the “clean” and “unclean” animals which were to be put on the ark, so as to survive the flood (Genesis 6:19-20; 7:2-3). Then, in Genesis chapter 12 we are told that God chose Abram, and especially his “seed”165 to become a source of blessing to “all the nations of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3). Being God’s chosen was a place of privilege, but also one of great responsibility. To be God’s instrument required one to be separate and distinct from the rest, so as to represent God and to reflect His holiness, His “separateness” from men. But it also required contact with men. Thus, God’s chosen must have contact with those to whom God will bring blessing, and yet must be free from their sins and defilements. In New Testament terms, God’s chosen must be “in the world,” but not “of the world” (cf. John 17:13-17).

Abraham’s separation was to include his removal from his own family, and from his native land (Genesis 12:1). This “separateness” was continually threatened and challenged. Lot was one who endangered himself and his family by his association with the people and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram’s sin also served as a threat to the purposes of God (from a merely human point of view), for in order to save his own skin, Abram passed off his wife as his sister. If the “seed” of Abram was to be the source of blessing for the world, how lightly he took the need to protect his wife from sexual union with the heathen, such as Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20) and Abimelech (Genesis 20). In addition to risking his wife’s impregnation by another man than himself, Abram sought to produce “seed” through Hagar, a woman other than his wife (Genesis 16). In spite of the weakness of Abram and Sarah, God protected them and preserved the purity of his “seed,” so that Isaac was born to the two to fulfill God’s promise to them and to bring about His purposes and promises, given in the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3).

The need to separateness was also evident in Jacob and his sons, who were to become, through their offspring, the 12 tribes of Israel (Jacob). Joseph is the model for biblical separation.166 While he lived in a pagan country, far from his family, he refused to have sexual relations with his master’s wife (Genesis 39). His older brother, Judah, however, was willing to have sexual relations with a woman he thought to be a heathen cult prostitute (Genesis 38). It was the 400 years of bondage in Egypt which God used to keep the nation Israel pure, in spite of itself, so that God’s promises to the patriarchs would be fulfilled.

When God led Israel out of Egypt, and was about to take them into the promised land of Canaan, He took steps to insure their separateness, their distinctness, as His people, and as that race through whom Messiah would come. He gave them the Mosaic Covenant, and as a part of this covenant He made distinctions between “clean” and “unclean” things which the Israelites were to carefully observe:

22 ‘You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out. 23 ‘Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. 24 ‘Hence I have said to you, “You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. 25 ‘You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. 26 ‘Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine’” (Leviticus 20:22-26).

This is a very important text because it not only emphasizes the necessity for distinguishing between the “clean” and the “unclean,” but it explains the reason for the rule. God had chosen Israel and had set them apart from the other nations of the earth, not because they were so great, or so holy, but simply because He chose them, and because of His promise to the patriarchs (cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-11). Israel’s purpose was to be God’s instrument, through which He would bring His promised blessings to the Gentiles, as well as to the Jews. In order to do this, they were to manifest God to men. They were to reflect God, and to “Be holy, even as God is Holy” (Leviticus 11:44, etc.). The laws of the “clean” and the “unclean” were intended to provide one basis for being distinct from the nations, but were also intended to teach the Israelites how to make such distinctions between that which is holy and that which is not—by basing these on the clear statements of God Himself, in His Word.167

The sins of the Israelites quickly became evident by taking that “good” which God had given in His law and using it for evil (cf. Romans 7). They began to equate their “separateness” with superiority, in spite of God’s warnings against this (cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-7). And they also came to equate ceremonial “cleanness” with self-effort, with their own works. Rather than manifesting humility and dependence upon God’s grace, which the Law was intended to produce, Israel began to swell with the pride of self-righteousness, based upon external compliance with the letter of God’s law. In time, they added to the law of God, so that they observed the “traditions of Moses”—their own embellishments of the law of Moses—rather than the law itself. Much of the Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was meant to challenge and correct such perversions of the law as God gave it and intended it to be interpreted and applied.

The Old Testament prophets consistently rebuked the people of God for this, stressing that cleanliness and purity were a matter of the heart, and of one’s conduct, not of meticulously keeping ceremonial rituals:

The Mighty One, God, the LORD, has spoken, And summoned the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. 2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth. 3 May our God come and not keep silence; Fire devours before Him, 4 He summons the heavens above, And the earth, to judge His people: 5 “Gather My godly ones to Me, Those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.” 6 And the heavens declare His righteousness, For God Himself is judge. 7 “Hear, O My people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you; I am God, your God. 8 “I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, And your burnt offerings are continually before Me. 9 “I shall take no young bull out of your house, Nor male goats out of your folds. 10 “For every beast of the forest is mine, The cattle on a thousand hills. 11 “I know every bird of the mountains, And everything that moves in the field is Mine. 2 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all it contains (Psalm 50:1-12).

Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous; And the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, And the discernment of their discerning men shall be concealed” (Isaiah 29:13-14; cf. also Micah 6:6-8).168

11 There is a kind of man who curses his father, And does not bless his mother. 12 There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, Yet is not washed from his filthiness (Proverbs 30:11-12).

When David sinned against God, he turned to Him for cleansing, for only He could wash away his sins:

Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Mark me to hear joy and gladness, Let the bones which Thou hast broken rejoice. Hide Thy face from my sins, And blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me (Psalm 51:7-10).

Through the prophets, God sought to point out to the Jews that they could not attain purity and cleanness. Indeed, God’s standards for cleanness only showed Israel, like all others, to be defiled. And because of this God spoke of Himself as being the One who would cleanse His people from their defilement. The annual day of atonement was an early prototype and picture of the “cleansing” which was to come:

29 “And this shall be a permanent statue for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; 30 for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the LORD. 31 “it is to be a Sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. 32 “So the priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement: he shall thus put on the linen garments, the holy garments, 33 and make atonement for the holy sanctuary; and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 “Now you shall have this as a permanent statute, to make atonement for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year.” And just as the LORD had commanded Moses, so he did (Leviticus 16:29-34).

The prophets took up this promise of a cleansing to come, accomplished by God for His people, a cleansing which Messiah would make, a cleansing which would ultimately be by the shedding of His blood:

2 In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth will be the pride and the adornment of the survivors of Israel. 3 And it will come about that he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy—everyone who is recorded for life in Jerusalem. 4 When the LORD has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning, 5 then the LORD will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, even smoke, and the brightness of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory will be a canopy. 6 And there will be a shelter to give shade from the heat by day, and refuge and protection from the storm and the rain (Isaiah 4:2-6).

7 “And I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and I will rebuild them as they were at first. 8 And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against Me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned against Me, and by which they have transgressed against Me. 9 And it shall be to me a name of joy, praise, and glory before all the nations of the earth, which shall hear of all the good that I do for them, and they shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the peace that I make for it” (Jeremiah 33:7-9).

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes. 24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. 30 I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. 32 I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, O house of Israel! 33 “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt. 34 The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. 35 They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.” 36 Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’ 37 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Once again I will yield to the plea of the house of Israel and do this for them: I will make their people as numerous as sheep, 38 as numerous as the flocks for offerings at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts. So will the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 36:22-38, NIV).

23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. 24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever’” (Ezekiel 37:23-28, NIV).

1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” 3 Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4 The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.” 5 Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by. 6 The angel of the Lord gave this charge to Joshua: 7 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here. 8 “‘Listen, O high priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch. 9 See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day. 10 “‘In that day each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 3:1-10, NIV).

What a joy the promise of a Savior and of cleansing was to those who recognized their sin, and who looked to God for salvation. But for many Israelites, they thought they were “clean” and needed no cleansing. They prided themselves in abstaining from anything “unclean” and disdained the Gentiles as “unclean,” as “sinners.” This led to the false conclusion that the Gentiles themselves were unclean. This provided them with the opportunity not only to look down on the Gentiles, but to avoid contact with them—all in the name of holiness.

If the Jews of Jesus’ day felt that holiness was measured in terms of the distance one kept from “sinners” (which they did), then you can imagine the impact that Jesus’ words and teaching had on such separatists (which is virtually synonymous with the word Pharisee). These Jews looked for a Messiah who would bless Israel and who would overthrow the Gentiles. Yet Jesus taught that He had come to bring blessings on the Gentiles, too. Indeed, Jesus reminded those in the synagogue of Nazareth that God sometimes blessed Gentiles instead of Jews, something which caused this enthusiastic and supportive crowd to a hostile mob, who tried to kill Him (Luke 4:16-30).

And if this were not enough, Jesus, far from keeping His distance from “sinners” actually sought them out and fellowshipped with them at the meal table, which infuriated the scribes and Pharisees, and brought about their jealous reaction of interrogation (Luke 5:29-39). The hostility continued to build, and when some of Jesus’ disciples ate without ceremonially washing first, it brought about this exchange:

And the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered together around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. 7 ‘BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’

8 “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” 9 He was also saying to them, “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. 10 “For Moses said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER’; and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH.’ 11 but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ 12 you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13 thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.” 14 And summoning the multitude again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” 16 17 And when leaving the multitude, He had entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18 And He said to them, “Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts and fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:1-13).

Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands ceremonially, as did the Pharisees. And thus, in the minds of these legalists, the disciples were sinning, breaking the customs of Moses. They were not breaking the Law of God, of course, but only the rules of the religious of that day. Our Lord’s response to these charges of the Pharisees is most informative. His words indicate that there was, on the part of His disciples, no real transgression of the Law of Moses, but only of their petty rules. Further, He indicated that this was a biblical issue in the sense that they were doing that which the prophets foretold: concentrating on the ceremonies and missing the heart of God’s commands. The Law was addressed to the “heart,” and not to outward ritual and ceremony. This is why our Lord’s interpretation of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount differed so greatly from that of the Pharisees and scribes (but which was utterly consistent with the intent of the Law, when God gave it, and as the prophets interpreted and applied it).

Defilement, Jesus taught, was not a ceremonial thing, but a matter of the heart. Sin begins in the heart and works outward. It does not penetrate man from without. Thus, Jesus made it clear that foods cannot defile a person. What one eats does not make one sinful or holy. In teaching this, Jesus declared all foods “clean,” Mark informs his reader.

Now the report of this incident in Mark chapter 7, along with Jesus’ response, was very possibly conveyed to Mark by Peter. One thing is for certain: Peter was there when these words were spoken by the Lord. At some point in time in the Lord’s process of changing Peter’s thinking about “clean” and “unclean” Peter must have remembered this incident and Jesus’ teaching. Jesus had already indicated that the “food laws” of the Old Testament, and the distinctions which they created between “clean” and “unclean” were set aside. In another incident, Jesus Himself “violated the rules” of His legalistic opponents. Here, Jesus made the point that it was what was “inside” a man that mattered, not what was on the outside. He accused the Pharisees of concentrating on the outside:

37 When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised. 39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you (Luke 11:37-41, NIV).

The Lord indicated to His disciples what true cleanness was and how it was to be accomplished by Him. During His last meal with the disciples He the Lord said and did these things:

3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” 9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” 10 Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean (John 13:3-11, NIV).

“You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3, NIV, cf. also John 17:15-17).

The Old Testament food laws, the laws of “clean” and “unclean” foods were set aside, Mark says. So they were. But the evils conjured up in the minds of the legalists and practiced by them were never taught by God in the first place. God wanted His people to be distinct from the world, but not distant and removed from it. They were to be lights to the world, and salt, Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. All of this requires the presence of the saint and his or her permeation of the world. Light that is hidden and salt that is tasteless has no value. God wants His people to be distinct, so that their presence in the world will be seen, and so that His holiness and salvation may be proclaimed. The Jewish concept of holiness and separation, which Peter held and practiced, was a barrier to the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles and to the growth of the church. Thus, God had to bring this apostle to a dramatic change of mind and heart. The conversion of Cornelius is the instrument God used to do this, and by so doing, to impact the whole church as well.169

Peter’s Progressive Change of Mind:
Luke Sets the Scene

In spite of Peter’s love for the Lord Jesus, his growth in the faith, and the power which God manifested in his life and ministry, he held the same views of his unbelieving Jewish brethren. And so did the rest of the apostles. God set out to change Peter’s thinking, in a way that was nearly as dramatic as the conversion of Saul, as described in the first part of chapter 9.

Peter’s change of mind was progressive, just as Paul’s conversion involved a process. Geographically, the progress is most evident. Peter started in Jerusalem, then went down to Samaria, and to some of the Samaritan towns (8:14, 25). Some time later, Peter was found in Lydda (9:32) and then at Joppa (9:39, 43), and then at Caesarea (10:24). After this, he would return to Jerusalem (11:2).

I believe that these changes in Peter’s place of residence played a very crucial role in preparing him for the invitation to come to the house of Cornelius. I am inclined to doubt that Peter would have gone to Caesarea and to the house of Cornelius if he would have received the invitation to do so while he was staying in Jerusalem. It was here that his devoutly Jewish fellow-apostles and brethren lived. And it was precisely these folks who “called Peter on the carpet” for preaching the gospel in the home of this Gentile, Cornelius. But God took Peter and John to Samaria, where they welcomed many Samaritan saints into the faith and into the church. Then, at some point in time, God led Peter to Lydda, then to Joppa, and finally to Caesarea.

Peter’s arrival in Lydda was the occasion for his encounter with Aeneas, who was healed of his 8 year paralysis, in the name of Jesus Christ (9:32-34). This healing led to the conversion of many, and the broadcasting of Peter’s reputation and presence to the nearby town of Joppa (cf. 9:38). When Dorcas died, some of the disciples in Joppa sent for Peter. We are not told why they sent for him, or what they asked him to do. Was Dorcas still alive when they first sent for Peter? Had she died before these men were sent? Did they dare to think that God might raise her to life through Peter, a miracle such as Peter had not performed before (so far as the account tells us, at least)?

Peter’s method of dealing with this request was not that which we would expect from watching the television “healers.” Peter went to Joppa. There, he sent everyone from the room where the woman’s body was laid. Peter then prayed. We are not told for what he prayed. I know what I would have prayed: “Lord, what am I supposed to do?” Did Peter think of his own experience with the Lord, along with James and John, when He raised the daughter of Jairus (cf. Mark 5)? Somehow, Peter became convinced that he should pray that God would raise this woman from death. Only after she was alive did Peter call in the others, and present her to them, alive.170 This miracle of life was used of God to bring many to faith, and it also resulted in Peter’s change of location, from Lydda to Joppa, where Peter had an extended stay (9:43).

This sequence of events removed Peter from Jerusalem, and from the legalistic separatism of his Jewish brethren. It put him in contact, no doubt, with a larger number of Gentiles. It resulted in his contact with a woman who had died, as was thus not only ceremonially unclean, but also defiling to Peter. It also put Peter in constant daily contact with a tanner, a man who daily dealt with dead animals. It would seem that some of Peter’s scruples with “unclean” things would have had to have been set aside.

If the change of setting was preparatory in the life of Peter, making him more open to the invitation to go to the house of a Gentile, the miracles which Peter is reported to have performed (by divine enablement) are also significant. The miracle of the healing of the paralytic was not so spectacular, for similar healings had taken place by Peter’s hand previously (cf. Acts 3). But what was spectacular was the raising of a dead woman, something which is not said to have happened previously through Peter.

Would someone attempt to explain Peter’s actions (of going to the house of a Gentile, to preach the gospel to Gentiles) by insisting that he was “not himself,” that he had, perhaps, become carnal or was in a “backslidden state”? The answer would have to be that this man, this “carnal man” had never before (or after) seen the hand of God work so mightily in his life and ministry.

The important changes which took place in Peter were those pertaining to his theology and understanding of the relationship between the “clean” and the “unclean” and the Jews and the Gentile. Notice, with me, the sequence of events which God brought about in Peter’s life, and the progressive realization on his part as to what all this meant.

The Vision of Cornelius

There was a certain171 man in Caesarea, named Cornelius. He was a Gentile, a centurion, and a man who was, for all intents and purposes, an Old Testament believer. He was not, it would seem, a circumcised, “certified” proselyte, but one who had found the God of the Jews to be the one true God. He served God as much as could be expected of any Old Testament believer. No one could have asked any more of this man than that which Luke tells us about him. The only thing about this man which would have raised the objections of a Jew, even a Jewish Christian, was that he was not Jewish, but “merely” a Gentile. The righteous deeds of Cornelius are not reported so that we would draw the conclusion that he was somehow good enough for God to save, but only to show that no Jew should have any objections to Peter going to his house to proclaim the good news of the gospel. It is clear in the text as a whole that this man, though a pious Old Testament saint, though a Gentile God-seeker, was not a New Testament believer. By his own words, Cornelius was told by the angel of God that Peter was to come to his house to “speak words by which he and those gathered would be saved” (Acts 11:14).

The heart of Cornelius had already been opened, so that this Gentile was not longer fleeing from God, but was now seeking to know of Him and of His salvation. In contrast to the Jews, whose ceremonial acts of worship were an offense to God, the deeds of Cornelius went up to God as “a memorial.” God took note of these acts of worship because they were precisely that—acts of worship. To be more precise, they were acts of Old Testament worship. What he still needed was the good news of the coming of the Christ, and of His sacrificial death and resurrection, for the remission of men’s sins. He was thus commanded to send men to a specific place, to a specific home, and to ask for a specific person—Peter, who was to come to his house in Caesarea to bring him and his household a word from God which would bring salvation.

It is interesting to note that the guidance God gave Cornelius is much more specific (at least initially) than that given to Peter. I think I understand why God told Cornelius to send for Peter, to come to his house. Cornelius was apparently a humble man (a soldier, placing himself under the religious system of a subject people would be humbling), and with his close association with Judaism, would have known that the association which his invitation called for was prohibited by Judaism. Peter put it this way:

“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him…” (Acts 10:28).

This being the case, I believe that apart from the specific instructions which God gave to Cornelius, he would have said something very similar to that which another centurion, and a Gentile, said to Jesus, a Jew, who was on his way to the man’s house:

“Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not fit for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:6-7).

Jesus commended this centurion’s faith, but we can also see in his words, his attentiveness to the sensitivity in Jew/Gentile relationships. I believe that if God had not commanded Cornelius to send for Peter, he would have gone to Peter, to avoid any problems. But you see, God wanted there to be a problem, so that He could correct Peter’s attitudes and actions, along with those of the other Jewish Christians, especially those from Jerusalem.

Peter’s Vision and Insight

God’s timing, as always, was perfect. Just before the three men were to arrive at the home of Simon the tanner, Peter had a corresponding vision172 to that of Cornelius, in order to prepare him for the arrival of these three,173 and for the invitation of Cornelius, which they were to extend to him. Peter’s vision, like that of Cornelius, came at a time when he was in prayer.174 Unlike the vision of Cornelius, Peter did not immediately understand what the vision meant, in principle or in practice. That was to be revealed to him by the Spirit, at the time when the application of this truth was required.175

Peter’s vision is one about food, but it is not a vision of a meal, per se. A sheet is lowered from heaven, and later taken back up into heaven. On this sheet, there is not a table set, with all kinds of delicious dishes upon it. There are various kinds of animals. They are all alive, and they must first be killed, and then Peter can fix his own meal. There are various animals, some of which must have been unclean, and some of which must have been clean. Why, then, would Peter have been horrified at the thought of killing one of the animals, in order to eat. He would not have to have killed a pig, and had pork chops for dinner. He could have killed a lamb, and had lamb chops instead. Why would this thought horrify him? Because, I think, the association of the “clean” animals with the “unclean” must have rendered all “unclean” in Peter’s mind. Thus, he could not kill or eat any of them.

This would be consistent with his view of Jewish separation from “unclean” Gentiles. He, like the Pharisees, would avoid contact with the Gentiles because they felt that mere association with them was defiling. This explains the elaborate rituals of cleansing through which a devout Jew went, after being in the market place, and coming into contact with Gentiles. But to God, it was not being near pagans which made one unholy, but in being like pagans which defiled one. Thus, Jesus could come to the earth in human flesh and associate with sinners but remain sinless, because He did not think and act as sinners did. The self-righteous Jews, on the other hand, may have kept themselves separate from the Gentiles and other “sinners” but in their thinking and actions they sinned, for sin comes from within a man, and not from without.

The scene which was played in Peter’s mind was repeated three times, so that it importance and its certainly was underscored. In spite of the certainty of the message, Peter was not so clear on its meaning. He was perplexed and was contemplating what he had experienced when the three men arrived—and right on time. He could hear them, down below, asking for him by name. It was only now that the Holy Spirit told Peter what to do, allowing him to come to the realization that this was the meaning of the message he had just received in his vision. He was to go with these Gentiles, to the home of a Gentile, without agonizing over the “defilement” which such an act had formerly implied to Peter. Both the men and the Spirit testified to the fact that this invitation was ultimately divinely directed. Significantly, Peter invited the men into the house, where they must have shared in the meal and spent the night. Barriers were already being broken down.

The next day, the group went to Caesarea, accompanied by a curious (it would seem) group of Jewish (circumcised, Acts 10:45) disciples from Joppa, who were divinely purposed to serve as witnesses to God’s handiwork in the house of Cornelius, the Gentile. Cornelius was waiting, along with a large group who were assembled in his house. He fell at Peter’s feet, either thinking him to be an angel, or giving him undue reverence—something which Peter corrected quickly. In effect, Peter forbade this act of worship on the basis that these two men were merely men, and thus equals. The full force of his own words was yet to hit Peter.

Peter then explained to his audience the reason for his reticence in coming, and the meaning of his vision in relation to his hesitance (10:27-29). In his explanation, Peter referred to his possible association with Gentiles (as a Jew) was unlawful. There is no Old Testament law prohibiting such association. Peter is therefore referring to something which was viewed as unlawful by Jewish custom and practice. It was this same custom and practice which Jesus and His disciples set aside, much to the displeasure of the scribes and Pharisees. When Peter said that God showed him he should not consider any man unholy or unclean (10:28), it is now clear to Peter that the issue of clean and unclean was not primarily a matter of animals, but of men. Peter, like his Jewish counterparts, had wrongly extended the “clean” and “unclean” distinctions of the Old Testament to men, rather than applying them to that which God had specifically defined as clean or unclean. He now new better. But he still does not fully grasp the lesson God intended him to learn.

After Peter’s words, explaining his reluctance in coming, Cornelius explained to Peter and the others what had prompted him to send for Peter (10:30-33). He was at prayer when he received his vision. In the vision, a man in shining garments (an angel of God, 10:3) appeared to him, informing him of the pleasure God took in his worship, and instructing him to send for Peter, who was dwelling in Joppa, at the house of Simon the tanner. Peter was the right man, the man God had intended to come. And now, Cornelius added, they were all ready to hear what God had to say to them, through Peter (10:33). These words were to be a word from God concerning the way of salvation for him and his household (11:13-14).

Once again, Peter spoke. And once again, Peter said that he now understood what God meant for him to understand:

And opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:34-35).

Here was the fundamental problem of the Jews—prejudice. Here, too, was the fundamental theological barrier to the proclamation of the gospel. The Jews felt that they had a “corner” on Christianity. They believed that salvation was not just “of the Jews,” brought to pass by God in accordance with His promises to the Jews, and through a Jew—the Lord Jesus, but that salvation was primarily “for the Jews.” If there were those among the Gentiles who wished to cash in on the benefits of salvation through Messiah, they could do so by becoming a Jew and trusting in Jesus as their Messiah. But the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles as Gentiles was a completely foreign thought, based on the assumption that the Jews were somehow “clean” and that the Gentiles were “unclean,” and that in taking the gospel to the Gentiles would be defiling to them and to the gospel.

I understand Peter’s words as the expression of a general principle, which he has just begun to grasp. It is not only a New Testament principle, introduced with the coming of Christ, but a principle of God’s dealing with men down through the ages, from Old Testament times onward. It was a principle of which the Jews were deliberately ignorant. Most of the Jews thought of themselves as somehow superior to the Gentiles, and thus they thought of themselves as those whom God would bless because of their superiority. They were separate, by God’s calling and choice, but they were not, in and of themselves, superior. But they thought so.

Peter now understands that Jews and Gentiles are equal. They are equally sinful, and worthy of God’s wrath. They are equally lost. They are equally undeserving. The gospel is the good news that cleansing has come, through the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, to all who would believe in His death, burial, and resurrection on their behalf. And when they have trusted in Him, whether Jew or Gentile, they are equal for their cleansing and worth are based upon the work of Christ, not on their own good works. When one’s righteousness is based upon God’s work, through Christ, there is no basis for self-righteousness, and thus no basis for superiority or pride. Peter now claims to understand this essential equality, which forbids him from withholding the gospel from those Gentiles who would hear it and receive it.

Peter still has a good way to go, in my opinion. He is now willing to go to the house of a God-fearing Gentile, to preach the gospel to him, and to receive him as a brother and equal in Christ. But the gospel requires more than this. As illustrated in the salvation of Saul (in chapter 9), the gospel requires that the good news of salvation be proclaimed to all men, even to the heathen who do not fear God. This is a step which is yet to be taken by the church, but Luke is bringing us to this point as he continues in the Book of Acts.


What does Peter’s experience with Cornelius have to do with the argument of the Book of Acts? It is a quantum leap for the gospel, for it sets the precedent that the gospel is for all men, and not just the Jews. It is to become a turning point in the doctrine, if not yet the practice (cf. 11:18-19), of the church. The precedent set by Peter will eventually be followed by the church. And the principle has been established by which the heresy of the Judaisers (Acts 15:1ff.) will be corrected. This is indeed a watershed event, which will shape the history of the church. The door is now swinging open for the gospel to be preached to the Gentiles. We are beginning to leave Jerusalem and Judea, and even Samaria, and turning toward Rome.

And what does the experience of Cornelius have to do with us? It has a great deal to say to us, I believe. First, it indicates that even the righteous works of a man like Cornelius are not sufficient to save a man. If he were to be saved by his good works, it would not have been necessary for Peter to have gone to his house and to preach the gospel. The “cleansing” which the Jews need is the same cleansing required by any who would be saved from God’s wrath and into His kingdom. That cleansing is the cleansing of the blood of Christ. The cleansing which took place annually on the day of atonement, was but a temporary setting aside of sin. The full and final cleansing, to which the day of atonement looked forward, was the cleansing which Jesus made by the shedding of His blood, on the cross of Calvary, once for all.

11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! 15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 9:11-15, NIV).

Have you experienced the cleansing which God promised the Old Testament saint, and which He has provided in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ? All you need do is to acknowledge that you are “unclean,” that your sins have defiled you, that your uncleanness comes from within, not from without. And then you need only look to the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ as God’s provision of cleansing for you. He died in your place. He bore the penalty for your sins on the cross. And He was raised again, to newness of eternal life. In Him, your sins are paid for and your “cleanness” is provided. I pray that you will, this day, experience the washing of regeneration, the cleansing which comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

The primary lesson in our text for Peter, however. He was not only saved, he was an apostle, a leader in the church. If his lesson was that the gospel must be preached to all men, Jews and Gentiles, what is the lesson in this for us? Surely it is, to begin with, that we must proclaim the gospel to all men.

The fact is, however, that we are just as selective in those to whom we proclaim the gospel as Peter and his Jewish Christian brethren were. Oh, we, like Peter and others, would tell others about salvation in Jesus if they came to us and asked to hear, or if they were willing to become one of us. But the sad truth is that many of those whom we feel are “pagans” are those to whom we will not preach the good news—not consciously, perhaps, but unconsciously. And, the more I think about it, I fear that we refuse to preach to the heathen out of a perverted sense of purity and separation from sin.

My contention is that our doctrine and practice of holiness and separation is the biggest barrier to evangelism today, just as it was for Peter and the Jewish saints in that day. I believe that we, like they, think of separation and holiness in terms of avoiding contact with sinners, rather than in avoiding sin in our own lives. We have a greater fear of contaminating from being around “sinners” than from practicing that sin which comes from within ourselves.

Let me give you a biblical illustration of what I am talking about. It comes from the 5th chapter of the book of 1 Corinthians. Notice who the saints in Corinth avoided, and who they received:

1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? 3 Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. 4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. 9 I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, NIV).

The Corinthians had turned things inside-out. They tolerated—even welcomed—a man in their midst that was living in open sin, the kind of sin which shocked the pagans. Not only did the Corinthians tolerate this man, they were proud of themselves for doing so. No doubt they called this “Christian love.” On the other hand, these saints were great advocates of “separation,” the only problem was that they separated themselves from sinners, rather than from a wayward saint. Paul made it clear to them in these verses that they were to excommunicate the professing Christian, who was living in sin, but to freely associate with pagans, who needed to hear of Christ.

How it is to turn things around, and to do precisely the opposite of what God has commanded us! Holiness is living a life which reflects God and which is pleasing to Him. It is a life which avoids sin, but which seeks the salvation of sinners, and which therefore associates with them, just as Jesus did. To put the matter bluntly, folks, were shunning the wrong people. We need to avoid professing Christians who are living like pagans, and we need to seek pagans, so as to win them to Christ.

In our twisted and perverted doctrine and practice of holiness and separation, we are guilty of the same kind of legalism and externalism which Jesus condemned in the scribes and Pharisees. We judge holiness more by what a man or woman does not do, than by what they do. Can you imagine describing the holiness of God in terms like these:

  • God doesn’t smoke cigarettes.
  • God doesn’t drink wine (but Jesus did).
  • God doesn’t associate with known sinners (but Jesus did).
  • God doesn’t wear makeup (or whatever).

The holiness of God was demonstrated in Jesus Christ, who came to the earth to associate with sinners, so as to save some. How can we do otherwise?

The problem of falsely judging and practicing separation by the avoidance of certain “unclean” things was not only one that characterized the scribes and Pharisees, and Jewish saints like Peter, it was a problem that persisted in the New Testament. Note these references to an external avoidance kind of holiness, one advocated by false teachers, and not the apostles:

Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited. 10 We have an altar, from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. 13 Hence, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. 14 For there we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come (Hebrews 13:9-14).

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23).

Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble (Romans 14:20, NIV).

May God produce true holiness in us, and may we, like Jesus, practice holiness by associating with sinners, to proclaim the good news of God’s cleansing and salvation, while we live pure and blameless lives before them.

155 “Lydda (Old Testament Lod) lay on the route from Jerusalem to the coast, about 25 miles . . . distant.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 178.

156 “Joppa (modern Jaffa) lay some 12 miles . . . from Lydda on the coast.” Marshall, p. 179.

157 Tabitha is Aramaic. “Luke tells us that this name had the same meaning as Greek Dorcas, and RSV indicates that both names mean gazelle.” Marshall, p. 179.

158 “. . . a ‘new town’ built by Herod the Great which had become the centre of government for the Roman administration of Judea.” Marshall, p. 183.

159 “A legion had ten cohorts or ‘bands’ and sixty centuries. . . In the provinces were stationed cohorts of Italic citizens (volunteers) as an inscription at Carnuntum on the Danube (Ramsay) has shown (epitaph of an officer in the second Italic cohort). . . The soldiers could, of course, be Roman citizens who lived in Caesarea. But the Italian cohorts were sent to any part of the empire as needed. The procurator at Caesarea would need a cohort whose loyalty he could trust, for the Jews were restless.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 133.

160 Of this term “devout” A. T. Robertson comments,

“It might refer to a worshipful pagan (Acts 17:23, sebasmata, object of worship), but connected with ‘one that feared God’ . . . Luke describes ‘a God-fearing proselyte’ as in 10:22, 35. This is his usual term for the Gentile seekers after God (13:16, 26; 17:4, 17, etc.), who had come into the worship of the synagogue without circumcision, and were not strictly proselytes, though some call such men ‘proselytes of the gate’ (cf. Acts 13:43); but clearly Cornelius and his family were still regarded as outside the pale of Judaism (10:28, 34; 11:1, 8; 15:7). They had seats in the synagogue, but were not Jews.” A. T. Robertson, III, pp. 133-134.

161 The text is from the NASB, with the exception of the bracketed expression, “is not unholy to you.” This is probably the most literal rendering of the original text. The rendering of the NASB, “no longer consider unholy,” is really unacceptable. It suggests a dispensational change, which, in my opinion, is not being taught here. I like the sense of the rendering of the New Jerusalem Bible’s translation here, “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane.” One could (rightly) understand the supplied expression, “no longer,” to mean that Peter’s wrong thinking, up to this point, must change. It is interesting that in Acts 11:9, the exact expression in the original text is rendered the same as it is in 10:15, except that the word “longer” is not italicized, though it should have been.

162 We must remember, though, that while the truth Peter learned here was one that he defended in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, it was also one that he deserted in the incident reported by Paul in Galatians chapter 2. Those lessons which we learn can quickly be forgotten.

163 For example, in chapter 8 Luke wrote of the “Samaritan revival” as the result of the proclamation of the gospel by those who were scattered from Jerusalem, due to the persecution which arose on account of the stoning of Stephen (8:1-4ff.), and then tells of the cessation of this persecution and of a time of peace (9:31). Then, in chapter 11, he goes back to those who were scattered from Jerusalem by the same persecution, but who went beyond Judea and Samaria, and beyond the Samaritans, so as to preach the gospel to Gentiles, even as far away as Antioch (11:19-22).

164 One may initially react to this term “separatism,” but it is, I think, a valid use of the term. The Judaizers were truly separatists, for they insisted that the only way a Gentile could have fellowship with them was to become one of them, to become a Jew. If the Gentiles were not circumcised, and did not put themselves under the customs of Moses, then the Judaizers would not fellowship with them, as we see happening, for example, in Galatians 2:11-13.

165 It becomes apparent much later that the “seed” is not the nation Israel collectively, but the “Seed” (singular), the Messiah. Paul makes a special point of this in Galatians 3:15-16. What Israel would not do, and could not do, because of sin, Messiah would do.

166 Another Old Testament model for separation is Daniel. Daniel refused to eat the king’s food, which was probably associated with heathen worship and sacrifices, but he did not refuse to be educated in Babylonian schools or to become an active and integral part of the government. In so doing, Daniel’s testimony and his faith in the God of Israel was greatly expanded and influential.

167 There are those who would say that the distinctions God made between the “clean” and the “unclean” were based upon pragmatic factors. They hold that there was a good reason behind every distinction. I think that there was a good reason behind every prohibition: God said so. God does not have to have a good reason (from our point of view) for what He commands. The obedience of faith lives in accordance with God’s commands, whether we understand the reasons of not. And the more that His commands seem unreasonable, the more we must act by faith and not by sight. I do not think that Abraham found God’s command to sacrifice his son reasonable. But God did command it, and so he, by faith, obeyed.

168 This is the text cited by our Lord against the ceremonialism of the Pharisees in Mark 7:6-7, in the context of “cleanness.”

169 Remember that Peter would not have had to go to Caesarea to preach the good news to Cornelius, because Philip was going there himself (Acts 8:40). But it was Peter who had to be sent to the house of Cornelius because he was an apostle, and would thus serve to set the precedent if preaching the gospel to the Gentiles in a more dramatic and influential way.

170 Why did God raise this woman, who might even have been a widow, when He did not raise a man life Stephen? The answer must be that God is sovereign, and that He has the right to do as He chooses. Later on, in chapter 12, we will learn that while God did not prevent Herod from putting James to death, He did supernaturally deliver Peter. In both cases, with James and with Peter, God’s will was done and God was glorified. God’s ways are higher than our own, and may only be understood from the vantage point of eternity and the infinite wisdom of His purposes.

171 The word “certain” is found here in Acts 10:1, referring to Cornelius, and again in 10:6, referring to Simon the tanner. It is also found above in chapter 9 with reference to Aeneas (9:33) and Dorcas (9:36). God’s leading is very specific. There are certain people whom God is “putting in place” at just the right time. Once again the sovereignty of God and the specific details of His plan are underscored by Luke.

172 Peter’s vision is an interesting inter-twining of the divine and the human. The vision is from God, and it relates to a very earthy problem--of prejudice. And while the message is a deeply spiritual one, it is done through a vision pertaining to food. And all of this happening to Peter at a time when he was hungry, and when his meal was being prepared. At the same time his stomach growled or at least his mouth watered, God gave Peter a vision about food, one that almost nauseated him. God is a Master at blending the human and the divine, because He is able to cause “all things to work together for good, in accordance with His purposes.” A sovereign God can use any and every means to get His message to men.

173 Luke troubled himself to tell us that the soldier who was sent with the two servants was “devout” (10:7). We are also informed that Cornelius “explained everything to them” before sending them to Joppa (10:8). It would seem that they may have shared the same faith with Cornelius. The least we can say is that Cornelius was careful to share the details of his faith and walk with God with those who served him. No wonder when Peter arrived there was a house full of those waiting to hear what Peter had to say.

174 Compare Acts 10:3, 9, 30. I highly recommend a study of prayer in the Book of Acts. The following passages are suggested for this study: Luke 1:10, 13; 2:37; 3:21; 5:16, 33; 6:12,28; 9:18, 28-29; 11:1-2; 18:1, 10-11; 19:46; 20:47; 21:36; 22:32, 40-41, 44-46; Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 3:1; 4:24, 31; 6:4,6; 5:59; 8:15,22,24; 9:11,40; 10:2,4,9,30-31; 11:5; 12:5,12; 13:3; 14:23; 16:13,16,25; 20:36; 21:5; 22:17; 26:29; 27:29; 28:8.

175 I wonder if there is not a principle, or some kind of pattern evident here. Today, people want the Bible taught in such a way that they know exactly what it means in principle, and what it means in terms of application--now! God progressively revealed this lesson to Peter, even though the truth of it was clearly revealed in the Old Testament and by Jesus. And after Peter is taught the principle (“What God has cleansed, you must not look upon as unclean.”), the application of this principle is revealed to him only at the time when it is required. Is there not a need to teach the truth and to leave, to some degree, the application of that truth to the Holy Spirit? I do not think it wrong to suggest ways in which the truth may apply, but let us beware of leaving the impression that we know how people may need to apply the truth in their circumstances. And let us beware of going another step beyond this, in giving them a precise formula for “how” they are to achieve the conduct which we have determined is the application. I am not so sure that we need as much instruction in methods as we do in a biblical mindset and in a biblical motivation.

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16. The Conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:36-48)


The way in which the Old Testament law had been twisted and distorted by Judaism, distortions that were held by the apostles as well as unbelieving Jews, was the focus of our last lesson. The revelation which Peter received in the vision from heaven was then a correction of an error in Peter’s theology.

But something changed, too. There was a dispensational difference. The message was short, but it signaled a difference: “What God has cleansed, is not to be unclean to you” (Acts 10:15, my translation). While all of the animals on the sheet which Peter saw may not have been unclean, some of them probably were. What had God cleansed? When and how did this cleansing take place? Let us begin at the beginning (of the Bible), and see how and why God changed the rules as to what men could eat.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, and a special garden in which He placed Adam and Eve, God gave man permission to eat only that which was from green plants:

29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so (Genesis 1:29-30, NIV).

When the Lord God placed this couple in the Garden of Eden, He prohibited one fruit, on penalty of death—the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:15-17, NIV).

This one forbidden food (among the things which came from green plants) became the focus of Satan’s temptation. Notice how getting Eve, and then her husband Adam, to eat this forbidden fruit was Satan’s goal. Note too the frequency of the references to “eating” (and food) in Genesis 3:

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” 4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” 11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” 12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” 14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” 16 To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” 20 Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living. 21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:1-24, NIV).

Adam and Eve were given the freedom to eat of every green plant, with the exception of the one forbidden fruit. It would seem as though Eve supposed that the reason God prohibited this fruit was because it was “bad”—poison, perhaps. Satan sought to distort the situation so as to make God look bad for having forbidden it. It was when Eve perceived the fruit to be good—good to look at, good to eat, good to make one wise—that she came to believe Satan’s lie. How could a good God forbid them from what was good? A good God could prohibit a poison fruit, but not a delicious, edible fruit.176 And so she ate and then gave to her husband. The consequences were a loss of innocence and of fellowship with God. Satan got to “eat dust” and Adam to “eat bread produced by the sweat of his brow.”177

And so it was that in the beginning men were not given permission to eat any meat but only fruits and vegetables, with the one initial exception of the forbidden fruit, and then the consequential exception of the fruit of the tree of life, which would have enabled them to live forever.

The fall of this couple in the garden was the beginning of woes.178 Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4), and then the whole earth became corrupt, necessitating the flood (Genesis 6). When God gave Noah instructions concerning the number of animals to bring into the ark, God commanded that two of every unclean animal be brought “on board,” and that seven of every clean species be taken on:

18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. 19 You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. 20 Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive (Genesis 6:18-20, NIV).

1 The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. 2 Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, 3 and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. 4 Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.” 5 And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him. 6 Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. 7 And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, 9 male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah (Genesis 7:1-9, NIV).

The purpose for the extra clean animals seems to be to provide animals which were to be used for sacrifices to God:

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21 The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done (Genesis 8:20-21, NIV).

As God accepted the sacrifice of Noah, He made a covenant with him never again to destroy every living thing (Genesis 8:20-22). Immediately after this, God changed the rules as to what men could eat. Now, man could not only eat that which was produced by green plants, but all animal flesh as well. The only requirement was that its blood must be drained from it:

3 Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. 4 “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it (Genesis 9:3-4, NIV).

It appears as though only the clean animals were acceptable for making a sacrifice to God. This would explain the necessity for more “clean” animals than for the “unclean.” As for men, they could eat “unclean” animals, it seems, until the time of the exodus and the Mosaic Covenant. It was at this time that the “unclean” animals were carefully distinguished from the “clean,” and only the clean were to be eaten by the Israelites:

43 Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. 44 I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. 45 I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. 46 “‘These are the regulations concerning animals, birds, every living thing that moves in the water and every creature that moves about on the ground. 47 You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten’” (Leviticus 11:43-47, NIV).

The specific definitions of “clean” and “unclean” animals are provided in the rest of Leviticus 11 and are repeated in Deuteronomy 14. Interestingly enough, while the “clean” and “unclean” distinctions were to be observed by all the Israelites, these did not apply to the “aliens” among them:

20 But any winged creature that is clean you may eat. 21 Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to an alien living in any of your towns, and he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. But you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:1-21, NIV).

Israel was to distinguish between the “clean” and the “unclean” in the food that they ate, but true cleanness was a matter of the heart and of one’s obedience to the law of God, in spirit and in truth. When the nation Israel refused to obey God, they would be sent out of the land and intermingled with the Gentiles, where they would be forced to eat that which was unclean. This would be an evidence of their sin and of their divine discipline:

“Eat the food as you would a barley cake; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement for fuel.” The Lord said, “In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled food among the nations where I will drive them.” Then I said, “Not so, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth” (Ezekiel 4:12-14, NIV).

1 Do not rejoice, O Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations. For you have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostitute at every threshing floor. 2 Threshing floors and winepresses will not feed the people; the new wine will fail them. 3 They will not remain in the Lord’s land; Ephraim will return to Egypt and eat unclean food in Assyria. 4 They will not pour out wine offerings to the Lord, nor will their sacrifices please him. Such sacrifices will be to them like the bread of mourners; all who eat them will be unclean. This food will be for themselves; it will not come into the temple of the Lord. 5 What will you do on the day of your appointed feasts, on the festival days of the Lord? 6 Even if they escape from destruction, Egypt will gather them, and Memphis will bury them. Their treasures of silver will be taken over by briers, and thorns will overrun their tents (Hosea 9:1-6, NIV).

As we saw in our last lesson, temporary cleansing was provided for in the sacrificial system. It was not the ceremonial uncleanness which ultimately defiled the people of God, but their own sin:

But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear (Isaiah 59:2, NIV).

God provided a temporary solution for both the ceremonial uncleanness and the sins of the Israelites. The annual “day of atonement” (Leviticus 16) provided an annual cleansing of the sins of the nation. But the full and final cleansing was yet to come, that which would be brought about by the Messiah (e.g. Isaiah 4:2-6; Jeremiah 33:7-9; Ezekiel 33:22-38).

When Jesus came to the earth, He thus could be expected to speak with reference to the “clean” and the “unclean.” And so He did:

Now when He had spoken, a Pharisee asked Him to have lunch with him; and He went in, and reclined at table. And when the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you” (Luke 11:37-41).

“Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” … And when leaving the multitude, He had entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:14b-15, 17-19).

In both these cases Jesus rebuked the externalism of the Pharisees, which looked to outside appearances and not to the heart (cf. Luke 16:15). And in both, He spoke of uncleanness as something which comes from within a man (from the heart) and which works itself out (external acts). Indeed, the Pharisees were not even so concerned with a man’s actions as with the cleanness of cups and eating utensils and with the ceremonial washing of hands. Jesus, like the prophets before Him, pointed to man’s sin as the source of defilement, not dirt nor that which was ceremonially unclean.

Mark179 tells us that Jesus did even more than point to the heart as the source of sin and defilement. Mark says, parenthetically (as the translators render it), that Jesus declared all things clean. As I understand this statement, it was made after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. The disciples undoubtedly did not understand that Jesus was pronouncing all things clean at the time Jesus spoke these words. But they did look back on this incident and see that He had pronounced all things clean. The actual cleansing took place at the cross, but the pronouncement was made before the cross (for only afterward would it be understood, and applied, and this incident with Peter in Acts 10 & 11 was probably the key factor in this). The cleansing which Christ accomplished at Calvary not only cleansed the sins of men but potentially all that sin had defiled:

11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! 15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant … It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence (Hebrews 9:11-15, 23-24 NIV).

Because the blood of Christ accomplished full and final cleansing, for the sins of all who would believe in Christ and for the entire creation, the need for the distinction of “clean” and “unclean” things, as required by the Mosaic Covenant, was no longer required. To this change the New Testament writers consistently bear witness:

13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. 14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. 15 If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. 16 Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. 19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. 22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin (Romans 14:13-23, NIV).

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. 19 He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. 20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 2:16-23, NIV).

To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted (Titus 1:15, NIV).

9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. 10 We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:9-14, NIV).

This cleansing was not for Jews only; it was to include all whose heart was turned to God and who would proclaim Jesus as God’s Messiah. Indeed, this cleansing was so complete that it would bring near to God those whom the law would have kept at a distance. And to this the prophet Isaiah (and the rest, Peter will tell his audience in Acts 10:43) bore witness:

3 Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off. 6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8 The Sovereign Lord declares—he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56:3-8, NIV).

1 “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’ 2 All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations—3 a people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick; 4 who sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil; who eat the flesh of pigs, and whose pots hold broth of unclean meat; 5 who say, ‘Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you!’ Such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day. 6 “See, it stands written before me: I will not keep silent but will pay back in full; I will pay it back into their laps—7 both your sins and the sins of your fathers,” says the Lord. “Because they burned sacrifices on the mountains and defied me on the hills, I will measure into their laps the full payment for their former deeds” (Isaiah 65:1-7, NIV).

On the basis of the prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 56, is it any wonder that in the Book of Acts we would read in chapter 8 of the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch, and that in chapter 10 we would hear of the conversion of a Gentile, Cornelius, a man whose worship God had found acceptable (cf. Acts 10:4)? Not at all! Indeed, we should expect to read what is recorded in Acts. And so we do.

The cleansing of which the prophets foretold, which Jesus both announced and accomplished, and of which Peter is forcefully reminded, is that which makes possible the menu of heaven in the eternal state. This is described in the last chapters of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation. It is a description of the new Jerusalem, which descends from heaven:

And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple. And the city has not need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. And the nations shall walk by its light, and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it. And in the daytime (for there shall be no night there) its gates shall never be closed; and they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads (Revelation 20:22–21:4).

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14).180

From the above we may then suggest that the “menu” of what God taught was acceptable to eat was a clue to what God was trying to teach His people. When God put Adam and Eve on the earth, He gave them instructions as to what they could eat, and what they could not eat. When the Noahic Covenant was instituted (in Genesis 9), the rules changed, so that meat could now be eaten. And when the Mosaic Covenant was inaugurated, the distinctions between “clean” and “unclean” meats were defined. It should thus come as no surprise that with the institution of the New Covenant, the food laws should be changed again, to reflect the new covenant which was inaugurated. Indeed, the changing of the rules should cause us to look for a change. Jesus pronounced the change in His earthly ministry. He made provision for the change in His sacrificial death and resurrection. And He instituted the change by means of this incident with Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11.

All of this backdrop helps to explain the biblical and historical context of our passage. Peter was providentially led away from Jerusalem, first to Samaria (8:14-25), and then later to Lydda, and finally to Joppa. His willingness to touch the dead body of Dorcas (Acts 9:36-42) and to stay in the house of Simon the tanner (9:43) was evidence of a change in Peter’s practice, if not in his theology. But a thorough-going change of heart and mind required a divine revelation. Only this would suffice to convince him that he should accompany the three men to Caesarea to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile.

The revelation which Peter received informed him that the Lord Jesus had, in His sacrificial death, accomplished a cleansing, a cleansing which (as Jesus had earlier indicated in Mark 7) made obsolete the ceremonial food laws. If their observance was distorted by the added interpretations and prohibitions of Judaism, even the basic distinctions, as defined by God in the law, were now set aside. True cleansing was internal, a cleansing from sin. True cleansing came through the cross, not through ceremonial cleanness. And so these convictions, which Peter held to so strongly, must be set aside.

But the application of this revelation extended to people and not just to foods. Peter grasped through the revelation of the Holy Spirit (10:19-20) that he was not to call men unclean. And finally he grasped that he was not to let his concern for ceremonial cleanness keep him from association with Gentiles and from proclaiming Christ to them. The full thrust of the lesson is yet to be learned. Peter has been convinced to associate with these Gentiles and so to keep them overnight at Simon’s house. He has also become willing to go to the home of Cornelius. But he is not yet certain what he is to do, once he arrives. All he knows (so far as I can tell) is that he is to go to Caesarea, to the house of Cornelius, without reservations, and there to speak some word.

After the explanation offered by Cornelius (10:30-33), Peter realized that he was brought to this home (with a good sized group gathered) to speak whatever God had commanded him to say. (Only later, in 11:14, do we learn that Cornelius was assured that Peter would speak words by which this Gentile and his household would be saved). Peter realizes now that it was the gospel which he was to preach. This may seem obvious to us, but I believe it was indeed a revelation to Peter. Peter thus proceeded to proclaim the gospel, in its simplest terms. This gospel is recorded in verses 36-43.

The Gospel

“Proclaimed by Peter, Accepted by the Gentiles, and Witnessed to by the Spirit

36 “The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)—37 you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. 38 “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him. 39 “And we are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. And they also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. 40 “God raised Him up on the third day, and granted that He should become visible, 41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us, who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42 “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. 43 “Of Him all the prophets181 bear witness that through His name every one who believes in Him has received forgiveness of sins.”

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed,182 because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

Recently a friend suggested to me that I attempt to summarize the gospel in a paragraph. It is a noble task and well worth the effort. Peter has done just that in the paragraph above. He has distilled the essence of the gospel in but a paragraph. What is it that one needs to know in order to be saved? Well, here it is. Let us look at the gospel as Peter has summed it up.

Characteristics of Peter’s Message

As we pause to consider Peter’s message as a whole, several important characteristics of this sermon should be noted and then kept in mind when interpreting and applying it:

(1) Peter is preaching the gospel. At the beginning of this episode, Peter seemed only to know that he was to go to the house of Cornelius and that he was to speak whatever God commanded him to say. But from Acts 11:14 we know that Cornelius was told that Peter would speak those words which would explain to him how he and those of his household could be saved. Peter’s words, recorded in Acts 10:36-43, are the gospel. We are assured of this because it was immediately after hearing these words that the Spirit fell upon those gathered as proof of their salvation. Peter’s words were the gospel.

(2) Peter is preaching the gospel to Gentiles. These were Gentile “God-fearers,” men and women who recognized that the Messiah and God’s salvation would come through Israel. But they were “uncircumcised men” (Acts 11:3) whom the Jewish believers felt were not an appropriate audience for Peter’s preaching, something which they will be sure to let Peter know about when he returns to Jerusalem.

(3) Much of the gospel Peter preached was material that was not new to his audience. Peter’s words, “you know” in verse 37, supplied again by the translators of the NASB in verse 38, indicate that some, perhaps much, of what Peter was saying was not new. The question which these Gentiles had183 was, “What must we (as Gentiles) do to be saved?” They had some knowledge of what the Jews in Jerusalem had seen and heard, but the gospel for the Gentiles was an uncertain thing.

(4) The gospel Peter was preaching was exactly the same message which was preached to the Jews. This is not a “Gentile version” of the gospel, but the “Jewish version” of it. Peter is repeating that gospel message which he had been preaching to Jews alone (Samaritans included here, as half-Jews). We shall later learn (in Galatians 2) that there is no separate gospel for Jews or Gentiles, but one gospel, by which all come to Christ. Peter was preaching the same message he had preached everywhere, but especially to the Jews in Jerusalem and to the Samaritans. There were no changes made for the Gentiles.184

(5) The gospel Peter preached was received before Peter had any chance to finish his sermon. I have marveled at the brevity of this message of Peter’s. How concise he was, I thought. And then I realized that this was only his introduction. Look at Peter’s words of explanation to his Jewish brethren as recorded in Acts 11:

“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15).

Peter did not get to finish this sermon! This brief summary of the gospel was merely his introduction, merely his beginning place. He began by summarizing the gospel, much of which his audience knew. He seems to have been planning to go on from here, spelling out and explaining the points he had summarized as he developed his message. He never got that chance. Who knows what Peter would have said had he continued? But what he did say was enough. He summarized his gospel preaching as he had proclaimed the good news to the Jews, and that was all that the Gentiles needed to know and to believe in order to be saved. They heard Peter, they believed the message, they were saved, and thus the Spirit descended upon them.

The Gospel According to Peter (and all other apostles)

Noting the characteristics of Peter’s presentation of the gospel in a more general way, let us briefly look at the particulars of the gospel which Peter outlined.185

(1) The gospel is that which was promised to Israel by the Old Testament prophets, which was introduced by John the Baptist. The gospel that Peter preached was the “good news,” but it was not “new news.” It was the news that that which Old Testament personalities (like Joseph, Moses, and David), rituals and ceremonies (like the annual Day of Atonement—Leviticus 16) foreshadowed. It was the good news of which the prophets of old foretold. John the Baptist was, in essence, the “last of the old time prophets,” and thus it was both appropriate and necessary that he be the one to introduce Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. The gospel had its roots in the Old Testament and its fruits in the New Testament.

(2) The gospel is the good news of the person of Jesus, who was the promised Christ (Messiah), and who is Lord of all. Central to the gospel is the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the man, who was also the Son of God, the Christ. The gospel is the good news of the His coming, earthly ministry, death, burial, and resurrection. Without Christ, there is no gospel. Christ is central in the apostolic gospel.

(3) That Jesus is the Christ has the testimony of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, the witness of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the apostles. The certainty that Jesus was the Messiah was to be found in the many complimentary sources of testimony to Him and to His identity as Messiah, the Christ. All of the prophecies of the Old Testament pertaining to His first coming were precisely and fully fulfilled in Him (something which is evident in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, as found in Acts 2). John the Baptist also pointed to Him and proclaimed that He was the Son of God, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The deeds which Jesus did were proof of His identity (cf. Luke 4:16-21, citing here Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 7:19-23). The apostles too bore witness to His teaching, miracles, death and burial, and His resurrection. They ate and drank with Him after He had been raised from the dead (Acts 10:41). It was on the basis of His work, as well as His commission, that the apostles went out, preaching Christ “to the people” (Acts 10:42).186

(4) This same Jesus is coming again, this time to judge the whole world, including the living and those who have died. This Jesus was not only raised from the dead and is now being proclaimed as “Lord of all” by the apostles and the saints, but He is coming again. If Jesus’ first coming was not to judge or to condemn (cf. John 3:17; 8:11), His second coming will be for judgment and condemnation for all who have rejected His salvation:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds, to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:25-29).

(5) Everyone, Jew or Gentile, who believes in Him will be forgiven their sins and thus will be saved from divine wrath. If the “bad news” is that judgment has been given to the Lord Jesus, who is “Lord of all,” men need not suffer the wrath of God for their sins because the Judge is also the Savior and the Sacrifice. The “Judge” has been “judged” for our sins. He has died in the sinner’s place, bearing God’s wrath. All who acknowledge their sin and who trust in His sacrifice, His “cleansing” will be saved from the judgment (of unbelievers) which is to come. This was the promise of the Old Testament prophets, as Peter had preached in his first sermon (cf. Acts 2, especially verses 16-21 which refer to Joel 2:28-32).

(6) This salvation, which Jesus has provided, is available to all who would believe and not just to Jews. Peter said,

“… everyone who believes in Him has received forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43).

The full implications of this have not yet hit Peter, and it is yet to impact the apostles and the church in Jerusalem, but Peter said it, and it was true. This is only that which the prophets themselves promised:

“AND IT SHALL BE, THAT EVERY ONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD SHALL BE SAVED” (Acts 2:21, citing Joel 2:32; cf. also Romans 10:13).

(7) The message of the gospel, its orientation and its emphasis, is not the same as the “gospel” which is so often preached today. The gospel which is proclaimed here by Peter is God-centered, not man centered. The emphasis is not on “what God can do for you,” but on who God is and what He will do to sinners who reject Him. It is that He is “Lord of all,” to whom all must bow the knee (cf. Philippians 2:9-10). It is a gospel which focuses on Christ, on man’s sin, and on the day of judgment to come, as well as on the cleansing and forgiveness of sins which He has accomplished at Calvary. It is a gospel which sounds almost “foreign” to the ears of contemporary Christians, who have often adapted the gospel to the point where it is hardly recognizable as a gospel, if indeed it is still the gospel.

(8) The gospel which Peter preached was all that was needed for Cornelius and his household to believe in order to be saved. All of the essentials of the gospel which Peter proclaimed were present, for the moment that Peter’s audience believed, the Spirit of God descended upon them, as proof of their salvation. There was nothing missing in this gospel. Nothing needed to be added. It was sufficient to be saved. Anything which we add to this gospel is not the gospel itself.

(9) The gospel which Peter preached produced exactly the same results as were described as taking place at Pentecost. I believe that those circumcised Jewish saints who accompanied Peter were also present at the first Pentecost, and that they are here giving testimony to the fact that another pentecost has taken place, or, as one writer has said,

“The event was not so much a second Pentecost, standing alongside the first, as the participation of Gentile believers in the experience of the first Pentecost.”187

The result was a further dimension of a truth which Peter was beginning to grasp, and that is that the gospel makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles.

(10) The gospel, when received, was followed by baptism and not by circumcision. Just as Peter had called for converts to bear testimony to their renunciation of Judaism (with its works-oriented righteousness) and their identification with Jesus as the Lord and as the Christ of God by baptism, so he ordered these saints to be baptized as soon as the Spirit had borne witness to their conversion. The Judaisers would require circumcision; the gospel requires baptism. One does not need to become identified with Judaism and the Law of Moses, but only to be identified with Christ, and with His death, burial, and resurrection on behalf of sinners.


As we come to the end of this chapter, we must realize that we are not yet at the end of the episode, which concludes in chapter 11. But we can come to some preliminary conclusions. Let me highlight some of these as we close this lesson.

(1) While the conversion which the gospel produces may, in some ways, produce instant changes, other changes come harder and over a longer period of time. When we are saved we move from darkness to light, from judgment to salvation, from death to life. But we must also note that even in the case of the apostles (Peter, in particular), his theology changed gradually, and some of his sins and prejudices lingered on for a long period of time—longer than we would like to admit. Salvation changes our status with God instantly, but it does not instantly eradicate all sin or error or prejudice. Peter is now an apostle, but he is not infallible, nor is he free from all of the errors of his past. So it is with us. God changes some things instantly, and others gradually (through the process of sanctification). Let us reckon with this reality in our own lives and also as we deal with others.

(2) God does not distinguish between Jews and Gentiles in the church. Jewishness and Gentileness is not an issue in the gospel. Gentiles do not have to become Jews or proselytes to become Christians. The gospel is the same, for Jews and Gentiles. Christians are Christians, and there should be no artificial distinctions such as, “Jewish Christian” and “Gentile Christian.”

(3) One of the great barriers to the proclamation of the gospel today, as in the days of the New Testament church, is racial prejudice. That was the problem with Israel, as personified in the prophet Jonah. That is still the problem today.

(4) If we are to be saved from the wrath of God on sinners, the gospel which Peter preached (along with all the rest of the apostles and the saints of all ages) is the only gospel by which we can and will be saved. This word from Peter to the household of Cornelius is the gospel. Any deviation from it is a deviation from the true gospel. Let us beware if our “gospel” differs from Peter’s gospel.

Have you received the gospel, my friend? Have you acknowledged your sin and the frightening reality that this Jesus whom we find in the gospels is going to return, to judge all who have rejected His gift of salvation? Have you received Him as Israel’s Messiah, and more importantly, as God’s Messiah, predicted by the prophets of the Old Testament, and witnessed to by the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the apostles? Have you come to believe that He died for your sins, and that He was raised from the dead for your justification? If so, God does not distinguish you from any other saint, of any other race or social status. But the one distinction God will make is the distinction between those who have trusted in His Son and those who have not. This is the most important distinction of all. Which are you, a forgiven sinner, who has trusted in Jesus as your Savior, or one who has rejected Jesus and who awaits divine wrath? I pray that you are, like Cornelius, a saint, saved by the blood of Jesus.

176 This same reasoning is still being applied to some of God’s prohibitions. It is applied to the “unclean” foods of the Mosaic Law. God forbade the “unclean” foods because they were bad for man, we are told by some. I think not. If they were bad for man, why would God later, in Genesis 9, allow man to eat all animals?

Another instance, in the New Testament, is God’s prohibition of women taking the leadership, in asking questions, in public speaking, in leading and teaching (1 Corinthians 14:34-36; 1 Timothy 2:9-15). “Why,” we are asked, “would God prohibit a woman from blessing the church with her teaching or leadership?” It is not that women have little to contribute. They have much to contribute, if they were allowed to speak and lead publicly. But there is no real test of a woman’s obedience to God unless what is prohibited is of value, just as the forbidden fruit was.

I can imagine Eve thinking something like this: “Just imagine, here is a wonderful tree, producing a delicious and nutritious fruit, but God has said that it must not be eaten. What a waste! It isn’t right for God to withhold from us that which would be such a blessing.” This logic is repeated day after day. Sex is a wonderful gift, but God restricts its use to the bounds of marriage. Some would say that if it is really a delight, it would be wrong to withhold it. But here is the test of obedience--doing what God says, at personal cost or loss, only because He has said so.

177 God cursed the ground on account of the sin of Adam and Eve. Is this one reason why the offering of Cain was rejected, because it was the fruit of the ground, the cursed ground. That which men could not eat, that which had not been given for man’s food, was fit for offering to God, and in the process provided clothing to cover man’s nakedness. Should Cain have reasoned thus, and so offered God an animal (blood) sacrifice? Perhaps so.

178 It is interesting to note that even in the beginning, sin is described as something coming forth from the heart, and not something merely external. Cf. Genesis 6:5-6; 8:21.

179 It is generally held that the source of Mark’s gospel account was Peter.

180 Notice that in heaven Jews and Gentiles are both present, but they are simply viewed as those whose robes have been washed, those who serve God. No emphasis is made on “Jews” per se, but there is emphasis on the fact that Gentiles are present, though without discrimination or distinction. And while the Gentiles are present in heaven, there is no unclean thing or person present. There is no longer any need to distinguish between “clean” and “unclean” in heaven, for the unclean is excluded from heaven.

181 “We cannot be certain what prophecies Peter may have had in mind, but possible texts include Isaiah 33:24; 53:4-6, 11; Jeremiah 31:34; Daniel 9:24).” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 193.

182 “The amazement of the Jewish-Christian believers present with Peter at this Gentile Pentecost is due to the fact that the Jews held that the Divine Spirit could not be communicated to any Gentile, or be bestowed upon anyone who dwelt beyond the promised land.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 149.

183 Note that in 10:4 it is the “prayers” of Cornelius which are referred to as being acceptable to God, but in 10:31 the angel told Cornelius that his “prayer” (singular) had been heard. I believe Cornelius was aware of the coming of Jesus and of some of the gospel. I believe his prayer was a petition, asking God what he needed to know and to do to be saved. Peter’s coming to Cornelius was, to a great extent, for Peter’s benefit (and for the apostles as a whole), but it was also to inform Cornelius that the “gospel” which the Jews must believe to be saved was exactly the same “gospel” which he must believe to be saved. As a Gentile, he was not sure what differences there might be. There were, in fact, none.

184 With one exception. The Jews were accused of rejecting Jesus and of putting Him to death (with the collaboration of the Romans). The Gentiles are not accused of putting Jesus to death, though we know that they would have done so, if they had been in the sandals of those Jews who lived in Jerusalem.

185 “The main body of Peter’s speech (vss. 36-43) is strikingly parallel to the outline of Mark’s Gospel.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 146.

186 Up to this point, “the people” must almost exclusively be the “Jews,” including the Samaritans in this category.

187 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 216.

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17. Peter is Called on the Carpet (Acts 11:1-18)


Can you just hear these words from the brethren to Peter: “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Those who regard Peter as a “pope” surely must agree that he does not command a great deal of respect from his “circumcised” brethren in Jerusalem on his return from Caesarea. In our text Luke portrays Peter as a man who is in “hot water,” who is being “called on the carpet” for evangelizing Gentiles. One can almost see these “circumcised saints” (they were believers, weren’t they?) standing at the gates of the city, with fire in their eyes and their hands on their hips, waiting for Peter to arrive. Can you imagine someone looking Peter squarely in the eye and greeting him with the words, “You have a lot of explaining to do!” I do not think many expected Peter to be able to talk his way out of this situation.

Peter himself had referred to his actions as illegal, at least as far as the Jewish interpretation and application of the Old Testament laws of ceremonial cleanness were concerned (Acts 10:28). It was a risky thing for Peter to accompany Gentiles to the house of a Gentile—and then to be their guest for several days.

Peter’s initial refusal to partake of anything “unclean” and his reluctance to have any fellowship with Gentiles is an important clue to the deep rift which existed between Jews and Gentiles, a rift which had a strong impact on the church. Peter’s change of mind and heart becomes a turning point for the church in Jerusalem in its attitudes and actions toward Gentile converts. We come in this lesson to the conclusion of the incident involving Peter and his Jewish companions and Cornelius and his Gentile companions. The Jerusalem saints confront Peter, hear his defense, and reach their conclusions. The importance of the decision reached here can hardly be overemphasized.

The Structure of the Passage

Our text falls rather neatly into three parts. In verses 1-3, Luke records the arrival of Peter in Jerusalem and the charge of misconduct leveled against him by his brethren. Verses 4-17 are Peter’s step-by-step account of how God had not directed him to the house of Cornelius, but how God had saved all those gathered, and had baptized them with His Spirit, concluding that he could do nothing other than to follow God’s lead. Verse 18 records the conclusion which Peter’s brethren reached pertaining to the salvation of the Gentiles. The structure of our text can thus be summarized:

  • Verses 1-3 The Charges Against Peter
  • Verses 4-17 Peter’s Explanation
  • Verse 18 The Church’s Agreement

A Historical Overview of the
Events Leading to this Incident

Before we turn to the confrontation of Peter by his Jewish brethren, let us pause to recall how Luke has brought us to this point in time in the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel. The Old Testament had much to say about the salvation which God was going to bring about, both for the nation Israel and for the “nations,” the Gentiles. The covenants of God, the rituals and ceremonies of Judaism, and the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets all spoke of a coming time of cleansing, of salvation, and of a coming day of wrath, after which God would restore fallen men and a defiled creation, bringing about the “kingdom of God.”

John the Baptist, as the last of the Old Testament prophets, introduced Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” At His baptism, Jesus was endued with the power of the Holy Spirit who descended upon Him, and at this time the Father also bore witness to His identity. Jesus presented Himself to His people as their Messiah, a thought which they immediately welcomed, until they came to realize that His kingdom was not the kind of kingdom they wanted. It was a kingdom for saved sinners. It was a kingdom which included the Gentiles. It was a kingdom of which He was King, in which He was preeminent. It was a kingdom where self-serving people were not going to be present.

Jesus ministered, providing healing and deliverance for many and thereby demonstrating that the power of the Holy Spirit was upon Him. Jesus taught, explaining the Law as the prophets of old had done, showing what God was trying to teach men through it. He also spoke of the coming kingdom of God which He was to establish by means of His two comings—the first to provide forgiveness of sins and to reconcile lost sinners to God, and the second to judge those sinners who have rejected Him and to rule the earth in justice.

Opposition to Jesus and His teaching continued to increase, culminating in His crucifixion, orchestrated by the religious leaders of the nation Israel, and with the consent and collaboration of Rome (the Gentiles). Jesus died, was buried, and on the third day, rose from the dead. He spent forty days, appearing to His disciples over this time, and even eating with them. He then commanded them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, after which they were to go forth to all nations, proclaiming the good news of the gospel and making disciples thereby of all the nations.

On the Day of Pentecost, when all of the apostles and a number of others were gathered together in one place, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, baptizing them and enduing them with power, which was manifested in their speaking in the foreign tongues of those who would gather to hear them. That day, thousands came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, as a result of the preaching of gospel and the outpouring of the Spirit. The gospel continued to be proclaimed, with many more coming to faith in Jesus, but with growing opposition from the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. When the apostles were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, Peter’s refusal to cease proclaiming Jesus as the Christ created a crisis. The advice of Gamaliel seemed to prevail, resulting in a “wait and see” approach on the part of the religious leaders. The emergence of Stephen as a powerful preacher once again brought the opposition to a point of explosion, resulting in the stoning of Stephen. Paul played a role in this execution.

A great persecution broke out against the church, causing the saints to scatter from the city of Jerusalem to the regions of Judea and Samaria (8:1ff.) as well as to more distant lands (11:19ff.). Luke has chosen to deal separately with these two evangelistic thrusts, taking the Judean and Samaritan campaign first. This fits the geographical scheme of the book laid out in Acts 1:8:

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The apostles responded to word that the Samaritans were being saved by sending Peter and John to Samaria, where they prayed for the new converts to receive the Holy Spirit. After they had finished their task, Peter and John set out for Jerusalem, preaching to many Samaritan villages as they went. Philip, on the other hand, was directed to the desert, where he was used in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. He then went on to Caesarea. Saul’s conversion is then reported, for he will be the driving force behind the evangelization of the Gentiles, just as he was in the persecution of the church and thus of Christ.

In Acts 10 we find Peter in Lydda and then in Joppa, where he stayed with a tanner named Simon who lived by the sea. It may be that Peter never made it back to Jerusalem, or he may have made this trip which brought him to Joppa after a return to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Peter is in Joppa when he receives his vision from God, informing him emphatically and repeatedly (three times) that what God had cleansed he was not to regard as unclean. The meaning and application to this vision soon became clear, as the three emissaries from the house of Cornelius arrived at the door to Peter’s house. The Spirit directed Peter to accompany these Gentiles and not to be “up tight” about doing so.

Upon his arrival, Peter found a large group of Gentiles gathered at the home of Cornelius, all waiting to hear the words which God was promised to speak through him, words which would inform them of what they must believe in order to be saved. Before Peter had even gotten warmed up, the Spirit fell upon all the Gentiles who had gathered. Peter had already given them the simple gospel, and they believed it. The Spirit fell upon them so that a kind of “second Pentecost” occurred. Since these folks were now saints, Peter commanded that those who had been baptized by the Spirit be baptized with water. As God had witness to their salvation (in their baptism of the Spirit) so they must bear witness in water baptism.

After a short stay with these saints, Peter headed home to Jerusalem. But Peter was not nearly as welcome in Jerusalem as he had been in Caesarea. There were a number of circumcised Jews who viewed Peter’s actions as a direct affront to Judaism and a sinful concession to the heathen Gentiles. Thus, when we come to chapter 11 we find this angry group confronting Peter, demanding an explanation for his actions. That is what Peter will give them.

The Charge Against Peter

Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”188

One can well imagine how word of Peter’s visit to the home of Cornelius must have quickly reached Judea and Jerusalem. There was already much concern on the part of the Hellenistic Jews that Christianity was doing away with some of the “sacred” elements of Judaism, like the Temple and the Law of Moses (Acts 13). How much more would there be protest over the bringing of Gentiles into Judaism, and without circumcision!

But this opposition was not coming from unbelieving Jews who sought to protect Judaism from the influences of Christ and His apostles. This opposition came from none other than the saints.189 More than this, it appears to have come from the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, including Peter’s colleagues, the apostles.190 Reports began to reach their ears about what Peter had done and what had happened. Predictably, these reports were fragmentary accounts, for Peter’s full account would satisfy their concerns. The parts of the story which did reach the apostles and brethren must have been those which were of greatest concern. They had heard that the Gentiles had been saved, that they had received the word of God (verse 1). They had heard too that Peter had gone to them, and that he had actually eaten with them. They were shocked. They were amazed. They were angry. They were waiting for Peter, so to speak, with their hands on their hips, ready to scold him the moment of his return. In their minds, Peter had a lot of explaining to do, and there was little chance he could talk his way out of this blunder. He had gone too far.

The rendering of the New Jerusalem Bible aptly catches the tone of this anger and frustration with Peter:

The apostles and the brothers in Judaea heard that the pagans too had accepted the word of God, and when Peter came up to Jerusalem the Jews criticized him and said, “So you have been visiting the uncircumcised and eating with them, have you?” (Acts 11:1-3, New Jerusalem Bible).

Is it not amazing that there was no rejoicing over the salvation of these Gentiles, but only anger? Contrast this response of the apostles on hearing of the salvation of the household of Cornelius with that of Barnabas to the salvation of those at Antioch:

22 And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. 23 Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; 24 for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.

We may also contrast the response of these brethren to the earlier actions of the apostles in response to the report of the salvation of many Samaritans:

Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-15).

Why then this strong reaction to the conversion of Cornelius and those Gentiles who were gathered with him in his house? Let us pursue this question by looking closely at the characteristics of the opposition which are evident in our text:

(1) Those who opposed Peter were “circumcised” men, among whom may have been Peter’s fellow-apostles, as well as other believers.

(2) It was the salvation of these Gentiles that really angered the “circumcised saints.” The report that reached them, which made them mad according to verses 1 and 2, was that Gentiles had been saved as a result of Peter’s ministry. The principle concern seems to be that the gospel was preached to the Gentiles by Peter. The secondary matter seems to be that Peter “fellowshipped” with them. Thus, when Luke informs us of the conclusion which the brethren of Peter reached, it was that “God had granted the Gentiles, too, the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

(3) The “circumcised saints” are distressed, it seems, because these Gentiles were saved and received as brethren as Gentiles, rather than as proselytes.191 Judaism had always left room for a few “converts” to the faith by way of becoming a proselyte. But this meant that the “Gentile” was really no longer a “Gentile” at all, but a Jew, for becoming a proselyte meant circumcision and placing oneself under the Law of Moses. Gentiles were only accepted and acceptable to Jews as Jews, but never as Gentiles. Peter did not command that these Gentile believers be circumcised, but that they be baptized. They were received into the faith as Gentiles. Judaism tended to think that salvation came to Israel; but it resisted the fact that salvation was also to come to the world through Israel. God’s salvation was to come both to the Jews and through the Jews. In assuming ownership of God’s blessings, rather than stewardship of them, Israelites (even believing Jews) tended to think that salvation was for Jews alone, rather than “to the Jews first.” What a difference there was between God’s way and Israel’s way in this matter of salvation.

(4) It appears that there is a connection, a link, between the salvation of the Gentiles and the fellowship which Peter and the others had with them. There are two elements involved in the opposition of the “circumcised saints,” as I understand the text. First, that Gentiles were saved as Gentiles. Second, that Peter and the others ate192 with these Gentiles. What relationship do these two elements have to each other?

I have come to a tentative conclusion which I submit for your consideration. I think the Jewish Christians somehow had assumed ownership of the gospel, as though salvation belonged to the Jews but was not available to the Gentiles.193 They did not like the Gentiles, and thus they twisted the Old Testament laws concerning “clean” and “unclean” to justify their distance from the Gentiles as those who were unclean. Prejudice was thus practiced in the name of purity—something which still happens today.

The connection between these two elements is that the saints realized one thing, and that was that “what God cleansed, man must not regard as unclean.” The cleansing of which God spoke was the cleansing which Jesus accomplished on the cross of Calvary, the cleansing of sins, through the shedding of His blood. If a Gentile was saved, then a Gentile was also clean. And if a Gentile was clean, one could not refuse to fellowship with him. Salvation required fellowship. No wonder they were angry at the salvation of these Gentiles. They knew that salvation requires fellowship, and they did not want fellowship with Gentiles. The gospel removed any excuse for the Jews to regard themselves as superior to Gentiles and thus to justify their practice of segregation, all neatly explained as the observance of God’s laws pertaining to holiness.

As I understand the sequence of events which took place at the house of Cornelius, it went something like this. First, Peter went to the home of Cornelius and found a large group gathered there. He then talked with Cornelius and heard his account of the way God had led him to invite Peter to his house. Peter then preached the gospel, and the Holy Spirit baptized these new saints. Peter then commanded that they be baptized with water, as a testimony to their faith. Only after this was Peter invited to “stay on,” and thus he stayed with Gentiles and ate with them. But how could he have done otherwise? They were now saved. They had received the Spirit the same way that the apostles had at Pentecost? How then could Peter distinguish these saints from himself and refuse to eat with them? They were saved in the same way, by means of the same gospel, and baptized by the Spirit in the same way. Peter could no longer distinguish what God refused to distinguish.

(5) The apostles seem to be angry that Peter acted independently from them and their approval, and that he did what they would not have allowed, if consulted. Peter was an apostle, and thus his actions set a precedent, one which the “circumcised saints” did not like. Peter committed them to a course of action they thought was wrong.

(6) Peter’s actions were a kind of first-fruits of things of come, of the end of an era for Israel, and the beginning of the times of the Gentiles. This was a hard thing for a Jew to accept. Israel was to be put “on the shelf” for some time, because of her disobedience. It was one thing for the apostles to speak to their Jewish brethren, and to warn them of God’s judgment on Jerusalem and on them, but it was another to welcome the Gentiles as full brothers in the faith. Israel’s replacement was near, and the Jewish apostles were not all that excited about it.

There was a painful reality looking the apostles in the face. Israel’s time was nearly up. The times of the Gentiles (cf. Romans 11) were at hand. And not only was the nation Israel passing from the scene, with their leadership in “being a light to the Gentiles” ending, but the ministry of other men was about to eclipse the apostles as well. The leadership of the church in Jerusalem is moving into the hands of the elders (cf. 11:22, 30; 15:1-4). Men like Paul and Barnabas will be taking the lead in the evangelization of the world. The days of the apostles are numbered, and they seem to sense this, and to resist it (at least initially), to some degree.

(7) If Peter’s actions aroused his own brethren to anger and to action, one can expect that his actions also brought about a strong reaction from the unbelieving Jews, especially those of the Pharisee party. One wonders if Peter’s preaching to the Gentiles and accepting them as Christians, apart from circumcision, did not cause a great uproar among the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem. Was this not the same kind of opposition which Paul received in city after city, as he was followed and dogged by the Pharisaical Jews?

(8) The reaction of Peter’s brethren has much the same thrust and theology as the on-going opposition of the Judaizers, who are a part of the church, and who seek to bring it back under the practice of Judaism. Such are those who create the problem described in Acts 15, which resulted in the calling of the Jerusalem Council.

Peter’s Defense

4 But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, a certain object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, 6 and when I had fixed my gaze upon it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts194 and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. 7 “And I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Arise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 “But I said, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 “But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ 10 “And this happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky. 11 “And behold, at that moment three men appeared before the house in which we were staying, having been sent to me from Caesarea. 12 “And the Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings.195 And these six brethren196 also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 “And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, ‘Send to Joppa, and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; 14 and he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. 16 “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’197 17 “If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”

Peter defended his actions by a detailed personal account of what had happened. Note some of the specifics of Peter’s defense:198

(1) Peter’s defense was based upon his experience,199 a full, sequential accounting of his experience.200

(2) Peter’s defense was based, in the final analysis, on what God had done and on the way God perceived the Gentiles.201 Peter’s conclusion was that he had to change his own point of view to God’s point of view, and to bring his own actions into alignment with God’s actions. He was compelled to see that God thought and acted differently than he, and it was he who must change, so as to bring himself into alignment with God.

(3) These are the essential elements of that which Peter learned from and about God in the incident concerning Cornelius:

  • God revealed to Peter that He had accomplished a cleansing, a cleansing which Peter (and the Jews) must also recognize, and thus cease from dealing with what God cleansed as though it were still unclean. The fact that this was repeated three times meant it was emphatic.
  • God commanded Cornelius to send for Peter, and Peter to go to the home of Cornelius, without reservation. By a clearly orchestrated, “networked” system of simultaneous guidance, God directed Cornelius to send for Peter, and, at the precise moment necessary, instructed Peter to go to his house without reservations. Peter was at the house of this Gentile, preaching to Gentiles, because God brought both Cornelius (and his guests) and Peter (with his six circumcised companions) together.
  • Cornelius and his household were saved, by believing in the same gospel he preached to the Jews.
  • The Holy Spirit dramatically bore witness to the salvation of these Gentiles by visibly baptizing them in the sight of Peter and the six Jewish onlookers, in just the same way as He had baptized Peter and the apostles at Pentecost.202 Peter shared with his brethren that seeing the Spirit fall upon the Gentiles, just as He had fallen upon the apostles at Pentecost, reminded him of the Lord’s promise of the Spirit’s baptism, as recorded by Luke in Acts 1:5.

The events surrounding the salvation of Cornelius and his household were all of God’s doing, to which Peter merely responded in obedience. God promised Cornelius salvation for him and his household, and they were saved. This salvation was the result of the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and not a result of Peter’s persuasion. He was, indeed, interrupted by the descent of the Spirit. He was just beginning, and didn’t even have the chance to tell Cornelius how to be saved. Cornelius knew from what God had already revealed to him that he need only believe the words which Peter was to speak.

Peter ended his defense by pointing out the fact that the salvation of Cornelius and the other Gentiles was God’s doing:

“If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17).

For Peter to have done anything other than what he did would have been for him to stand in God’s way. Peter did not initiate anything, but rather responded to the clear directives and actions of God. Peter simply conformed to God’s way, obeying that which God had clearly revealed he must both think and do.

The Response of Peter’s Brethren

18 And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

I like the way the New Jerusalem Bible catches the tone and the spirit of this matter, rendering verse 18 this way:

This account satisfied them, and they gave glory to God. “God” they said “can evidently grant even the pagans the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18, New Jerusalem Bible).

This one verse is vitally important, for it reveals to us what the real error was in the thinking of the Jews, and of Jewish Christians, too. It reveals to us what Peter’s fellow-apostles were really upset about. Take a look with me at what this one sentence says about the error of the apostles.

(1) The primary issue at stake here was the gospel, the salvation of Gentiles. The apostles’ conclusion does not mention food or eating. This was an important issue, and it would continue to be for the Jewish Christians, but it was not the central issue, for it is not mentioned in this statement.

(2) Fellowship (or food) was a subordinate matter to the gospel, and one’s practice in the matter of food was to be subject to the implications of the gospel. This is a lesson that Peter will forget, as we are told in Galatians chapter 2, but in his rebuke of Peter, Paul emphasizes that Peter’s error is a functional denial of the gospel.

(3) The apostles changed from grumbling to giving glory to God, from protesting against the actions of Peter to praising God. The prejudice of the Jewish saints kept them from rejoicing at the salvation of the Gentiles. Now, the grumbling subsides, and the Jerusalem circumcised saints give God the glory. Salvation is the Lord’s.

(4) The apostles now confessed as God’s purpose and grace the very thing which they had previously rejected: that God had granted salvation to the Gentiles, as Gentiles. This is not to say that they were only praising God that some Gentiles had been saved (something which should have been done, and wasn’t, at least initially), but that they had come to realize that God had purposed the salvation of the Gentiles as a group.203

Somehow even the apostles had retained the false conception that salvation belonged solely to the Jews. Salvation was for the Jews, but not for the Jews only. God’s purpose was to save the Jews and through them to reach the whole world. The Jews were not intended to be the “end” of God’s purposes, but the means. Because they failed in this stewardship, God would not only save the Gentiles, but He would use the Gentiles to save the world, and, finally, to bring the Jews back to Himself as well.


Our passage plays a crucial role in the Luke’s developing argument in the Book of Acts. It is now a matter of principle and of precedent that God has purposed to save the Gentiles. The fact that this truth was a frequent theme of Old Testament prophecy serves only to remind us of how “slow of heart” saints can be. Nevertheless, the truth is now out in the open, and in practical terms. The prejudice of the Jerusalem “circumcised saints” with regard to the Gentiles goes a long ways in explaining the refusal of other Jerusalem saints to preach the good news to Gentiles (Acts 11:19). And the precedent of Peter and Cornelius goes a long ways in explaining the response of the church at Jerusalem to news of the salvation of many in Antioch (11:22).

By implication, our text has a great deal to teach us. Allow me to conclude by suggesting some areas of application of this passage to our present day, as well as to these saints of old.

(1) The presence of the Holy Spirit in the church and in the life of the saint does not produce instant maturity, doctrinal accuracy, or spirituality. There are some who think that the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit instantly transforms one from a life of sin and failure to victory and spirituality. The Book of Acts strongly points in a different direction. We can see that the Holy Spirit has come upon the Apostles at Pentecost. Then and there they were endued with power to proclaim the gospel. But they were not immediately delivered from their prejudice toward the Gentiles. They were not immediately in tune with God’s purpose and command that the gospel be preached to men of every nation. The slowness of heart of the saints, including the apostles, informs us that God does not instantly perfect His saints. That is why the process of sanctification is necessary. The Spirit of God works through processes as well as through immediate changes. We do well to remember this.

Going one step further, being “baptized by the Holy Spirit” is something which must happen to every believer, but it does Luke’s descriptions of “Spirit baptisms” in Acts should instruct us that it does not always happen at the same time, or in the same way. The visible baptisms are the exception, and not the rule. This is why Peter and his Jewish brethren were surprised by the Spirit’s falling upon these Gentiles, and why he had to refer back to his own Pentecost experience. The visible baptisms also seem to be more for the benefit of those witnessing the event than for the recipients of the baptism. The visible baptism of the Spirit served as undeniable proof of God’s salvation (cleansing), which the church was obliged to acknowledge and act upon.

Finally, we can see the difference between the “baptism of the Spirit” and “water baptism” from our text. Spirit baptism is the work of God, the proof and consequence (seldom visible) of faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah. “Water baptism” is the believer’s public testimony to others of their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. In some instances, water baptism came first; in others, Spirit baptism was first. Normally, the baptism of the Spirit happens (invisibly) at the point of salvation, and water baptism would shortly follow, as I understand the Scriptures as a whole.

(2) Our text points us to the gospel, its essence, and its necessary expressions. The central issue in the salvation of Cornelius is the gospel. If our text tells us anything it is that the gospel has priority. The gospel also has profound implications. If the gospel is God’s promise and God’s possession, then it is His to give, to whomever He chooses. The gospel was for sinners, Jew or Gentile. The gospel was God’s means of providing salvation for the whole world, and not just for the Jews. God’s salvation was for the Jews, but it was not for them exclusively. It was for them to accept and then to proclaim to the nations. Salvation was through the Jews, principally in that Jesus was a Jew, it was through this “seed of Abraham” (cf. Genesis 12:1-3; Galatians 3:16) that salvation was made available for all mankind. Those who are saved have nothing to boast about, other than in Christ who saved them. And those who obtain salvation are to think of themselves as stewards of the gospel, with the responsibility and duty of sharing it with others. The grace of God which is evident in the gospel, is that grace which should characterize those who have obtained salvation through it. Thus, the saint should rejoice in the salvation of any sinner.

The gospel is not only the means which the Spirit of God uses to change men from sinners to saints, to bring men from darkness to light and from death to life; it is the means by which God changes men’s attitude toward others, removing prejudice and replacing it with genuine love. Said differently, the gospel is not only God’s provision for making peace between sinful men and a holy God, it is God’s means for making peace between hostile races. The gospel which brings peace with God also produces peace with men. This is spelled out by Paul in the second chapter of Ephesians. It is exemplified by Paul in many texts, but dramatically in Philippians chapter 1 and 1 Thessalonians chapter 2.

(3) The reluctance (or refusal) of the Jewish saints to preach the gospel to the Gentiles is strikingly similar to the reticence of saints today to carry the gospel to “sinners.” I think that we are just as selective in our evangelism as the Jewish saints were in their own day. The failure of the Jewish saints to evangelize the Gentiles was due, in part to their dislike of Gentiles, and in their reluctance to have fellowship and intimate contact with them. We are afraid that if we share the gospel with a heathen, we might have to accept that person into our fellowship, and even into the intimacy of our homes. It is a scary thought, isn’t it? To think that a drug addict or a homosexual or a pervert may profess Christ, would mean that we have no reason for keeping them at arm’s length.204 Those we want to keep away from are those whom the gospel might draw near. Why is it that we, like the disciples, are quick to tell our relative and friends about Jesus, and so slow to share Christ with those whose lifestyles we disdain?

Jesus told His listeners that when they gave a banquet, they should not invite their friends and relatives—those who could reciprocate—but rather the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:7-24). We should share our banquet, or food with those who are in greatest need, not with those with whom we would most like to associate, and who can best “meet our needs” in return. So, also, with the gospel. We cannot, we dare not discriminate with the gospel. It is not ours to withhold. It is not ours to hoard. It is for sinners, like us.

(4) Because the scope of gospel is universal, there is no biblical basis for categorically excluding any group or groups. I am aware of groups within Christianity who dogmatically believe that homosexuals, as a group, are excluded from the gospel because they have already fallen under God’s wrath. How is it, then, that Paul can refer to this group of sinners as those among other groups of sinners, all of which have had some plucked from their sin by faith in Jesus Christ, and specifically to speak of them as being “cleansed”?

Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

(5) Our text has much to say about the nature and the constituency of the church. The Lord chose to establish one church, not two. There must not be a Jewish church and a Gentile church, for this would deny the oneness which the gospel achieves. The divine nature of the church is evidenced by the fact that it is made up of those from all races, all social classes, all socio-economic groups. Sadly, this is not the way the church appears today. Indeed, the church growth movement seems to be suggesting that the most successful churches are those which acknowledge that “birds of a feather flock together,” thus advocating homogeneous congregations, churches made up of people who are alike. This is not consistent with the gospel. This may be a human dynamic, but it is not a biblical one. The gospel is such that it overcomes man’s differences and makes men one in spirit and truth. That which man cannot do, God does. The church is a miracle, for it brings men together as brothers who were born as enemies, and who would naturally continue to be enemies.

(6) In its simplest terms, holiness is being like God. Judaism (and other forms of legalism today) thought of holiness as being physically distant from “sinners.” It tended to think categorically—of Jews as saints and of Gentiles as sinners. Holiness, Peter learned, was not a matter of observing the “clean” and “unclean” distinctions, but of being cleansed from sin by the blood of Christ, and of being like God, in thought and deed. It is no surprise, then, that repentance and confession are fundamental elements of Christianity. Repentance acknowledges that we are sinners, opposed to God, who need forgiveness by God’s grace. And confession is “agreeing with God” in thought and deed.

How fascinating it is to read Peter’s two epistles, in the light of his experience with Cornelius. How much Peter spoke of holiness. How rooted Peter’s concept of holiness was in “being holy because God is holy” (1 Peter 1:16). How clear to Peter it was that Jesus was not only our example of holiness, but our standard of holiness. We are thus exhorted to act and think like Christ in this sinful world, and thus to be separate from sin (1 Peter 2:11-25).

May God apply the message of this text to our hearts and lives, by His grace and to His glory.

188 The rebuke of Peter by the his circumcised brethren (11:3) is likely based on the same “law” (or interpretation of it) as that to which Peter referred in Acts 10:28.

189 It seems reasonably clear that these “circumcised” opponents of Peter are true believers. This is based upon the assumption that the “circumcised” in verse 2 are the same group (or a smaller part of the group) mentioned in verse 1, the apostles and “the brethren who were throughout Judea.” It is this group of “circumcised brethren” who will conclude, in verse 18, that God has granted salvation also (in addition to themselves, as Jews) to the Gentiles.

190 Carter and Earle contend that the opposition to Peter’s actions came from a “circumcision party”:

“Upon his return to Jerusalem, Peter was met by a delegation of the anti-Gentile Jewish Christians. This was likely the Judaising party (Acts 15:1-5), which soon charged him with illegal association with Gentiles (vs. 3). These Jewish-Christian legalists did not attack the baptism of the Gentiles, perhaps because of the Lord’s command and God’s evident visitation of these Gentiles, but they made an acute issue of Peter’s breach of Jewish ceremonial law and custom . . .” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 153.

I think that it is just too early for this to be true. My question has to do with the apostles. The “apostles and brethren” heard that Cornelius and his household had come to faith. Where were they when Peter was accosted by this group, identified only as those who were “circumcised”? Were the apostles a part of this group? Were they somehow unaware of the accusations made against Peter? Or, were they standing by, keeping quiet, shuffling their feet? Or, worse yet, were they letting this group of the “circumcised” voice their own concerns and objections?

191 “It is clear that Christianity was accepted as a reformed Judaism, and not Judaism’s successor. . . Probably, too, as A. W. F. Blunt suggests, ‘such is human nature, they may have thought that such cases as that of Cornelius were likely to be few and exceptional, before the Return of Jesus took place, and that a minority of Gentiles on the circumference of the Church might be tolerated, especially as they might possibly in time go on to be circumcised through the influence of the Jewish majority.’ It required, indeed, a major readjustment of all thinking for a people, fiercely conscious of racial privilege and stirred anew by the thought that the Messiah of promise had appeared and spoken, readily to abandon the thought that a unique national destiny approached fulfillment.” E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company {photolithoprinted}, 1966), p. 97.

192 The matter of food did have a direct link to Gentile evangelism. Peter’s vision was about food. The levitical laws of clean and unclean had much to say about food. The decision reached at the Jerusalem Council had to do with food (cf. Acts 15:29, where three out of four prohibitions are food-related). So also in Galatians 2 Peter’s separation from the Gentile believers was related to food and eating with Gentiles.

193 In my opinion, this was one of the fundamental errors evident in the life and ministry of Jonah. Jonah was a picture of Israel, who thought that salvation belonged to the Jews, by virtue of the fact that they were Jews, and that salvation was inappropriate for Gentiles. No wonder Jonah was so mad at the salvation of this entire Gentile city! When, in Jonah 2:9, Jonah confessed, “salvation is of the Lord,” he meant (as the text should be understood), “salvation belongs to the Lord,” and thus it was God’s to give, and not Jonah’s to restrict. Jonah still didn’t like it, but at least he acknowledged that he was merely a steward of God’s grace, and not the possessor of it. It was not his to decide those on whom the grace of God should be poured out. And he was just as much the recipient of grace as they.

194 Wild beasts . . . is an added item, not mentioned in 10:12 (except KJV).” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 153.

195 There is a textual question here, as pointed out by A. T. Robertson:

Making no distinction (meden diakrinanta). So Westcott and Hort (first aorist participle) instead of meden diakrinomenon ‘nothing doubting’ (present middle participle) like 10:20. The difference in voice shows the distinction in meaning.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 153.

196 This is a detail added here, but not specified in chapter 10. There we were only told that “some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him.”

197 Notice that Peter sees a connection between “Spirit baptism” (as took place first for the household of Cornelius) and “water baptism” (which Peter saw as a logical necessity, after it was evident these folks were saved). It is also evident that they were saved before they were baptized. This certainly puts Acts 2:38 into perspective, showing that water baptism was not a requirement for salvation, but a necessary result of salvation. Speaking in tongues was God’s exceptional way of bearing witness to His salvation of certain people. Water baptism is viewed as the normal means by which men bear witness to their identification with Christ by faith.

198 Below is the evidence supporting the rightness of Peter’s actions, as outlined by Peter and summarized by Carter and Earle:

First, no sooner had the trance of divine origin been withdrawn than three men appeared from Caesarea inquiring for him in behalf of Cornelius, who had been instructed of God in a vision to send for him (vs. 11). Second, the Holy Spirit spoke directly to him, prompting him to accompany the messengers to Caesarea, and that without misgivings (vs. 12). Third, six Jewish Christian men accompanied Peter to Caesarea to testify to the divine leadings and approval in all the events (vs. 12). Fourth, by comparing notes with Cornelius, after arriving at Caesarea, Peter found that all the circumstances of the divine directions, both on his part and with Cornelius, perfectly corresponded. And fifth, he stated the object of the mission as being the salvation of Cornelius and his household (vs. 14), a most worthy mission indeed.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 154.

199 Note that Peter’s account begins with his experience, and not Cornelius’s, as in chapter 10.

200 Peter’s defense did not include a repetition of the gospel which he preached, for it was the same gospel that the apostles consistently preached, along with the others who bore witness to their faith. Notice that in the gospel presented by Peter in chapter 10, no mention was made of receiving the Holy Spirit or of Pentecost. Thus, one must conclude that a pentecostal experience was not seen as a requirement of salvation. How, then, can some insist that to be saved, one must have the experience of speaking in tongues?

201 A. T. Robertson aptly notes:

“It is noteworthy that Peter does not here repeat his sermon. ‘He rests his defence, not on what he said, but on what God did’ (Furneaux).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 154.

202 There is a great deal of disagreement and debate over the phenomenon of tongues, as seen in our text, and its meaning. I would strongly differ with any who would attempt to argue that speaking in tongues is the normal and expected result of receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. All who are saved have been baptized by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), but not all speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:30). I understand that speaking in tongues is both a spiritual gift (which may occur in an on-going way), and an unusual visible evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit in a very few, exceptional, cases in the Book of Acts, more for the benefit of those witnessing the event, perhaps, than for those experiencing it. This experience is a one-time event, which is not repetitive, for one is baptized with the Spirit but once (“one baptism,” 1 Corinthians 12:13). The fact that Peter and the others were amazed to see this baptism of the Spirit, and that they had to relate it back to the words of the Lord Jesus and their experience at Pentecost, is evidence to the fact that it was not the norm, but the exception. My grievance with some Pentecostals and Charismatics is that they attempt to make the exception the rule. My grievance with some non or anti-charismatics is that they seem hardly willing to accept the exceptions. For most Christians, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is unseen, but it is no less real. It is therefore a matter of faith (cf. Hebrews 11:1).

203 I do not know whether or not the apostles had gotten word of the salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch. I do think that they could have tolerated this conversion because it was but the conversion of one man. But it was not just Cornelius who heard the gospel from Peter’s lips, and it was not just this Gentile who was saved. A whole group of Gentiles heard the gospel, and all of them were saved. Here was reason for concern, the apostles reasoned. This was going too far.

204 I work in prison ministry, and I know that there are dangers which cannot be ignored. I know that there must be caution and wisdom. Nevertheless, there is also some element of risk. That is the very nature of faith. Faith in Christ is not free of danger, but it is freedom from fear.

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18. One Step Backward and Two Steps Forward (Acts 11:19-30)

19 So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. 23 Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; 24 for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. 25 And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

27 Now at this time some prophets205 came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. 29 And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. 30 And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.


It is with good reason I have entitled this lesson, “One Step Backward and Two Steps Forward.” In terms of time, Luke has taken a step backward. In Acts 11:19 we find ourselves in Acts 11:19 at exactly the same point in time (or so it would seem) to Acts 8:1-4. We are taken back in time to the persecution which arose on account of Stephen, and to the scattering of the church. In Acts 8:4–11:17 Luke has described the way in which the gospel was proclaimed and received in all of Judea and Samaria. When Luke takes up the persecution and scattering of the church in Jerusalem in Acts 11:19 and following, he does so to show the propagation of the gospel to the Gentiles, with the first major church founded being at Antioch.

But if our text is a step back in time, it is easily two steps forward for the gospel. Not only are Gentiles saved, but an entire Gentile city—Antioch—is impacted with the gospel, an impact which will continue to grow long after the lives and ministries of men like Barnabas and Saul. It is, in fact, this church at Antioch which God ordained to be the launching pad for the gospel to many nations. It is from Antioch that Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1), soon to become “Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:4ff.), will be sent for as missionaries. It is also Antioch which will play an interesting role with Jerusalem. It will be ministered to by those from Jerusalem, and it will, in turn, minister financially to those in Judea. It will also be the church in Antioch which will respond to the heretical teaching of some from Judea, by sending Paul, Barnabas, and others to Jerusalem where the so-called “Jerusalem Council” will be convened which will make a landmark decision concerning the gospel and the Gentiles.

It is shortly to come in Acts that we will leave Jerusalem and press toward Rome, that we will leave Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem, and turn to Paul. Acts chapter 12 is a farewell to Peter, by and large, and beginning at Acts 13 we will begin to accompany Paul and Barnabas as they go forth with the gospel, to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles. We are, here, seeing a giant stride being taken by the church, as purposed by God and as achieved through His Holy Spirit, working through His church.

The last part of Acts 11 is something like the “tomb of the unknown soldier,” for honored here are great heroes of the faith, and yet men and women who are unnamed and unknown to us, but known to God. These are, for the time being, anonymous heroes, heroes who contrary to their culture, and even contrary to the practice and convictions of their own Christian peers, carry out the implications of the gospel and the commands of Christ. What great lessons this text has for us!

The “Tight-Lipped” and the “Open-Hearted”

19 So then those who were scattered206 because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone.

20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them,207 and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.208

Two very different kinds of people fled from Jerusalem ending up in places which could rightly be called “heathen.” The gospel was clearly in Gentile territory now, and the world would never be the same nor would the church. But before we look at those who proclaimed Christ and the many who believed, let us look at those who did not, who would not. What was the difference? Why did some preach Christ and others refuse? Here, I believe, is a “tension of the text.”

All we are told by Luke is that some—it would appear that they were the vast majority—went from Jerusalem and Judea into the world speaking the word to Jews only. Who would these people be? Luke does not tell us here. He only tells us that some went out speaking to Jews only, while others went out preaching Christ as Messiah to Gentiles. But we are given several lines of evidence which help us to suggest some reasons why one group sought to evangelize the Gentiles and the other did not.

(1) We are told where those people came from who preached Christ to the Gentiles. Those who preached Christ to the Gentiles were men of Cyprus and Cyrene.209 Barnabas, for example, was from the island of Cyprus (4:36). Simon, who carried the cross of our Lord (Luke 23:26) was a Cyrenian. Lucius too was a Cyrenian (Acts 13:1). There is one thing which we can safely and confidently conclude from what Luke has told us: those who proclaimed the gospel to the Gentiles were Hellenistic Jews.

(2) We can therefore infer that the “native Hebrews” did not share their faith with the Gentiles. This is understandable. If the apostles (such as Peter), who were “native Hebrews,” were reluctant to go to the Gentiles with the gospel, surely the other saints would be too. But even more than this, the “native Hebrews” were unable to speak the languages of the Gentiles. We see this at Pentecost, where the apostles were given the gift of tongues, so that they spoke of the mighty deeds of God in the native tongues of those who were “Hellenistic Jews.” Those “native Hebrews” (as I understand the text) did not know these “tongues” and thus wrote the whole matter off as the result of too much wine (cf. Acts 2:5-13). How difficult it would be to “speak the word” to those who spoke a language other than your own! These “native Hebrews” who went out, then, must have tended to associate only with other Jews, whose language they shared and with whom they could communicate. There may have been a cultural element here too, though it is something much harder to define. Likely, the “native Hebrews” were more provincial and certainly less cosmopolitan. They seem to be much more inclined to “keep to themselves” and not very open to association or communication with the “heathen.” And finally, it would seem that there were simply some who saw the gospel as universal, for all men, and thus they simply could not be kept from preaching it to the Gentiles as well.

Initially, I was inclined to think that the evangelization of the Gentiles was a kind of accident, something which no one really meant to happen, but it just did. I thought these saints were so overflowing with joy and love for God, they could not be selective to whom they told about Him. There may be an element of truth in this, but the longer I look at the text the more I am convinced that the evangelization of the Gentiles was purposeful and deliberate, rather than a matter of chance (even divinely “providential” chance). The expression, “preaching the Lord Jesus” (11:20), does not seem to imply mere chance, but clear intent.

There is an interesting interchange of words in verses 19 and 20 which I consider a significant clue to what Luke is trying to communicate here. Luke tells us that those scattered went out, “speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone” (11:19). He then goes on to describe the second group, who did evangelize the Gentiles. He uses two phrases to describe their activity: “speaking to the Greeks also,” and “preaching the Lord Jesus.” The first two instances of the word “speaking” employ the Greek root, laleo, while the third instance “preaching” is the Greek word euangelizo, the same term used in Acts 8:4, also rendered “preaching” by the NASB. In 8:5 “proclaiming” is the rendering of yet another Greek word, derived from the root, kerysso.210

I understand Luke to be saying that the many who were scattered from Jerusalem, who “spoke the word” to Jews alone, were able (and/or willing) to speak only with Jews, which prevented them from sharing the gospel with anyone but fellow-Jews. The normal, conversational word for “speaking” is used by Luke to describe the communication of the “tight-lipped” native Hebrews. But when Luke came to this magnificent small group211 who “preached the Lord Jesus” to the Greeks, although he first described them as “speaking to the Greeks” (the same word used before, of the native Hebrews), he then described them as “preaching the Lord Jesus.” Here is a deliberate evangelism, which begins with a communications link of language, culture, and understanding, and ends with the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah.

(3) Those who were scattered from Jerusalem would have been inclined to pattern their lives according to the doctrine and practice of the apostles. It has taken a while for this fact to soak in, but I am convinced it is true and significant. As my wife and I talked about this text and about the reasons why so many saints failed to share their faith with the Gentiles, it suddenly occurred to me that these people were taught and led by the apostles, who did not believe the Gentiles should be evangelized. That is precisely the point of the whole account of Peter’s preaching at the house of Cornelius which immediately precedes this text.

We can see from the Old Testament that God had always intended to bring about a salvation for the Jews and the Gentiles. The Old Testament prophets spoke of this. It was a part of the revelation which accompanied our Lord’s birth (cf. Simeon’s citation of Isaiah’s prophecy in Luke 2:32). It was an early, a clear, and a consistent part of our Lord’s teaching as well (cf. Luke 4:22-27; 11:29-32; 13:6-9, 22-30; 20:9-18). Jesus, as He was leaving His disciples behind, gave them the Great Commission, a command to preach the good news to men of every nation (Matthew 28:18-20). In the first chapter of the Book of Acts, the disciples are pressing Jesus to know when Israel will have the kingdom of God restored to it, and Jesus’ words were a gentle rebuke, pointing to the inappropriateness of the question and assuring them that they would receive the Holy Spirit and that they would be witnesses to “the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8).

The apostles, along with all who followed Jesus and His earthly teaching, should have known that the plan and purpose of God included the salvation of the Gentiles. But the fact is that the apostles were “slow of heart,” and what is so clear to us was not at all clear to them. This is why Peter, in his vision, refused to touch the unclean food, even when God commanded him to partake of it. This is why the saints in Jerusalem called Peter on the carpet for going to the house of Cornelius and preaching the gospel as though it were some great evil.

If those who were scattered from Jerusalem were those who were saved at Pentecost or later, and if they were taught “the apostles’ doctrine” (cf. Acts 2:42) and were led by the apostles—these men who were opposed to preaching to the Gentiles—is it any wonder those who were thus brought up in their Christian faith would be “like their teachers”?

As I initially thought about these Judean saints who went from Jerusalem speaking to no one by Jews, I was very inclined to look down on them as prejudiced and willfully disobedient. I now have a great deal more understanding and compassion, for many of these saints were handicapped by their (one) language and culture, and even those who were not were brought up as saints to believe that the gospel was for the Jews alone. No wonder Luke portrays the prejudice of Peter and the Jerusalem apostles and saints just prior to this account of the “tight-lipped” saints who were scattered from Jerusalem.

In contrast to this larger group of those who kept their faith to themselves and within Judaism, Luke tells of a smaller group who purposely evangelized the Greeks which eventually brought about the birth of the church at Antioch, a church which was to become a dominant and driving force in the world of that day and for centuries to come. What set this group apart so that they went about evangelizing the Gentiles, something not only contrary to their own teaching and background, but which was even looked down upon as an evil by their peers and fellow-believers? What made these people live the exception rather than the rule? Let me propose several factors.

(1) The sovereignty of God. In the final analysis, we must both start and end here at the sovereignty of God. When God purposes to save men of every nation, He will do so, apart from men’s ignorance, prejudice, or active resistance. He was thus able to save Nineveh even though Jonah rebelled all the way. If God could use the unbelieving opposition of a Saul to scatter the church so that the gospel was more broadly proclaimed, He could use men like the apostles and the rest of the Jerusalem saints in spite of their limitations and disobedience. God does not achieve His purposes through men because of our grasp of His ways or because of our great vision or understanding. God achieves His will through men because He is a Sovereign God who can even use the rebellion of men to praise Him. The salvation of the Gentiles was the work of a sovereign God, working through finite and fallible men.

(2) The “hand of the Lord was with them.”212 By and large, this statement refers primarily to the success which God gave to their evangelization efforts. That is, God empowered their preaching so that many were saved. But it is also possible to understand that, in addition, the “hand of the Lord was upon them,” moving them to do as they did. The Spirit of God could have convicted them of the need for evangelism and given them the opportunity and the desire to do so. What God sovereignly purposes, God brings to pass, and often by means of His Spirit.

(3) God prepared and equipped them with the necessary background, language, and culture for this task. These men who went forth with the Gospel to the Gentiles were, in the first place, “Hellenistic Jews,” but they were also men from two geographical locations: the Island of Cyprus and the North African city of Cyrene. It would seem that in the sovereign workings of God, He prepared men with a certain cultural background, and with a language (or languages) which equipped them for the task of evangelizing the Gentiles. This could be seen by hindsight, but it would likely not have been understood in advance.

(4) They surpassed their leaders because they lived their lives by what the Word of God taught, rather than by what men taught. I cannot tell you how important this truth is, and how clear. The chronology of events in Acts, as Luke clearly shows, indicates that the preaching of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles by these saints occurred at a time when neither the masses nor even the apostles understood the necessity of doing so. The revelation which God gave to Peter, and thus the lesson which God gave to the Jerusalem church, was not the cause of this evangelistic outreach for Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius came some time after the scattering of the church. The conclusion which the church reached, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18), was not the basis for the evangelization of the Gentiles in Antioch, but the basis for the Jerusalem church’s response to the birth of this church, as described in verses 22 and following.

I must linger here for a moment, however, for I dare not let the impact of this incident fail to strike hard in your heart and mind. THESE SAINTS SURPASSED THEIR PEERS, THEIR TEACHERS, AND EVEN THE APOSTLES, BECAUSE THEY DID NOT LET THE LIMITATIONS OF THEIR LEADERS BE THEIR OWN.

I have purposely put this in even larger letters. As a teacher of the Word of God, my task is not to teach you all you need to know. It is, I believe, to teach you some of what you need to know. But my task is that of communicating a sense of absolute confidence in God and in His Word. It is to help create a love of learning God’s Word and some starting point for your own study of it. But the ideal is that you will thereby be equipped to study the Word for yourself, and in those areas of my own prejudice, bias, or just plain blindness, you need not be limited at all. You, like these men of Cyprus and Cyrene, are not limited in your knowledge of the Word of God, or in your obedience to it, by the limits of your leaders and teachers. If you gain no other thought than this, my friend, you have learned much. God does not excuse us for failing to do right or for doing the wrong, simply because that is the way we were taught or led.

Here, I believe, is one of the fundamental differences between the cults and Christianity: its concept and practice of leadership. The cults almost invariably are founded by some “charismatic” leader, who wants to do your thinking for you. You need not trouble yourself to discern the “will of God,” for the cult leader will tell you what God wants you to do. It was different with the apostles. And while Luke does not describe in detail how these “magnificent missionaries” came to act more on the Word of God than their leaders, I can see a number of the reasons in the New Testament. Let us pause to consider how it was that God used the apostles and others to promote the kind of growth and godliness we see evidenced here.

(1) In Christianity, Christ is the Leader, the Head of His church. Peter’s words to Cornelius sum it up: “He is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). Paul frequently makes reference to the headship of Christ, but this text is especially emphatic:

And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:15-20).

(2) In the church, leaders are servants, not “lords.” Because Christ is the Head of the church and He is the “Leader,” His leaders are servants. Jesus contrasted the leadership exercised by His disciples with that of the Gentiles (cf. Matthew 20:20-28); Paul spoke of himself as a gentle nursing mother (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12), and he contrasted his leadership style with the authoritarian domination of others:

For you, being so wise, bear with the foolish gladly. For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face. To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am just as bold myself (2 Corinthians 11:19-21).

Peter taught elders to lead not by dictating, but by example (1 Peter 5:1-4):

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow-elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4).

And finally, John, in his Third Epistle, warns of Diotrephes, “who loves to be first among them,” and thus, “does not accept what the apostles taught” (3 John 9).

(3) The apostles had confidence in God, the Author and Finisher of our faith. His work in men’s lives is accomplished (in large measure) through the Word of God and the Spirit of God.

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32).213

As we search the New Testament, we see that the apostles had confidence in the Word of God and in the Spirit of God214 to convince men and to change lives. They believed that leadership is by God’s working through the Word and the Spirit in men’s lives. And so, when Paul referred to those who did not agree with him, he conveyed his confidence in God’s ability to change the minds of men:

Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you (Philippians 3:15).

(4) The cultists and false teachers do not want men to be left alone with their Bibles; they want to tell men what the Bible teaches, and thus to promote their own distortions of the Word of God above the Word itself. In a passage that does not seem well understood, John warned the saints of would-be Bible teachers, who offered to “teach” them what the Bible said:

As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. And as for you, the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for any one to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him (1 John 2:24-27).

John is here exhorting his readers to abide in the Word of God and in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life as found in God’s Word. There were those who were going about offering to “teach” these saints what the Bible said, but it is evident that they were distorting the Word. John’s response was to remind these saints that the Word of God, when illuminated by the Holy Spirit who indwelt them, was all that they needed. John had confidence in the Word of God and in the Holy Spirit, and thus He told these saints that this was enough. If the Word of God and the Spirit were all that were necessary, they need not listen to these would-be teachers.215

It would seem that because of their confidence in God’s working in the lives of the saints through the Word and the Holy Spirit, the leadership of the apostles tapered off as time went on. When you read through the Book of Acts, we find that it was initially the apostles who taught, preached, and led. But as times passes and the Book of Acts develops, leadership begins to pass to the hands of others who have grown and matured in their faith. Peter’s leadership seems to fade, and James seems to become more dominant (or a least prominent). Barnabas will move from the “driver’s seat” to the “passenger’s seat” in Acts. The apostles, who initially seem to make all the decisions regarding the church in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 6:1-6; 8:14), seem to give way to the elders of the church and to others, who seem to take a more aggressive leadership role as time goes on (cf. Acts 11:1-2, 18, 27-30; 15:1-2).

As you find the apostles growing older, and facing the approach of death, you will see that their last words express confidence in God’s working in and through those they will leave behind. And there is the strong exhortation to these who will be left behind to rest in God and in His Word. So we find Paul stressing the Word of God in his second epistle to Timothy, especially in chapter 3, and Peter underscoring the importance of the Scriptures in 2 Peter, chapter 1, along with warnings by both Paul and Peter about those who would distort the truth of God’s Word (cf. 2 Timothy 4; 2 Peter 3:14-18).

(5) The apostles had confidence in those who trusted in God and in whose lives God was at work, knowing that the Word of God would adequately equip them for any work God called them to do.

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:12-13).

And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another (Romans 15:14).

I believe that while the apostles were not sinless nor infallible, the way the Lord Jesus had taught them to lead was, to some degree, self-correcting. That is, even when the apostles personally failed, those under their leadership were not destined to fail with them. The way God taught the disciples to lead was to lead as servants, with humility, and not as authoritarian dictators. They were to lead in such a way as to point men to God and to His Word, rather than to cause men to develop some kind of dependence upon them. Thus, even when the apostles were wrong, those who were under their authority need not fall prey to the same evil. What a comfort to know that our confidence is not in fallible men, but in a perfect and powerful God, a God who has given us His Word, which is adequate, sufficient, infallible and inerrant. And He has given us His Spirit, to interpret and apply the Word to our hearts and lives. While teachers may expand our understanding and challenge our shallow or erroneous understanding of Scripture, we are not doomed without them, and we are not to blindly follow them. We are to “search the Scriptures,” like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), to follow God rather than men, when men depart from the Word of God, like these Hellenistic Jews, who preached to the Gentiles, even when Peter and the apostles refused to do so.

This handful of noble saints who preached the Lord Jesus to the Gentiles knew the difference between the “teachings of men” and the “teachings of God.” No doubt they had a great love and respect for their leaders, the apostles and the elders. But their grasp of God’s Word, of His goals and purposes, and of His commands, was not limited to that of their leaders or teachers.216 Oh, that God may grant that you surpass me in your knowledge of God’s Word, and in your obedience to it!


Before we press on to consider Luke’s account of the response of the church in Jerusalem to the birth of the church in Antioch, let us take a moment to ponder the place where God sovereignly chose to plant this Gentile church—Antioch. This city of Antioch is somewhat familiar to us, for the church at Antioch will become the launching pad of the gospel to the Gentiles. But most of us, myself included, are not very familiar with this great city, either before the gospel arrived or after. I will therefore cite from those who know better than I about this city:

“Antioch on the Orontes (modern Antakya in the Hatay province of Turkey), situated some eighteen miles upstream, was founded in 300 B.C. by Seleucus Nicator, first ruler of the Seleucid dynasty, and was named by him after his father Antiochus. He had already given his own name to Seleucia Pieria at the mouth of the Orontes, the port of Antioch (cf. 13:4). As the capital of the Seleucid monarchy Antioch rapidly became a city of great importance. When Pompey reorganized Western Asia in 64 B.C. he made Antioch a free city; it became the seat of administration of the Roman province of Syria. It was at this time the third largest city in the Graeco-Roman world (surpassed in population only by Rome and Alexandria). It was planned from the first on the Hippodamian grid pattern; it was enlarged and adorned by Augustus and Tiberius, while Herod the Great provided colonnades on either side of its main street and paved the street itself with polished stone. The produce of Syria and lands farther east passed through it on its way to the west; it was a commercial center as well as a political capital. Because of its situation between the urbanized Mediterranean world and the eastern desert, it was even more cosmopolitan than most Hellenistic cities. Here Christianity first displayed its cosmopolitan character.”217

“Jewish colonization in Antioch began practically from the city’s foundation. By the beginning of the Christian era, proselytes to Judaism are said to have been specially numerous in Antioch; we have already met Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch, as a leader among the Hellenists in the primitive Jerusalem church (6:5). Many other nationalities were represented among its residents: it is Antioch that the Roman satirist Juvenal has in mind when he complains that “the sewage of the Syrian Orontes has for long been discharging itself into the Tiber.” The city’s reputation for moral laxity was enhanced by the cult of Artemis and Apollo at Daphne, five miles distant, where the ancient Syrian worship of Astarte and her consort, with its ritual prostitution, was carried on under Greek nomenclature. But a new chapter in the history of Antioch was about to be written, for it was to be the metropolis of Gentile Christianity.”218

“Antioch was founded in 300 B.C. At the time of its evangelization it was said to have been composed of four cities, each with its own surrounding wall. Reaching around the whole was a long wall which enclosed more area than the city of Rome. The four cities were separated by the two main streets of Antioch. Situated five miles from the city was Daphne, a main center for the worship of Apollo and Artemis. This contributed a great deal to the notorious immorality of Antioch. Yet it had a large Jewish colony, with many proselytes, which provided a starting point for the evangelization of the city.”219

“The dispersed disciples followed the great trade routes by land and sea northward to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. Antioch in northern Syria ranked the third greatest city (about 800,000 inhabitants, including suburbs) of the Roman Empire and was called ‘The Queen of the East,’ ‘Antioch, the Beautiful,’ and ‘Antioch the Great.’ It was beautifully situated on the Orontes river about 15 or 20 miles from its seaport city of Seleucia. It was the capital of Syria and seat of the Roman governor. The population was mainly Syrian, but Greek in language and culture, with a considerable Jewish representation who had equal rights with the Greeks. Here Christianity first contacted and came to grips with Roman and Greek civilization. The moral corruption of Antioch is reflected in Juvenal’s statement, when he wished to say the worst about Rome: ‘The Orontes has flowed into the Tiber.’ Antioch soon superseded Jerusalem as the center of Christianity and remained so for long, producing such honorable Christian names as Ignatius and John Chrysostom, and a famous school of theology.”220

“Something of the extent of this early evangelization movement among the Grecian Antiochians is indicated by the fact that by the time of the Nicean Council in A. D. 325, there are reported to have been more than 200,000 Christians in Antioch alone. Between A.D. 253 and 380, Antioch was the seat of no less than ten church councils, and its patriarchs took precedence over those at Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria.”221

How God’s ways always surpass man’s. Who would have thought that this heathen city would have become the vanguard of the gospel in the ancient world? The church in Jerusalem did not envision or promote this. If they had known of it in advance, they would have likely resisted it. Who would have thought that such a “God-forsaken place” would have become the city which produced great Christian leaders, and which hosted church councils? An unnamed group of noble men went to a God-forsaken place, preaching the gospel. How God worked then! How He still works today, in ways that we would not ever conceive of nor let alone ask. His ways are always above and beyond our own.

Jerusalem’s Response to
Antioch’s Acceptance of the Gospel

22 And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas222 off to Antioch. 23 Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord;223 24 for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. 25 And he left for Tarsus to look for224 Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.225

To some degree, we have seen the negative effects of the leadership of the apostles in the refusal to preach the gospel to the Gentiles by many of those believing Jews who were dispersed from Jerusalem. The redeeming element was that the overall leadership of the apostles helped those who followed to see beyond the prejudices of their leaders and to obey God, rather than men. In verses 22-26, however, we see a very positive form of leadership being taken by the apostles in Jerusalem, and thus the church was edified and blessed, and many others were brought to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The response of the apostles and the church in Jerusalem to the conversion of the Gentiles is Antioch was largely the result of the actions of Peter in going to the house of Cornelius, and of the decision which the church reached after “calling Peter on the carpet” for his actions.

Because of the revelation which Peter received from God, and which the church received (indirectly) through Peter, the Jerusalem church was able to accept the salvation of these Gentiles at Antioch and the birth of a church there. In response, they sent Barnabas to Antioch as their representative, in much the same way they had sent Peter and John to Samaria (Acts 8:14ff.).

Before we consider why Barnabas in particular was sent, rather than one of the twelve apostles, let us first ask the question, “Why was anyone sent to Antioch?” Many had been converted without the involvement of the church. Why not simply leave them alone? Had they not done well enough thus far? The following statement summarizes the primary reason why Barnabas was sent by the church in Jerusalem to the saints in Antioch:


Allow me to suggest the biblical basis for this leadership role and some of the ways in which the church in Jerusalem sought to carry it out, both at Antioch and elsewhere.

(1) In His “great commission” to the apostles, Jesus gave to His disciples, the apostles, the responsibility of making disciples of every nation. It is this commission, I believe, that is the undergirding foundation for the leadership which the church at Jerusalem has taken in our text. “Making disciples” begins with the proclamation of the gospel, but it also includes baptizing and instructing the new converts. While the apostles did not initiate the preaching of the gospel at Antioch (God did), they did respond to God’s leadership by following up on these new converts. I believe they did so because it was their duty to do so, based upon the command of Christ in the great commission. This may go a long way to explain why, when the saints were dispersed from Jerusalem on account of the persecution that arose in connection with the stoning of Stephen, the apostles remained behind. For the time being, Jerusalem was the capital, the home base of the church. The leadership must remain behind to continue to give leadership to the churches which would emerge. This would remain the case for some time, and then the headquarters of the church would change location. It was probably Antioch that took up where Jerusalem left off, especially after the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

(2) The church in Jerusalem must have sought to determine whether the pure gospel was preached and to see if these people of Antioch had truly turned from idols to serve God. I believe the apostles and the church in Jerusalem were very sensitive to the truth being proclaimed. Thus, they want to hear the “gospel” that men are preaching and that others are believing. They want to be assured not only of the purity of the gospel, but of the sincerity of the profession. Is it any wonder, then, that Peter rebuked Simon the magician so soundly (Cf. Acts 8)? A false or distorted gospel would have gotten instant attention from Barnabas and from the apostles.

(3) Based upon other instances in Acts (chapters 8 and 19), Barnabas may have been sent to Antioch to determine if these new believers had experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit, whether that be external and visible or internal and invisible. It was Peter and John who prayed that the new believers in Samaria would receive the Holy Spirit, just as Paul would do in Acts 19. If the Spirit had not yet descended upon these saints in Antioch, then the church in Jerusalem would sense the obligation to facilitate it.

(4) The church in Jerusalem seems to be taking the lead in helping establish the church in Antioch. We are not told that these new believers at Antioch constitute a church until Acts 11:26. Up to this time they are merely individual Christians. But from this point on, they are a church, and they are expected to act in accordance with this fact. Had Barnabas not been sent to Antioch, the saints may not have identified themselves with any church. You see, up until this time, Gentile converts would have become proselytes, and they would simply have been included (to some degree) in the worship and teaching of the synagogue. But now, these saints in Antioch are saved as Gentiles, and thus they need not attend the synagogue or keep the law as their Jewish brethren strived to do. The church must be established according to God’s requirements, and it would seem that this was one reason why the church at Jerusalem so quickly and eagerly responded to the report of the salvation of many at Antioch.

(5) The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch in an effort to facilitate and communicate the essential unity which exists between the two churches. To become a Christian was to become a part of the body of Christ. To become a church was to become one with other churches, especially the church in Jerusalem. I believe this was one of the primary goals of Barnabas as he traveled to minister in Antioch—to teach, facilitate, and strengthen the unity of the body of Christ and the unity of these two churches.

It would be wrong to leave you with the impression that Barnabas was primarily and exclusively the “apostle” of the church at Jerusalem, sent to “take charge” of the church at Antioch and to see to it that things are set in order. Barnabas was a gift of the church in Jerusalem227 to the church in Antioch. He went not so much to rule as to serve, to serve by exercising God-given, God-appointed leadership.

I believe all of the above were at least possible factors in the reason God arranged for a representative from Jerusalem to be sent to Antioch. I am now inclined to think that the church in Jerusalem may have had a very simple reason for sending Barnabas—the situation in Antioch required spiritual leadership, and the church there was “poor” in leaders, while the church in Jerusalem was “rich” in leaders. Just as the church in Antioch will share of its material wealth, giving to minister to the poverty of the saints in Judea (Acts 11:27-30), so the church in Jerusalem will share of its wealth in spiritual leadership, ministering to the poverty of the saints in Antioch. Simply put, the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch because there was a need for the kind of leadership which Barnabas could offer.

But why Barnabas? Why not one of the apostles, as before? Was Barnabas a kind of “second class” apostle, who was sent to Antioch because none of the apostles would go, or because the Jewish believers in Jerusalem did not think these heathen brethren were worthy of full-fledged apostles? Not at all; indeed, quite the contrary. Consider with me some of the reasons Barnabas would have been sent.

(1) Barnabas, unlike most of the apostles, was raised in a culture similar to that of the Antiochians, and he also spoke their language. The apostles, it would seem, were “native Hebrews,” born and raised in the Holy Land and largely unfamiliar with the Greek culture, and one cannot be too sure about their facility in the language of the people. Barnabas could understand and relate to the people of Antioch much more than the apostles, and so he was sent instead of one of them.

(2) The church founded in Antioch was founded by Hellenistic Jews, and it might be an affront to them and to their ministry to send “native Hebrews” there to inspect their work and to take some measure of oversight over it. These magnificent Hellenistic saints had done well. Why offend them by sending the apostles? Barnabas was a man they trusted, and who was, it would seem, highly esteemed by them. He was the right man for the job.

(3) Most importantly, I believe, Barnabas was a man of godly character and of spiritual vitality and power—the best man for the job. Verse 24 is quite clearly an explanation:

For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith (Acts 12:24a).

On the one hand, it is an explanation of the reason Barnabas could rejoice at what he found in Antioch, as described in verse 23, and of the reason he was personally motivated to encourage these saints to “remain true to the Lord.”

But on the other hand, it is also an explanation for why the church in Jerusalem chose to send Barnabas to Antioch. He was a man with the character and the charisma required for the job. He was a man who found great joy in the grace of God, particularly (here) in the lives of others. He was a “good man.” We might be inclined to say, in our vernacular, “He was the best man for the job.” He was a man whose personal life was characterized by faith, and in whom the Spirit of God was controlling and producing spiritual fruit.

In summation, Barnabas is the most highly qualified man, in every area. From the standpoint of his culture and background, he is “the best man for the job.” From the standpoint of his character, he is also “the best man for the job.” And finally, from the standpoint of supernatural spiritual enablement and control, he is “the best man for the job.”

It is only appropriate to point out here that it was the character of Barnabas which Luke emphasized, not his methodology nor his technique. We, in our day and time, have an undue fixation on methods. We are quick to imitate the methodology of those who are successful. When we see men who are successful, we seek to learn the magical methods they used which assure success. We buy books written by successful people to learn their secrets. Luke does not mention the methods of Barnabas, but only his character, because who a man is determines what he does. We need more men of character and fewer men of technique. There will always be a shortage of men who are “good men, full of the Spirit, and of faith.”

Searching for Saul

And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. 25 And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

Barnabas quickly recognized and rejoiced in the grace of God which he found evident in the lives of the saints at Antioch. He immediately began to encourage them to resolutely remain true to the Lord. Sanctification, like salvation, is the work of God, but it is a work with which the Christian is to cooperate. Barnabas did not envision a passivity on the part of these new Christians. He encouraged them to be diligent in their pursuit of the Christian walk. He recognized the very real danger of some falling away from the Lord,228 especially if they become lax in the disciplines of the spiritual walk.

Barnabas was indeed a good man in many ways. One of the evidences of his goodness and of his spirituality (full of the Holy Spirit) and his faith was his search for Saul, which took him away from Antioch and brought him to Tarsus where Saul was staying. He had been sent there by the saints in Jerusalem in order to spare him from death at the hands of the Hellenistic zealots, among whom Saul was formerly a leader (cf. Acts 9:26-30).

Barnabas was “good” in that he was not selfish. He did not seek to build an empire for himself. He did not fear the ministry of Saul as that which would be competitive to his own interests, because his interest was the growth of the saints at Antioch. I believe that both the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit were instrumental in Barnabas’s decision to look for Saul. I further believe that Barnabas had faith in God’s ability to minister to this body of believers through Saul.

The reason for Barnabas’s search for Saul is given in the last part of verse 24: “And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.” The church was continuing to grow. The number of new Christians was growing beyond Barnabas’s ability to minister to them. The greater the size of the church, so to speak, the larger the number of those who would minister.

The growth of the church at Antioch is mentioned twice in our text (verses 21 and 24). The first time it is mentioned (v. 21), it is due to an emphasis on evangelism. The second time, it is the result of an emphasis on edification and discipleship. These two endeavors are not competitive nor are they mutually exclusive. The more the saints grew in their faith, the more they lived their faith and shared it with others. The church that grows spiritually is equipped to grow numerically as well.

This was no casual trip, but it was a diligent, determined search for Saul—one which would not be terminated until Saul was found and persuaded to go to Antioch.229 Barnabas had a significant influence on Saul’s early life as a believer, and now he would once again come alongside. But it would not be long before it was Paul who would emerge as the leader, and not Barnabas. I am not so sure but what Barnabas, by faith, realized this. And so Barnabas returned with Saul, and for a period of a year they ministered side by side, teaching considerable numbers of new converts.

Luke makes a seemingly incidental statement in verse 26:

… and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

We should know Luke well enough by now to realize that he does not waste his words. This statement has a purpose. I think I am beginning to understand what that purpose may have been.

Names are given to things in order to identify them and to be able to distinguish them from other things. For example, names were given by Adam to each of the different types of animals in the garden. The name “Saul” will soon change to “Paul,” indicating some significant change. God often gave new names to men, indicating a particular future or destiny. Thus, Abram (exalted father) was renamed Abraham (father of a multitude), before he was even a father at all. The significance of Luke’s words here is two-fold. First, it is significant that the disciples needed a name. And second, the name that they were given is of significance as well. Let us consider both of these matters.

Up until this point in time, most of those who were saved were Jews. When they were saved, they remained Jews. They were what we now call “completed Jews,” but they were still Jews. They continued to observe the Jewish holy days and festivals, and to worship in the temple or to gather at a synagogue. Those who were Gentiles were, up until this point in time, proselytes, or God-fearers. They too became a Jew, in a manner of speaking at least.

But now we are dealing with Gentiles, pure pagans. They were not Jewish, and when they came to faith in the Lord Jesus they did not go to the synagogue nor did they associate with the Jews. They were very different and distinct from the Jews, and their faith did not make them Jewish. These people had no identity. What would you call this new group of people, this large body of people, who had been saved, but were not a part of any established religion? They needed a name, a name which depicted their essential uniqueness and which characterized them. The name which that city coined was the name “Christians.” The one thing which characterized every one of these new believers was their faith in Christ, their belonging to Him, and so they were appropriately named Christians.

The point of this naming of the saints is that the people of Antioch recognized that which the church was a bit slower to acknowledge—the fact that the church was distinct from Judaism, that Israel and the church were different. Luke includes this detail as a signal to the fact that the people of Antioch recognized the reality which was taking place: that the church was a new entity, distinct from Judaism, and that the one unifying element was Christ. This pagan city saw what many still have not recognized—the church as a separate entity, a body which is united in and by Christ, which belongs to Him, and which is neither Jewish nor Gentile. How significant this brief statement is.

The Uncircumcised Respond
to the Needs of the Circumcised

27 Now at this time some prophets230 came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus231 stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. 29 And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea.232 30 And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul233 to the elders.

We know from Acts 13:1 that the church at Antioch had prophets of its own. And yet for some reason God sent several prophets to Antioch from Jerusalem. This raises some important questions. The first question is this: “Why would prophets come to Antioch from Jerusalem, if Antioch already had prophets of its own?” I can think of several reasons.

(1) As it was the Spirit who spoke through the prophets, it was the Spirit of God who arranged for this message to the Antiochians to come from prophets from Jerusalem.

(2) Since the church at Jerusalem was older and more mature, the prophets from Jerusalem may have had something to teach the younger prophets of Antioch.234

(3) God wanted to demonstrate the unity of the body of Christ, the church, and to emphasize the interdependence of one part of the body on the rest of the body. We often think of the interdependency within the body of Christ as individual—one member of the body needs the rest of the body, just as the rest of the body needs the one member (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-14). But there is a corporate and geographical sense as well, so that the church in one part of the world depends upon members of the church in another. This is true in financial matters, and in matters of prophecy. God gives to some members of the body in one place so that they may minister to other members of the body in another.

The second question which comes to mind is this: “Why was it necessary to send more than one prophet to Antioch from Jerusalem?” If the purpose of the arrival and ministry of the prophets was to encourage and edify the body, the more prophets the better. Obviously the church needed to know more than the fact that a famine was coming to the whole world. A plurality of prophets was sent, as I understand it, so that the words of Agabus could be confirmed by others with the same gift. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14 make a great deal of sense in this light:

And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment (1 Corinthians 14:29).

I used to suppose that each of the two or three prophets had a different message, and that two or three messages from God was all that the church could bear at one sitting. I am now inclined to think that the two or three prophets all had the same revelation from God, which was confirmed by their independent testimony. The church was then to judge this revelation in the light of God’s Word.

Verse 28 is indeed fascinating:

28 And one of them named Agabus235 stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world.

Agabus, whom we will see again later on in Acts (21:10-14), indicated by divine inspiration that a great famine was coming. That famine was certainly coming. There was no doubt about its coming. This famine was also a world-wide famine. This means that the famine was also coming upon the land and the people of Antioch, and not just on the people of Judea. What a temptation it would have been for the saints at Antioch to use this prophecy for their own gain. If you knew that a famine was coming and you invested your money wisely, you could get rich. When the saints from Antioch gave to the saints in Judea, they did so at their own risk. It is one thing to give to others when you know you will have more than enough for yourself. It is another thing to give when you know that you might lack as well.

We are never told that Agabus (nor any other prophet) told the Antiochian saints what they should do about this prophecy. From what Luke tells us, they seem to have come to the decision to save up and to give to the saints in Judea on their own. It is one thing to be told to do so, and to obey. It is a far better thing to be told that a famine is coming, and then to think through the implications of this, and then to act on these willingly and joyfully. This is what I see happening at Antioch.

I can see someone saying to the others, “Well if there is to be a world-wide famine, there are going to be some people who will be hit especially hard.” Someone else may have chimed in, “Things will really be hard on the saints in Judea. They have already sold many of their possessions, and because of persecution they have lost the rest. These poor saints will really suffer.” And someone else may then have said, “Well then why don’t we plan to help them. We can save up our money, prepare ourselves for the hard times to come, and also have a reserve fund to help the saints in Judea.” I personally think that it happened this way.

Prophets did not always tell the people what they should do in the light of their prophecies. They sometimes left this decision to the saints, guided by the Spirit. For example, when Agabus later foretold Paul’s arrest and suffering, if he went to Jerusalem (Acts 21:10-11), he did not tell Paul what he should do about this. But some of the people came to the wrong conclusion—that Paul should escape this arrest and suffering by avoiding Jerusalem. Paul knew that this was the will of God, and so he rejected this bad advice. The fact that the prophecy of Agabus was correct did not mean that the proper response to it was also indicated by the prophet. But here in Antioch, the prophecy of Agabus brought a magnificent response.

It is my contention that the way in which the church at Antioch ministered to the church at Judea with money provides us with a pattern for ministry of any kind. As we conclude our study of this text, let us compare our ministry with that of this newly-born church, founded in a heathen city, but destined in God’s plan and purpose to be the launching pad for a great missions endeavor.

(1) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was a ministry to fellow saints. The Antiochian saints did not take up a collection for every needy person, though there would surely be many needy people as a result of the famine. The obligation of Christians to minister first to fellow-believers is a matter of biblical priority. We see it in practice here and in principle in Romans 12:16 and again in Galatians 6:10. We are “our brother’s keeper.”

(2) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was a ministry from one church to another church. This generosity and giving was not the act of a few isolated saints; it seems to have been the decision of the entire church. And the giving was done from church to church, not from individual to individual. The gift was sent by the hands of Barnabas and Saul to the elders in Judea.

(3) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was an “international” ministry, to those of another race and from another country. By and large, the saints in Antioch had never met the saints in Judea. They were people of another race, another part of the world, and another culture. More than this, it was a ministry of those who would have been at odds with one another, apart from the grace of God and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. How often our ministry is to “our folks,” our kind of people, “our own.” This is not good enough. The unity of the body of Christ necessitates ministry which crosses racial, social, political, and economic lines. We know all too little of international ministry today.

(4) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was a demonstration of the unity of the church, the body of Christ, and of its inter-dependence.

(5) The ministry of the saints at Antioch seems to have been a ministry which they voluntarily determined to undertake, not one that was imposed upon them.

(6) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was facilitated by men, in whom these saints had confidence. The contribution of the Antiochians was the result of information provided by prophets from Jerusalem. The contribution was sent by the hands of Barnabas and Saul, delivered to and distributed through the elders of the church in Judea, many of whom the saints in Antioch had never met. Ministry is not an individual effort. It often requires networking with others, others who are “good men, full of the Spirit and of faith,” men whom we can trust and into whose hands we can entrust material wealth and other things of value.

(7) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was their response to a future need. How often in our “Christian culture” churches and organizations have seasonal, very predictable “crises” arisen at which time great sums of money are urgently needed. We have become like Pavlov’s dogs, conditioned to respond only when the church or organization seems to be teetering on the brink of disaster. Not so with the church at Antioch. They knew a crisis was coming, and they prepared for it. Oh, that we were more like the saints at Antioch and did not need a present crisis to motivate us to give and to minister.

Again, I stress we are not only talking about money but about ministry in general. Wise ministry looks ahead and anticipates trouble and problems. It seeks to prepare ourselves and others to be able to minister to needs that will arise in the future. It does not put off thinking, planning, and preparing.

(8) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was one which they anticipated, which they prepared for, and which they completed. The Antiochian saints purposed to give and then prepared to give by saving. How sad that we are so “credit poor” we have very little cash to set aside. And we do not think ahead far enough to save up to be able to give. We, who have more to give than any other people in history, are so deeply in debt we have little to give. And because we do not plan to give or set aside to give, we give all too little. Being in debt is one of the great hindrances to giving.

(9) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was a ministry from their strength to the weakness and need of the Judean saints. The Judean saints were impoverished, while those in Antioch were better off. Thus, the saints at Antioch gave of their wealth to a church that was poor.

I regret to say that while the church in the West is extremely rich, and the Third World church is extremely poor, we in the West are giving very little to the Third World church. There is no excuse.

(10) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was carried out in proportion to the ability of each saint to give. The saints committed to save and to give in accordance with what God had given them. Christians are only called upon to minister in accordance with the grace manifested to them (cf. Romans 12:6-8; 2 Corinthians 8:11-12).

(11) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was, to some degree, an opportunity to reciprocate for the ministry of the saints in Jerusalem to them. If the saints in the church of Judea and Jerusalem ministered to the church at Antioch out of their wealth of gifted men (like Barnabas and the prophets who went down to Antioch), the saints of the church at Antioch reciprocated from their monetary wealth, ministering to the saints of Judea in their poverty. In this there is an evident reciprocation.

(12) The ministry of the Jerusalem saints to Antioch (through Barnabas and the prophets) and the ministry of the Antiochian saints to those in Jerusalem, bound these two churches together in love and unity. There would surely have been the tendency for friction and dissension between these two churches, or at least between certain individuals in these churches, but God providentially arranged for a demonstration of love that would set aside many of the barriers to their experiencing of the unity which comes through Christ.

(13) The ministry of the saints in Antioch to the saints in Judea is one which remarkably parallels the practice of the Macedonian church, as described by Paul in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. The practice of the Macedonian church and the principles which Paul outlined in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 are illustrated by the practice of the church at Antioch. This church, saved by God’s grace and led by His Spirit, did that which Paul would teach others, perhaps even before it was taught to do so.

How gracious God was to bring these two churches—so diverse, so different, so easily inclined to drift apart and to contend with each other—together. He first brought them together by salvation in Christ, and then He brought them together through ministry, one to another. The saints in Jerusalem ministered through their gifted men, and the saints in Antioch ministered through their money. What a wonderful union God hath wrought here. May God manifest this same unity among us in our church and between our church and other churches as well.

205 Note the role of prophets in Acts. In chapter 11, prophets from Jerusalem come down to Antioch. In 15:27, 31-32, Judas and Silas brought encouraging words to the church at Antioch. And, in 21:9-11, Agabus came down to Caesarea, where Paul was, to foretell his arrest and bondage, which would take place when he went to Jerusalem. It is interesting, in this last instance, to note that Philip’s four daughters were prophetesses, and yet God used Agabus to give Paul this revelation.

206 The first (Greek) words of verse 19 are identical with those in Acts 8:4.

207 “This O. T. phrase (Ex. 9:3; Isa. 59:1) is used by Luke (1:66; Acts 4:28, 30; 13:11). It was proof of God’s approval of their course in preaching the Lord Jesus to Greeks.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 157.

208 “The usual expression for Gentiles turning to the true God (14:15; 15:3, 19; 26:18, 20; 1 Thess. 1:9).” A. T. Robertson, III, p. 157.

209 Cyprus is the island in the Mediterranean Sea, to the west of Israel. Cyrene is a port city of North Africa, also on the Mediterranean. While Cyprus and Cyrene were not close to one another in space, they probably had much contact and much in common.

210 Carter and Earle explain the meaning of the term rendered “preach” this way:

“The verb euangelizo (preach) is a favorite with Luke. He uses it ten times in his Gospel and fifteen times in Acts--about half the total number of times in the New Testament. It occurs only once in the other Gospels (Matt. 11:5). The literal meaning is ‘announce glad tidings or good news.’ It is especially appropriate as a missionary word to describe the preaching of those who carried the gospel to new regions.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 111.

211 I assume this group to be quite small, a small group of daring saints, and I would suspect that some, if not all, of them are named in Acts 13:1.

212 Note this same phrase, employed by Paul, in the blinding of the Jewish false prophet, Elymas (or Bar-Jesus), in Acts 13:11. It is interesting to consider the options as to how the “hand of the Lord was upon him”? Did God purpose to save this man too, just like Saul? Or is this merely an expression indicating that what was to happen was the working of God, through His power, and not of some greater magic performed by Paul.

213 The context of this text in Acts 20 is very significant. Paul is addressing the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17), giving them his final words (vss. 36-38). Here, Paul warned these leaders that some from among them would rise up, speaking perverse things, so as to attract their own following (v. 30). And yet, in the midst of this danger, and knowing the he would not see these people again, Paul was confident in God’s keeping and care through “the word of His grace” (v. 32).

214 Jesus gave them the basis for this confidence in such passages as John 16 and 17.

215 If there is a danger (to which John here speaks) of being overly dependent upon men’s interpretation of God’s Word so that one does not get into the Word for himself, there is the opposite and equally dangerous error of being so independent and autonomous in your study of the Word that you refuse to learn from others, and you begin to filter the Scriptures through the dangerous grid of your own thinking, sinful desires, and misconceptions. It is to this danger that Peter spoke in his second epistle, warning men against “private interpretations” (2 Peter 1:20-21). The ultimate issue is not, “What does the Bible mean to me, but what does the Bible mean?” The Bible is written because our minds (as also our emotions and our will) have been adversely affected by sin. It is the Word of God which is to transform our minds, rather than our minds which are to transform God’s Word (cf. Romans 12:2).

216 We have a way of focusing on the Bereans (Acts 17:10-12) as those who were model saints. I would like to propose that these “magnificent missionaries” of Acts 11 are to be commended even above the Bereans. The Bereans went so far as to test the teaching of the apostle Paul against the Old Testament text. The ones who preached Christ to the Antiochian Gentiles went beyond their teachers, the apostles, both in their understanding and in their practice of the Word of God.

217 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 224.

218 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, pp. 224-225.

219 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 156.

220 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, p. 155.

221 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 157.

222 “Something of the esteem in which Barnabas was held by the author of the Book of Acts is indicated by the fact that he is mentioned in Acts no less than twenty-five different times, beside five references to him by Paul outside Acts.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 158.

Note the shift which is evident in the leadership of the church in Jerusalem as the Book of Acts develops: Peter and John sent by the apostles--Acts 8:14; Apostles and brethren received word of Peter’s actions 11:1; The church (“they”) sent Barnabas--apostles not mentioned 11:22; Money sent to the “elders”--Acts 11:30; By Jerusalem Council it is Apostles and elders, and James seems to be taking the lead--Acts 15; Brethren decided to send Paul and Barnabas 15:2; Received by church, apostles, and elders 15:4; James has the final word--15:13ff;.Decision reached & communicated by apostles & elders 15:22ff.

223 Compare Acts 13:43.

224 Anazeteo is a common verb since Plato, but in the N. T. only here and Luke 2:44-45, to seek upon and down (ana), back and forth, to hunt up, to make a thorough search till success comes.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 159.

“Moulton and Milligan state that in the papyri anazeteo (seek) ‘is specially used of searching for human beings, with an implication of difficulty, as in the NT passages.’” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 159.

225 “Until now the followers of Christ were known by such designations as disciples, believers, brethren, saints, the people of the Way (or this Way), the church of God, Galileans, or Nazarenes (Acts 24:5).” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 160.

226 The term, “universal church,” refers to the whole body of Christ, those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, throughout the history of the church. This includes those both “asleep” (dead) and alive in Christ. The “local church” is a specific body of believers, in a given place and time, which has Christ as its Head, and which has leaders who have been appointed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 20:28).

227 Notice that there is a growing shift in leadership in the church at Jerusalem. Initially, in Acts 8, it is the apostles where heard of the salvation of the Samaritans, and who decided to send Peter and John to the city of Samaria. In our passage, it is the church who hears of the salvation of the Gentiles at Antioch, and who determines to send Barnabas.

228 I do not mean that these who “fall away” lose their salvation, but that they neglect it, and thus cease to grow in the fear and knowledge of the Lord.

229 The term which is used here, rendered “to look for” is found elsewhere only in Luke chapter 2 (verses 44 and 45), referring to the diligent search for the missing Jesus by His parents.

230 There are a number of prophets mentioned in the Book of Acts: Agabus 11:27-28; 21:10; Several 13:1; Judas and Silas--14:4; 15:32; Daughters of Philip--21:9.

231 Cf. Acts 21:10ff., where Agabus foretold Paul’s suffering, as a result of his going to Jerusalem.

232 “We know that Judaea did in fact suffer severely from a famine at some point between A.D. 45 and 48. At that time Helena, queen-mother of Adiabene, a Jewish proselyte, bought grain in Egypt and figs in Cyprus and had them taken to Jerusalem for distribution, while her son King Izates sent a large sum of money to the authorities in Jerusalem to be used for famine relief. The church of Antioch similarly organized a relief fund for the mother-church. The various members of the church appear to have allocated a fixed sum out of their income or property as a contribution to this fund, much as Paul was to advise the Corinthian Christians to do when he was organizing a later relief fund for Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4).” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 230-231.

233 This is the second occasion in Luke’s record on which Paul visited Jerusalem after his conversion (the first being briefly described in 9:26-30). He himself records two visits which he paid to Jerusalem; the possibility arises that the famine-relief visit of Acts 11:30 is identical with that described in Gal. 2:1-10, when he went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas in the fourteenth year after his conversion (which is the most probable interpretation of Gal. 2:1). More common, however, is the identification of the visit of Gal. 2:1-10 with that of Acts 15; this raises problems which will be considered later. F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 231.

234 This leads us into a very involved question as to what the gift of prophecy was (and is), but suffice it to say that, in my opinion, it was more than simply speaking direct quotes from God about future events. It may have had an element of preaching involved as well. Nevertheless, the gift of prophecy, like the other spiritual gifts, needs to be developed. It does not instantly emerge in full bloom. There was the “school of the prophets” in the Old Testament, which helped in the development of prophets (cf. 2 Kings 2 & 5). For an exploration of the nature of the New Testament gift of prophecy, I recommend that you read The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, by Wayne Gruden (Crossway Books, 1988).

235 Cf. Acts 21:10ff., where Agabus foretold Paul’s suffering, as a result of his going to Jerusalem.

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19. The Death of James and the Deliverance of Peter (Acts 12:1-25)


The account of Peter’s deliverance, contrasted against the death of James, is to be understood in the light of several earlier incidents. The biblical accounts of these incidents are given below:

Mark 10:35-40

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” 38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (NIV).

John 21:14-24

14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” 20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” 22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to