Studies in the Book of Acts


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1. The Unique Contribution of the Book of Acts

Introduction1

I remember receiving a phone call from a new believer in Jesus.  After he came to faith, he developed an appetite for the Word of God.  He began at the Gospel of Matthew and began working his way through the New Testament.  When he had a question, he would call me or someone else for an answer.  I was not surprised when he called one day, but I must admit that I was a bit concerned.  My friend was about to make a confession, and I was not sure I wanted to hear it.  Was there a serious moral failure, a relapse back into some former sin?  I was about to find out.

My friend continued, “I read the Gospel of Matthew, and then Mark and Luke, but I was so eager to get to Acts, I skipped John.”  I assured my friend that this was not a serious problem.  I would wish that each of us were as eager as my friend to immerse ourselves in this great book of the New Testament.  In this introductory lesson, I will attempt to point out some of the unique contributions of this book, and thus to motivate you to commit yourself to a serious and consistent study of Acts in these next few months.

A Word about the Author of Acts

Most of you are probably aware of the fact that the Book of Acts is the second of two volumes, the first of which is the Gospel of Luke:

1 Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. 3 So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know for certain the things you were taught (Luke 1:1-4).2

The Book of Acts simply continues the account where the Gospel of Luke left off:

1 I wrote the former account, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after he had given orders by the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs. He was seen by them over a forty-day period and spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3).

By the second century, Luke was recognized as the author of both Luke and Acts.  No serious challenge to this conclusion has been made.  Luke is named three times in the New Testament, and from these references, we learn something about him.

Our dear friend Luke the physician and Demas greet you (Colossians 4:14).

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you. 24 Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my colaborers, greet you too (Philemon 1:23-24).

From these two texts, we learn that Luke was a physician and that he was a fellow-laborer with Paul.  From the Book of Acts, we learn that Luke accompanied Paul on some of his journeys.  This is evident by the so-called“we”passages in Acts (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16).

In Acts 16, we can see that Luke must have joined Paul and his other co-workers in Troas.  This would mean that he was present when Paul received his Macedonian vision.  Luke thus accompanied Paul and the others to Philippi.  He was also with Paul in Troas, when the church gathered and Eutychus fell from the window and was taken up dead.  Was it Dr. Luke who pronounced this young man dead, making his healing even more emphatic?  We find Luke with Paul as he was in Caesarea, on his way to Jerusalem.  Luke would have heard the ominous prophecy of Agabus, warning Paul of what awaited him in Jerusalem.  Did he agree with those who urged Paul not to go?  Finally, we find Luke with Paul on his journey to Rome.  He was there with Paul when their ship was broken up on the rocks.  He witnessed Paul’s miraculous deliverance from the snake bite and the healing of the father of Publius.

We assume from the final chapters of Acts what Paul makes absolutely clear in his final epistle:

10 For Demas deserted me, since he loved the present age, and he went to Thessalonica. Crescens went to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia. 11Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is a great help to me in ministry (2 Timothy 4:10-11, emphasis mine).

Luke was not only Paul’s companion and coworker in ministry; Luke was a man who faithfully stood with Paul to the end.  I can respect what a man like this writes, inspired by the Spirit of God.

The Unique Contribution of the Book of Acts

Some of you will recognize that I have written on the Book of Acts before.3In this earlier effort, I outlined a number of reasons why the Book of Acts is important.  This time, I would like to approach this matter from a slightly different perspective.  I would like to suggest what it would be like if there were no Book of Acts.  What would it be like without the Book of Acts?

First of all, our Bibles would be smaller.  When combined with Luke’s first volume, his two accounts – Luke and Acts – take up over one-fourth of the real estate of the New Testament.  If the importance of a subject is indicated by how much space is devoted to it (I call this the “law of proportion”), then Luke’s writings must be significant.

Second, the absence of the Book of Acts would diminish the contribution of the remaining New Testament epistles.There would be a significant historical gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the New Testament epistles.  How would we know why the church at Corinth suddenly appears as the recipient of two preserved epistles?   Where did this church come from?  It is the Book of Acts that provides this information.

These words of Peter would have little impact on us, apart from the Book of Acts:

12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker (1 Peter 4:12-15).

The Gospels do not leave us with a very positive impression of Peter.  He denied his Lord three times rather than risk dying with Him.  But when we read the Book of Acts, we find a transformed Peter.  He now stands before some of the same people who orchestrated our Lord’s crucifixion and says,

22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know— 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. 24 But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power. . . . 36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:22-24, 36).

13 “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our forefathers, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate after he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a man who was a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the Originator of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this fact we are witnesses!” (Acts 3:13-15)

When commanded not to teach in the name of Jesus, Peter responded,

29 But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than people. 30 The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:29-32).

It is the Book of Acts that certifies Peter as a man who is qualified to speak on the subject of suffering for the name of Jesus.  Thanks to Acts, Peter’s exhortations carry much more weight than if Acts had not been written.

Beyond Peter and his epistles, the situation is even more dramatic with Paul and his writings.  Paul was a man well known by the Christian community – as a persecutor of the church:

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias,” and he replied, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 Then the Lord told him, “Get up and go to the street called ‘Straight,’ and at Judas’ house look for a man from Tarsus named Saul. For he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and place his hands on him so that he may see again.” 13 ButAnanias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem, 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to imprison all who call on your name!(Acts 9:10-14, emphasis mine)

When Paul writes, he writes with the full authority of an apostle:

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

1 Am I not free?Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you, for you are the confirming sign of my apostleship in the Lord. 3 This is my defense to those who examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to financial support? 5Do we not have the right to the company of a believing wife, like the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? (1 Corinthians 9:1-5, emphasis mine)

37 If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge thatwhat I write to you is the Lord’s command(1 Corinthians 14:37, emphasis mine).

For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher (2 Timothy 1:11).

For I consider myself not at all inferior to those “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5).

11 I have become a fool. You yourselves forced me to do it, for I should have been commended by you. For I lack nothing in comparison to those “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 12 Indeed, the signs of an apostle were performed among you with great perseverance by signs and wonders and powerful deeds (2 Corinthians 12:11-12).

Apart from the Book of Acts, how would we know and heed Paul’s instructions as those of a true apostle?  In Acts, we have three accounts of his conversion and commissioning (Acts 9, 22, 26).  We see not only his desire to associate with the saints, but also his willingness to suffer as a Christian.  It is the Book of Acts that certifies Paul as a true apostle to the readers of the New Testament.  We might dare say that it is in the Book of Acts that Paul “earns his stripes” (literally) as an apostle of Jesus Christ.  And so it is that we can read:

From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body (Galatians 6:17).

The theological issues addressed in the epistles would be without background or context, except for the fact that Acts describes the origin of some of these problems. Let me simply list some of the issues the church faced in New Testament times (many of which persist as potential problems today):

The relationship of the Old Testament to the New4

The explanation of how the ethnic makeup of the church is more Gentile than it is Jewish5

The relationship between Israel and the church6

The relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers in the church7

The relationship between Gentile saints and Judaism (do you have to be Jewish to be Christian?)8

The influence of Judaisers or Jewish heresies in the church

The roots of many of these problems can be found in the Book of Acts, so Acts helps us to understand the problems that are addressed in the epistles.

Without the Book of Acts, we would be hard pressed to find an example of the apostolic preaching of the gospel.  Think of the many rich sermons we find preached by the apostles:

Acts 2:14-36Peter’s powerful sermon at Pentecost

Acts 3-4Peter’s preaching (as a result of the healing of the lame man)

Acts 7Stephen’s powerful sermon, which sums up the Old Testament in terms of Jewish unbelief

Acts 10Peter’s gospel message at the home of Cornelius

Acts 13:13-41Paul’s sermon at (Pisidian) Antioch

Acts 17:16-31Paul’s preaching at Athens

Acts 20:17-34Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders

Acts 26Paul’s appeal to Agrippa

The examples of the “apostolic preaching of the cross” are found in the Book of Acts and virtually nowhere else (at least in the form of a preached sermon).

Keys to the Book of Acts

I would like to suggest some “mental hooks” which may help you think through the message of the Book of Acts.  These appear to be some of the key themes of the Book of Acts, which are intertwined throughout the book.

Transition

Many changes are documented as one reads through the Book of Acts.  Consider the following areas of transition:

There is the transition from a primarily Jewish church in Jerusalem to predominantly Gentile churches elsewhere.Initially, the church in Jerusalem was almost exclusively Jewish (with perhaps some proselytes as well).  This was not entirely coincidental, for in time it became evident that the Jewish believers (which appears to include the apostles) were opposed to evangelism among the Gentiles.  We see this in their response to the salvation of those at the home of Cornelius, when Peter preached the gospel to them:

1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them” (Acts 11:1-3).

It might appear that their only concern was that Peter (along with those Jews who accompanied him) had defiled himself by eating with these Gentiles, but this can hardly be the case.  Notice their response after Peter explained how all this had come to pass:

18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:18).

Now notice the following verse:

19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews (Acts 11:19).

It was not the apostles who were at the forefront of Gentile evangelism; it was an unnamed, unknown (to the Jerusalem Jewish believers, it would seem) group of Hellenistic Jewish believers who spread the gospel to the Gentiles.  They didn’t seem to grasp the fact that this was frowned upon by the Jerusalem Jewish brethren, or they simply refused to abide by such narrow thinking.  There is absolutely no question but what unbelieving Jews adamantly opposed taking the gospel to the Gentiles.9In spite of these obstacles, the gospel was taken to the Gentiles, and thus more and more predominantly Gentile churches were planted.  It was Paul’s practice to take the gospel“to the Jew first,”but when this message was rejected, Paul turned to the Gentiles (see Acts 18:5-7).

There is also the transition from opposition by the Pharisees in the Gospels to opposition that is led by the Sadducees in Acts.  When comparing the frequency in which the terms “Pharisees” and “Sadducees” (singular or plural) occur in Luke and Acts, one can see an indication of the transition from Pharisee-inspired resistance to the gospel in the Gospels to Sadducee-initiated resistance in Acts.10It is not really difficult to understand how this change came to pass.  The Pharisees opposed Jesus because He claimed to be God, and because they considered Him to be a law-breaker – particularly a Sabbath-breaker.  They probably were motivated to oppose Him because He was so critical of them:

20 “For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Matthew 23 contains an even more strident denouncement of the Pharisees, because of their hypocrisy.  It is no wonder they opposed Jesus.

Jesus made it very clear that He would rise from the dead, as the great and final sign proving the validity of His claim to be Messiah:

38 Then some of the experts in the law along with some Pharisees answered him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:38-40).

The Pharisees were very aware of His claim that He would rise from the dead, which is why they took such efforts to secure His tomb:

62 The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give orders to secure the tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples may come and steal his body and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “Take a guard of soldiers. Go and make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the soldiers of the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).

The resurrection seems to have “taken the wind out of the sails” of the Pharisees.  They are strangely silent in Acts (compared to the Gospels), and in fact, some Pharisees appear to be very cautious about condemning the apostles:

33 Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them. 34But a Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the council and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to the council, “Men of Israel, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. 37 After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in this case I say to you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, 39 but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God.” He convinced them, 40 and they summoned the apostles and had them beaten. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them (Acts 5:33-40, emphasis mine).

Here Gamaliel, a prominent Pharisee, cautioned the Sanhedrin about opposing the apostles.  Later on, the Pharisees somewhat come to Paul’s defense when the Sanhedrin meets once again, this time to try Paul on charges of defiling the temple:

6 Then when Paul noticed that part of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, he shouted out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead!” 7 When he said this, an argument began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.) 9 There was a great commotion, andsome experts in the law from the party of the Pharisees stood up and protested strongly, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 23:6-9, emphasis mine)

Thus, it is the Sadducees who take up the cause of opposing the gospel and the apostles in Acts:

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests and the commander of the temple guard andthe Sadducees came up to them(Acts 4:1, emphasis mine).

Likewise, there is a transition from an emphasis on the “kingdom of God” in the Gospels and early Acts to “the church.”The expression,“the Kingdom of God”is found 31 times in Luke and a total of 49 times in all the Gospels combined.  It is found only six times in the Book of Acts and eight times in the rest of the New Testament.  On the other hand, the term“church”occurs only twice in the Gospels, both times in Matthew (16:18; 18:17), while it is found 19 times in Acts, and 88 times in the epistles.  One is therefore obliged to explain this transition.  It is probably best to turn to Romans 9-11 for this explanation.

There is yet another transition from Peter and the Jerusalem apostles in the first half of Acts to “Paul and his companions” from chapter 13 on.  It seems apparent that while Peter is dominant in the first half of Acts, he is overshadowed by Paul in the last half of the book.

There are geographical transitions as well in the Book of Acts.It has been noted by many that Acts 1:8 provides an excellent geographical outline of the Book of Acts:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The events of chapters 1-7 take place in Jerusalem and Judea.  Samaria is reached with the gospel in chapter 8, and from there it goes to“the farthest parts of the earth,”ending in Rome (chapter 28).

Watershed Decisions

Acts contains some of the landmark decisions of the early church, the implications of which are great.  These decisions are to the church what certain Supreme Court rulings (like Roe v. Wade) have been to our country, for good or evil.

The first decision came reluctantly, when the apostles reluctantly acknowledged that the gospel was for the Gentiles, as well as the Jews.  This entailed a recognition that our Lord had set aside the Jewish food laws of the Old Testament (see Mark 7:19; Acts 10:9-16; 11:4-12).  As we learn from Galatians 2:11-14, Peter had to be reminded of this fact.

We recently had a very practical object lesson regarding the way these food laws separate Jews and Gentiles.  This past week, several from our church went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to assist Hurricane Katrina flood victims by serving (good!) food to the emergency medical personnel who were risking their lives in the rescue efforts, particularly in New Orleans.  We would serve up to 200 people or more, so you can imagine the impact of a few who observed the Jewish food laws.  They required not only different food, but they could use only certain cooking utensils, and the end result was that they cooked for themselves separately.  In no way do I wish to demean these devout folks for observing the rules of their faith; I simply wish to show how doing so separates folks.  Having this experience helped me appreciate the magnitude of the revelation that foods should no longer keep Jewish believers from sharing their faith with Gentiles.

A second watershed decision was that of the Jerusalem Council, as recorded in Acts 15.  The decision that the gospel should go to the Gentiles, as well as to the Jews, was reached in Acts 10 and 11.  In Acts 15, the question arose as to just what would be required of Gentile converts to the faith.  Some insisted that while the Gentiles could be saved by faith in Jesus as the Messiah, they must submit themselves to the Law of Moses.  In effect, in order to be saved, one must also become a Jewish proselyte.  Paul and Barnabas strongly opposed this requirement, and thus the Jerusalem Council was convened.  The end result was the decision that Gentile converts did not need to submit themselves to Jewish laws, but needed to observe a handful of prohibitions that would minimize offense to Jewish believers.  The implications of this decision were monumental, and the epistles will take this matter up in much greater detail.

Fulfillment

Another theme we find in the Book of Acts is that of fulfillment. There is, of course, the element of fulfillment in that Old Testament texts and promises are fulfilled in the Book of Acts.  Peter views the death of Judas as a fulfillment of Psalm 69:25.  Further, he believes that Psalm 109:8 will be fulfilled when they identify someone who will replace Judas (see Acts 1:15-26).  Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is punctuated with Old Testament texts, which have been fulfilled in the Pentecost experience and in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ.  Later, in Acts 4, the saints in Jerusalem understand their persecution in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly Psalm 2.  Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 is a concise survey of Old Testament history, with emphasis on Jewish resistance and rejection of God’s leaders and leadership.  Paul’s preaching also includes the element of fulfillment of the Old Testament (see Acts 13:41).

There is yet another aspect of fulfillment in Acts, and that is the fulfillment of Jesus’ words in the Gospels.  For example, we find the fulfillment of our Lord’s promises in John 14-16 regarding the coming and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Luke also records our Lord’s instruction to wait for that which the Father promised (Luke 24:49).  We find the beginnings of the fulfillment of the Great Commission (e.g., Matthew 28:18-20).  We see Peter’s leadership as the fulfillment of our Lord’s words in Matthew 16:16-19.  We can also find the first fruits of our Lord’s warning to Israel that the kingdom will be taken from them and given to another people (Matthew 21:43), and of our Lord’s forewarning of coming persecution (John 15:18-21).  We see examples of our Lord’s promise of a Spirit-inspired response to unjust charges (Matthew 10:16-20).

These words are difficult to grasp when reading John’s Gospel:

12 I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing,and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father (John 14:12, emphasis mine).

But as we read through the Book of Acts, we can see what a great impact the gospel had on many Jews and even more Gentiles, because of the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in and through the apostles.

Prayer

It is fervent and persistent prayer in Acts 1 that precedes the coming of the Spirit in power in Acts 2.  Reference to prayer is found 31 times in the Book of Acts,11more than any other New Testament book.  Prayer precedes nearly every significant event in Acts.  The lame man was healed as Peter and John made their way to the temple for prayer (Acts 3:1f.).  The church’s prayer for boldness was dramatically answered (Acts 4:23-31).  The apostles prayed and then laid hands on the seven“deacons”12they appointed to oversee the feeding of the widows, so that they could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-6).  Who can forget Stephen’s prayer, as he was dying:

59 They continued to stone Stephen while he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, he died (Acts 7:59-60).

I believe that the conversion of Saul was an answer to this prayer.

Prayer played a significant part in the sending forth of Barnabas and Saul as the first missionaries from the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-4).  Paul and those with him encountered Lydia at a place of prayer in Philippi, and thus she was the first recorded convert in Macedonia (Acts 16:13).  Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise just before the earthquake released them and paved the way for the conversion of the Philippian jailor and his family (Acts 16:22-34).  In the Book of Acts, when God’s people were moved to prayer, God did great and mighty works.

The Sovereignty of God

I have to admit that I did not recognize the sovereignty of God as a dominant theme in Acts the first time I taught through the book.  But the more I study Acts, the more I see that this is not the account of apostles and early saints who did everything right, thus prompting God to act.  Indeed, Acts presents flawed saints, through whom a sovereign God worked, often in spite of human failures.  And even when the apostles seemed to “do it right,” God chose to carry out His purposes in a different or somewhat modified way.  Let me seek to illustrate what I mean.

In Acts 1, Peter and those with him are prompted to fill Judas’ place as an apostle, and as a witness of our Lord’s resurrection.  The process appears to be a godly one.  They are prompted by Old Testament prophecies from the Book of Psalms.  They take action after prayer and discussion, when unity regarding their actions has been reached.  They nominate two men and leave the final selection to God.  What was done seems to be biblical and necessary.  And yet we never hear of Matthias again (by name).  He appears to play no significant role in the church.  But then in chapter 8, we are introduced to Saul, who is converted in chapter 9.  Saul, who becomes Paul in chapter 13, becomes not only an apostle, but the driving force behind the evangelization of the Gentiles.  The choice made by the apostles in Acts 1 appears to be overruled by God.  He will appoint His apostles His way.  We shall explore more about this in our next lesson in this series.

In Acts 6, we read of the appointment of the seven deacons, who are put in charge of the care and feeding of the widows in Jerusalem.  The problem was a serious one, threatening the unity of the church.  The solution that the apostles proposed appeared to be a wise thing to do. Highly qualified men (who all appear to be Hellenistic Jews) were selected and brought before the apostles, who commissioned them for this task.  The inference of the text is that the apostles appointed these seven men so that they, the apostles, could pray and preach – in other words, so that they could take the lead in evangelizing the lost.  The simple fact of the matter is that it was two of these“deacons”who became the frontrunners of evangelism, especially among those in Samaria and among the Gentiles.  Stephen became a powerful preacher (Acts 6:10), whose death precipitated such persecution that all the saints (except the apostles) had to flee Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-2), and thus take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21).  Philip was sent to Samaria and was instrumental in the salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:4ff.).  And so it is that those who were appointed by the apostles to care for the widowsso that the apostles could minister the word of Godbecame more effective in their evangelistic ministry than the apostles they were to assist.

The “Great Commission” of Acts 1:8 is not carried out purposefully by the apostles who were given the commission, but it is carried out providentially by the persecution of Acts 8:1.  What the apostles didn’t initiate, God Himself initiated through the death of Stephen and the persecution of the church.

The sovereignty of God is also evident in the Book of Acts by the way He bestows His Spirit.  Acts illustrates what Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 12:

It is one and the same Spirit,distributing as he decidesto each person, who produces all these things (1 Corinthians 12:11, emphasis mine).

There is no simple “pattern” set down in Acts by which we receive the Spirit as the church did at Pentecost.  There is no formula that Christians can “plug in” in order to get what they desire.  God is sovereign, and He acts in sovereign freedom, as He wills.  Even when the church appears to “do it right,” God retains the right to do it His way, just so that men will recognize it is all of Him, and not of us.  He is the potter; we are the clay.  That is the way it is supposed to be.

Ways of Thinking through Acts

Before I close, I would like to suggest several “grids,” or ways of thinking through the Book of Acts.  There is, first of all, the geographical grid, which is set out at the beginning of the book:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

I have already mentioned this, but we can see that the Book of Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome,“the remotest part of the earth”from a Jewish point of view.  We can thus see that our Lord’s Great Commission in Acts 1:8 is sovereignly accomplished in Acts, but in a very different way than anyone would have imagined.

Another grid would be to think of the Book of Acts in terms of its leading personalities.  The Book begins with Peter in the lead, along with John and their fellow apostles. But midway into Acts, we find that Paul has become the dominant personality in Acts, accompanied by his associates in ministry.

While the Book of Acts begins in Jerusalem with a predominantly Jewish church, it ends in Rome with a predominantly Gentile population.  The book begins with the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus and the offer of the kingdom, and it ends with the rejection of the Jews in Rome and the refocusing of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.

I would suggest one final approach to the Book of Acts.  I believe that Acts is the repetition of the ministry of our Lord, accompanied by the repetition of the response of Judaism’s leadership to Jesus, as seen in the persecution of the apostles, the early church, and especially Paul.  Just as Jesus“set His face toward Jerusalem”(Luke 9:51, ESV, KJV, NKJV), so also Paul determined to go to Jerusalem, knowing what awaited him there (see Acts 21:10-14).

Conclusion

I hope these observations will convince you of the importance and relevance of the Book of Acts.  While we have four Gospels and numerous epistles, we have only this divinely-inspired account of the birth of the church and of the ministry of the apostles.  May God give you an appetite, a hunger, for this book.  And may we come to grasp more fully the crucial role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church (collectively), and in our lives (individually).


1Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 1 in theStudies in the Book of Actsseries prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on September 18, 2005.  Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.  The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word.  The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version.  It was completed by more than 20 biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts.  The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk).  Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study.  In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others.  It is available on the Internet at:www.netbible.org.

3/seriespage/getting-ahead-god-acts-11-26

4See for example 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, the entire Book of Hebrews.

5See Romans 9-11.

6See Romans 9-11; Ephesians 2 and 3.

7See Romans 14-15.

8See 1 Timothy 1:7; Titus 1:10-14; 2 Corinthians 11, especially verse 22; Philippians 3; Revelation 3:9.

9This is evident in texts like Luke 4:16-30 and Acts 22:20-22.

10In Luke’s Gospel, the term“Pharisee”is found (singular and plural) 26 times.  In Acts, this same term occurs only six times.  In Luke,“Sadducees”is found once, while it occurs five times in Acts.

1131 times in the NET Bible; 30 times in ESV; 29 times in NASV.

12The noun form used to designate deacons is not found in this text, but a form of the same root is employed to describe their function.


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2. Preparation for Pentecost (Acts 1:1-26)

Introduction1

Ben Hadad, the king of Syria, was threatening war against Israel and its King, Ahab.  He boasted of his victory over Israel, and we read,

The king of Israel replied, “Tell him the one who puts on his battle gear should not boast like one who is taking it off” (1 Kings 20:11).2

The point is that one should not boast before his victory, but should wait until after.  There is a great difference between “before” and “after.”

One of the popular themes in contemporary advertising is that of “before” and “after.”  There are the weight loss programs, which exhibit the most unflattering photo they can find to present as “before” their program was attempted.  Then follows a marvelous “after” photo, which displays a beautiful person, so different from the “before” photo.

In times past, though I have not seen this as much lately, we saw the “before” and “after” of advertising for weight gain. A photo of the proverbial “90-pound weakling” was followed by the “after” of an awesome, muscle-flexing Charles Atlas physique.  Who wouldn’t want to look like that?

The “before” and “after” theme is found frequently in the media. “Makeover” programs turn proverbial ugly ducklings into swans.  Now it has become popular to carry this theme over to homes, where pitiful or plain houses are transformed into palatial homes.

Long before modern advertising, the Bible had its own versions of “before” and “after.”  In Genesis, we have a picture of man “before” the fall and “after.”  In the Book of Judges, we have Gideon as a fearful and reticent man (“before”), and then we have Gideon “after” as the brave warrior.  In Ephesians 2, Paul contrasts the Gentiles in their unbelief with the Gentiles as saints, now a part of the church.

I believe the first chapter of Acts could be titled “Before,” because it precedes Pentecost in chapter two, and from there on it is definitely “after.”  While we may be eager to get to Pentecost, let us pause long enough to consider Luke’s introduction to the Book of Acts and to the transforming power of Pentecost.  Let us give thought to the way Luke prepares us for what is yet to come.

The Structure of Our Text

I would like to look at Acts 1 in three segments:

Verses 1-11 From Christ’s Resurrection to His Return

Verses 12-14 Waiting in Jerusalem

Verses 15-26 Filling the Vacancy left by Judas

Verses 1-11 describe what happened during that 40-day period between our Lord’s resurrection and His ascension.  In verses 12-14, Luke tells us what the apostles were doing while they waited.  Finally, verses 15-26 are the account of the selection of Matthias as the twelfth apostle, a replacement for Judas.

I must tell you that the most problematic passage in Acts 1 is the final paragraph which describes the selection of Matthias as the twelfth apostle.  Why does Luke spend as much time (12 verses) describing this one event as he does depicting the 40 days of our Lord’s appearances on the earth (11 verses)?  What is so important about the selection of Matthias that deserves this kind of editorial space?  That is what we shall seek to discover in our study.

Forty Days of Purpose
Acts 1:1-11

1 I wrote the former account, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after he had given orders by the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs. He was seen by them over a forty-day period and spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God. 4 While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. 5 For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.” 9 After he had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:1-11).

Luke begins by informing his readers that the Book of Acts is the second volume of his account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Volume 1 – the Gospel of Luke – is the description of “all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after he had given orders by the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen”(verse 1b-2a).  By inference, this second volume is the account of all that Jesus continued to do and to teach, through His apostles.  As the first volume ends with the Great Commission, the second volume begins with it (verse 8).  What I would like to underscore is the role of the Holy Spirit in our Lord’s giving of the Great Commission.  We are told in verse 2 that Jesus gave orders by the Holy Spirit. We are further told that the Great Commission was an order given to the apostles who Jesus Himself had chosen.

I believe that among the many things we see in these early verses, we find that the Holy Spirit’s ministry in Acts – a dominant theme in this book – is linked to His ministry through the person of our Lord.  Put another way, the same Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus as He gave the Great Commission is the One who will empower the apostles (and the church) to carry out this command.  The ministry of the Holy Spirit does not commence in Acts, it continues in Acts.  Its commencement is found in the Gospels.  My point here is that Luke links the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of our Lord in the Gospels to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church in Acts.

As I read the early verses of chapter one, I am also impressed with the realization that Luke provides us with some powerful evidences of the resurrection of our Lord from the dead:

To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs. He was seen by them over a forty-day period and spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).

Think of it!  Jesus waited 40 days from the time of His resurrection till the day of His ascension into heaven. During those 40 days, He provided them with “many convincing proofs” that He had indeed risen from the dead.  Only Paul matches Luke in the proofs he supplies for the resurrection:

3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1 Corinthians 15:3-9).

The apostles were witnesses of our Lord’s resurrection (1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39-41; 13:30-31).  Our Lord saw to it that these witnesses had more than enough evidence of His resurrection, and added to this was the witness of the Spirit to the resurrection:

7 But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:7-11, emphasis mine).

The Holy Spirit would internally indict sinners regarding the righteousness of Christ because He cannot be seen any longer.  The empty tomb and the absence of a body is further evidence of our Lord’s resurrection, and to this the Holy Spirit will bear witness.

A further matter of interest is that during this 40-day period, our Lord spoke with the apostles concerning the things pertaining to the kingdom of God (1:3).  We are not, however, given any indication as to just what things Jesus taught them.  Based upon Paul’s words in Ephesians 3, I am inclined to assume what a portion of this conversation may have been:

4 When reading this, you will be able to understand my insight into this secret of Christ. 5 Now this secret was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, 6 namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:4-6, emphasis mine).

Somewhere along the line, the apostles were enlightened by our Lord concerning the mystery of the church. I would suspect that it may have been during that 40-day interval between our Lord’s resurrection and His ascension. What is of particular interest is that this revelation came about “through the Spirit.”

There is additional evidence that our Lord spoke to the apostles about the mystery of the church during these 40 days. When the apostles asked Jesus regarding the timing of the coming of the kingdom of God, they appear to indicate that they know the kingdom will be set aside for a time:

So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

Why did the apostles speak of the coming of the kingdom of God as its being “restored”?  I think it was because Jesus had revealed the mystery of the church to them.

There is a theme which dominates the 40-day period between the resurrection and ascension of our Lord.  If I were to summarize it, it would probably be like this:

“Your mission until I return is to preach the gospel to all nations. The Holy Spirit will come upon you shortly to empower you to carry out this task, so wait in Jerusalem until you receive this power.”

The coming of the Spirit is described as: (1) “the promise of the Father (verse 4); (2) that which the apostles heard from Jesus (verse 4); and, (3) that which John the Baptist foretold (verse 5).  The apostles sought greater knowledge.  Jesus informed them that they had (or would have) all the knowledge they needed.  What they needed was power, power to proclaim the gospel so that men would believe and be saved.  Pentecost was the occasion which God chose to bestow this power on His apostles.

When the apostles3press Jesus to tell them the time when the kingdom of God will be established, Jesus graciously refuses by informing them that this information is outside their authority – there is no “need to know” so far as they are concerned.  This information, this timing, is something that falls entirely within the Father’s own authority.  To seek this knowledge is to go outside the boundaries of their authority.4

But isn’t Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit really a matter of authority, a legitimate matter of authority?  In the Great Commission of Matthew 28, Jesus claimed all authority, and He based His command to proclaim the gospel to all nations on this authority:

18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).

I believe that when the Spirit came upon the apostles, they received the authority they needed to carry out the Great Commission. They sought authority that was outside the boundaries God had established. Jesus promised authority within the boundaries of what God purposed, because the coming of the Spirit was “the promise of the Father” (verse 4).

Luke’s account of our Lord’s ascension is brief, but informative:

9 After he had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:9-11).

Luke’s Great Commission (unlike those in the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, and John) was given just prior to His ascension.  Our Lord’s last words sum up the focus of the first 11 verses of Acts:  They are to be His witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem and ending in the remotest part(s) of the earth.  They will receive power through the Holy Spirit to be witnesses.  Having said this, our Lord ascended into heaven.  They watched Him rise until a cloud obscured their vision.  They stood there, transfixed. (I wonder if they were waiting for that cloud to move out of their line of sight.)

Two angels suddenly appear near them. It was a gentle rebuke, if a rebuke at all.  What were they standing there for, looking into the sky?  Jesus was coming back, just as they saw Him depart.  The inference is, “Don’t just stand here; get going!”5

In the midst of all of the “gnats,” let us not miss the “camel” of this text, namely that the Holy Spirit was soon (“not many days from now,” verse 5) to come upon them, empowering them to carry out the Great Commission.  They must not attempt to carry out the Great Commission without Pentecostal power.

What to Do while You Wait
Acts 1:12-14

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mountain called the Mount of Olives (which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away). 13 When they had entered Jerusalem, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James were there. 14 All these continued together in prayer with one mind, together with the women, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:12-14).

The apostles did as the angels implied; they returned to Jerusalem to wait. I do not think that verses 12-14 describe only the activity of the believers during the 10-day gap between our Lord’s ascension and Pentecost, however. I am inclined to think that verses 12-14 are an apt description of the apostles’ activity during the entire 50-day period preceding Pentecost.  Let me explain why I have reached this conclusion.

First, I note the wording of the first part of verse 13:

When they had entered Jerusalem, they went to the upstairs roomwhere they were staying(Acts 1:13a, emphasis mine).

It appears to me that this upper room may well be a place well known to the apostles, perhaps a room owned by someone close to Jesus.  It would further seem that this is the room where the apostles had been staying the previous 40 days.

Not only the wording of verse 13, but also what we know of these 40 days, suggests that this is where the apostles had been staying since our Lord’s death.  Prior to His death, the disciples were constantly with Jesus.  Some of the women mentioned in Acts 1:14 may well have been those who accompanied Jesus and His disciples, and who also contributed to His support (Luke 8:1-3).  When Jesus arose from the dead, He did not remain with them continually, as He once did. Instead, He would come and go. This is implied in Acts 1:3, but it is clear in particular instances, such as when Jesus appeared to the disciples who went fishing with Peter in John 21.  The apostles were all Galileans (see Acts 1:11; 2:7; see also Matthew 26:73), so they could not stay in their own homes.  I believe that this upper room became headquarters for them during the entire 50-day period after our Lord’s resurrection.

What we have in verses 12-14, then, is a description of where the apostles stayed and what they did from the time of our Lord’s death till Pentecost.  The apostles stayed in Jerusalem, as instructed, and they devoted themselves to prayer, along with those who were closely associated with Jesus in His earthly ministry.  We should also observe that among this group were the brothers of our Lord (Acts 1:14).  From this, we can infer that Jesus’ unbelieving brothers (John 7:5) had come to believe in Jesus, no doubt largely due to His resurrection.

It seems to me that these loyal followers of Jesus are at their finest in verses 12-14. While it is not plainly stated, it would seem that from a human point of view the events at Pentecost were partially a response to the prayers of these saints.

A Replacement for Judas
Acts 1:15-26

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16 “Brothers, the scripture had to be fulfilled that the Holy Spirit foretold through David concerning Judas—who became the guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17 for he was counted as one of us and received a share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man Judas acquired a field with the reward of his unjust deed, and falling headfirst he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. 19 This became known to all who lived in Jerusalem, so that in their own language they called that field Hakeldama, that is, “Field of Blood.”) 20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his house become deserted, and let there be no one to live in it,’ and ‘Let another take his position of responsibility.’ 21 Thus one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus associated with us, 22 beginning from his baptism by John until the day he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness of his resurrection together with us.” 23 So they proposed two candidates: Joseph called Barsabbas (also called Justus) and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed, “Lord, you know the hearts of all. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to assume the task of this service and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 Then they cast lots for them, and the one chosen was Matthias; so he was counted with the eleven apostles (Acts 1:15-26).

This united prayer lasted for another ten days after our Lord’s ascension.6It was during this ten-day period that a replacement was chosen for Judas.  The mystery of this paragraph is to explain why Luke went to so much effort (and space) to describe an event which appears to have little impact on the events that follow Pentecost.  Verses 15-26 immediately precede Pentecost, but do not appear to have any profound impact on the apostles or on the community of believers.  Why, then, does Luke include these verses?

Let us seek to answer this question by observing what happened. We know that unified prayer preceded this process (1:14); indeed prayer was a part of the process (see 1:24-25).  We learn that it was Peter who provided the leadership (1:15).  The search for Judas’ replacement was prompted, at least in part, by the consideration of some Old Testament Scriptures (Psalm 69:25; 109:8).  From Psalm 69, they recognized that Judas’ betrayal was part of the divine plan.  The betrayal of our Lord was no accident, and it did not catch God off guard.  In particular, Judas’ death was seen to be a part of the divine plan.  The events surrounding Judas’ death7were interpreted as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 69:25. The decision to proceed with the process of replacing Judas was seen as obedience to Psalm 109:8, thus leading to its fulfillment.

In days gone by, I have sided with those who found the selection of Matthias as an example of fleshly action hastily taken. Like others, I have pointed to Paul as the most likely candidate for Judas’ replacement.  Like others, I have called attention to the fact that after this account, the name of Matthias is never found again in the New Testament.8I also called attention to the fact that Jesus told His apostles to wait until the coming of the Spirit.9

Others have sought to justify this action on the part of the apostles. They remind us that most of the twelve apostles disappear in Acts and the Epistles, and not just Matthias. They call attention to references to“the twelve”after this (Acts 6:2; 1 Corinthians 15:5). They also point out that Luke’s account depicts this selection in a favorable light, and that nothing negative is said about the action taken here.

In the end, I think we must acknowledge that we must “read between the lines” a great deal to conclude that the replacement of Judas was wrong.  I think there are two things that are clear, and that should dominate our thinking. First, the replacement of Judas occurs prior to Pentecost.  And second, the replacement of Judas is carried out in a way that is very “Old Testament.”

After Pentecost, the selection of leadership (as well as the seeking of divine guidance) is heavily dependent upon the presence and power of the Holy Spirit:

But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested,full of the Spiritand of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task (Acts 6:3, emphasis mine).

Here,“the twelve”addressed a problem of inequity in the care and feeding of their widows.  They determined that others needed to be appointed to oversee this ministry.  They left the selection of these leaders to the people, but they did set the qualifications. One of these qualifications was that each man manifested evidence of the Spirit’s presence in his life.

1 Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul. 2 While they were serving the Lord and fasting,the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off. 4 So Barnabas and Saul,sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus (Acts 13:1-4, emphasis mine).

In Acts 13 while those at the church in Antioch were fasting, the Holy Spirit indicated that Barnabas and Saul should be set apart and sent out as missionaries.  The church acknowledged the leading of the Spirit and laid their hands on these men, and then sent them off.  Luke then tells his readers that these two men were sent out by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit designated Barnabas and Saul. No lots were cast here, nor did they need to be.

9 But Saul (also known as Paul),filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him 10 and said, “You who are full of all deceit and all wrongdoing, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness—will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 Now look, the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind, unable to see the sun for a time!” Immediately mistiness and darkness came over him, and he went around seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, because he was greatly astounded at the teaching about the Lord. 13 ThenPaul and his companionsput out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia, but John left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:9-13, emphasis mine).

Barnabas and Saul arrived at the island of Cyprus and had traveled as far as Paphos. There they encountered the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. He was interested in the gospel, but a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus (or Elymas) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the truth. Up until this point, Paul (known as Saul until now) was clearly Barnabas’ assistant.  But the Holy Spirit enabled Paul to see what this false prophet was doing and prompted him to pronounce a curse on Bar-Jesus. From this point on, with very few exceptions (Acts 14:14; 15:12, 25), it was always Paul and Barnabas, or Paul and Silas, or“Paul and his companions.”It was evidence of the Spirit’s working through Paul that seems to have triggered this exchange in roles of Paul and Barnabas.

28For it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to usnot to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rules: 29 that you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well. Farewell (Acts 15:28-29, emphasis mine).

When the Jerusalem Council met to determine what should be required of Gentile converts, they determined that Gentiles must not be placed under the law, and that they observe only a few restrictions.  And when they reached their decision, they made it clear that their decision was guided by the Holy Spirit.

28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flockof which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son (Acts 20:28, emphasis mine).

In his last face-to-face meeting with the Ephesian elders, Paul spoke to them about their responsibilities as shepherds. He made it clear that the Holy Spirit played a key role in their appointment.  Thus, whether it was the selection of leaders or making important doctrinal distinctions, the Holy Spirit played a key role from Pentecost on.

Conclusion
Lessons to be Learned

Our text has much to teach us, which is why Luke designed this chapter as his introduction to the Book of Acts.  Let us consider what some of these lessons might be.

I began this lesson by suggesting that it is an example of a “before and after” presentation. The selection of Matthias as the twelfth apostle is clearly a “before,” clearly an Old Testament method of seeking God’s will. This process will never be seen again in the rest of the New Testament.  After seeing how God works through His Spirit in Acts 2 and beyond, who would ever want to go back to the old?  As the writer to the Hebrews constantly emphasized, the New Covenant is vastly superior to the Old.  In 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, Paul makes the same point, showing how much more glorious the New Covenant is to the Old and that New Testament ministry is to the old, because of the Holy Spirit.

4 Now we have such confidence in God through Christ. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as if it were coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who made us adequate to be servants of a new covenant not based on the letter but on the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 But if the ministry that produced death—carved in letters on stone tablets—came with glory, so that the Israelites could not keep their eyes fixed on the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (a glory which was made ineffective), 8 how much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry that produced condemnation, how much more does the ministry that produces righteousness excel in glory! 10 For indeed, what had been glorious now has no glory because of the tremendously greater glory of what replaced it. 11 For if what was made ineffective came with glory, how much more has what remains come in glory! (2 Corinthians 3:4-11)

Let us never consider going back to the old.

Our text also reminds us that whenever God commands us to do something, He will provide all that we need to carry out His command. Our Lord gave His apostles the Great Commission, appointing them as witnesses of His resurrection, and as His ambassadors, to proclaim the gospel to all the world.  Not only did Jesus give them 40 days of continual confirmation of His resurrection; He also gave them His Spirit, who likewise bears witness to the resurrection through them.

The Great Commission was not only given to the apostles; it was given to the church. We can be certain that He will provide us with everything we need to carry out His command.  In the context of Acts (and the Epistles), we should see that the Holy Spirit is a significant part of the enablement we need.

Acts 1, consistent with the rest of the Book of Acts, reminds us that it is not about us; it is about God.  Acts is not the account of God choosing the best and most talented and godly people on the face of the earth, so that He can accomplish the Great Commission. Acts is the record of how our Lord is fulfilling the Great Commission by using weak and fallible men.  The religious leaders were quick to take note of the limitations of the apostles, and yet had to reluctantly acknowledge something powerful about their ministry:

13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. 14 And because they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say against this (Acts 4:13-14).

It isn’t about us, my friend; it is about God.  It is the Spirit of God working through weak and even foolish (in the eyes of the world) men that reveals the power of God, and brings glory to Him, not us:

26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

Let me last observe that Acts 1 is the beginning of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in Acts. Consider these elements:

First we find the doctrine of the Trinityin the first chapter, which speaks of the Father (1:4), the Son (1:4, etc.), and the Holy Spirit (1:2, 5, 8, 16).  Before long (Acts 5:3-4), the Holy Spirit will be identified as God.  This should come as no surprise because the Great Commission of Matthew also referred to all three members of the Godhead:

18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).

Second, we learn that the Great Commission, which our Lord commanded His apostles, was given through the Holy Spirit (1:2).

Third, Luke makes it emphatically clear that the power to carry out the Great Commission is the power that the Holy Spirit will bestow (1:4-5, 8).  The Holy Spirit confirms the apostles’ testimony, especially their claim that they have seen Jesus Christ risen from the dead.  We see this confirmed in Acts 5:

“And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32).

Fourth, the Holy Spirit is portrayed as the Author of the Old Testament Scriptures.He is the One who inspired the words of David in the psalms:

16 “Brothers, the scripture had to be fulfilled that the Holy Spirit foretold through David concerning Judas—who became the guide for those who arrested Jesus— (Acts 1:16).

This truth is buttressed by John 14-16, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and 2 Peter 1:20-21.

Acts 1 is the “before” section of this great book.  Things will only get better from here.  Let us eagerly look forward to the changes Pentecost will bring for the “better.”


1Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 2 in theStudies in the Book of Actsseries prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on September 25, 2005.  Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.  The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word.  The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version.  It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts.  The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk).  Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study.  In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others.  It is available on the Internet at:www.netbible.org.

3You will note that I do not use the term“disciples”to refer to the eleven here, or the twelve elsewhere in Acts.  The reason is that Luke ceases to use the term“disciples”to refer to the eleven or twelve in the Book of Acts.  He now consistently refers to them as“apostles.”The term“disciple”is now employed when reference is made to new believers in Acts.

4This is much like Adam and Eve, who sought knowledge outside of the boundaries of their authority.

5In this regard, it is similar to the words of the two angels to the women at the tomb, as seen in Luke 24:4-7.

6We can easily deduce this since Pentecost was 50 days after Passover.  Jesus was appearing to the apostles for 40 days until His ascension, and so there had to be 10 days left until Pentecost.

7The apparent contradictions between this account and that of Matthew 27:3-10 are not insurmountable.  If all the facts were known, I believe that these two accounts would perfectly compliment each other.  It is not my purpose here to allow these matters to sidetrack our consideration of the argument of this text.  Other scholars have tackled this problem and have proposed solutions.

8We do, however, find a reference to“the twelve”in both Acts 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 15:5.

9He does not forbid taking any action until Pentecost; He merely forbids the apostles to leave Jerusalem (in carrying out the Great Commission) until after Pentecost.

http://feeds.bible.org/deffinbaugh/acts/deffinbaugh_acts_02.mp3
Passage: 
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3. Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13)

1 Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” 12 All were astounded and greatly confused, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others jeered at the speakers, saying, “They are drunk on new wine!” (Acts 2:1-13)1

Introduction2

In one way, our text in Acts 2:1-13 describes something entirely new and amazing. And yet what we read should not come as a complete surprise. We might compare the Pentecost event to having a birthday. You know that your birthday is coming, and that someone who loves you has a present for you. You are not sure exactly what the present is (although you’ve been told you will really like it), and you don’t know exactly when you will receive it. You know it is something good, and that it is coming soon.

As we approach Luke’s description of the Pentecost event, we should do so fully aware that those who experienced it had been prepared for its arrival, even though they did not know exactly what it would be like. Let us begin by turning to Luke’s Gospel and his words regarding the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist in chapter 3:

15 While the people were filled with anticipation and they all wondered whether perhaps John could be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I am is coming—I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clean out his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” . . . . 21 Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized. And while he was praying, the heavens opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight” (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, emphasis mine).

There are a couple of things that we should note from this text. The first is that John contrasts his baptism with that of Jesus. John baptized with water, but Jesus would baptize with the Spirit and with fire. Jesus will reinforce these words, affirming what John has said. By inference, it is clear that the baptism of Jesus is vastly superior to that of John, just as Jesus is vastly superior to John.

Second, we have here an account of our Lord’s baptism by John. On the one hand, Jesus identified Himself with John, his baptism, and his message. (After all, John was the prophet who designated Jesus as the promised Messiah.) On the other hand, Jesus was identifying Himself with us, mankind, and our need for a Savior.

What strikes me most about Luke’s account of our Lord’s baptism is that at our Lord’s baptism, God identified Himself with Jesus. In believers’ baptism, the one being baptized identifies himself or herself with Jesus in His saving work – His death, burial, and resurrection. The amazing and perhaps unexpected thing that happened at our Lord’s baptism was that God identified Himself with Jesus. The Father identified Jesus as His beloved Son in whom He was greatly pleased (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). The Spirit identified with Jesus by appearing as a dove who descended upon Him and remained upon Him (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22). You may recall this is how God indicated to John the Baptist that Jesus was the promised Messiah (see John 1:29-34)

I believe it is clear that this is the time when our Lord was endued with power from the Holy Spirit to carry out His earthly ministry. It was after His baptism that Jesus faced Satan in the wilderness and then commenced His ministry, with great power:

14 Then Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the surrounding countryside. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by all (Luke 4:14-15).

I believe that the baptism of our Lord is similar to the “baptism” of the church that occurs at Pentecost, but I will take this matter up later in this message. For now, let us observe that our Lord Jesus taught His disciples to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, with the assurance that their prayers would be answered:

9 “So I tell you: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 What father among you, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13, emphasis mine)

Surely we cannot help but see the connection between Pentecost and this text in Luke, in which Jesus assures His disciples that the Father will give the Spirit to those who ask for Him. Does this not explain the connection between Acts 1:12-14 and Acts 2:1-13?

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Messiah would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 Now during the blessing he departed and was taken up into heaven. 52 So they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple courts blessing God (Luke 24:45-53, emphasis mine).

After His resurrection, Jesus appears to His disciples. He explains His death and resurrection as the good news of the gospel, for by trusting in Him men can obtain the forgiveness of sins. He tells His disciples that their mission is to be witnesses to His resurrection and to the good news of the gospel. They are to take the gospel to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. This is Luke’s Great Commission and is very similar to Acts 1:8. Jesus also tells His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high, which occurs at Pentecost. Finally, we are told that the disciples joyfully returned to Jerusalem after His ascension, and there they spent much time in the temple courts, praising God.3

4 While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. 5 For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:4-8, emphasis mine).

We have now come to the Book of Acts and to the words which we considered in our previous lesson. Notice that Jesus once again reiterates the instruction not to leave Jerusalem until they have received what the Father promised, and what He had spoken about. I believe that by speaking of “what the Father promised,” our Lord is probably referring to those Old Testament prophecies which foretold the coming of the Spirit, especially those related to the New Covenant.4 When Jesus referred to the Spirit’s coming as that “which you heard about from Me,” I believe that He is speaking of texts such as John 14-16, where Jesus said much to His disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord’s words further indicate that the promise of the Father is coming shortly, “not many days from now” (verse 5).

Setting the Scene for Pentecost
Acts 2:1

Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place (Acts 2:1).

Acts 1 serves as an introduction to the Book of Acts, as well as an introduction to Pentecost. In Acts 2:1, Luke sets the scene for Pentecost. Notice first of all, how brief his description is. He is informing the reader that it is not an event that has been brought about by the apostles and the other believers, but that Pentecost is the sovereign activity of God. There are, however, several observations worthy of note in this one short verse.

First, the Spirit came upon these saints on the Day of Pentecost, the celebration that came some 50 days after the celebration of Passover.5 This was the day God had purposed to fulfill His promise of the Spirit. Thus, there must be a connection between the Old Testament Feast of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. I will take this matter up later.

Second, I believe that the wording of most translations of verse 1 does not do justice to Luke’s carefully crafted account. I prefer the wording of the King James Version or the New King James Version here:

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place (Acts 2:1, NKJV, emphasis mine).

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place (Acts 2:1, KJV, emphasis mine).

A marginal note at Acts 2:1 in the NASB informs the reader that the text literally reads, “was being fulfilled.” My Greek-English lexicon defines this word, “to arrive as the timely moment for an event to take place.” 6 I am reminded of the statement in Galatians 4:4:

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law (Galatians 4:4, NAU; emphasis mine).

But when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Galatians 4:4, NET Bible; emphasis mine).

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law (Galatians 4:4, NIV; emphasis mine).

Luke is surely seeking to tell us that the Feast of Pentecost was to find its fulfillment in time, and in the coming of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost at this exact time. It didn’t “just happen” on Pentecost; it happened on Pentecost to fulfill its eternally determined destiny.

Third, the setting Luke describes is very basic. He tells us simply that “they were all together in one place.”7 I think there is a reason for this: Luke is seeking to inform us that the Spirit came upon them because it was the right time (Pentecost was “fully come”), and it was the sovereign work of God. They did not bring God down by their actions; God came down upon them unexpectedly.8 God does not want to give us the impression that if we simply repeat the same steps they took we can have the same experience. This was all God’s doing. As we will see throughout the Book of Acts, God is sovereign. He sovereignly bestows His Spirit on whom He wills:

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:4, emphasis mine).

Later on, Paul also emphasizes the fact that spiritual gifts are sovereignly bestowed:

It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things (1 Corinthians 12:11, emphasis mine).

There are two additional indications of God’s sovereignty in bestowing the Spirit in close proximity to verse 1. Both of these are found in verse 2. First is the word “suddenly”:

Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting (Acts 2:2, emphasis mine).

The Spirit did not come after some agonizing effort on the part of the believers in Jerusalem; He came suddenly, and I think we could infer “unexpectedly.” Second, Luke informs us that the Spirit came while they were “sitting.” Now why would he bother to include such a detail as this? Perhaps it was because one usually sits when he is inactive or at rest. If they were sitting, the inference may be that they were not doing anything to induce the Spirit to come.9

The Spirit Arrives
Acts 2:2-4

2 Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:2-4).

I would first like to point out the brevity of this account. There is no emphasis on the sensational, no lengthy or embellished description of the unusual phenomenon. Nothing is said about how those on whom the Spirit descended felt. The emphasis will fall on those who witnessed this event, and on the occasion it brought for the proclamation of the gospel. Put differently, the spectacular events were not primarily for the benefit of the believers, but for the edification of those who witnessed this miraculous moment. I am reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:

What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church (1 Corinthians 14:26, emphasis mine).

What is done in the gathering of the church should be for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 1:18), and for the edification of the saints (1 Corinthians 14:26).

In addition to the brevity of this account, take note of its uniqueness. Nothing like this has ever happened before. While a few similar incidents are described later in the Book of Acts, only here do we read of the “sound of a violent wind” and the appearance of something like tongues of fire being distributed on those present. Only here is there a large gathering of devout Jews from various parts of the world. Only here do those looking on hear the praises of God in their own mother tongue.

An auditory and a visual manifestation accompany the filling of the Spirit. In both cases, Luke is clear to indicate that it is not a literal wind or a literal fire. It is a very loud sound that is something like a violent wind. It is something like tongues made of fire. But it is neither wind nor fire, literally, so far as the account informs us.

The Gulf Coast of the United States recently experienced two major hurricanes. The news media coverage included the attempt of some to describe the sound and the sights of these disastrous storms. There was no way to adequately describe them. Someone might liken the howling winds to the sound of a freight train, but this cannot do justice to the actual event. So Luke’s account is an attempt to describe the awesome sound that drew people from all over the city of Jerusalem. (So far as I can tell, the appearance of “tongues like fire” was only seen by those on whom the Spirit descended. It would seem that those who spoke with tongues left their original location in the “house where they were sitting” and went outside, where the crowds had gathered.)

The question is, “What do these phenomenon symbolize?” What is the meaning of these symbols? We should begin by pointing out that in both Hebrew and Greek (the languages in which most of the Old and New Testaments were written) the word for “spirit” is also the word for “wind.” Wind is often a symbol associated with the Spirit of God:

Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water (Genesis 1:2).

1 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and placed me in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones. 2 He made me walk all around them; there were many bones in the valley and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said to him, “Sovereign Lord, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and tell them: ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: Look, I am about to infuse breath into you and you will live. 6 I will put sinews on you and flesh over you and will cover you with skin; I will put breath in you and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. There was a sound when I prophesied—a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I saw on them sinews and flesh, and skin covered over them from above, but there was no breath in them. 9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these corpses so that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them; they lived and stood on their feet, an extremely great army. 11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are all the house of Israel. Look, they say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look, I am opening your graves and will raise you from your graves, my people. I will bring you to the land of Israel. 13 Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. 14 I will place my Spirit in you and you will live; I will give you rest in your own land. Then you will know that I am the Lord—I have spoken and I will act, declares the Lord’” (Ezekiel 37:1-14, emphasis mine).

3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:3-8).

It would seem, therefore, that the sound like a violent wind signaled the descent of the Spirit in a mighty way. Luke is careful to inform us that the sound like a mighty rushing wind came from heaven. In Luke’s account of the baptism of our Lord, he is careful to tell us that the heavens were opened, and the inference is clear that the dove that descended came from heaven, to rest and abide on the Lord Jesus. So, too, the words of the Father came from heaven. All of this is to make it very plain that what happened at our Lord’s baptism and what happened at Pentecost originated with God.

Fire is frequently a symbol of God’s presence. We see it when Moses encounters the burning bush in Exodus 3. We see it again with the fire at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:18. We see it in the pillar of fire that accompanied the Israelites (Exodus 13:21ff.). From the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), we see that fire is also a means of divine judgment (see also 2 Kings 1). That is how John the Baptist seems to think of our Lord’s baptism of fire, at least in part:

11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).

As I was studying this text, a passage in James 3 came to mind, which might be related:

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect individual, able to control the entire body as well. 3 And if we put bits into the mouths of horses to get them to obey us, then we guide their entire bodies. 4 Look at ships too: Though they are so large and driven by harsh winds, they are steered by a tiny rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination directs. 5 So too the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it has great pretensions. Think how small a flame sets a huge forest ablaze. 6 And the tongue is a fire! The tongue represents the world of wrongdoing among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the entire body and sets fire to the course of human existence—and is set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is subdued and has been subdued by humankind. 8 But no human being can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:1-8, emphasis mine).

The human tongue is a reflection of what is in our hearts:

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is known by its fruit. 34 Offspring of vipers! How are you able to say anything good, since you are evil? For the mouth speaks from what fills the heart. 35 The good person brings good things out of his good treasury, and the evil person brings evil things out of his evil treasury. 36 I tell you that on the day of judgment, people will give an account for every worthless word they speak. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33-37, emphasis mine).

But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person (Matthew 15:18, emphasis mine).

Is it not significant that apart from divine intervention the human tongue is a destructive fire, but once the heart is renewed and the Spirit empowers the tongue, it becomes an instrument of salvation? Thus, tongues of fire seem to symbolize the tongues of the apostles, empowered by the Spirit, which speak of the glory of God, and this leads to the conversion of thousands.

We should take note that the “tongues” spoken here are languages unknown to the speakers, but which are the native languages of the hearers. I have tried to mentally picture what must have taken place at Pentecost. The awesome noise (like a violent wind) attracted the crowds. They heard those who were empowered by the Spirit speaking in various foreign languages. I can imagine individuals hearing their own native tongue somewhere in the crowd, and after a search, finding the speaker. I can likewise imagine the speaker, wondering what he is saying. Since they could communicate in a common tongue (Aramaic or Greek?), they could discuss what was being said, and thus the hearer could inform the speaker about what he was saying, and even the language in which it was spoken. What a wonder that must have been for both speaker and hearer.

Audience Response
Acts 2:5-13

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” 12 All were astounded and greatly confused, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others jeered at the speakers, saying, “They are drunk on new wine!” (Acts 4:1-13, emphasis mine)

We should begin by taking note of the emphasis Luke gives to the audience and to their response. This section (Acts 2:5-13) is considerably larger than the setting (Acts 2:1) and the spectacular phenomenon (Acts 2:2-4). The interpretation of these things, contained in Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:14-36), is even larger. This should serve as an indication of where Luke wants to put the emphasis.

I must confess these verses are perplexing to me. Where did all these “devout Jews” come from? Where were these many “devout Jews” in the Gospels? Why did they not protest when Jesus was on trial? And yet Luke writes that there were devout Jews from every nation residing in Jerusalem. The term Luke employs to refer to these “devout Jews” is not the term used for Gentile proselytes – Gentile converts to Judaism – folks like Cornelius (Acts 10:1-2) or the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-27). Only Luke uses this term, which is found four times in the New Testament. In addition to our text (Acts 2:5), it is found in Luke 2:25, where we are introduced to Simeon. It is also employed to designate those who came forward to bury Stephen (Acts 8:2). Finally, it is used of Ananias, who was sent to speak to Saul (Paul) at the time of his conversion, as recorded in Acts 22:12.

So where did these “devout Jews” come from? Where were they before this? Some of them were probably devout Jews who made their way from distant lands to come to Jerusalem to observe the Feast of Pentecost (see Acts 20:16). I suppose that some might have come for Passover and stayed on until Pentecost. We know that many did make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feasts, especially the three mandatory feasts (see Exodus 34:23-24):

“The Passover festival at Jerusalem in the days before the temple was destroyed was an impressive occasion. Perhaps the only comparable event in the modern world is the annual Haj to Mecca. From all over the Eastern Mediterranean world, wherever Jews had settled or foreigners had embraced the Jewish religion, they came each year. Nobody knows exactly how many came. Ancient reports range from half a million to twelve million! A more conservative modern estimate reckons that Jerusalem, quite a small town by modern standards (perhaps 30,000 inhabitants), was swollen to six times its normal population at Passover time. The city itself could not hold them, and they filled the surrounding villages, while large numbers set up tents outside the city” (emphasis mine).10

It seems to me that this was a period of great messianic expectation. The disciples kept pressing Jesus about how soon the kingdom of God would be inaugurated (see Luke 21:5-7; Acts 1:6). Others must have sensed that the time was nearing as well. Perhaps there were many who, sensing that that kingdom was near, determined to be in Jerusalem, where such things would commence.

Think, too, of the things which had taken place in recent times. Surely word must have gotten out about the birth of Jesus and about the magi who came from afar to worship Him (Matthew 2:1ff.). Then John the Baptist came, promising that Messiah would soon appear (Matthew 3:1-2). He drew crowds, even in the wilderness. Jesus then commences His public ministry, which is authenticated by many miracles (Matthew 4:23-25). For three years, His ministry continues. His appearances in Jerusalem create a considerable stir. Then Jesus is crucified as a criminal. That would seem to be the end it all, but it is not so.

Our Lord’s death was far from typical. Something about His death caused those who witnessed it a great deal of distress:

47 Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts (Luke 23:47-48).

At the time of His death, a number of very unusual things occurred, things which could not be quickly and easily explained away:

50 Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit. 51 Just then the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks were split apart. 52 And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised. 53 (They came out of the tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.) 54 Now when the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and what took place, they were extremely terrified and said, “Truly this one was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:50-54)

Even the unusual death and burial of Judas, who betrayed Jesus by handing Him over to the authorities, caught the attention of those in Jerusalem:

(This became known to all who lived in Jerusalem, so that in their own language they called that field Hakeldama, that is, “Field of Blood.”) (Acts 1:19)

Messianic expectation was at an all time high. Word about Jesus had spread abroad. Surely the “devout Jews” heard of such things, and just as surely, they would have made every effort to relocate to Jerusalem, hoping to be on hand when the kingdom of God was inaugurated.

Here, as before, the response of the audience was mixed. The “devout Jews” sensed that there was spiritual significance to these events, and they sought to know what it was: “What does this mean” (verse 12)? But others dismissed these miraculous events as the babblings of those who were drunk: “They are drunk on new wine!” (verse 13)

I am somewhat inclined to think that those who dismissed this great miracle as the result of excessive drinking were mainly “native Hebrews” (see Acts 6:1), while those who were sincerely seeking to discover the meaning of these events were primarily Hellenistic Jews. The native Hebrews would have had more exposure to Jesus, and thus their rejection of Him would be more culpable. The Hellenistic Jews, however, would not have seen as much evidence of our Lord’s identity as Messiah. More than this, the native Hebrews would likely not know the foreign languages spoken by the Spirit-empowered apostles, while the Hellenistic Jews would recognize their native tongue spoken flawlessly by Galileans (those not considered the educated elite, and those with the strongest accent).

Conclusion

As we seek to conclude this message, let us consider what Pentecost means. In the following verses of Acts 2, Peter will explain the meaning of Pentecost for those who witnessed it. These were folks who needed to place their trust in Jesus as the promised Messiah. But Luke wrote the Book of Acts for folks like us, many of whom have trusted in Jesus. What is the meaning of Pentecost for us? I will attempt to explore the meaning of Pentecost for us by examining from three dimensions:

    (1) Its similarities to the baptism of our Lord by John.

    (2) Its relationship to the Great Commission.

    (3) Its relationship to the Feast of Pentecost.

The Baptism of Jesus and the Baptism at Pentecost

21 Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized. And while he was praying, the heavens opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight” (Luke 3:21-22).

Consider the similarities between our Lord’s baptism by John and the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In Luke 3, the Spirit comes upon Jesus after He has been baptized by John and while He is praying. In Acts, the apostles and others have also been praying, and the Spirit comes upon them. In Luke, a voice (the voice of God the Father) comes from heaven; in Acts 2, a great noise comes from heaven. In Luke, the Spirit comes in the form of a dove and rests upon Jesus. In Acts 2, the Spirit’s coming is seen in the likeness of tongues of fire, which come upon all those gathered together. The coming of the Spirit upon Jesus in Luke 3 is the event that preceded the commencement of our Lord’s ministry, a ministry which was marked by manifestations of power. In Acts 2, Pentecost is the event that preceded the going forth of the apostles in power, as they proclaimed the gospel.

I would like to suggest that the baptism of our Lord in Luke 3 is essential and foundational to our understanding Pentecost. In our Lord’s baptism, Jesus certainly identified Himself with John, his ministry, and his message. Further, in our Lord’s baptism, He identified Himself with lost sinners – He identified Himself with us. But this is not where I see the emphasis falling. At the baptism of Jesus, we see God identifying Himself (Father and Spirit) with the Son, and with His ministry. We see that it is from this point on that Jesus is endowed with power from on high to conduct His earthly ministry.

When we come to Pentecost in Acts 2, we see a similar event taking place with our Lord’s earthly body, the church. At Pentecost, God identifies Himself with the church, the body of Christ. It is one thing to identify ourselves with Christ (which we do in believer’s baptism). It is another thing for us to claim that God is with us. (Many are those corrupt governments and rulers who have claimed God was with them in their evil causes.) But it is a most unusual thing when God personally identifies Himself with us. That is what He has done at Pentecost. God identified Himself with the church, and specifically with the apostles. The things our Lord Jesus began to do and to teach (Acts 1:1-2), He continued to do and to teach through His apostles. Just as Jesus did not begin His public ministry until the Father identified Himself with Him by bestowing His Spirit on Him, so the apostles were told to wait until He identified Himself with them at Pentecost.

I do not think that we fully appreciate what it meant for God to identify Himself with the church. This is a distinctly New Covenant event. I am reminded of the events of Exodus in chapters 32-34. While Moses was on the mountain, receiving the Ten Commandments in stone, the Israelites are down below (in full view of the manifestations of God’s presence on the mountain) worshipping the idol they had instructed Aaron to fashion for them. The initial issue was whether or not God would wipe out this entire nation and raise up a new nation through Moses (Exodus 32:7-14). Moses successfully (humanly speaking) interceded for the nation, and God spared them. Now, the issue was whether God would be present with His people as they went forward to possess the land of Canaan:

1 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go up from here, you and the people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ 2 And I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:1-3, emphasis mine).

Once again it was through the intercession of Moses that God promised to go with His people:

12 Then Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have been saying to me, ‘Bring this people up,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. But you said, ‘I know you by name, and also you have found favor in my sight.’ 13 And now, if I have found favor in your sight, show me your way, that I may know you, that I may continue to find favor in your sight. And see that this nation is your people. 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you,11 and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence does not go with us, do not take us up from here. 16 For in what way will it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we will be distinguished, I and your people, from all the people who are on the face of the earth?” 17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do this thing also that you have spoken, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (Exodus 33:12-17, emphasis mine).

God did go with His people. According to Paul, even our Lord Jesus was present, although not recognized as such (1 Corinthians 10:4). But God was not intimately indwelling His people. There were always barricades, always barriers which separated men from God. While He was with His disciples, our Lord spoke of a time in the near future when He would dwell within His disciples in an entirely new and much more intimate way:

15 “If you love me, you will obey my commandments. 16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you. 19 In a little while the world will not see me any longer, but you will see me; because I live, you will live too. 20 You will know at that time that I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you. 21 The person who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will reveal myself to him” (John 14:15-21, emphasis mine).

From Pentecost on, God has come to dwell in His people, manifesting His person and presence in a way that is more intimate than we ever find in the Old Testament. God now identifies Himself with His people in a most intimate way. This is only possible because our sins have been dealt with on the cross of Calvary. Pentecost can come because our Passover has been sacrificed:

Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough—you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Pentecost and the Great Commission

18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Messiah would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:44-49, emphasis mine).

8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8, emphasis mine).

In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus claims all authority. He commands His disciples to make disciples of all nations, and He promises to be with them always, to the end of the age. At Pentecost, the power and authority of God are bestowed upon the disciples in the coming of the Holy Spirit. His presence, through the Spirit, is assured until this age is past.

In both Luke and Acts, we see that our Lord promised power through the coming of the Holy Spirit, with the result that the gospel would be proclaimed to all the earth, beginning at Jerusalem. Is it not striking that our Lord has orchestrated Pentecost in such a way that (so to speak) all the nations of the earth are present and represented by those who were dwelling in Jerusalem when the Spirit was bestowed on the church? God has seen to it that the first fruits of His sovereign purposes are harvested on the very day that the Spirit is given to the church.

Pentecost and the Feast of Pentecost

It is my understanding that God purposed to send His Spirit to the church during the Feast of Pentecost because this Old Testament feast foreshadowed Pentecost. Paul calls attention to this relationship between Old Testament institutions and New Testament realities in Colossians 2:

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days— 17 these are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ! (Colossians 2:16-17, emphasis mine)

The writer to the Hebrews says the same thing:

For the law possesses a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and is therefore completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, year after year, to perfect those who come to worship (Hebrews 10:1, emphasis mine).

Let us take note of these Old Testament texts which speak of the Feast of Pentecost:

You are also to observe the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors that you have sown in the field, and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year when you have gathered in your labors out of the field (Exodus 23:16, emphasis mine).

22 And you must observe the Feast of Weeks—the firstfruits of the harvest of wheat—and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year. 23 At three times in the year all your men must appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel (Exodus 34:22-23, emphasis mine).

11 And he must wave the sheaf before the Lord to be accepted for your benefit—on the day after the Sabbath the priest is to wave it. . . . 15 “‘You must count for yourselves seven weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day you bring the wave offering sheaf; they must be complete weeks. 16 You must count fifty days—until the day after the seventh Sabbath—and then you must present a new grain offering to the Lord. 17 From the places where you live you must bring two loaves of bread for a wave offering; they must be made from two tenths of an ephah of fine wheat flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to the Lord. 18 Along with the loaves of bread, you must also present seven flawless yearling lambs, one young bull, and two rams. They are to be a burnt offering to the Lord along with their grain offering and drink offerings, a gift of a soothing aroma to the Lord. 19 You must also offer one male goat for a sin offering and two yearling lambs for a peace offering sacrifice, 20 and the priest is to wave them—the two lambs—along with the bread of the first fruits, as a wave offering before the Lord; they will be holy to the Lord for the priest’” (Leviticus 23:11, 15-20, emphasis mine).

26 “‘Also, on the day of the first fruits, when you bring a new grain offering to the Lord during your Feast of Weeks, you are to have a holy convocation. You must do no ordinary work’” (Numbers 28:26, emphasis mine).

9 You must count seven weeks; you must begin to count them from the time you begin to harvest the standing grain. 10 Then you are to celebrate the Festival of Weeks before the Lord your God with the voluntary offering that you will bring, in proportion to how he has blessed you. 11 You shall rejoice before him—you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, the Levites in your villages, the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows among you—in the place where the Lord chooses to locate his name (Deuteronomy 16:9-11, emphasis mine).

We can see that the Feast of Pentecost was known by several names: the “Feast of Harvest” (Exodus 23:16), the “Festival (or Feast) of Weeks” (Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:10), and the “day of the first fruits” (Numbers 28:26).

The Jewish feasts are observed according to the Jewish calendar. As many know, the Jewish calendar is very different from our own.12 The first spring holiday is that of Passover (see Exodus 12:1-14; Leviticus 23:5). Passover commemorates God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage at the exodus. Passover recalls the ten plagues, the observance of the first Passover meal (by means of which the first born males were spared), and the crossing of the Red Sea. Passover commences on the 14th day of the first month of Abib, which falls in our months of March or April. The day after Passover, the 15th day of the month, was the beginning of a one week celebration of the “Feast of Unleavened Bread” (Exodus 12:15-20; 13:8-9; Leviticus 23:6-8). All leaven was to be removed for a period of one week. One of the seven days of the “Feast of Unleavened Bread” would naturally be a Sabbath. The day following this Sabbath there was to be the celebration of the wave offering of Israel’s “First Fruits” (Leviticus 23:9-14). The first sheaf of the new spring barley crop was brought to the priest who waved this offering before the Lord.

The Feast of Pentecost (or, more commonly in Old Testament terms, the “Feast of Weeks”) was to be celebrated 50 days after the offering of the first fruits. In this way, we can see that Pentecost followed Passover, but was actually 50 days after the offering of first fruits. It occurs in the third month of the Jewish calendar, which would be during the months of May or June on our calendar.

There are several things I believe to be significant about this holiday which serve to foreshadow the Pentecost of Acts 2. First of all, Pentecost marks the transition from Israel’s barley harvest to her wheat harvest. If I understand correctly, the wheat crop would ripen just as the barley harvest has ended. Thus, it marked the transition from harvesting barley to harvesting wheat. Wheat appears to be regarded as the more highly prized crop. Is this somehow a fulfillment of our Lord’s promise to His disciples?

12 I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing, and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. 15 “If you love me, you will obey my commandments. 16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you (John 14:12-18, emphasis mine).

Whatever the “harvest” had been during the life and ministry of our Lord, it would suddenly increase, beginning with Pentecost.

Second, Pentecost was unique in that the grain offering was in the form of two loaves,13 both of which were made with leaven (Leviticus 23:17). What a contrast to Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, where no leaven was tolerated! What has happened so that the Feast of Pentecost actually requires bread made with leaven? How can that which is leavened be presented to God as a sacrifice?

I’m inclined to see the interpretation in terms of the sequence of spring holidays we have seen thus far. Passover clearly anticipated the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and His saving work on the cross of Calvary. He is our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). The Feast of Unleavened Bread follows Passover, and all leaven must be removed. The death of our Lord Jesus at Calvary removes the guilt of our sins, and thus we must come to hate sin and desire that it be put far from us:

6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast affects the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough—you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Like the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the offering of Israel’s first fruits followed shortly after the observance of the Passover meal. The presentation of the first fruits always occurred on the day after Sabbath, or Sunday. Sunday after Passover was also the day our Lord Jesus rose from the dead, the first fruits from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20). Fifty days later, Israel celebrated the Feast of Pentecost. This was the end of the barley season (the Old Covenant?) and the beginning of the wheat harvest (the New Covenant?). It was the time when God identified Himself with the church, the time when He endowed the saints with power so that they could carry out the Great Commission. It was the time when God came to indwell His saints in a way that was more intimate than any saint had ever experienced it. It was the time, thanks to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, when God could now indwell those who were not yet free from sin and its corrupting influences. God dwells among and in His people, sinful though they will be, because of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus.

Matthew’s Gospel began by telling us that in Jesus, God is with us:

20 When he had contemplated 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 as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:20-25, emphasis mine).

When the Gospel of Matthew ends with the Great Commission, we find these words of our Lord, reassuring His disciples that He will be with them always, to the end of the age:

18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).

What does Pentecost mean to us? The story of Pentecost in Acts 2 tells us how our Lord is now present with His church – through the Holy Spirit, whom He has sent. Pentecost assures us that God is present with His people, even though we are not yet sinless. We are forgiven sinners, who will one day be freed from the suffering and groaning that is the result of sin (Romans 8:18-25). But through the atoning work of Christ and the abiding of the Spirit, God is with us in a way that no Old Testament saint ever knew. He is with us, not only to teach, comfort, and guide us, but also to empower us to carry out the Great Commission. What news could be better than this? To God be the glory.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 3 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 2, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 This qualifies our understanding of Acts 1:12-14 (and what I said of these verses in my previous lesson). While the disciples and a few others spent much time in the “upper room,” they also spent a great deal of time at the temple. They seemed to alternate from one place to the other. No doubt, they retreated to the upper room in the evening and spent some of their daylight hours in the temple.

4 See, for example, Ezekiel 11:18-21; 36:22-32; 37:1-14; 39:29; Zechariah 4:6-9.

5 Technically, Pentecost comes 50 days after the offering of the first fruits of grain. Since this comes toward the end of the nearly two-week long celebration of Passover (including the Feast of Unleavened Bread), some consider this whole period as Passover.

6 BDAG – Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, Copyright 2000, The University of Chicago Press.

7 I can’t help but wonder if they were “all together,” celebrating Passover.

8 I am reminded of Romans 10:6-8 in this regard.

9 I realize that Jesus, like the rabbis of His day, may have sat when they taught, but I think it is still true that one normally does not sit when they are working at something. For example, I think that it may be true that when folks prayed, they often (though not always) did so standing (see Mark 11:25; Luke 18:11).

10 R. T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 126. It should be noted, however, that Joachim Jeremias (on whose calculations France rests his estimate of 180,000 people) later suggested that this estimate might still be a bit too high. Cf. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), p. 84.

11 The “you” here in verse 14 is singular both times. God is promising Moses that He will go with him personally, but He is not promising to go with Israel.

12 My good friend, Don Curtis, has written an excellent lesson on the Jewish holidays, which can be found on the bible.org web site: /seriespage/lord’s-appointed-times-leviticus-23.

13 Much has been made of the “two loaves.” Some think they signify the two tablets on which the Law was written (later Judaism saw Pentecost as the celebration of the law being given to Israel). Some think that one loaf symbolizes believing Jews while the other believing Gentiles. To be honest, I have no strong convictions on what the symbolism stands for.

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4. Peter's Sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36)

12 All were astounded and greatly confused, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others jeered at the speakers, saying, “They are drunk on new wine!”

14 But Peter stood up with the eleven, raised his voice, and addressed them: “You men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, know this and listen carefully to what I say. 15 In spite of what you think, these men are not drunk, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 But this is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘And in the last days it will be,’ God says, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 And I will perform wonders in the sky above and miraculous signs on the earth below, blood and fire and clouds of smoke. 20 The sun will be changed to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes. 21 And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’1

25 For David says about him, ‘I saw the Lord always in front of me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken.

26 Therefore my heart was glad and my tongue rejoiced; my body also will live in hope, 27 because you will not leave my soul in Hades, nor permit your Holy One to experience decay. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of joy with your presence.’

29 “Brothers, I can speak confidently to you about our forefather David, that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 So then, because he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne, 31 David by foreseeing this spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did his body experience decay. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend into heaven, but he himself says,

‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand 35 until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’

36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.”

Introduction2

I’ve mentioned my “five minute rule” in the past, but I’ll repeat it for those who may not have heard it previously. Even before I attended seminary, I had set a high standard for the preaching of others. I expected the preacher to get to his text promptly. What I often experienced was that the Scripture text was read and then never mentioned again. I found that some preachers had a dominant theme to which they retreated every Sunday. No matter what the text, the old theme arose week after week. In self defense, I established my “five minute rule” – once he began to preach, I gave the preacher five minutes to get to his text. If he did not promptly get to the Scripture text, I would start reading the Scriptures for myself.

As I was studying Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, I was almost tempted to think that Peter had violated the “five minute rule.” It wasn’t too long before I realized that Peter did not cite from Joel 2, never return to his text. His sermon is all about this text, as I hope to show in this message. Let us remember that this sermon was delivered by a divinely-energized Peter, who now boldly warns those who several weeks earlier had taken part in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. He warns them that the day of divine judgment is near, and yet he gives hope because there is still an opportunity for repentance, salvation, and divine blessing. Let us listen well to these words, bearing in mind that thousands came to faith through this sermon.

The Setting

Acts 1 began with the report that Jesus not only rose from the dead, but that He appeared to His disciples and others for a period of forty days, during which He taught them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3). Jesus instructed His disciples not to leave Jerusalem until after they had been endued with power by the Holy Spirit, according to what John the Baptist had indicated in his preaching (Acts 1:4-5). The disciples pressed Jesus regarding the exact timing of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel but Jesus refused to supply this information, insisting instead that they were to be empowered to be His witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem and spreading from there to all Judea, Samaria, and the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:6-8). After this, Jesus was taken up into heaven, and the disciples returned to Jerusalem where they spent much time together in prayer, waiting for the promised Spirit. It was during this time that Matthias was selected as the twelfth apostle (Acts 1:9-26).

The Day of Pentecost arrived when the small company of believers3 were gathered together in one place. It was then that the Holy Spirit came upon them in a powerful and dramatic way. The accompanying sound from heaven attracted a large crowd, many of whom were devoutly religious. A large number of them had come from distant lands to reside in Jerusalem (to be there when Messiah appeared?). These Hellenistic Jews heard the mighty works of God proclaimed in their own native tongue. The sincere among this crowd wanted to know the meaning of what they heard, while others merely mocked, attributing what they heard to excessive drinking (Acts 2:12). This lesson takes up as Peter stands to address this crowd, boldly proclaiming Jesus as both Lord and Christ.

Pentecost and the Prophecy of Joel
Acts 2:14-36

Peter promptly brushed aside the mocking explanation that those speaking in tongues were drunk. He simply replied, “It is too early in the morning for that!” Folks didn’t start drinking that early in the morning, and so the charge was seen to be senseless.

The explanation of Pentecost, Peter declared, was to be found in the Old Testament Book of Joel. And so he cites Joel 2:28-32, with only a few slight modifications:

17 “‘And in the last days it will be,’ God says, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 And I will perform wonders in the sky above and miraculous signs on the earth below, blood and fire and clouds of smoke. 20 The sun will be changed to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes. 21 And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Acts 2:17-21).

28 After all of this I will pour out my Spirit on all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your elderly will have revelatory dreams; your young men will see prophetic visions. 29 Even on male and female servants I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30 I will produce portents both in the sky and on the earth— blood, fire, and columns of smoke. 31 The sunlight will be turned to darkness and the moon to the color of blood, before the day of the Lord comes— that great and terrible day! 32 It will so happen that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered. For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who survive, just as the Lord has promised; the remnant will be those whom the Lord will call (Joel 2:28-32).

In some ways, the Book of Joel was an ideal text for Peter to cite. It was a distinctly Jewish book, addressed to those Jews dwelling in Israel, and particularly those in Jerusalem.4 It was a book that seemingly made no direct reference to the salvation of Gentiles. It spoke of the “day of the Lord” and called Jews to repentance, with the hope that God would be merciful and restore Israel to God’s blessings.

On the other hand, the Book of Joel might have appeared to some as shockingly inappropriate for this occasion. We would do well to recall that Peter’s sermon was delivered on the day of the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost was a festive and joyful celebration of the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Joel’s prophecy might not have come to mind at such a time of celebration. The first chapter of Joel describes a devastating sequence of plagues of locusts, which stripped the land of Israel of all its food crops. There was no harvest of barley or of wheat:

9 No one brings grain offerings or drink offerings to the temple of the Lord anymore. So the priests, those who serve the Lord, are in mourning. 10 The crops of the fields have been destroyed. The ground is in mourning because the grain has perished. The fresh wine has dried up; the olive oil languishes. 11 Be distressed, farmers; wail, wine dressers, over the wheat and the barley. For the harvest of the field has perished (Joel 1:9-11).

While the apostles were accused of being “full of sweet wine” (Acts 2:13, Greek text), Joel speaks of the absence of wine, so much so that normal sacrifices were impossible:

5 Awake, you drunkards, and weep! Wail, all you wine drinkers, over the sweet wine because it has been taken away from you. . . . 13 Get dressed and lament, you priests! Wail, you who minister at the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth, you servants of my God, because no one brings grain offerings or drink offerings to the temple of your God anymore (Joel 1:5, 13).

Since Peter chooses to cite from the middle of the Book of Joel, it would be wise to briefly look at the message of the entire book, in order to gain insight into the portion of Joel that Peter has chosen to quote. I believe that the book falls into three major sections:

Section one: The Literal Locust Plague (Joel 1:1-20)

Section two: The Locust Plague as a prototype of Israel’s Future Judgment (Joel 2:1-27)

Section three: The Day of the Lord as Divine Blessings on the Jews and Judgment on Unbelieving Gentiles (Joel 2:28—3:21)

The division of sections two and three may seem somewhat arbitrary because of the chapter divisions in our English Bibles. It is worth noting that the three sections I have suggested follow the chapter divisions of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the version of the Old Testament frequently cited by the New Testament writers).5

Joel 1 describes a literal locust plague. As I understand verse 4, it was actually a sequence of locust attacks, the end result of which was that Israel was left a barren wasteland, that was finally consumed with fire (Joel 1:19-20). This devastation was greater than any Israel had experienced up to this point in time:

2 Listen to this, you elders, and pay attention, all inhabitants of the land. Has anything like this ever happened in your whole life or in the lifetime of your ancestors? 3 Tell your children about it, and have your children tell their children, and their children the following generation (Joel 1:2-3, emphasis mine).

Such a plague should not come as a great surprise. We should remember that one of the judgments God brought upon Egypt was a locust plague:

12 And the Lord said to Moses, “Extend your hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts, that they may come up over the land of Egypt and eat everything that grows in the ground, all that the hail has left.” 13 So Moses extended his rod over the land of Egypt, and then the Lord brought an east wind on the land all that day and all night. The morning came, and the east wind had brought up the locusts! 14 The locusts went up over all the land of Egypt and settled down in all the territory of Egypt. It was very severe; there had been no locusts like them before, nor will there be such ever again.6 15 They covered the surface of all the ground, so that the ground became dark, and they ate all the vegetation of the ground and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left. Nothing green remained on the trees or on anything that grew in the fields throughout all the land of Egypt (Exodus 10:12-15).

When God made His covenant with Israel, He warned that if Israel disregarded His covenant He would bring the plagues of Egypt upon her:

58 “If you refuse to obey all the words of this law, the things written in this scroll, and refuse to fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, 59 then the Lord will increase your punishments and those of your descendants—great and long-lasting afflictions and severe, enduring illnesses. 60 He will infect you with all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will persistently afflict you. 61 Moreover, the Lord will bring upon you every kind of sickness and plague not mentioned in this scroll of commandments until you have perished (Deuteronomy 28:58-61; see also 29:18-28).

Therefore, the plague of locusts was an indication of great sin on the part of Israel, and thus also of divine indignation on the part of God. This was to serve as a warning that the “day of the Lord” was near:

How awful that day will be! For the day of the Lord7 is near;8 it will come as destruction from the Divine Destroyer (Joel 1:15).

Joel therefore calls upon the nation, and particularly its leaders, to repent and to plead for mercy.

13 Get dressed and lament, you priests! Wail, you who minister at the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth, you servants of my God, because no one brings grain offerings or drink offerings to the temple of your God anymore. 14 Announce a holy fast; proclaim a sacred assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the temple of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord (Joel 1:13-14).

Chapter 2 (Joel 2:1-27) continues the theme of the locust plague, but in my opinion there is a double reference here. I see this kind of double reference frequently in biblical prophecy. Thus David can speak of his own sufferings, and yet be describing the sufferings of Messiah as well (Psalm 22). Likewise (in Peter’s sermon), we find David describing his future hope of resurrection, but going beyond this to describe the resurrection of Messiah (Psalm 16:8-10; Acts 2:25-27). Perhaps the double reference is most apparent in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, where human kings are rebuked, yet they are described in Satan-like terms. Let me illustrate from Ezekiel 28:

11 The word of the Lord came to me: 12 “Son of man, lament for the king of Tyre, and say to him, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘You were the signet ring of perfection,
full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty.
13 You were in Eden, the garden of God.
Every precious stone was your covering,
the ruby, topaz, and diamond,
the beryl, onyx, and jasper,
the sapphire, turquoise, and emerald;
your settings and engravings were made of gold.
On the day you were created they were prepared.
14 I placed you there with an anointed guardian cherub;
you were on the holy mountain of God;
you walked in the midst the stones of fire.
15 You were blameless in your behavior
from the day you were created,
until sin was discovered in you.
16 In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you
sinned;
so I defiled you and banished you from the mountain of God,
the guardian cherub expelled you from the midst of the stones of fire.
17 Your heart was proud because of your beauty;
you perverted your wisdom on account of your splendor.
I threw you down to the ground;
I placed you before kings, that they might see you.
18 By the multitude of your iniquities,
through the sinfulness of your trade,
you desecrated your sanctuaries.
So I brought out fire from within you;
it consumed you,
and I turned you to ashes on the earth
before the eyes of all who saw you.
19 All who know you among the peoples are shocked at you;
you have become terrified and will be no more’”
(Ezekiel 28:11-19; see also Isaiah 14:4-14).

This lament is for the “king of Tyre” (verse 12), but some of the descriptions cannot be of an earthly king. Instead, Satan is described. The point of this is that the king of Tyre manifests the same character flaws that characterize Satan himself. Or, to put it differently, Satan is behind many of the evils that take place at the hands of heathen kings.

The same kind of things seems to be taking place in the Book of Joel. On the one hand, Joel continues the imagery of the literal locust plague of chapter one, but the plague in chapter two is worse than the plague Israel experienced in chapter one. In chapter one, the plague was the worst the Jews had yet seen (Joel 1:2); in chapter two, the plague is the worst plague that will ever be for many generations:

It will be a day of dreadful darkness, a day of foreboding storm-clouds, like blackness spread over the mountains. It is a huge and powerful army— there has never been anything like it ever before, and there will not be anything like it for many generations to come! (Joel 2:2, emphasis mine)

As Joel indicates (Joel 2:2), this plague will be accompanied by cosmic events that are associated with the “day of the Lord”:

The earth quakes before them; the sky reverberates. The sun and the moon grow dark; the stars refuse to shine (Joel 2:10).

This sounds very much like the description of the “day of the Lord” elsewhere, such as in Isaiah 13:

9 Look, the Lord’s day of judgment is coming; it is a day of cruelty and savage, raging anger, destroying the earth and annihilating its sinners. 10 Indeed the stars in the sky and their constellations no longer shine; the sun is darkened as soon as it rises, and the moon does not shine. 11 I will punish the world for its evil, and wicked people for their sin. I will put an end to the pride of the insolent, I will bring down the arrogance of tyrants. 12 I will make human beings more scarce than pure gold, and people more scarce than gold from Ophir. 13 So I will shake the heavens, and the earth will shake loose from its foundation, because of the fury of the Lord who leads armies, in the day he vents his raging anger (Isaiah 13:9-13).

Joel’s description of some of the phenomena of the “day of the Lord” also sounds strikingly similar to some of the supernatural events at the time of our Lord’s death at Calvary (see Matthew 27:50-54; Luke 23:44-48).

In Joel 2, Israel is once again called to repentance, with the hope of finding mercy and compassion:

12 “Yet even now,” the Lord says, “return to me with all your heart— with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Tear your hearts, not just your garments!” 13 Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and boundless in loyal love— often relenting from calamitous punishment (Joel 2:12-13).

Joel ends this section by assuring his Jewish readers that their repentance will bring defeat for Israel’s foes and showers of blessing for the people of God:

23 Citizens of Zion, rejoice! Be glad because of what the Lord your God has done! For he has given to you the early rains as vindication. He has sent to you the rains— both the early and the late rains as formerly. 24 The threshing floors are full of grain; the vats overflow with fresh wine and olive oil. 25 I will make up for the years that the ‘arbeh-locust consumed your crops— the yeleq-locust, the hasil-locust, and the gazam-locust— my great army, that I sent against you. 26 You will have plenty to eat, and your hunger will be fully satisfied; you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has acted wondrously in your behalf. My people will never again be put to shame. 27 You will be convinced that I am in the midst of Israel. I am the Lord your God; there is no other. My people will never again be put to shame (Joel 2:23-27, see also verses 18-22).

The third section begins with the text that Peter cited at the beginning of his sermon at Pentecost. It is a three-part promise. First, it is a promise that God will send His Spirit upon His people as the time of Israel’s restoration and blessing draws near (Joel 2:28-29). Second, it is a promise that judgments of the “day of the Lord” will be preceded by miraculous cosmic phenomena (Joel 2:30-31). Third, is the assurance that all those who call upon the name of the Lord for salvation will be saved (Joel 2:32a). The remainder of this section is a description of God’s wrath that is poured out in the “day of the Lord” upon those who have mistreated the Jews (Joel 3:1-17), as well as a depiction of the outpouring of divine blessings on Judah and Jerusalem (Joel 3:18-21).

From this background, let us seek to learn how Peter uses Joel 2:28-32 to explain the meaning of the miraculous events that have just occurred in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. Peter said it in a very few words: “This is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). The question he must answer in his sermon then is, “What was spoken about through the prophet Joel?”

Peter first lays the death of the Lord Jesus at the feet of his audience. They, along with the Gentiles who participated in the execution of Jesus, were responsible for His death. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus claimed to be acting on behalf of His Father in Heaven:

“I can do nothing on my own initiative. Just as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me” (John 5:30).

Then Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak just what the Father taught me” (John 8:28).

Jesus replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come from God and am now here. I have not come on my own initiative, but he sent me” (John 8:42).

“For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak” (John 12:49).

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds” (John 14:10).

It was this claim which prompted such a strong reaction from those who opposed Jesus:

17 So he told them, “My Father is working until now, and I too am working.” 18 For this reason the Jewish leaders were trying even harder to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was also calling God his own Father, thus making himself equal with God (John 5:17-18).

The Jews persisted in demanding signs from Jesus, to justify His claims, and Jesus declared that His resurrection would be the ultimate and final sign:

38 Then some of the experts in the law along with some Pharisees answered him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:38-40).

Peter therefore declares that God the Father was intimately involved in the ministry of the Lord Jesus. While human hands were sinfully involved in the death of Jesus, His death was the sovereign plan and purpose of God from eternity past:

This man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles (Acts 2:23).

The ministry of Jesus the Nazarene was attested by God the Father to be of divine origin. Those who stood before Peter witnessed some of these attesting signs:

“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know (Acts 2:22).

His coming was in the divine plan, and His ministry was divinely empowered and attested. His death was part of God’s eternal purpose, even though sinful men played a role in it. And when Jesus was put to death, God raised Him from the dead, a vindication of His claim to be the promised Messiah.

These things were prophesied in the Old Testament. David himself prophesied concerning the resurrection of the Messiah:

25 For David says about him,
‘I saw the Lord always in front of me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart was glad and my tongue rejoiced;
my body also will live in hope,
27 because you will not leave my soul in Hades,
nor permit your Holy One to experience decay.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of joy with your presence’” (Acts 2:25-28).

This psalm is one of David’s dual-layer psalms. On the one hand, it expresses his hope and assurance of eternal life.9 On the other hand, it goes beyond David, to someone greater than he, namely his Son, the Messiah. Verse 27 goes beyond anything David can claim for himself. He dare not refer to himself as God’s “Holy One.” Neither dare he claim that his body will avoid decay in the tomb.

This is exactly the point Peter is making in verses 29-32:

29 “Brothers, I can speak confidently to you about our forefather David, that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 So then, because he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne, 31 David by foreseeing this spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did his body experience decay. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:29-32).

Peter might even have gestured in the direction of David’s tomb there in Jerusalem as he reminded his audience that David had died, and that his tomb was in their midst. Who would doubt that David’s body had suffered corruption and decay in that tomb? No, David had to be speaking of someone other than himself when he claimed that God’s Holy One would not see corruption. David was speaking as a prophet here, and he was speaking of his descendant, the Christ. David was foretelling the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His tomb was there in (or just outside) Jerusalem, but unlike David’s tomb, the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was empty. His body did not see decay. God raised Jesus from the dead, and the apostles were all witnesses of this fact. As Luke has already informed us in chapter one, the resurrected Jesus appeared to His followers for forty days, until He was taken up into heaven. They had seen Jesus alive from the dead less than two weeks earlier!

Peter now forcefully draws his sermon to a close:

33 So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend into heaven, but he himself says,

‘The Lord said to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
35 until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’
36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:33-36).

Peter has brought us full circle, and we are once again at the events surrounding the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus had instructed His apostles to remain in Jerusalem until they received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father:

4 While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. 5 For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:4-8).

Pentecost did come, as described in Acts 2:1-11, and the devout Jews who witnessed these events asked what they meant. Peter now tells them that these events signaled the coming of the Holy Spirit, as the Father promised, and as Jesus told His apostles. The sending of the Spirit could only come after, and as a result of, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. This is clearly the teaching of our Lord and the apostles:

37 On the last day of the feast, the greatest day, Jesus stood up and shouted out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and 38 let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.) (John 7:37-39)

It is also the teaching of the Apostle Paul:

7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he captured captives; he gave gifts to men.” 9 Now what is the meaning of “he ascended,” except that he also descended to the lower regions, namely, the earth? 10 He, the very one who descended, is also the one who ascended above all the heavens, in order to fill all things (Ephesians 4:7-10).

Peter is very clear in what he is saying here in verses 33-36, and the implications are staggering. He claims that the spectacular arrival of the Spirit is the doing of our Lord Jesus:

“So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear” (Acts 2:33, emphasis mine).

We must recognize that “he” in verse 33 refers to our Lord Jesus. In verses 34-35, Peter will insist that it was not David who ascended into heaven, but Jesus. And in verse 33, Peter is emphatic that the One who has poured out the Spirit is Jesus. The promise of the Father was received by Jesus, and then poured out by Him. Now I believe that the Scriptures are clear on this fact. The Father is surely involved in this but Jesus is the One who, having been glorified and exalted at the Father’s right hand, bestows the Spirit on the church:

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

“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7; emphasis mine).10

Peter makes certain that his audience understands that here, as before (in verses 25-31), David was not speaking of himself, but rather of the Christ. David did not ascend into heaven, and the One of whom he was speaking was his “lord” (“my lord,” verse 34). God the Father said to Him, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (Acts 2:34b-35).

Not only did God raise Jesus from the dead, He seated Him at His right hand to wait until He made Messiah’s enemies a “footstool for His feet.” It doesn’t take a great deal of thought to figure out who would be included among those enemies who were destined to become footstools. Surely Christ’s enemies would include those who had heard Him, had observed His miracles, had rejected Him, and had taken part in His execution.

All Israel needed to know that God had made Jesus the Nazarene both Lord and Christ. But what is the meaning of this? What is the difference between being “Lord” and being the “Christ”? To be “the Christ” was to be the Messiah, the anointed One who would suffer and die for the sins of men. This was the substance of Peter’s great confession:

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16).

What, then, did it mean for Jesus to be Lord? The word used here for “Lord” was the Greek word often employed in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word for Yahweh. To be “Lord,” then, was to be God. Jesus was the Christ, but He was also God. This term also conveys the idea of control and authority. When the Father puts all of the enemies of Christ under His feet, He will be honored as the One with all authority and power.

I believe that we see both aspects of our Lord’s identity as Lord and as the Christ (in the opposite order) in Philippians 2:

5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross! 9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow —in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).11

Now consider how all this explains Pentecost. Jesus of Nazareth had an earthly ministry that was authenticated by God the Father, by means of His miraculous deeds. The Jews in Jerusalem rejected Him as their Messiah and took part in the conspiracy which resulted in His death. (Granted, they did this with the help of Gentiles; see Acts 2:23.) They rejected Jesus as a fraud, and as one guilty of blasphemy, because He made Himself equal with God (John 5:18; 19:7). God raised Him from the dead because corruption could not overtake the Son of God, and because Old Testament prophecies promised that He would rise from the dead. Jesus was the first-born from the dead, the first fruits, if you would, of the resurrection. Fifty days after the presentation of the first fruits the feast of Pentecost is celebrated, a feast that celebrates the completion of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, He pours the Spirit out on the believers and a harvest of souls will be won, the beginning of a new harvest which will include Gentiles. The outpouring of the Spirit on the few followers of Jesus shows that He has identified with them and with their message.

According to the prophet Joel, the outpouring of the Spirit signaled the nearness of the “day of the Lord.” This was not only a day of restoration for Israel, it was a day of judgment on all those who had mistreated His people. If God would deal severely with Gentile pagans for their mistreatment of His people (as indicated in Joel 3), how much more severely would He deal with those Jews who had personally observed the life and ministry of Jesus, and then took part in His crucifixion? The “day of the Lord” was near, and they were the ones who most deserved the judgment it would bring!12

What did “these things” (pertaining to Pentecost) mean? They meant that both judgment and blessing were near. And the key to both was Him whom God had declared both Lord and Christ. The key to judgment or blessing was Jesus, the Nazarene, whom they had rejected and crucified. No wonder those in the audience would ask, “What should we do, brothers?” (Acts 2:37b)

Conclusion

Gratefully, there is hope for Peter’s audience, and that hope is the message of the gospel, the good news. Peter will explain this hope in the next few verses, which we shall take up in our next lesson. For now let us consider some of the lessons for us from this sermon.

First, let us take note of the serious consequences of rejecting Jesus as Lord and Christ. Those whom Peter addressed were Jews,13 many of whom were devout Jews,14 but they had also joined with those who called for the crucifixion of Jesus.15 Peter warned these Jews that the day of God’s wrath was near and that they would be the objects of that wrath. Just as Joel spoke of Gentiles enduring the wrath of God (chapter 3), so Peter warned his Jewish audience about this same wrath. God does not show partiality. Those who reject Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Christ will suffer divine wrath, a wrath that is drawing near.

Some today seem to think that one’s decision about who Jesus is and what He has done is a rather academic matter, with few implications. Not so! The day of the Lord is a day of restoration for Israel, and of blessing for those who have trusted in Jesus as Messiah. But the “day of the Lord” is a day of wrath for all who have rejected Him as Messiah. Determining who Jesus is and whether you will submit to Him, and receive His salvation, is the most important decision you will ever make. Do not take this matter lightly. And since the “day of the Lord” is near, don’t delay. Trust in Jesus as the One who died in your place, bearing the penalty for your sins, and you will experience the forgiveness of your sins and the blessed hope of eternity in His presence.

Second, for those who want only a serendipity gospel of happy thoughts and of a God who is too kind to condemn any, take a good look at our text again. The God who offers men forgiveness for their sins and an eternity of bliss in His presence is also the God who takes the rejection of His blessed Son seriously. The gospel is indeed good news to those who accept it, but it is bad news to those who reject it. Like it or not, divine judgment is a prominent theme in the Bible, and one we dare not ignore.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:7-10).

When Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32, he includes both the good news and the bad news. Let us not miss the point at which Peter ends his citation from Joel:

“‘And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Acts 2:21).

All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. This is the good news. So what hinders you from doing so? Call upon Him who is both Lord and Christ; call upon Him who died in your place and who was raised from the dead for salvation. If you do, you will be saved.

Third, I have to smile as I read Acts 2 and Peter’s sermon because I don’t believe that Peter saw the full implications of this text in Joel. Joel was a Jewish book, written to Jews, and particularly to Jews living in or near Jerusalem. Thus it was most appropriate for those gathered at Pentecost, to whom Peter preached. But Peter had not yet been enlightened concerning the extent to which God would save Gentiles, or on what basis. That will come in Acts chapters 10 and 11. It would be further clarified in Acts 15. Peter preached a text from a Jewish book (Joel) to a Jewish audience, warning them of impending judgment and offering them salvation in the name of Jesus. Little did he know or see that this same text from Joel 2 would later be cited by Paul:

11 For the scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:11-13, emphasis mine).

How often our knowledge of God’s Word is only partial. How often God’s plans and purposes exceed our own thoughts.

8 “Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds, 9 for just as the sky is higher than the earth, so my deeds are superior to your deeds and my plans superior to your plans” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

9 But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

When Joel promised that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on “all people” (Acts 2:17; citing Joel 2:28), he meant “all people,” and not just Jewish people. When he wrote that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved,” he meant everyone, and not just Jews. The warning of judgment and the promise of salvation that Peter proclaimed to the Jews we now have proclaimed to us (Gentiles), because of the rejection of the Jews (Romans 11:11-12, 30-32). We must respond to such salvation as Paul did in Romans 11:

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? 35 Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him? 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36).


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 4 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 23, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 It is not exactly clear whether this refers only to the twelve, or to the larger group of 120. We are certain that it did at least include the twelve.

4 See, for example, Joel 2:1, 15, 23, 32. It should be noted that scholars differ greatly about when this book was written. It does not really seem to matter a great deal as the date of the locust plague is not indicated, nor does it have a great bearing on the interpretation and application of the message of Joel. (My inclination, however, is that the book was written early, rather than late.)

5 In other words, Joel 3:1 in the Septuagint is actually Joel 2:28 in our English Bibles.

6 I would understand this to mean that Egypt never saw the likes of such devastation again. Israel’s devastation as described in Joel 1 would seem to surpass the desctruction Egypt suffered. Thus the New Living Translation renders Exodus 10:14: “And the locusts swarmed over the whole land of Egypt, settling in dense swarms from one end of the country to the other. It was the worst locust plague in Egyptian history, and there has never been another one like it.”

7 For the “day of the Lord,” in Joel see 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14. Elsewhere see Isaiah 13:6, 9; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Malachi 4:5; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:2; 2 Peter 3:10.

8 In Joel, as elsewhere in Scripture, the “day of the Lord” is always represented as “near.” If one were to gauge the nearness of God’s coming wrath in terms of the magnitude of our sin (rather than in terms of time), I suspect that we could always say that the day of His wrath is near. John the Baptist saw the coming wrath of God as near (see Matthew 3:10-12). Indeed, Romans 1:18-32 (note the present tense in verse 18) would seem to say that God’s wrath is presently being revealed as He gives men over to a depraved mind and to a depraved lifestyle.

9 See also Psalm 23:6.

10 To be fair, I must also point out that John 14:26 says that the Father will send the Spirit. Why would we be surprised to hear that the work of the Son is also the work of the Father, when Jesus made such a point of emphasizing that He did what the Father did, and what the Father gave Him to do? Just as the Father and the Son were involved in creation (Genesis 1:1ff.; John 1:1-3), so the Father and the Son were both involved in the sending of the Spirit. It is Peter’s aim in our text to emphasize the work of the Son in sending the Spirit, for it is He whom they have rejected and crucified.

11 See also 1 Corinthians 15:22-27.

12 Peter’s argument here is similar to the way Paul argued in Romans 1-3. Paul began by showing that the heathen were worthy of God’s wrath because they rejected what they knew about God from creation and chose to worship the creation rather than the Creator. Then, in Romans 2 Paul addressed the Jews. They had far more revelation about God. They had the Word of God. But did they obey it? No, they did not. Thus, their guilt was greater than the guilt of the heathen. More knowledge brings more responsibility.

13 Granted, a few were proselytes, Gentiles who had converted to Judaism (see Acts 2:11-12).

14 Acts 2:5.

15 Acts 2:23.

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5. What Must One Do To Be Saved? (Acts 2:37-41)

37 Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” 40 With many other words he testified and exhorted them saying, “Save yourselves from this perverse generation!” 41 So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added.1

Introduction2

For forty days after His resurrection Jesus continued to appear to His disciples and others, giving convincing proof that He had risen from the dead. During this time Jesus and His disciples talked about the kingdom of God. The disciples pressed Jesus to tell them the precise time of His return, but He refused. This was the Father’s business, and the disciples didn’t really need to know this information. Jesus had not appointed them to conduct prophecy conferences, speaking of events that would take place in the distant future, after their death; He appointed them to bear testimony to what they had personally experienced with Jesus. That’s what a witness is supposed to do.

To facilitate their witness the Lord Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit. Thus, the apostles were instructed not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait until after the promised Holy Spirit had been given. The apostles and a number of other believers (totaling 120; see 1:15) waited for those remaining ten days3 until the Spirit was given at Pentecost. During these days they spent time at the temple (Luke 24:52-53) and in the upper room (Acts 1:13). Luke informs us that it was during this time that a 12th apostle – a replacement for Judas – was designated.

The first verses of Acts chapter two describe the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (2:1-13). Many devout Jews, originally from distant places,4 had been living in Jerusalem and were drawn by the loud noise that accompanied the appearance of the Holy Spirit. The Hellenistic Jews heard the apostles declaring the praises of God in their native tongue and wanted to know what this meant. Others (who seem to be native Hebrews) thought that this was merely the ravings of men who had drunk too much new wine (see 2:12-13). In verses 14-36 Peter explained the meaning of what had just happened, concluding with these words:

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

Our text takes up at this point, beginning with this question from the crowd:

“What should we do, brothers?”

It is a question that sounds a great deal like that of the Philippian jailor, later in the Book of Acts:

Then he [the Philippian jailor] brought them outside and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30)

Our text, then, along with the previous verses in Acts 2:14-36, are the first example of the apostolic preaching of the gospel. We should be reminded of these words, spoken by our Lord to His apostles:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).

“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).

Among other things, I believe Jesus is telling His apostles that they are the ones who are given the task of defining the gospel. This is consistent with what we read in Hebrews chapter two:

1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4, emphasis mine).

This is the gospel by which we must be saved (Romans 1:16). It is the gospel that we dare not change or set aside (Galatians 1:8-9). It is the gospel that we must proclaim to the lost, so that they may be saved (Romans 10:14-17). Let us listen well, then, to the gospel as Peter first proclaimed it at Pentecost. Let those rejoice who have received it, and let those who have not take heed to its warnings.

In this lesson I will seek to accomplish several things. First, I want to draw attention to the radical changes that we see demonstrated in the second chapter of Acts. Second, I will seek to identify those elements of our account which are unique to that period of time. Third, I will focus on what one must do (and what one must not do) in order to be saved.

Radical Changes

When compared to the gospel accounts of events that had occurred in the recent past, the events of Acts chapter two reveal that a radical change has occurred. There is a dramatic change in Peter, as with all of the apostles. And, there is a radical change in the response of several thousand of the crowd who have gathered to hear Peter’s sermon. We have become so familiar with the events described in this great chapter of Acts that we have become accustomed to what we read. But when we take the trouble to place these events – in some cases just months apart in time – we see how great the change has been.

The Change in Peter

Two months earlier Peter was asked if he was a follower of Jesus:

69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A slave girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it in front of them all: “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” 71 When he went out to the gateway, another slave girl saw him and said to the people there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.” 72 He denied it again with an oath, “I do not know the man!” 73 After a little while, those standing there came up to Peter and said, “You really are one of them too—even your accent gives you away!” 74 At that he began to curse, and he swore with an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment a rooster crowed (Matthew 26:69-74).

Compare this with Peter’s words in Acts 2:14-36, not to one powerless slave girl, but to the very mob that cried out for the death of Jesus. Now, Peter boldly looks this crowd in the eye and informs them: “You have murdered the Messiah. You called for His death; God raised Him from the dead. You would not submit to His leadership; God has made Him Lord. He is the only means by which your sins may be forgiven, and you sinned by rejecting Him as the Savior. Worse yet, the events of Pentecost which you have witnessed were meant to inform you that the Day of the Lord is drawing near. It is a day of blessing for God’s people (those who have repented), but it is a day of judgment for the enemies of God who have mistreated the Jews. What do you think your fate will be when He comes to place His foot on the neck of His enemies?

The dramatic change in Peter is not simply in the boldness with which he speaks (though it is certainly that); it is also evident in his understanding of what Jesus’ life and ministry was all about, and in his grasp and use of the Old Testament Scriptures.

In Matthew chapter 16 we find Peter rebuking Jesus for merely speaking of His sacrificial death for sinners:

21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!” (Matthew 16:21-22)

Now, in Acts, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the central theme of Peter’s preaching, the very heart of the gospel.

The Change in the Crowd

From what Luke tells us,5 we must conclude that the crowd that now stands before Peter at Pentecost is composed of those who were a part of the crowd that called for the blood of Jesus:

19 As he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent a message to him: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man; I have suffered greatly as a result of a dream about him today.” 20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor asked them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas!” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?” They all said, “Crucify him!” 23 He asked, “Why? What wrong has he done?” But they shouted more insistently, “Crucify him!” 24 When Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but that instead a riot was starting, he took some water, washed his hands before the crowd and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. You take care of it yourselves!” 25 In reply all the people said, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:19-25, emphasis mine)

The response of many in this crowd to Peter’s preaching should be considered in the light of other instances in Acts where the gospel is powerfully preached to an unbelieving crowd that needs to repent concerning their response to Jesus. Not all preaching – even Spirit-filled preaching – was received with repentant hearts. For example, consider the response of the Sanhedrin to the apostolic preaching of the cross:

31 “God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” 33 Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them (Acts 5:31-33).

54 When they heard these things, they became furious [literally cut in their hearts] and ground their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked intently toward heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look!” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, shouting out with a loud voice, and rushed at him with one intent. 58 When they had driven him out of the city, they began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They continued to stone Stephen while he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7:54-59, emphasis mine)

So, too, we see the reaction of the mob that believed the false accusation that Paul had defiled the temple precincts by bringing Gentiles into forbidden places.

22 The crowd was listening to him until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Away with this man from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live!” 23 While they were screaming and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust in the air (Acts 22:22-23; see also 21:31).

The response of the crowd in Acts chapter two is unique, or at least rare, even in the Book of Acts, which leads us to ask, “What did Luke intend to convey to his readers when he wrote Acts chapter two? I believe that we are expected to grasp the fact that the only explanation for what we read is the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit, who has just been sent to indwell and empower the church. The spectacular display of God’s power (including the resurrection of Jesus and now Pentecost), clearly predicted by Old Testament prophecy, now forcefully proclaimed by the apostles is powerfully driven home by the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had promised:

8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned (John 16:8-11).

We are meant to see why Jesus told His apostles (disciples) to wait for the promise of the Father. The Great Commission can never be fulfilled in the power of the flesh. It is the coming of the Spirit that precedes the miraculous growth of the gospel in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and among the Gentiles.

We should also note that conversion is not the only result of Spirit-empowered preaching. Sometimes the gospel does not result in revival, but in revolt and rebellion. Such was the case in Acts 5:33, in Acts chapter 7, and Acts chapter 22. Conviction of sin, it would seem, does not always result in conversion. That is because men love darkness, rather than light:

9 The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was created by him, but the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children 13 —children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God (John 1:9-13).

The Unique Elements in our Text

I remember hearing the story of a man who was seeking guidance from God by means of his Bible. He decided to close his eyes, open his Bible, and put his finger at a certain place. He would then read the words under his finger and take that to be God’s will for him. The first text he pointed to read like this,

Then he went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5).

The fellow was sure this wasn’t the right guidance, so he tried again. This time he read,

"Go and do the same" (Luke 10:37).

In desperation he made one last try, to find these words,

“What you are about to do, do quickly" (John 13:27).

We should all recognize that we cannot always make a direct application of what we read to our own actions. The Scriptures were written to particular people and a certain point in time. Any accurate interpretation and application of God’s Word must take the original setting and readers into consideration. When we come to the Book of Acts we must be careful not to take everything we read as a pattern for us to follow mechanically. I would like to point out some unique elements in our text in Acts chapter 2.

We should recognize that our text focuses on the apostles, their preaching, and the signs and wonders which they perform in the power of the Spirit.

Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” (Acts 2:37, emphasis mine)

42 They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles (Acts 2:42-43, emphasis mine).

The apostles are singled out by Luke, our author, as having extraordinary power and authority from the Holy Spirit. This is consistent with what we read in the New Testament epistles:

1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).

11 I have become a fool. You yourselves forced me to do it, for I should have been commended by you. For I lack nothing in comparison to those “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 12 Indeed, the signs of an apostle were performed among you with great perseverance by signs and wonders and powerful deeds (2 Corinthians 12:11-12).

The Holy Spirit designated the apostles as those who acted and spoke with the authority of Jesus, as those who proclaimed the gospel whereby men must be saved. It was not every believer who was performing mighty acts of healing, or impressive signs and wonders. This is what set the apostles apart.6

13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. 14 And because they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say against this (Acts 4:13-14).

We should also recognize that there was something unique about that generation that sets them apart from others. This was the generation who heard the preaching of John the Baptist, as well as the preaching of Jesus. They had witnessed some of the miracles He had performed, by which God accredited Jesus as the promised Messiah:

“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22).

In spite of these powerful proofs this generation rejected Jesus as Messiah and demanded that He be crucified:

This man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles (Acts 2:23).

Consequently, this generation has a unique and greater degree of guilt, for they saw and heard Jesus. They were, so to speak, without excuse.7

16 “To what should I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to one another, 17 ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance; we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matthew 11:16-19, emphasis mine).

41 The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them—and now, something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon—and now, something greater than Solomon is here! 43 “When an unclean spirit goes out of a person, it passes through waterless places looking for rest but does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the home I left.’ When it returns, it finds the house empty, swept clean, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there, so the last state of that person is worse than the first. It will be that way for this evil generation as well!” (Matthew 12:41-45, emphasis mine)

34 “For this reason I am sending you prophets and wise men and experts in the law, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35 so that on you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, this generation will be held responsible for all these things! 37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it! 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate! 39 For I tell you, you will not see me from now until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23:34-39, emphasis mine)

There was a special judgment awaiting that generation that rejected Jesus. This judgment was soon to come in the form of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Thus, Peter’s sermon not only calls upon these Jews to confess their sins and be saved from eternal torment in hell; it calls upon them to repent and be saved from the judgment that will soon fall on that generation:

40 With many other words he testified and exhorted them saying, “Save yourselves from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:40, emphasis mine)

Having emphasized the uniqueness of Peter’s warnings and exhortations to that generation, let us also note the application of Peter’s words to us (even if less direct). When Peter calls upon his audience to “save themselves from this perverse generation” there is still an application to other, later, generations. Is it not true that every sinner needs to repent and be saved from the evil generation in which he lives?

1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he captured captives; he gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 2:1-8, emphasis mine).

17 So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. 19 Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn about Christ like this, 21 if indeed you heard about him and were taught in him, just as the truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth (Ephesians 4:17-24).

3 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory forever and ever! Amen (Galatians 1:3-5; see also 1 Peter 4:1-6).

No matter when men have lived, the gospel has called upon them to identify with Christ, rather than with the evil age in which they live.

We should also note that signs and wonders do not, in and of themselves, convince or convert lost sinners. Peter has clearly stated that his audience had witnessed some of the miracles Jesus performed, but they were neither convinced nor converted by them.8 The same could be said of the miracles performed by the apostles through the power of the Holy Spirit. The reason why lost sinners came to faith in Jesus was because the Holy Spirit convinced, convicted, and converted them:

8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned (John 16:8-11).

5 In that our gospel did not come to you merely in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (surely you recall the character we displayed when we came among you to help you). 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, when you received the message with joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, despite great affliction (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6).

He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).

4 My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Corinthians 2:4).

While we most likely will not perform breath-taking works like the apostles did, we have been promised that the Spirit of God will empower our words, enlightening darkened minds, convicting and convincing men regarding the gospel, and giving life to those who are dead. It is clear in Acts that those who are saved come to faith because God has drawn them:

“For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself” (Acts 2:39).

When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).

A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman, listened to us. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying (Acts 16:14).

The Gospel According to Peter

Finally, I want to focus on the gospel that Peter preached at Pentecost: What must men do to be saved? This is the most important matter of all. What is the gospel? What must we do in order to be saved? Some have said that one must be baptized in order to be saved, and they would point to our text to prove it. Is baptism necessary in order for one to be saved?

Dr. A. T. Robertson, now deceased, was probably the greatest Greek scholar of his day. He authored a large Greek Grammar, as well as a six volume series entitled, Word Pictures in the New Testament. In his comments on Acts 2:38 he shows how the grammar of this verse can be used to support more than one interpretation of this text. He then reaches this conclusion:

“One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not. My view is decidedly against the idea that Peter, Paul, or any one in the New Testament taught baptism as essential to the remission of sins or the means of securing such remission. So I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received.”9

Since the grammar of the Greek text is not definitive or conclusive, one’s interpretation of Acts 2:38 will ultimately be dictated by his theology. I would suggest that the overwhelming evidence of the New Testament rules against baptismal regeneration, the doctrine that teaches that baptism is the means by which one is saved. Or, to say it another way, baptismal regeneration teaches that one cannot be saved unless they are baptized.

Consider the evidence of these New Testament texts:

So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added (Acts 2:41, emphasis mine).

Here, baptism occurs after acceptance of the gospel. We might say that here baptism is the effect of belief and salvation, not the cause.

19 “Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you—that is, Jesus” (Acts 3:19-20, emphasis mine).

Baptism is not mentioned here as a condition for salvation.

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “No one can withhold the water for these people to be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 So he gave orders to have them baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for several days (Acts 10:44-48, emphasis mine).

With much prompting and preparation by God, Peter went to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, and there he preached the gospel. These people were ready to believe, and so they quickly embraced the gospel as Peter presented it. The Spirit came upon them, baptizing them just as He did the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4; 10:47). Since water baptism is a symbol or a picture of what has taken place in Spirit baptism, there was no way that Peter could refuse water baptism to those whom God had saved. The important thing to see here is that the reality (Spirit baptism) precedes water baptism (the symbol). If salvation precedes water baptism then it (baptism) must be the result of salvation, and not the cause of salvation.

Acts 16:30-34

30 Then he brought them outside and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him, along with all those who were in his house. 33 At that hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized right away. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set food before them, and he rejoiced greatly that he had come to believe in God, together with his entire household.

The Philippian jailor is “shaken” by the earthquake that has opened all the cells, yet without to loss of one prisoner. He asks Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved. The question is clear and direct, “What must I do to be saved.” If there was ever a time to include baptism as a requirement for salvation, this would be it. But Paul requires faith (belief) alone. The man and his family were baptized but it seems clear that this is as a result of his salvation.

Circumcision and Baptism

There are certain parallels between circumcision and baptism.10 Just as some insist that one must be baptized in order to be saved, so some Judaisers insisted that Gentile converts must be circumcised to be saved:

1 Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement (Acts 15:1-2).

This precipitated what has become known as the Jerusalem Council, which is described in Acts 15. The question about circumcision was not a minor matter, because those who insisted that the Gentile converts be baptized were really adding works to faith as the basis for salvation. The apostles were clear in their rejection of such teaching, as we can see from Peter’s words in Acts 15:10-11:

10 “So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.”

Works was the yoke which no one could bear (Romans 3:1-20), for only faith in Jesus could save, faith alone (Romans 3:21-26). Circumcision was only a symbol, and unless the reality were there, it would not save (see Romans 2:25-29).

In Romans chapter 4 Paul demonstrates that salvation by faith in Christ Jesus alone, apart from works, is what saves men. He goes all the way back to Abraham to show that this was true in the Old Testament, just as it is in the New:

9 Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision? For we say, “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not? No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised! 11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised (Romans 4:9-12, emphasis mine).

God pronounced Abraham righteous when he believed in God (Genesis 15:6). This was two chapters11 and several years before Abraham was circumcised. Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. His circumcision was a symbol of what had already happened at his salvation.

No wonder Paul reacts so strongly to those who would impose circumcision on the Gentiles:

2 Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! 3 And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight—the only thing that matters is faith working through love (Galatians 5:2-6).

The only “washing” that saves us is the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit:

4 But “when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, 5 he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

Baptism is necessary because we have been saved; baptism is not necessary in order to be saved. Some have overreacted to baptismal regeneration by minimizing its importance, and even its necessity. If the Great Commission included the command to baptize, then it should not surprise us that the apostles commanded men and women to believe and to be baptized. The line between baptism as an act of obedience on the part of a believer and between baptism as one’s attempt to add works to faith alone is sometimes blurred by those who distort the truth one way or the another. We must strive to keep the line clear, especially for those to whom we preach the gospel.

But what if some of the early church fathers and even some of the Reformers held that baptism is necessary for salvation? A little research will show that baptismal regeneration was held by some folks who are otherwise highly regarded. I would remind you that in the case of the Reformers they were coming out of a period of doctrinal darkness. The truth had been greatly distorted. The Reformers were moving toward the truth. They had a great start in their foundational creed: the Scriptures alone; Christ alone; by grace alone; through faith alone; to the glory of God alone. But they brought with them some of the baggage (errors) of the past, including baptismal regeneration.

I do not wish to throw stones at such great men, men who risked (and sometimes sacrificed) their lives for the gospel. But they were mere mortals, and thus they were subject to error, just as we are. Their writings are not on the level of Scripture; they are not inerrant and infallible. To their credit, these men were moving from error toward the truth. Some have not been as noble, moving from truth to error. In the final analysis, we must always ask, “What saith the Scriptures?”, not “What saith man?”

Some folks today may lean too heavily on the ancients (church fathers) and Reformers, based upon a faulty (in my opinion) premise. The premise could be stated something like this:

Older is better.

Or perhaps,

The closer we get to New Testament times the closer we get to the truth.

Some tend to view the primitive church in early Acts as they would Adam and Even in the garden of Eden, before the fall. In other words, they would look upon the primitive church as perfect, only to be progressively flawed or corrupted over time. The problem is that the church came after the fall, and thus it is not flawlessly perfect. In the next lesson I intend to show that the church at the end of Acts chapter two was not the perfect pattern for all that the church is to be or to do today. More on this later.

I would suggest that error quickly cropped up in the churches of the New Testament, as the book of 1 Corinthians clearly demonstrates. Error quickly appeared in the post-apostolic church as well. The church fathers have something to contribute to us, but they were not infallible. In fact, it took time for doctrinal questions to arise, and for important doctrines to be clarified and articulated.12

I believe that Paul’s words in Ephesians chapter four may challenge the “older is better” point of view (unless by “older” we are referring to Scripture):

11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature.

As I read Paul’s words here, the church is corporately growing up. Spiritual gifts have been given to the church to facilitate that growth. The impression left is that the church is maturing. This would challenge the view that the purest and most complete insight into the doctrines of the faith all came to us very early.

Other Variations of the Same Error

How often we throw error out the front door, and welcome it at the back. Jay Adams has written an excellent booklet entitled, “Decisional Regeneration.”13 Adams points out that while we renounce the teaching that one must submit to baptism in order to be saved, we often replace baptism with some other work. For example, a well-meaning evangelist may insist that you “come to Christ” by walking the aisle, signing a card, repeating a certain prayer, or by raising your hand. Too much emphasis is placed on a specific response on the part of one seeking salvation. I have heard a well-known teacher say something like this: “If you have any doubts about your salvation, I want you to drive a stake tonight. Then, if you ever have another doubt, just look back to this night, look back to this stake, and know that you are saved.” The problem is that we would be looking at the wrong “stake.” It is the work of Christ on the cross of Calvary that saves us, not our works. In order to be saved we simply need to trust in what Christ has already done at Calvary. And if we ever have a doubt, we go back to His stake, the cross. We should not find assurance in what we have done, but rather in what He has done.

We need to be careful that we don’t set aside baptism as an illicit “work,” only to replace it with “repentance” as a work. After preaching this message a friend reminded me of the danger of a distorted view of repentance. Repentance may thus become the “work” that one does in order to be saved. Repentance may be defined as “giving up smoking,” or going to church, or some other work on our part. Repentance here in our text is a change, a change of mind. Those who rejected Jesus as the Messiah must change their mind about Jesus and embrace Him as Messiah. Repentance is therefore a synonym for “belief” or for “faith.” That is why Peter can tell his audience to believe in Jesus in Acts chapter 10, instead of calling them to “repent” as he did in Acts chapter 2:

“About him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43, emphasis mine).

To repent is to acknowledge our previous rejection of Jesus as sin, and to trust in His saving work on the cross as the only means by which we can be saved. And just to make this matter clear, let us not forget that belief is not something we produce; it is something God produces in us:

8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this [faith] is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

The Lord’s Table, An Example of Salvation By Faith Alone

The Bible has a lot to say about the dinner table. For example, we read this in Psalm 23:

You prepare a feast [literally, a table] before me in plain sight of my enemies.

You refresh my head with oil; my cup is full of wine (Psalm 23:5).

Heaven is symbolized by a feast. God sets the table filled with of all kinds of delicious food. In the Gospel of Luke we even find our Lord serving those who sit at His table.

“Blessed are those slaves whom their master finds alert when he returns! I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, have them take their place at the table, and will come and wait on them!” (Luke 12:37)

When you are invited to the home of a wealthy and gracious hostess, it is clearly understood that she is providing the entire meal. You don’t bring a bowl of salad, or a dessert. In this setting, it would be an insult to do so. This morning, as every Sunday morning, we have come to observe the Lord’s Table. I want you to notice that this meal (the bread and the wine) is not a potluck. We do not bring anything to the table, because God in His grace has provided it all. There is nothing we could bring, for God has provided the sinless body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. God provided this meal because we had nothing to offer Him.

When we observe communion there is an offering plate on the communion table. Let it be clearly understood that this is not a “contribution” on our part toward the salvation which our Lord alone has provided. The offering is to be the grateful and joyful response of one who has found salvation, full and free, in Jesus. It does not contribute toward our salvation in any way. The Bible instructs us to give, and thus we should give, but only in response to God’s grace. The same is true of baptism. Baptism is commanded (Matthew 28:19), and this command should be obeyed. But it does not contribute to the work of our Lord; it is the response of one who has experienced God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

So What Must We Do to Be Saved?

The key word for Peter’s audience is not baptism, but belief. From the events of this Day of Pentecost they should believe that the Day of the Lord is fast approaching. They should believe that this is a day of salvation for “all who call upon the name of the Lord” (Acts 2:21). They should believe that it is also a day of judgment for those who have rejected God’s salvation. Most importantly, they must change their minds (repent) about Jesus, whom they rejected and called for His crucifixion. They should believe that He is God’s Messiah, God’s only provision for their salvation. They must believe that God raised Him from the dead and that He is coming again to bring blessing to His own and eternal judgment on those who are His enemies. They must cling to Jesus as the One who bore their judgment and who provides them with His righteousness. As a result of believing, and as a declaration of their faith, they should be baptized. In this way they are identifying with Jesus. Likewise, baptism is an indication that they no longer identify with that wicked generation that rejected and crucified Jesus the Messiah. In this way they will not only be saved from divine wrath when He returns, they will also escape the wrath of God on that generation that rejected Christ (the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 A.D.).

Aside from a few distinctives of that generation, the message is the same for men today. We must acknowledge our sin, and the fact that we are guilty of rejecting Jesus, as well as failing to live according to His standard of righteousness. We must believe in Jesus as God’s Messiah, and as God’s only provision for our sins. We must believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that He is coming again to judge His enemies and to bless His saints. We must cling to Him alone, trusting only in what He has done on the cross of Calvary in our place, and not in anything we might add to His work. In response to His salvation, we should identify with Jesus publicly by being baptized.

Conclusion

My friend, there is nothing more important than for you and I to get this right. The gospel is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Have you trusted in Jesus as God’s only means of your salvation? If you have not, do so today. The Day of the Lord is ever more near and time is short.

Someone might possibly say, “I am not worthy of God’s forgiveness.” You’re right! You are not worthy. That is why salvation is by grace, and not by our worth or works. If Peter could promise his audience God’s forgiveness and salvation, then God’s saving work in Jesus can surely save you. Peter’s audience was made up of those who saw Jesus and heard His teaching. They witnessed the miracles He performed in the power of the Spirit. By these miracles, and surely by the resurrection of Jesus, God accredited Jesus as His Son. Nevertheless, they rejected Him and demanded that He die. It is for such sinners that Jesus came to die, so that they might be saved from the judgment to come. Your sin will not surpass theirs. No one is too sinful to save because nothing is greater than the saving grace of God in Christ Jesus. To focus on your sin is to magnify yourself and to minimize the person and work of God in Jesus.

This gospel is the gospel that we must believe, and it is the gospel that we must proclaim, so that others may believe and be saved.

9 Because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation. 11 For the scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 14 How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:9-14)

May this gospel be upon our lips, to the praise of our glorious God, and to the salvation and blessing of lost men and women.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on November 6, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this edited manuscript for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel. Copyright 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081.

3 Pentecost was fifty days after the first fruits were offered (during the week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, following Passover). Since Jesus appeared to the apostles forty days after His resurrection (1:3), they must have waited ten days until Pentecost.

4 We would call these “Hellenistic Jews,” as opposed to the “native Hebrews” who were born in Israel (see Acts 6:1).

5 See Acts 2:5, 22-23.

6 Someone might point out that in Joel’s prophecy, the Spirit was to be poured out on “all flesh” (see Acts 2:17-18, citing Joel 2:28-29). I would respond that we should expect this in the last days, but (like other elements of this prophecy) we do not see the complete and ultimate fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy here. As I understand it this is the firstfruits of the fulfillment of Joel 2.

7 This expression is found in Romans 1:20, referring to the Gentile heathen who have rejected the revelation of God in nature. In Romans chapter 2 Paul shows the greater guilt of the Jews, who have been given much greater revelation, and yet rejected it.

8 Acts 2:22-23.

9 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931).

10 Indeed, those who practice infant baptism would use circumcision as a basis for their practice.

11 Abraham was circumcised in Genesis 17:9-27.

12 For example, the “Five Points of Calvinism” were a response to five points or objections previously spelled out by Jacob Arminius.

13 http://www.the-highway.com/Decisional_Regeneration.html

http://media.bible.org/mp3/2005-11-06_Deffinbaugh.mp3
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6. Characteristics of a Healthy Church (Acts 2:41-47)

41 So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added. 42 They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and held everything in common, 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need. 46 Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, 47 praising God and having the good will of all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved.1

Introduction2

A number of years ago, my wife Jeannette and I visited Bill and Marilyn McRae at their home in Ontario, Canada. They live on beautiful Loon Call Lake. We were there in the Fall, just in time to enjoy the flaming red beauty of the turning leaves, and it was a most beautiful place. When Bill and Marilyn informed us that they get several feet of snow in the winter, I was almost ready to hear the “Moosadonian Call.”3 I told Bill and Marilyn I would love to spend the winter there. A native Canadian standing nearby took all this in, about spending the winter there, before he gave me a look and said, “You’ve never spent a winter here, have you?” Nope, I hadn’t. He knew that only someone very naïve would ever say anything so foolish (after all, almost everyone leaves when it gets that cold).

Many of us have exhibited this same naïveté regarding the events of Acts 2. We are tempted to think of the first church in Acts 2 in the same way we think of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2. We are tempted to think of the church as perfect, pristine, and untouched by sin and later corruption. The difference between Genesis 2 and Acts 2 is that Genesis 2 comes before the fall of man; Acts 2 comes after the fall. The church in Acts is not perfect; it is simply pursuing the right things.

To use another analogy, Luke’s description of the church in Acts 2 is more like the honeymoon, but sooner or later it must end, and the real world of marriage (with lawns to mow, garbage to put out, clothes to wash, jobs, kids’ dirty diapers) must begin. The honeymoon is a wonderful time, and we should enjoy it while we can, but life does go on from there.

To use one last analogy, two of my married daughters are pregnant. Both have gotten sonograms and have come home with pictures of the child in their womb. The doctor has told both our daughters that their child is perfect. That means that they are in good health, but they are not fully developed. They do not yet have all the necessary hardware to survive. They must continue to develop and to mature.

That is what the church is like in Acts 2:41-47. It is a wonderful church, populated with a very large number of new Christians. Only 120 members of this church of 3,000 have trusted in Jesus for a longer period of time. The church is not perfect, but it does exist, and it is moving in the right direction. Nevertheless, we need to be aware of some ways in which the church has not come to maturity.

What the Church Is Missing in Maturity

While the church here seems to gather daily (Acts 2:46), this practice will not continue indefinitely. How could it? Later on, we see that the church gathered weekly (see Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). This church seems almost totally dependent upon the apostles (Acts 2:37, 42-43; 4:33). Later on, we will see elders and deacons and a diversity of spiritually gifted people functioning as a body. Here we read of the saints selling their possessions and laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles (Acts 2:44-45; 4:33-37). Later on, people will set money aside on the first day of the week, as they are able (1 Corinthians 16:1-4; see 2 Corinthians 8-9).

Evangelism is certainly taking place, but most of this seems to occur through the preaching of the apostles. It seems obvious that there is no formal missions program. The church in Jerusalem will never really be a missionary church, like Antioch will be (Acts 13:1ff.). The church in Jerusalem was a Jewish church. There may have been some proselytes, but can you imagine what would have happened if some Gentile saint showed up to one of their common meals with a bacon and tomato sandwich?

There was no such thing yet as church discipline (it first appears in Acts 5). The saints in Jerusalem did not yet grasp the fact that the church was to be made up of Jewish and Gentile saints who are now one in Christ (Ephesians 2 and 3). Gentiles would be added after the death of Stephen, when the gospel was taken to Samaria (Acts 8). Gentile evangelism would occur in Acts 10 and 11, and especially in chapter 13 and beyond. Right now, the church is not ready to embrace Gentiles. In Acts 15, we will read about the Jerusalem Council and its watershed decision regarding the alleged necessity of circumcision. In Acts 2:47, we are told that the church had the good will of all the people. The church was respected and esteemed. It won’t be long before the church will be persecuted (Acts 7ff.). As said previously, this is not a perfect church, nor is it a fully mature church. Maturity requires time.

The Structure of Our Text

Acts 2:42-47 is the first of several assessments of the state of the church.4 We should first note that our text5 begins and ends with a statement about the unusual growth of the church. Verse 42 lists four of the activities to which the church devoted itself; verses 43-47 serve to further define these four activities. We will therefore consider each of the four activities, along with Luke’s further description in verses 43-47.

The Activities of a Healthy Church

The four activities of the earliest church are introduced to us as priorities of the church. These are the four things to which these saints devoted themselves. These were not options. These were the fruit of a genuine conversion and of life in Christ.

The Apostles’ Teaching

We would suppose that “the apostles’ teaching” was the same subject matter that we find in Peter’s sermons in Acts 2 through 4. In other words, the content of the apostles’ teaching was the gospel. No doubt there would be a good deal of emphasis on the fact that the saving work of Jesus was the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies. Jesus had to be rejected, crucified, buried, and raised from the dead.

We should bear in mind that the apostles still had a great deal to grasp themselves. It is apparent from Acts 10 and 11 that Peter did not understand that God had set aside the old Jewish food laws (as per Mark 7:19). They had not yet grasped that the church would be composed of Jewish and Gentile believers, now “one new man” (Ephesians 2-3). The issue of circumcision and law-keeping for Gentiles was to be tackled in chapter 15 (the Jerusalem Council). Many points of theology were yet to be defined and refined in the centuries to come.

I believe that at this moment Luke wants us to focus on one aspect of the apostles’ teaching: their proclamation of the gospel was recognized as authoritative, due to the authentication of God through miraculous works:

Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles (Acts 2:43).

Just a short while before, Peter had reminded his audience that the teaching of Jesus had been divinely accredited by the Father:

22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know— 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles” (Acts 2:22-23, emphasis mine).

We see evidence of this in the Gospel of Mark:

They were all amazed so that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands the unclean spirits and they obey him” (Mark 1:27).

Jesus did not merely speak as though He had authority; Jesus spoke with authority. His words of teaching were emphatically underscored by the miraculous works God did through Him. The same kinds of miracles were now being accomplished by the apostles (Acts 2:43), as would happen later with Paul:

9 But Saul (also known as Paul), filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him 10 and said, “You who are full of all deceit and all wrongdoing, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness—will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 Now look, the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind, unable to see the sun for a time!” Immediately mistiness and darkness came over him, and he went around seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, because he was greatly astounded at the teaching about the Lord (Acts 13:9-12).

These miracles, performed by the hands of the apostles, served to accredit the apostles as those who spoke for God with full authority:

1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).

The apostles’ teaching has been preserved in the New Testament Scriptures, so that we have their instruction as well as the early church. One can hardly over-emphasize the importance of sound, biblical teaching. The Word of God is the foundation and starting point for every aspect of the Christian life.

Fellowship

The term Luke uses for “fellowship”6 in our text is a much broader term than our English word. Essentially, “fellowship” means “joint participation” or “sharing something in common.” It is thus a kind of partnership. In Philippians 2:1, the term is used of a common sharing in the Holy Spirit. In Philippians 3:10 and 1 Peter 4:13, it is used of sharing in Christ’s sufferings. In Galatians 2:9, it appears to be a sharing together in ministry.

The Christian should not only seek to actively partner with fellow-believers, but he should also guard against partnering with those outside the faith. Thus, the Christian should not be unequally partnered with unbelievers in Christian endeavors (2 Corinthians 6:14). We should not support or welcome those who preach a false gospel (2 John 11). And we should not become partners with the immature and untested individuals who fall because we have prematurely laid hands on them (by appointing them to the office of deacon – 1 Timothy 5:22).

The most common expression of “fellowship” in the New Testament is that of sharing financial resources – giving:

Contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality (Romans 12:13, emphasis mine).

Now the one who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with the one who teaches it (Galatians 6:6, emphasis mine).

And as you Philippians know, at the beginning of my gospel ministry, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in this matter of giving and receiving except you alone (Philippians 4:15, emphasis mine).

One can “fellowship” with fellow believers in a number of ways, including the partaking of meals and engaging in prayer. If Acts 2:44-45 is Luke’s further description of what fellowship looked like in the newly-born church in Jerusalem, then his emphasis would fall on the fellowship of sharing one’s material goods with others.

44 All who believed were together and held everything in common,7 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need (Acts 2:44-45).

While the actual term is not used here, we see a further example of this kind of koinonia (fellowship) in Acts 4:

34 For there was no one needy among them, because those who were owners of land or houses were selling them and bringing the proceeds from the sales 35 and placing them at the apostles’ feet. The proceeds were distributed to each, as anyone had need. 36 So Joseph, a Levite who was a native of Cyprus, called by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and placed it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:34-37).

In previous teaching on this passage (and chapter 4), I tried to show that selling all of one’s possessions was not a command to all saints for all times, even though it was the practice of the early church.8 While this is true, I should also point out that what we read here sounds a lot like our Lord’s teaching on the use of money:

17 He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” he asked. 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 The young man said to him, “I have wholeheartedly obeyed all these laws. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 But when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich (Matthew 19:17-22).

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide yourselves purses that do not wear out—a treasure in heaven that never decreases, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33).

“In the same way therefore not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33).

I am not suggesting that every Christian should follow the example of the early church in Jerusalem. I am suggesting that their actions were not “foolish” as some would suggest, but were the evidence of God’s gracious working in their hearts.9

The Breaking of Bread

I have always assumed that the expression, “the breaking of bread,” used here in Acts 2:42 referred to the observance of the Lord’s Table, or Communion. Now I’m not quite as certain. Often “the breaking of bread” does refer to observing Communion:

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body” (Matthew 26:26; see also Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:23-24).

Breaking bread is not always a reference to the observance of Communion, however. The expression may simply refer to the eating of a meal:

After he said this, Paul took bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all, broke it, and began to eat (Acts 27:35).

One should observe that in this instance Luke is describing what took place when Paul and many others were caught in a devastating storm. “Breaking bread” here refers to all the ship’s passengers eating something before they struck shore. This is certainly not a Communion service!

Sometimes in Luke’s writings it is hard to know whether he is referring to the simple eating of a meal, or to partaking of Communion as a part of the meal:

30 When he had taken his place at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. . . . 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how they recognized him when he broke the bread (Luke 24:30, 35).

7 On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul began to speak to the people, and because he intended to leave the next day, he extended his message until midnight. . . . 11 Then Paul went back upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he talked with them a long time, until dawn. Then he left (Acts 20:7, 11).

Given the fact that this expression can be used with somewhat different meanings, we must ask what sense Luke intends for us to understand it in Acts 2:42. I believe Luke’s further clarification in verse 46 is the key to finding the answer to our question:

Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts (Acts 20:46, emphasis mine).

Luke does not appear to be calling attention to the remembrance of our Lord’s death, as much as to the simple sharing of a meal with fellow believers. Even if Communion was observed, this is not what Luke wanted to emphasize. We should recall that in the New Testament the Lord’s Table was celebrated as part of a meal.

The sharing of a meal was perhaps the most intimate form of fellowship one could have with fellow believers. In the ancient near eastern world, when a guest was invited to a meal with his host, it was incumbent on the host to provide protection for this guest. This partly explains the actions of Lot when the men of Sodom want to do harm to his guests (Genesis 19:1-8). The eating of a meal is also used as a description of our fellowship with God:

9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear like the heaven itself. 11 But he did not lay a hand on the leaders of the Israelites, so they saw God, and they ate and they drank (Exodus 24:9-11).

4 Even when I must walk through a dark ravine,
I fear no danger, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff keep me calm.
5 You prepare a feast before me in plain sight of my enemies.
You refresh my head with oil;
my cup is full of wine.
6 Surely your goodness and faithfulness will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the Lord’s palace for the rest of my life (Psalm 23:4-6).

36 “Be like people waiting for their master to come back from the wedding celebration, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom their master finds alert when he returns! I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, have them take their place at the table, and will come and wait on them! (Luke 12:36-37; see also Revelation 3:20; 19:9)

The Prayers

I’m puzzled why a number of translations have chosen to set aside a literal rendering of verse 42 in chapter 2 in relation to the fourth element of prayer:

They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42, NET Bible).

And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42, NASB).

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42, NIV).

The ESV reflects the Greek text, noting both the definite article (“the”) and the plural form of prayer (“prayers”):

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42, ESV, emphasis mine).

Two clarifications help us identify that to which Luke is referring in Acts 2:42:

. . . praising God and having the good will of all the people. . . (Acts 2:47a).

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time for prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon (Acts 3:1, emphasis mine).

I am therefore inclined to think that Luke is telling us that in its very early days the saints in Jerusalem diligently persisted in the observance of the stipulated times of Jewish prayer at the temple. These were newly-saved Jewish believers who were just beginning to grasp the significance of the things they had done as Old Testament Jews, even though they were unbelievers at the time:

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days— 17 these are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ! (Colossians 2:16-17)

The Attitudes and Relationships of a Healthy Church

As I looked over my sermon on this text from a number of years ago, I felt that something was missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Now that I see it, I can’t understand why it wasn’t more obvious to me earlier. This text has been used by many (including me) to describe the essential functions of a church.10 The danger is that this becomes a “to do” list of activities. If we are doing all these things, then we feel that we are obedient. Worse yet, we may even be proud that we are so biblical.

The test of a “New Testament church” is not just doing the right things; it is more a matter of having the right attitudes – having the right heart – and maintaining right relationships. It wasn’t just what the church in Jerusalem did that Luke is trying to convey here; it was how and why they did these things. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus condemned charity, prayer, and fasting that was done in the wrong spirit, and for the wrong reasons (Matthew 6:1-18). Very impressive works were claimed by people whom our Lord said He never knew:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

These new believers were like newlyweds – they just couldn’t seem to be apart from one another. The activities named (teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers) were all corporate activities, things the church did together. The competitive “me first” attitude of the disciples (Mark 9:34, 46; 10:35-40) is gone; now these believers are generous and are not claiming anything as their own; they are disposing of personal property to meet the needs of others. This is not just “togetherness;” this is unity. This is not just human affection; this is genuine love.

Beyond this, there is a deep sense of awe, inspired to some degree by the evidences of God’s power and presence through the many signs and wonders He was performing through the apostles (Acts 2:43). They knew that their Lord was still with them. They knew that He was powerfully at work among them, and this was particularly evident in the miraculous deeds our Lord accomplished through the apostles.

In recent days, many in our church, along with many others around the world, have been praying for those who are serving God in very dangerous places. We have seen numerous answers to prayer, and we have marveled at how God has protected His servants. I believe there is a genuine sense of awe in our church regarding God’s work in distant places. I hope and pray that we might also have this same awe with regard to God’s working in our church, and in our city. I would greatly desire to see us fervently praying for powerful evidences of God’s presence among us.

A New Testament church is a church in which God is present through His Spirit, and in which He is powerfully at work to glorify Himself by manifestations of His power and grace. A New Testament church is a church where the fruits of the Spirit are as evident as the manifestations of His power. That is the kind of church we desire to be.

The church in Jerusalem was characterized by joyful celebration in all that they did:

46 Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, 47 praising God and having the good will of all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved (Acts 2:46-47).

These new believers were not begrudgingly giving up their possessions nor sharing their meals with others. There was a constant mood of celebration in all that they did. How this spirit of joyful celebration praises and pleases God. This is the spirit we want to see in all of our activities and in all of our gatherings.

Conclusion

From the very beginning, Community Bible Chapel has been known as a church that teaches the Word of God. We never want this to change. A healthy church is one that is founded upon the person and work of Jesus Christ and His infallible Word, the Bible. The first three chapters of the Book of Ephesians deal with essential Bible doctrines. Paul’s appeal to these saints to live godly lives in the last three chapters is rooted in the sound doctrine of chapters 1-3:

1 I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1-3).

Notice that the subject matter of the last half of Ephesians has to do with relationships, primarily relationships in the church. In the first half of chapter four, Paul makes his appeal for unity and growth. Then, in the last half of this fourth chapter, Paul shows how faith in Christ requires a radical change in the way the believer relates to others. Relationships were an important part of Paul’s teaching, and they should be important in our teaching and church life as well.

The church that is described in Acts 2:41-47 is a Jewish church, worshipping as we would expect of a group of new Jewish converts. It is a church of very new believers, who exhibit the vital signs of new life in Christ. This is not a church that has “arrived;” it is a church that has a good start and is moving in the right direction. It is a church that loves God and others. It is a Spirit-filled church that is moving toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission. But it is not a perfect church.

What does this church have to teach us, to teach our church? I have always been troubled by the words of our Lord to the church at Ephesus as recorded in Revelation 2:

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write the following: “This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who has a firm grasp on the seven stars in his right hand—the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 ‘I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false. 3 I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you: You have departed from your first love! 5 Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—that is, if you do not repent. 6 But you do have this going for you: You hate what the Nicolaitans practice—practices I also hate. 7 The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God’” (Revelation 2:1-7, emphasis mine).

What does our Lord mean when He says that the saints at Ephesus have “departed from their first love”? And what are the deeds they did at first?

I believe our text in Acts 2 greatly helps us discern the answer to these questions. To lose one’s first love is to cease to love as you once did, at the beginning. Acts 2:41-47 describes the church’s first love, and thus it describes the deeds that one who has lost his first love must once again do. The early church in Jerusalem may not be the perfect pattern for all that we do as a church today, but it is an excellent example of a church that is marked by love – love for God and love for others. I would pray that our church would not only do the right things, but that it would do them as acts of genuine love, for God and for others. May we be characterized by the devotion, awe, generosity, and joy that we find in the early church, to the glory of God.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 6 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on November 13, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 Another Canadian friend, Paul Furseth, introduced me to this expression. It is the “call” to serve God in a beautiful place where you’ve always wanted to live.

4 Ajith Fernando lists 8 such summaries in Acts: 2:43-47; 4:32-35; 5:12-16; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20. Ajith Fernando, The NIV Application Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), p. 122, fn. 15.

5 I am including verse 41 as a part of our text.

6 The term found in our text is a noun, from the Greek term koinonia. The verb form, koinoneo is also used in the New Testament.

7 The related adjective koinos is used here, and rendered “in common.”

8 /seriespage/putting-pentecost-perspective-part-5-firstfruits-pentecost-acts-241-47

9 We should remember that the actions of these early believers made it much easier for them to flee Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-4; 11:19-21), and thus to avoid the horrors which accompanied Rome’s sacking of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

10 I can now see that some functions are missing (or not clearly identified), such as worship and evangelism.

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7. The Healing of the Lame Man and the Heralding of the Gospel (Acts 3:1-26)

1 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time for prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried up, who was placed at the temple gate called “the Beautiful Gate” every day so he could beg for money from those going into the temple courts. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple courts, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked directly at him (as did John) and said, “Look at us!” 5 So the lame man paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, stand up and walk!” 7 Then Peter took hold of him by the right hand and raised him up, and at once the man’s feet and ankles were made strong. 8 He jumped up, stood and began walking around, and he entered the temple courts with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and they recognized him as the man who used to sit and ask for donations at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, and they were filled with astonishment and amazement at what had happened to him. 11 While the man was hanging on to Peter and John, all the people, completely astounded, ran together to them in the covered walkway called Solomon’s Portico.

12 When Peter saw this, he declared to the people, “Men of Israel, why are you amazed at this? Why do you stare at us as if we had made this man walk by our own power or piety? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our forefathers, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate after he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a man who was a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the Originator of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this fact we are witnesses! 16 And on the basis of faith in Jesus’ name, his very name has made this man—whom you see and know—strong. The faith that is through Jesus has given him this complete health in the presence of you all. 17 And now, brothers, I know you acted in ignorance, as your rulers did too. 18 But the things God foretold long ago through all the prophets—that his Christ would suffer—he has fulfilled in this way. 19 Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you—that is, Jesus. 21 This one heaven must receive until the time all things are restored, which God declared from times long ago through his holy prophets. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must obey him in everything he tells you. 23 Every person who does not obey that prophet will be destroyed and thus removed from the people.’ 24 And all the prophets, from Samuel and those who followed him, have spoken about and announced these days. 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed.’ 26 God raised up his servant and sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each one of you from your iniquities.”1

Introduction2

The story of the healing of the lame man begins in Acts 3 and ends in Acts 4. Chapter 3 begins with the actual healing of the lame man (Acts 3:1-11) and is followed by the sermon Peter preached to the crowd that gathered (Acts 3:12-26). In chapter 4, Luke records the mixed response to the miracle and Peter’s message (Acts 4:1-4), and then moves on to the arrest of Peter and John and Peter’s defense – another proclamation of the gospel (Acts 4:5-12). Luke then records the response of the religious leaders (Acts 4:13-22) and ends with the account with the response of the church to this first wave of persecution (Acts 4:23-31). The final verses of chapter 4 (Acts 4:32-37) serve as the introduction to the first instance of church discipline in the Jerusalem church (Acts 5:1-11). In this message, I will exercise a bit of poetic license in my description of the healing of the lame man, and then we will consider Peter’s message to the crowd who gathered at the temple in response to this wonderful miracle.

The Healing of the Lame Man
Acts 3:1-11

Even in the womb, something had been wrong with “Levi’s”3 legs. They were likely deformed and had no strength. He had never walked a day in his more than 40 years4 of life. Knowing this informs us that “Levi” was a young lad when Jesus was born. Was he there in Jerusalem when the magi arrived, seeking to learn where the “King of the Jews” could be found and worshipped (Matthew 2:1-8)? Was he there when Mary and Joseph brought the Lord Jesus to the temple for dedication (Luke 2:22-38)? Was “Levi” there when Jesus remained at the temple, discussing the Scriptures with the scholars (Luke 2:41-51)? He could have been.

As time passed, “Levi” seems to have been promoted to one of the prime begging spots, right at the entrance to the temple, at a gate known as the “Beautiful Gate.” We know that Jesus came to Jerusalem and visited the temple a number of times during His earthly ministry. If I were “Levi,” I would have made every effort to see Jesus and to ask for healing. Did “Levi” try to do this? Whether he tried or not, he was not successful, for he is still lame when we find him in the third chapter of Acts.

The last time Jesus came to Jerusalem, He made His “triumphal entry” (Luke 19:28-40). “Levi,” our lame man, must have been there, somewhere. He must have heard that Jesus was healing many who suffered as he did:

14 The blind and lame came to him in the temple courts, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the experts in the law saw the wonderful things he did and heard the children crying out in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant (Matthew 21:14-15, emphasis mine).

I cannot help but wonder how “Levi” escaped an encounter with Jesus that would have brought him healing. If “Levi” hoped to be healed by Jesus, the Savior’s death would have been particularly tragic for him. Now, it would seem, all hope of being healed by Jesus was gone – or so it appeared.

Pentecost has come, and Peter has already preached powerfully to a crowd of Jews, nearly 3,000 of whom have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation (Acts 2:41). Among other things, the new believers were persistently devoting themselves to “the prayers” (Acts 2:42), which I understand to refer to the fixed times of praying in the temple. It is approaching three o’clock in the afternoon, and so Peter and John are making their way to the temple to observe this regular time of prayer. They are on their way to the temple, just as “Levi” is on his way to the temple gate,5 in time to encounter many devout Jews. “Levi” has a particular station at “the Beautiful Gate” to which he is brought each day, because it is from this location that he can solicit alms from those who are entering the temple to pray (Acts 3:2). He is hoping that a good number of them will be generous today, if not out of compassion, at least to make a good show for others.6

After many years of practice, “Levi,” like all beggars, had undoubtedly developed a kind of routine. He would be stationed as close to the gate as possible, and every time someone passed nearby, he would call out his petition for mercy. No doubt, as well, “Levi” had perfected his “presentation.” Every beggar must appear to be in dire need. A “plump” beggar must be creative to make it appear that he is in need of food. But those genuinely handicapped, as “Levi” was, need only display their disability. I’ve observed this many times, especially in Asia. He must have left his deformed and powerless legs in plain sight so that all could observe that he was truly disabled.

But on this day, “Levi” had not yet had the opportunity to “set up shop.” He was still being carried to his workplace when he looked over to see two men about to pass through the gate to the temple. Instinctively, he began his routine7 by uttering a plea for money. He surely did not know who these two men were – just two men heading for the temple to pray. My sense is that he hardly looked at them.8 It was Peter who looked intently at him (verse 4). Why are we told this? The same word9 is employed in chapter 14, where Paul will heal a man who was lame from the womb:

8 In Lystra sat a man who could not use his feet, lame from birth, who had never walked. 9 This man was listening to Paul as he was speaking. When Paul stared intently at him and saw he had faith to be healed (Acts 14:8-9, emphasis mine).

It seems clear to me that “Levi” was healed by faith in Jesus:

“And on the basis of faith in Jesus’ name, his very name has made this man—whom you see and know—strong. The faith that is through Jesus has given him this complete health in the presence of you all” (Acts 3:16).

Would it not be reasonable, then, to conclude that Peter looked intently at “Levi” to determine whether he had the faith to be healed (just as Paul does later in Acts 14:9)?

It is apparent that “Levi” does not fully grasp what is about to happen. At best, he is hoping for a generous gift. No one makes eye contact with a beggar who does not intend to give. You look past the beggar, or more likely, you look away from him so as to ignore his pleas for money. He gets the message. When Peter looks intently at “Levi,” he assumes, based upon his experience, that a gift is forthcoming. Still, “Levi” isn’t really engaging with Peter. Perhaps he is looking around for other potential donors. But when Peter rivets his attention on “Levi” and calls him to attention, Peter has some surprising news. First, he does not have any silver or gold to give.10 Now here is a new twist. Those who were about to oppose the apostles (Acts 4:1ff.) could not say this, just as the “hucksters” of today could not say it (if they were honest).

Peter did not agonize about what he did not possess (money) because he knew that he did have something far better – he had the authority of Jesus Christ to perform signs and wonders to promote the gospel to the glory of God. And so Peter proclaims healing in the name of Jesus the Nazarene:

But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, stand up and walk!” (Acts 3:6)

Peter then reached out, seized the man by his right hand, and raised him up. At this moment, the man’s legs were strengthened, so that he leaped to his feet and stood, for the first time in his life.

One might think it would have ended here, that Peter and John would continue into the temple, and “Levi” would joyfully make his way home. But “Levi” was not so easily silenced. His gratitude and joy needed much more expression. He followed Peter and John into the temple courts, “walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8). Now remember, this is a man who has never walked before in his life. The miracle is not only in his strengthened feet and ankles, but in his instant ability to walk and leap. I can almost imagine this fellow doing cartwheels and gymnastics.

Whatever he did, it was dramatic enough to attract the attention of a great many people. These people were able to connect what they saw and heard. They saw this man’s gymnastics, and they heard him praising God. More importantly, they recognized this fellow as the one who had been lame from his mother’s womb, who laid at the temple gate for years begging for money. They could not fail to see that a great miracle had taken place.

Peter’s Preaching
Acts 3:12-26

12 When Peter saw this, he declared to the people, “Men of Israel, why are you amazed at this? Why do you stare at us as if we had made this man walk by our own power or piety? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our forefathers, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate after he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a man who was a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the Originator of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this fact we are witnesses! 16 And on the basis of faith in Jesus’ name, his very name has made this man—whom you see and know—strong. The faith that is through Jesus has given him this complete health in the presence of you all. 17 And now, brothers, I know you acted in ignorance, as your rulers did too. 18 But the things God foretold long ago through all the prophets—that his Christ would suffer—he has fulfilled in this way. 19 Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you—that is, Jesus. 21 This one heaven must receive until the time all things are restored, which God declared from times long ago through his holy prophets. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must obey him in everything he tells you. 23 Every person who does not obey that prophet will be destroyed and thus removed from the people.’ 24 And all the prophets, from Samuel and those who followed him, have spoken about and announced these days. 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed.’ 26 God raised up his servant and sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each one of you from your iniquities.”

I don’t believe that Peter and John sought to attract a crowd. After all, they were intent on getting to the temple for the time of prayer. I doubt that they wanted to be late. But “Levi” would not be silenced, and the crowds came. Peter saw the crowd gathering, but he also sensed the mood of the crowd. These people recognized that a wonderful miracle had happened. They were not hostile toward Peter and John; instead, they gave these men too much credit. They were giving Peter and John the credit for what had just happened, attributing this miracle to the power and piety of the two apostles.

Peter would have none of this. As clearly as it can be stated, Peter declares, “It was not us, but Jesus.” In his sermon in Acts 2, Peter used two of David prophecies to prove that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that he would return to judge His enemies. Here in Acts 3, Peter points to the healing of “Levi” as proof that Jesus was alive and well. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their forefathers, had glorified His Servant Jesus.

There are obvious similarities between Acts 2:22-24 and Acts 3:13-16:

22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know— 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. 24 But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power (Acts 2:22-24).

13 “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our forefathers, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate after he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a man who was a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the Originator of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this fact we are witnesses! 16 And on the basis of faith in Jesus’ name, his very name has made this man—whom you see and know—strong. The faith that is through Jesus has given him this complete health in the presence of you all (Acts 3:13-16).

If I were to summarize the essence of Peter’s words in chapter two, it would be, “Jesus is Lord, the Jesus you rejected and crucified. God raised Him from the dead, and He’s coming back to defeat and destroy His enemies.” In his sermon in Acts 3, Peter expands upon the themes he has introduced in Acts 2.

First, Peter expands on who Jesus is by referring to Him as God’s Servant. Jesus is the “Servant of the Lord” spoken of in the Old Testament. In particular, He is the “Servant” of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Notice that Isaiah begins and ends this text with a reference to God’s Servant:

52:13 “Look, my servant will succeed! He will be elevated, lifted high, and greatly exalted. 14 Just as many were horrified by the sight of you— he was so disfigured he no longer looked like a man; 15 his form was so marred he no longer looked human— so now he will startle many nations. Kings will be shocked by his exaltation, for they will witness something unannounced to them, and they will understand something they had not heard about. 53:1 Who would have believed what we just heard? When was the Lord’s power revealed through him? 2 He sprouted up like a twig before God, like a root out of parched soil; he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him. 3 He was despised and rejected by people, one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness; people hid their faces from him; he was despised, and we considered him insignificant. 4 But he lifted up our illnesses, he carried our pain; even though we thought he was being punished, attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done. 5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed. 6 All of us had wandered off like sheep; each of us had strayed off on his own path, but the Lord caused the sin of all of us to attack him. 7 He was treated harshly and afflicted, but he did not even open his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughtering block, like a sheep silent before her shearers, he did not even open his mouth. 8 He was led away after an unjust trial— but who even cared? Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded. 9 They intended to bury him with criminals, but he ended up in a rich man’s tomb, because he had committed no violent deeds, nor had he spoken deceitfully. 10 Though the Lord desired to crush him and make him ill, once restitution is made, he will see descendants and enjoy long life, and the Lord’s purpose will be accomplished through him. 11 Having suffered, he will reflect on his work, he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. “My servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins. 12 So I will assign him a portion with the multitudes, he will divide the spoils of victory with the powerful, because he willingly submitted to death and was numbered with the rebels, when he lifted up the sin of many and intervened on behalf of the rebels” (Isaiah 52:13—53:12, emphasis mine).

In the same way, Peter begins and ends his sermon with a reference to God’s Servant:

13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our forefathers, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate after he had decided to release him. . . . 26 God raised up his servant and sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each one of you from your iniquities” (Acts 3:13, 26, emphasis mine).

As Peter concluded in his message at Pentecost,

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

Second, the resurrection of Jesus was His glorification by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the patriarchs of the Jews. In Acts 2, Peter employed David’s prophecies to demonstrate that Jesus must be raised from the dead. Now he attributes the resurrection of Jesus to the God of the Jews, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Israel’s God has raised Jesus from the dead and, as a result, has glorified Him. This takes it all the way back to God’s covenant promise with Abraham, a subject to which Peter will return in his conclusion in verses 25 and 26.

Third, it was Jesus who restored this lame man to perfect health. “It wasn’t us, not our piety and not our power, that restored this lame man to health – it was Jesus.” Clearly the inference is that it was the piety and the power of Jesus.

“And on the basis of faith in Jesus’ name, his very name has made this man—whom you see and know—strong. The faith that is through Jesus has given him this complete health in the presence of you all” (Acts 3:16).

Jesus is not only alive and well; He is continuing to do mighty deeds.

Fourth, it was not just Joel and David who foretold these things about Jesus, but it was all the prophets. Notice the emphasis on the prophets in verses 18-26. God foretold the things Jesus would suffer long ago through all the prophets (Acts 3:18). Through the prophet, God foretold the resurrection and ascension of Jesus until all things could be restored (Acts 3:21). Moses spoke of a prophet like himself, and this prophet was Jesus (Acts 3:22-23). All the prophets from Samuel on spoke of these things (Acts 3:24).

Fifth, this Jesus who has been glorified by being raised from the dead is the one you rejected and put to death. In Acts 2, Peter indicted his audience for the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, making it clear that the Gentiles had a hand in this evil:

“This man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles” (Acts 2:23).

In Acts 3, Peter amplifies his indictment by employing a series of contrasts:

You handed Jesus over to death.

Pilate believed he was innocent and wanted to release Him.

You rejected the Holy and Righteous One.

You asked for a murderer to be released.

You killed the Originator of life.

God raised Him from the dead.

Sixth, in spite of the great guilt of his audience, Peter takes a softer tone here than we would expect. While the emphasis of Peter’s message was on repentance to avoid coming judgment, the emphasis of Acts 3 is upon repentance to enjoy future restoration and blessing.

19 “Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you—that is, Jesus” (Acts 3:19-20).

It all begins in verse 17, with words from Peter that seem totally unexpected:

“And now, brothers, I know you acted in ignorance, as your rulers did too” (Acts 3:17).

How can Peter say this? He has powerfully declared the guilt of his Jewish brothers in chapter two. He amplifies this in chapter three. But now he seems to be backing off. In what sense can Peter say that this crowd and their leaders were ignorant?

I believe verse 17 is the beginning of a new paragraph.11 The explanation of Peter’s words in verse 17 should thus be found in verses 18-26. First, let’s begin by identifying those things of which they were not ignorant:

22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know— 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles (Acts 2:22-23, emphasis mine).

They were not ignorant of the signs and wonders performed by God through Jesus. They were surely not ignorant of Jesus’ teaching, or of His claim to be Messiah. With regard to the trial of our Lord (Acts 3:13-15), they knew Pilate believed Jesus to be innocent and wanted to release Him. They also knew that Barabbas was a murderer. Of all these things, they were not ignorant, and they were certainly guilty.

Next, let us be clear that ignorance is not the same as being innocent. Whatever they were ignorant of, they were still guilty of the blood of Jesus, and this by their own words:

In reply, all the people said, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25)

Of what then were these Jews ignorant? I believe they were ignorant of the very same things as the disciples – until the Spirit of God came to make these things clear:

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will cause you to remember everything I said to you” (John 14:26).

12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you” (John 16:12-14).

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Messiah would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:44-49).

To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs. He was seen by them over a forty-day period and spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).

The Jews and their leaders were ignorant of the combined and consistent revelation of the Old Testament regarding the Messiah, His rejection, death, resurrection, and ascension. They, like the disciples of our Lord, could not “put it all together.” That is certainly no wonder, because it was a mystery. The Jews were not guilty for failing to grasp that everything that happened to Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy. They were guilty for rejecting His claims in the light of His attesting miracles. They were guilty for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, and for asking that Barabbas be released in His place.

While their guilt is great, and judgment will come if they refuse to repent, Peter chooses to emphasize the blessings that await those who trust in Jesus as the Messiah. What are these blessings? Well, we are told in verse 26 that God raised up Jesus to bless them by turning each of them from their iniquities. The first blessing then is the forgiveness of sins. The second blessing (dare I say this?) is summed up in God’s covenant promise to Abraham:

“You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed’” (Acts 3:25).

Perhaps these blessings have best been summed up by the Apostle Paul in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians:

3 Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ. 4 For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love. 5 He did this by predestining us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of his will— 6 to the praise of the glory of his grace that he has freely bestowed on us in his dearly loved Son. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us in all wisdom and insight. 9 He did this when he revealed to us the secret of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ—the things in heaven and the things on earth (Ephesians 3:1-10).

Conclusion

In many ways, it seems inappropriate to talk about conclusions. Peter’s sermon is interrupted so that the results of his preaching are not found until Acts 4. Let’s take a quick preview of some of these results:

1 While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests and the commander of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, 2 angry because they were teaching the people and announcing in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 3 So they seized them and put them in jail until the next day (for it was already evening). 4 But many of those who had listened to the message believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. 5 On the next day, their rulers, elders, and experts in the law came together in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others who were members of the high priest’s family. 7 After making Peter and John stand in their midst, they began to inquire, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:1-8)

What Lessons Should We Learn?

What are the lessons we should learn from Acts 3? Let me suggest several great, reassuring lessons for us:

Lesson One: Jesus is the Promised Messiah. Think of how these passages, along with our text, all point to Jesus as the Messiah:

4 Tell those who panic, “Look, your God comes to avenge! With divine retribution he comes to deliver you.” 5 Then blind eyes will open, deaf ears will hear. 6 Then the lame will leap like a deer, the mute tongue will shout for joy; for water will flow in the desert, streams in the wilderness (Isaiah 35:4-6).

6 “In that day,” says the Lord, “I will gather the lame, and assemble the outcasts whom I injured. 7 I will transform the lame into the nucleus of a new nation, and those far off into a mighty nation. The Lord will reign over them on Mount Zion, from that day forward and forevermore” (Micah 4:6-7).

2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds Christ had done, he sent his disciples to ask a question: 3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: 5 The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:2-6).

30 Then large crowds came to him bringing with them the lame, blind, crippled, mute, and many others. They laid them at his feet, and he healed them. 31 As a result, the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing, and they praised the God of Israel (Matthew 15:30-31).

16 Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, 4:19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to tell them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read” (Luke 4:16-21).

As Peter said in Acts 2:22,

“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know—“ (Acts 2:22).

Luke introduced the Book of Acts with these words:

1 I wrote the former account, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after he had given orders by the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen (Acts 1:1-2).

What Jesus began to do Himself, as Luke and the other Gospel writers record, He continued to do through His church. The healing of the lame man is proof that Jesus is the Messiah, and that He is alive and at work through His apostles and His church. His words are words that we must hear and heed:

1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).

Lesson Two: The Sovereignty of God. I am convinced that the Book of Acts is a record of the sovereign work of God through the working of His Spirit in the church. The story of the healing of the leper is but one example of the sovereignty of God. Think of how God had been preparing for this harvest of souls for more than 40 years. We know that God sovereignly fashions us while we are still in the womb (Psalm 139:13-16). Even the defects with this man’s feet and ankles were part of the divine design. For many years, the lame man lay at the temple gate begging for money. Almost everyone in Jerusalem had to know him, or at least recognize him. Every time they sought to enter the gate to the temple, he would cry out for money. Those years when Jesus could have healed him, He did not, for God had a better plan. It was His plan for Jesus to heal the lame man through the apostles. And as a result of his healing, the gospel was proclaimed and many believed. This man’s suffering was not a waste, and as we know, it was not punishment for his sins or the sins of his parents (see John 9:1-3; 11:1-4, 12-15). If I understand the text correctly, this man was healed by faith, and this would imply that he was not only healed physically, but spiritually as well. His momentary, light affliction was nothing compared to the glory that awaited him (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Surely we can say with Paul:

28 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? 35 Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him? 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36).

Lesson Three: God sovereignly prepares people to hear and to heed the gospel. Put differently, various circumstances provide the occasion to proclaim the gospel. As I look through the Book of Acts, I find that people are divinely prepared for the gospel. The people of Jerusalem were prepared for the preaching of Peter by the ministry of John the Baptist, and then by the ministry of our Lord. They were prepared by the supernatural events that accompanied the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. They were further prepared by Pentecost, and then by the healing of the man lame from the womb. The Ethiopian eunuch was reading the prophecy of Isaiah and was ready for Philip to proclaim the gospel to him (Acts 8:26-40). Saul, later to be named Paul, was prepared in a variety of ways to trust in Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 9:1-19). The Philippian jailor was prepared by an earthquake to hear the gospel, but also by hearing the joyful response of Paul and Barnabas to their suffering (Acts 16:16-34).

In our text, the preaching of the gospel comes after a crowd gathers in response to the healing of the lame man. The danger for us would be to conclude that only miraculous and spectacular events prepare men and women to hear the gospel. Peter himself has something to say to us about this:

14 But in fact, if you happen to suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. But do not be terrified of them or be shaken. 15 But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess (1 Peter 3:14-15).

The world takes note when a Christian responds to adversity or persecution with hope and joy, rather than with bitterness or anger. The world is watching when we lose our job, or when one of our loved ones dies. The world is watching when we are content with a simple lifestyle so that we can support missions and those in need.

People are open to a message of hope when their life is shaken by disaster (flood, hurricane, earthquake, plane crash) or personal tragedy (the loss of a job, the death of a loved one). We need to be sensitive to those times when people are open to the gospel and to take advantage of the opportunities before us. We need to recognize that God orchestrates events to prepare the way for the gospel, just as He did with the lame man. Not only does God work from the outside in, through circumstances; God also works from the inside out, through the Holy Spirit.

Colin McDougall, a pastor at the Church of the Open Door in Glendora, California, told our church what happened when he returned to the United States after years of evangelism and church planting in Africa. In Africa, there was little privacy. Folks felt free to “drop in” at any time whatever. There were many opportunities to engage the lost and to share the gospel. But when they returned to California, they found that they hardly ever saw their neighbors. They would drive up to their garage, engage the garage door opener, safely within the sanctuary of their cars, behind darkly shaded windows, enter their garage, and close the door, all by remote control.

For some time, Colin reported, he attempted to devise schemes by which he could engage his neighbors. After very little success, Colin decided to change his tactics. He determined to spend the time he spent scheming in prayer, asking God to open doors of opportunity. Doors began to open, and opportunities appeared. Lost souls came to faith.

I am suggesting that we consider Colin’s counsel, and that we spend much more time praying that God would open doors for the gospel. We need to be alert to God’s answers to our prayers and seize the opportunity to engage our friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. God prepares the way for the gospel by employing a variety of circumstances. Let us look for these, and seize them, as Peter seized the opportunity to preach to this crowd at the temple.

Lesson Four: The gospel is both good news and bad news. Earlier I made the observation that Peter emphasized the specter of divine judgment in Acts 2, while he stressed the blessings of salvation in Acts 3. While one aspect of the gospel or the other may be emphasized, the gospel is no longer the gospel when we omit either aspect. The gospel is, at one and the same time, the good news and the bad news. Many try to “tempt” the lost to trust in Christ by omitting the bad news and highlighting the good. That is not the whole gospel. Others may speak only of judgment and damnation, without adequate emphasis on the love of God and the blessings of salvation. That is not the whole gospel either. The good news is that we need not face the bad news. Let us learn from Peter to preach the whole gospel, the bad news (Jesus is coming again to deal with His enemies, and we are the enemy) and the good (Jesus has borne our guilt and punishment and offers us His righteousness and eternal life).

Lesson Five: The blessing of unanswered prayer. All the lame man hoped and asked for was a few coins. What he got was much more – energized legs and eternal life. How often my prayers are like the request of the lame man. I tend to ask for too little; I tend to ask for material things. How gracious God was to decline his request and to give something far better in its place. Let us remember that as we pray. Let us seek the better things, and when God declines our request for lesser things, let us look to Him to give us what we need most.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 7 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on November 20, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 Levi is the fictitious name I have given to the lame man who was healed in Acts 3. It is easier to refer to him by name than to continually call him the man lame at birth.

4 In Acts 4:22, we learn that “Levi” was more than 40 years old.

5 Luke uses the imperfect tense when he describes the arrival of both “Levi” and Peter and John. I believe he intends for the reader to understand that both are “en route” to their intended locations.

6 You will remember that Jesus addressed the practice of almsgiving in Matthew 6:1-4. Jesus warned against giving publicly, in a way that was designed to obtain the praise of men. I would imagine that “Levi” was more than willing to accept charity from those who were trying to please men. What better place to be seen showing charity than in the gate to the temple, where others could observe?

7 Once again, Luke employs a verb in the imperfect tense, suggesting that he began his routine.

8 Our text reads, “. . . he asked them for money” (Acts 3:3, emphasis mine). The word “them” has been supplied, but wrongly so in my opinion. It is almost as though “Levi” is just starting up his routine. He sees Peter and John nearby and that gets him started, but his petition is not necessarily limited to Peter and John alone. He is not paying nearly as much attention to Peter and John as they are to him. This appears to be the reason Peter instructs him to pay closer attention to them in verse four.

9 The NET Bible renders the word “looked directly” in Acts 3:4; in Acts 14:9, it is rendered “stared intently.” In my opinion, it should be translated the same way in both cases for they are clearly meant to be compared so that the similarities in these two miracles are observed by the reader.

10 In Acts 4, we will be told that the saints were selling their property and laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:34-35). If this were already happening, it seems clear from our text that the apostles were reluctant, if not unwilling, to “keep the money bag” as Judas did (John 12:6).

11 I am not alone in this conclusion. The NIV, NKJV, and the ESV start a new paragraph at verse 17.

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8. The First Opposition (Acts 4:1-31)

Introduction1

For 40 days after His resurrection, the risen Lord Jesus appeared to men in very convincing ways. He particularly ministered to His disciples, for they would play a key role in His on-going ministry in and through the church. He spoke with them about the kingdom of heaven and told them to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. He commissioned them to be His witnesses when they were clothed with power from on high. Then Pentecost came, and the Spirit came in great power. Peter’s preaching produced 3,000 converts. As a result of the healing of the man who was lame from his mother’s womb, Peter seized another opportunity to preach the gospel to those who had gathered.

Acts 3 ends somewhat abruptly, for we are not yet given any indication of the impact of Peter’s message in the temple precincts. Acts 4 begins with a strong and sudden reaction, especially from those who were Sadducees. This is the first instance of opposition and persecution in the Book of Acts. It should not, however, come as a surprise, to us or to the apostles. Jesus had forewarned the disciples that persecution was coming. Men would react to the apostles and their teaching because they had rejected Jesus and His teaching:

18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:18-21).2

11 “But when they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you should make your defense or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you must say” (Luke 12:11-12).

12 But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you, handing you over to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will be a time for you to serve as witnesses. 14 Therefore be resolved not to rehearse ahead of time how to make your defense. 15 For I will give you the words along with the wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict (Luke 21:12-15).

Among other things, our text has much to teach us about opposition and persecution. But there is much more to it than that, as I hope to demonstrate in this lesson. Let us listen carefully to the words of our text, for it clearly declares the gospel, and it models the boldness and confidence which we should have as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission.

A Mixed Response
Acts 4:1-4

1 While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests and the commander of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, 2 [greatly annoyed]3 because they were teaching the people and announcing in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 3 So they seized them and put them in jail until the next day (for it was already evening). 4 But many of those who had listened to the message believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

Luke begins by describing the response of the opposition to the preaching of Peter. The priests, the commander of the temple guard, and the Sadducees all “came up to them,” “greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” These seem to be the folks who would have been present at the time Peter began to preach to the crowd. Most likely, they embraced the theology of the Sadducees. This means that they did not believe in the supernatural, in angels, or in the resurrection of the dead (see Acts 23:6-8).

Two things “greatly annoyed” these Sadducees. First, they were annoyed that these unauthorized men were teaching the people in the temple precincts. In the minds of the priests and the Sadducees, this was their turf, and they had not authorized anyone to come and preach there without authorization. It was like setting up business without obtaining a permit to do so. The religious establishment had a monopoly on what took place here.

Secondly, the establishment was “greatly annoyed” because of the content of the teaching that was done on their turf. They were distressed because the resurrection of the dead was being taught. This was something the Sadducees did not believe, and thus they did not want the people taught that the dead would rise. Even more than this, Peter and John were proclaiming the resurrection of the dead “in Jesus” (verse 2). The dead would rise again, Peter and John proclaimed, because Jesus had risen from the dead. The implications of this were staggering to those Sadducees who had rejected Jesus and taken part in His death.

Because of the intensity of their opposition, I believe the rendering “came up to them” in verse one is an understatement. They came stomping up4 to Peter and John, seizing them and putting them in jail for the night. It was already evening, so they would hold them in confinement until they could hear their case in the morning. We might therefore expect that when these religious leaders authoritatively pushed their way through the crowds, seized Peter and John, and led them off to jail, that those in the crowd would be reluctant to identify with Jesus and His apostles. Such was not the case, however. In spite of the opposition, Luke informs us that many more came to faith as a result of this miracle and the preaching of the apostles, preaching for which they were arrested. Now there are 5,000 men in Jerusalem who have come to faith.

In Acts 2:41, Luke informs us that 3,000 people came to faith on the day of Pentecost. Here, Luke tells us that the number of believers has grown to 5,000 men. Thus, the total number of believers would seem to be even greater than 5,000. It is possible that more came to faith in Acts 4, in spite of the opposition, than came to faith in Acts 2, where there was no opposition. The lesson here should be clear: opposition to the gospel does not hinder evangelism when the gospel is boldly and clearly proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Challenge and a Bold Response
Acts 4:5-12

5 On the next day, their rulers, elders, and experts in the law came together in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others who were members of the high priest’s family. 7 After making Peter and John stand in their midst, they began to inquire, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, replied, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are being examined today for a good deed done to a sick man—by what means this man was healed— 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, this man stands before you healthy. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, that has become the cornerstone [Psalm 118:22]. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:5-12).

Observations

Our first observation in these verses is that this is the account of a closed door confrontation. In Acts 2 and 3, the gospel is proclaimed in the open. Here, Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin to give account for their preaching. Either Peter or John must have been the source of some of this information, but even they were not present when the members of the Sanhedrin conferred privately, behind closed doors (Acts 4:15-17). Some information in this account would therefore appear to have been divinely revealed. No doubt, the church, composed primarily of new believers, looked on with great interest as Peter and John were seized and hauled off to jail and then brought before the Sanhedrin the next morning to stand trial. They must have waited with great interest to learn what had happened, and the outcome of it all.

Our next observation should be the identity of those who opposed Peter and John in verses five and six of our text. Luke is very specific as to the identity of those before whom Peter and John stood:

5 On the next day, their rulers, elders, and experts in the law came together in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others who were members of the high priest’s family (Acts 4:5-6).

These are the very same men who, just a couple of months earlier, had Jesus arrested, tried Him before the Sanhedrin, and then demanded that He be executed.

57 Now the ones who had arrested Jesus led him to Caiaphas, the high priest, in whose house the experts in the law and the elders had gathered. 58 But Peter was following him from a distance, all the way to the high priest’s courtyard. After going in, he sat with the guards to see the outcome. 59 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were trying to find false testimony against Jesus so that they could put him to death (Matthew 26:57-59)

1 Early in the morning, after forming a plan, the chief priests with the elders and the experts in the law and the whole Sanhedrin tied Jesus up, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate (Mark 15:1; see also Luke 22:66-23:1; John 18:12-28).

These are the most powerful Jews in all of Israel. Acts 4:5-6 is the “Who’s Who” of Judaism in that day. These are men who would settle for nothing less than the death of Jesus. There was no reason to assume that they were not just as committed to kill those who preached the resurrection in Jesus.

A third observation is that I believe our text indicates the Jewish religious leaders did not immediately recognize Peter and John as disciples of our Lord. Notice carefully the way Luke has written verse 13:

When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13, NET Bible).

Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus (Acts 4:13, NASB, emphasis mine).

The imperfect tense is used to convey past action in a variety of ways. Here, I believe the translators of the NASB have rightly captured the inference of the imperfect tense when they rendered, “began to recognize,” rather than merely “recognized.”5 We must remember that the top religious leaders would have had little or no direct contact with the disciples of Jesus. They fled at the time of our Lord’s arrest (Matthew 26:6). It was even necessary for the religious leaders to have Judas present to identify Jesus at the time of His arrest (Acts 1:16; Matthew 26:48). It would thus appear that initially Peter and John were simply viewed as two unauthorized men, authoritatively teaching that the dead are raised on account of Jesus. Peter’s preaching was so powerful and so skillful that they would not have known he was not trained in a religious school. They seem shocked to learn who Peter and John are.

Fourth, I believe that the intent of the Jewish religious elite was to so intimidate Peter and John that they would be permanently silenced. We should recall from the gospel accounts that the religious leaders had great authority, and that the people (even those in leadership) greatly feared them:

11 So the Jewish leaders were looking for him at the feast, asking, “Where is he?” 12 There was a lot of grumbling about him among the crowds. Some were saying, “He is a good man,” but others, “He deceives the common people.” 13 However, no one spoke openly about him for fear of the Jewish leaders (John 7:11-13).

20 So his parents replied, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. 21 But we do not know how he is now able to see, nor do we know who caused him to see. Ask him, he is a mature adult. He will speak for himself.” 22 (His parents said these things because they were afraid of the Jewish religious leaders. For the Jewish leaders had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be put out of the synagogue. 23 For this reason his parents said, “He is a mature adult, ask him.”) (John 9:20-23)

42 Nevertheless, even among the rulers many believed in him, but because of the Pharisees they would not confess Jesus to be the Christ, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue (John 12:42).

38 After this, Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus (but secretly, because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission, so he went and took the body away (John 19:38).

Peter and John were abruptly interrupted and hauled off to jail. The next morning they were brought before the highest Jewish court in the land. This was the court that found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and which managed to accomplish the crucifixion of Jesus, even though Pilate was intending to release Him (Acts 3:13). They purposely put Peter and John in their midst, so that they were encircled by their accusers. It was all about intimidation. They employed “shock and awe” tactics, expecting to silence these two, just as they had silenced countless others who disagreed with them.

Fifth, observe how they carefully crafted their question to Peter and John:By what power or by what name did you do this?” (verse 7) They carefully avoid naming the miracle, even though it is an undisputed fact (verses 14-16). Neither do they mention Jesus, His resurrection, nor their teaching on the resurrection. I believe their hope is that Peter and John will “get the message,” recant, and slip away in silence.

Sixth, we should observe that Peter’s response is that of a man who is “filled with the Holy Spirit(verse 8). I take it this means that God gave special enablement to Peter at that moment to answer the accusations of the enemies of the cross. This is just as our Lord had promised:

12 But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you, handing you over to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will be a time for you to serve as witnesses. 14 Therefore be resolved not to rehearse ahead of time how to make your defense. 15 For I will give you the words along with the wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict (Luke 21:12-15).

Seventh, observe that there is an implied link between the power of the apostles and the resurrection of Jesus. Peter makes it clear that the lame man was healed in the name of Jesus. He also makes it clear that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Who could doubt the power of one who was raised from the dead? I am fascinated by Herod’s response to the reports of Jesus’ words and deeds after the death of John the Baptist:

1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard reports about Jesus, 2 and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead! And because of this, miraculous powers are at work in him” (Matthew 14:1-2; see also Luke 9:7-96).

Herod is no saint, and no theologian. Yet somehow he concludes that Jesus is really John the Baptist raised from the dead. John the Baptist performed no miracles in his earthly ministry (John 10:41), and yet when Jesus began to minister in great power, Herod assumed it was John, raised from the dead. I find that fascinating.

Peter Turns the Tables

Are these fellows ever in for a surprise! Peter and John do not cower in fear, but courageously turn the tables on their opponents. The very things that appear to give the Sanhedrin the advantage suddenly work against them. First, Peter points out the incongruity between their actions and the religious leaders’ reaction. Since when is it a crime to do something kind for one in need? What charges can possibly be made against them for helping a lame man to walk? (It is the Jewish leaders who “do not have a leg to stand on” here!) Next, Peter’s response raises the question of why they are brought for trial before such an esteemed group. The Supreme Court of the United States does not hear traffic cases, so why is the Sanhedrin ruling on the actions of Peter and John?

These men have made it abundantly clear to Peter and John that they are “in charge.” They are the leaders. Peter begins by acknowledging this fact: “Rulers of the people and elders . . .” (verse 8). The fact that they are leaders makes their guilt even greater. These men were the leaders who rejected Jesus as the Messiah and orchestrated His death:

10 “Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, this man stands before you healthy. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, that has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:10-11).

Here is Peter’s bold and direct answer to the question these leaders have raised. By whose power7 has this man been healed? He was healed by the power of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene.8 This Jesus is the One they, as Israel’s religious leaders, crucified. God raised Jesus from the dead. And it is through the name of Jesus that this man, who was lame for “forty years,” now stands before them. Whether the healed man was arrested with Peter and John, whether he was summoned independently, or whether he came on his own, we are not told. But we do know that he “stood” there in their midst. He was healed, and Jesus did it!

Peter now draws upon the prophecy of Psalm 118:22.

This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, that has become the cornerstone (Acts 4:11).

The scope of this message will not allow me to pursue the broader implications of Peter’s citation of Psalm 118, but it seems to me that there are elements in that psalm beyond verse 22 (the verse cited) which are relevant to Peter and his situation.9

What is relevant is that this psalm prophesies not only that Messiah will be rejected, but that He will be rejected by “the builders,” the leaders of the nation. What is also relevant to Peter’s situation, standing before the Sanhedrin, is that God has made the Messiah the chief cornerstone. The opposition of the Sanhedrin is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. They thought they were in control, and they wanted Peter and John (and the rest who followed Jesus) to know this. But the psalmist declares that God is in control, for their rejection of Messiah was the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Their rejection failed to achieve what they had hoped, for instead of being rid of Messiah, they must now deal with Him as the One who sits at the right hand of the Father, waiting for His signal to return to the earth to deal with His enemies (Psalm 110:1; Acts 2:34-35).

Verse 12 is the knockout punch of this brief word from God to Israel’s leaders:

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The lame man was healed in the name of Jesus, the same Jesus the Jewish religious leaders rejected, the same Jesus God raised from the dead. It is in this name and this name only—the name of Jesus – that men must be saved. There is salvation in no other name. If these men would be saved, they must repent; they must change their minds about Jesus. They must embrace Him as God’s Messiah and trust in Him for salvation. To reject Jesus, therefore, is to reject God’s only means of salvation. To reject Jesus is to embrace eternal damnation. Here is true authority. No wonder Peter does not fear these men, even though they are laboring to intimidate him.

We might sum up Peter’s response in this way: “There are three things you ought to know. First, Jesus the Nazarene is the source of the power that has accomplished this man’s healing. This is the same Jesus you rejected and crucified, but God raised Him from the dead. Second, what you did was foretold in the Old Testament, specifically in Psalm 118:22. Third, the One you rejected is the only One through whom you must be saved. He is the only way to heaven.

Truth or Consequences
Acts 4:13-22

13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. 14 And because they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say against this. 15 But when they had ordered them to go outside the council, they began to confer with one another, 16 saying, “What should we do with these men? For it is plain to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable miraculous sign has come about through them, and we cannot deny it. 17 But to keep this matter from spreading any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 And they called them in and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Whether it is right before God to obey you rather than God, you decide, 20 for it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.” 21 After threatening them further, they released them, for they could not find how to punish them on account of the people, because they were all praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man, on whom this miraculous sign of healing had been performed, was over forty years old (Acts 4:13-22).

If there ever was a time for the claims of our Lord’s resurrection to be silenced, it was here and now. All these men had to do was to produce His body and that would have been the end of it. By divine revelation, Luke takes us beyond the appearances the religious leaders wish us to see to the reality of the situation. Luke takes us behind closed doors to overhear the conversation of these men after they put Peter and John outside, so that they could talk among themselves. They were taken aback by the boldness of Peter and John. Never before had they seen men stand up to them as these two had done. Peter and John were not intimidated. The religious leaders thought they held the keys to the kingdom and that by excluding men from the synagogue they were condemning them to eternity in hell. Now they are told that Jesus is the key to heaven, and they have rejected and crucified Him.

Because of the boldness of Peter and John and the irrefutable message they proclaimed, no one would have imagined that they were men without formal theological training. To hear them speak was to be impressed with both content and delivery (remember, Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit as he spoke). It was only when the religious leaders began to inquire about the identity of these two men that they learned, to their amazement, these were simple fishermen and not highly trained clerics. It was at this time, I believe, that the religious leaders became aware that these two men were disciples of Jesus. In other words, Jesus was not only responsible for the miracles performed by their hands, but He was also the explanation for their great knowledge and skill in proclaiming the gospel.

If this were not enough, they were painfully aware that the man who stood with Peter and John was the man who was lame from his mother’s womb. A great miracle had been performed in their midst. Jesus was given the credit for it. How could these religious leaders possibly punish the two apostles for what they had done, when the crowds were on their side praising God for the miracle that had been performed? The only thing they could do at this point in time was to instruct the apostles not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, threatening them with punishment if they persisted to proclaim Jesus (Acts 4:18).

Peter and John made it clear they had no intention of being silent. In fact, they declared that it would be impossible for them not to speak of those things of which they were witnesses (Acts 4:20). One must be careful not to misinterpret the apostles’ words in verse 19:

“Whether it is right before God to obey you rather than God, you decide” (Acts 4:19).

They are not saying, “We don’t know whether to speak about Jesus or not, so you tell us; you be the judge.” They are saying, “There is no way that we can be silent about the things we have heard and seen regarding Jesus of Nazareth. Whether this is a crime that you must punish is a matter for you to decide. Either way, we will continue to preach Jesus.”

Several things should be said about the apostles’ response to the religious leaders’ threats. First, this instance of “civil disobedience” (if that is what you wish to call it) is the exception and not the rule. The rule is that we should obey those in authority over us (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Second, their disobedience is selective. In other words, they do not feel free to disobey in any and every way, but only in those specific instances where obedience to men would be disobedience to God. Third, their attitude is still one of submission. They do not seek to overthrow these leaders. They do not speak abusively to them, or of them. They are willing to suffer the consequences of their actions. Fourth, they are honest and forthright about what they intend to do. Let all those who advocate civil disobedience take note of what Peter and John are doing here, for it is a model for us all.

There is really nothing the Sanhedrin can do other than to utter threats and let the apostles go. How ironic. This confrontation did not silence the apostles; it left the religious leaders speechless. They had nothing more to say. They surely didn’t want to talk about this to anyone.

Notice one more thing about what happened when the Sanhedrin faced off with the apostles. The religious leaders had no evidence on their side; all the evidence was in favor of the apostles. The Sanhedrin could not refute the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. They could not explain away the incredible miracle that had just taken place. They could not refute the words of Peter and John. All the evidence was against them, and yet they only became more resolute in their opposition to the truth. These men did not believe. This was not because the evidence was lacking; it was in spite of the fact that all of the evidence supported the apostolic preaching of the cross. Men don’t fail to believe for lack of evidence; they refuse to believe in spite of the evidence:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles (Romans 1:18-23, emphasis mine).

The enemies of the cross were not interested in knowing the truth and following wherever it led them. They were intent on covering up their error and containing the damage resulting from what they had done wrong. In other words, they rejected truth because they cared only about immediate and earthly consequences.

A Pious Response to Persecution
Acts 4:23-31

23 When they were released, Peter and John went to their fellow believers and reported everything the high priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, “Master of all, you who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them, 25 who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather, ‘Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things? 26 The kings of the earth stood together, and the rulers assembled together, against the Lord and against his Christ.’ 27 “For indeed both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand would happen. 29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously (Acts 4:23-31).

You can imagine that there was great concern in the church over the fate of Peter and John, and likely over the implications of their fate for the church. Peter and John were arrested, jailed, and then put on trial (of some sort) before the highest religious court in the land, the same court that condemned Jesus to death. What a joy to see Peter and John emerge from their “trial” without a scratch. It must have been amusing for them to hear the apostles’ report of what took place in that meeting.

What fascinates me is the word “they” in verse 24: “When they heard this they raised their voices to God with one mind. . . .” “They” refers to the saints, not to the apostles. Peter does not give them a sermon on facing persecution (though he will teach on this subject in his first epistle, First Peter). These folks praise God with one heart and mind, and they petition God for the right things. Let’s first consider their praise.

Notice that the praise offered up by the church is grounded in Scripture. They cite from two of the Psalms. The church first praises God as the Creator:

23 When they were released, Peter and John went to their fellow believers and reported everything the high priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, “Master of all, you who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them” (Acts 4:23-24).

This most likely is a reference to Psalm 146:6, but there are many texts which speak of God as the Creator of the heavens and the earth.10

The question is, “What does God being the Creator have to do with the persecution of the saints in Jerusalem?” There are many ways that the creation theme is employed in the Bible, but for the church in Jerusalem, the primary biblical truth that sustains them is a realization that God is sovereign, even in their suffering. Look at the entire psalm from which this citation seems to be drawn:

1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live!
I will sing praises to my God as long as I exist!
3 Do not trust in princes,
or in human beings, who cannot deliver!
4 Their life’s breath departs, they return to the ground;
on that day their plans die.
5 How happy is the one whose helper is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
6 the one who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who remains forever faithful,
7 vindicates the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord releases the imprisoned.
8 The Lord gives sight to the blind.
The Lord lifts up all who are bent over.
The Lord loves the godly.
9 The Lord protects those residing outside their native land;
he lifts up the fatherless and the widow,
but he opposes the wicked.
10 The Lord rules forever,
your God, O Zion, throughout the generations to come!
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 146:1-10)

The psalmist exhorts us to put our trust in God, rather than in men. It is God who can and who will protect us. Mortal men come and they go, but God is eternal. God made the heavens and the earth. There is nothing outside of His control. There is nothing beyond His power. The Lord particularly looks after the needy and the oppressed. Why, then, should the saints in Jerusalem fear mere men who rage against the gospel, when their all-powerful God is with them?

The second text they cite is also from the Psalms, this time from Psalm 2:

1 Why do the nations cause a commotion?
Why are the countries devising plots that will fail?
2 The kings of the earth form a united front;
the rulers collaborate against the Lord and his chosen king.
3 They say, “Let’s tear off the shackles they’ve put on us!
Let’s free ourselves from their ropes!”
4 The one enthroned in heaven laughs in disgust;
the sovereign Master taunts them.
5 Then he angrily speaks to them
and terrifies them in his rage.
6 He says, “I myself have installed my king
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 The king says, “I will tell you what the Lord decreed.
He said to me: ‘You are my son!
This very day I have become your father!
8 You have only to ask me,
and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
the ends of the earth as your personal property.
9 You will break them with an iron scepter;
you will smash them as if they were a potter’s jar.’”
10 So now, you kings, do what is wise!
You rulers of the earth, submit to correction!
11 Serve the Lord in fear! Repent in terror!
12 Give sincere homage! Otherwise he will be angry,
and you will die because of your behavior, when his anger quickly ignites.
How happy are all who take shelter in him! (Psalm 2:1-12, emphasis mine)

What is interesting about the use of this psalm in our text is that it originally spoke of the folly of Gentile kings plotting against the Lord and His Christ. The church understands that the psalm likewise applies to the Jewish leaders who conspired together against Jesus Christ. In effect, they are no better than Gentiles when they reject Jesus as the Messiah. As the psalm goes on to say, God laughs at the futile efforts of men to resist Christ because He has installed Him as His king. The best thing those who have foolishly resisted Him can do is to repent and seek His favor, lest He return and destroy them. How appropriate this is to the situation at hand.

The saints spoke of Jesus as God’s “servant” (Acts 4:27). Surely this is a reference to Him as the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah. Once again the opposition of wicked men to Jesus is seen as part of God’s sovereign plan, accomplishing what He had foreordained long beforehand (Acts 4:27-28).

The saints did not ask for God’s vengeance upon their opponents. Neither did they ask to be delivered from all suffering and adversity. Instead, they prayed for boldness to proclaim the gospel, and for His attesting signs and wonders which would manifest the presence and power of Jesus in their midst (Acts 4:29-30). Then, after they prayed, the place where they were staying shook, and all were filled with the Holy Spirit. The manifestation of the Spirit was courageous proclamation of the gospel (Acts 4:31).

Conclusion

This is a great text, with many applications and implications for us. Let me highlight a few of them.

First of all, the opposition of the Jewish religious leaders to the apostles is a virtual rerun of their opposition to the ministry of Jesus. Notice the similarities between our text in Acts 4 and Luke’s account of the opposition to Jesus as recorded in Luke 20:

1 Now one day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the gospel, the chief priests and the experts in the law with the elders came up 2 and said to him, “Tell us: By what authority are you doing these things? Or who it is who gave you this authority?” 3 He answered them, “I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: 4 John’s baptism—was it from heaven or from people?” 5 So they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘From people,’ all the people will stone us, because they are convinced that John was a prophet.” 7 So they replied that they did not know where it came from. 8 Then Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by whose authority I do these things.” 9 Then he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, leased it to tenant farmers, and went on a journey for a long time. 10 When harvest time came, he sent a slave to the tenants so that they would give him his portion of the crop. However, the tenants beat his slave and sent him away empty-handed. 11 So he sent another slave. They beat this one too, treated him outrageously, and sent him away empty-handed. 12 So he sent still a third. They even wounded this one, and threw him out. 13 Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What should I do? I will send my one dear son; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 But when the tenants saw him, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir; let’s kill him so the inheritance will be ours!’ 15 So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “May this never happen!” 17 But Jesus looked straight at them and said, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? 18 Everyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and the one on whom it falls will be crushed.” 19 Then the experts in the law and the chief priests wanted to arrest him that very hour, because they realized he had told this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people (Luke 20:1-19, emphasis mine).

Luke even uses some of the same words when describing these two instances of persecution. Luke introduced the Book of Acts with these words:

1 I wrote the former account, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after he had given orders by the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen (Acts 2:1-2).

The inference is that what Jesus “began to do and to teach, the apostles continue to do and to teach after His ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem opposed Jesus, so they opposed the apostles. This was just as Jesus had indicated before His death:

18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:18-21).

There is one significant difference between the gospels and Acts, however. In the Gospels, the disciples fled when things got rough, and Peter even denied His Lord. Here, the apostles stand firm, boldly proclaiming the gospel.

As the argument of the Book of Acts unfolds, I believe we can see a crisis ahead. On the one hand, the Jewish religious leaders have closed their eyes to the truth and have determined in some way to silence those who would preach Christ and the resurrection. On the other hand, the apostles have been transformed by the events that have taken place in the past few months, and especially by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They are no longer afraid of the Jewish religious leaders, or of any retribution they might mete out because of their preaching about Jesus. Both the church and the Jewish religious leaders have become strong in their resolve. A confrontation is coming soon.

Second, the opposition of the Jewish religious leaders provides Peter with the opportunity to demonstrate his own repentance. One way of defining repentance would be to say that it is a change of mind which would result in a different decision if you had the opportunity to do it all over again. This was the case with Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 37-45.11 Joseph orchestrated a situation in which his brothers could relive (so to speak) their decision to betray him, but this time, it was his younger brother Benjamin whom they must embrace or deny. When Judah offered himself in his younger brother’s place (Genesis 44:18-34), it was clear that he had truly repented of his earlier sin (Genesis 37:25-28). Only when this repentance was evident could Joseph truly enter into fellowship with his brothers (Genesis 45).

As I was preparing to teach this text, it occurred to me that our Lord was exceedingly gracious to Peter to give him this opportunity to stand firm in his commitment to Jesus. In the Gospels, Peter had spoken with great confidence concerning his commitment to Jesus. He had assured Jesus that he would be true to Him, even unto death (Luke 22:33). Jesus knew better; we do too. At the time of His arrest, Peter fled from His Lord12 and later denied Him three times. Peter had great remorse for doing so (Luke 22:62). What a gracious thing it was for God to give Peter this opportunity to face greater opposition and danger and to stand fast in his faith. Now, instead of denying His Lord, He boldly proclaimed Him to be God’s Messiah and the only means of salvation.

Third, we should learn something from the early church about our response to persecution. The church (which was composed primarily of new believers) was not shocked by the opposition of the religious leaders. They did not find suffering for the sake of Jesus an unexpected surprise. They did not pray for it to end, or for their adversaries to be banished to hell. They rejoiced. After Peter and John were released, the church joyfully praised God and asked for the gospel to be advanced. They were convinced that God is sovereign, and that any opposition was in accordance with His will.

I would like to suggest another factor in their joyful celebration in the face of opposition. Because they believed in the sovereignty of God, they were assured that their persecution was a sure sign of the progress of the gospel. I see similar themes elsewhere in Scripture:

3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. 6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life? 11 Not only this, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation (Romans 5:3-11).

18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children (Romans 8:18-21).

11 For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body. 12 As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 13 But since we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, “I believed; therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak. 14 We do so because we know that the one who raised up Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God. 16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:11-18).

10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me (Philippians 3:10-12).

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body—for the sake of his body, the church—what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24).

3 We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith flourishes more and more and the love of each one of you all for one another is ever greater. 4 As a result we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions you are enduring. 5 This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment, to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which in fact you are suffering. 6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed—and you did in fact believe our testimony (2 Thessalonians 1:3-10).

12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).

Suffering for the sake of Jesus and the proclamation of the gospel is a privilege, for which we should rejoice. It is also grounds for rejoicing because it demonstrates the power of the gospel and anticipates the victory our Lord has won at Calvary, which will be fully realized at His return. Opposition to the gospel often begins with intimidation, but when that fails to accomplish the desired end (silencing those who proclaim the gospel), then persecution comes. Persecution is the result of failed opposition on a lower level. We see this a little later on in the Book of Acts with the persecution of Stephen:

8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:8-14).

In the end, the only way to silence Stephen was to kill him. They tried to oppose him by debate, and this failed, so they intensified the level of opposition to persecution, and then death. My point is that when we are persecuted, we should rejoice, just as the early church did, because they saw this as a sign of victory, not of defeat.

Fourth, power and authority are found in the name of Jesus. I was impressed when I discovered how often our Lord instructed His disciples to ask and to serve in His name. In our text, Peter is very specific in his choice of words; he makes it very clear to all that this lame man was healed in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This is what Peter reaffirmed to the religious leaders who were members of the Sanhedrin. The New Testament epistles also speak of doing all in the name of Jesus:

And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:17).

Somehow I have tended to react to ending every prayer, “in Jesus’ name,” but God has used this text to exhort me to do so, every time I pray. It has also encouraged me to minister in His name, being sure that others know it is by His power or to His glory that ministry is done.

As we approach the Christmas season, we can observe the many ways our culture is seeking to remove the name of Jesus from our conversation and communication. Merry Christmas has all too easily become “Happy Holidays.” Let us not cease to name the name of Jesus, for it is He who is to be preeminent (Colossians 1:18), and only in His name can men be saved.

Fifth, our text has a very clear and concise declaration of the gospel:

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Look no further than Jesus for salvation. Look to no other than to Jesus for salvation. It is by faith in His name that we must be saved. What does this mean? It means that we must acknowledge that apart from Jesus, we will never be able to earn our way to heaven. It means that by means of His death, burial, and resurrection, the punishment for our sins has been paid. It means that His righteousness can be ours, if we accept it. Among all of the good things we find in our text, don’t forget that it all begins when you acknowledge your sin, and when you accept the salvation which Jesus offers freely to all who believe.

Sixth, take note of what happens when men and women are filled with the Spirit. To be filled with the Spirit does not mean that we become exempt from the trials and tribulations of this life. Indeed, those who are Spirit filled may experience greater trials and testings than others. They will likely experience persecution (see 2 Timothy 3:12). Spirit-filled Christians may not experience health and wealth. But what Spirit-filled Christians will experience is joy in their faith and boldness in their witness. At least that is what we find in this text.

Finally, I want you to take note that it is not the Holy Spirit who is prominent in our text; it is Jesus. If there is any book of the Bible in which the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is emphasized, it is the Book of Acts. And yet it occurred to me that here in our text, where the Spirit’s work is so evident, the Spirit Himself is not the center of attention. It is not the Spirit’s task to glorify Himself; it is the work of the Spirit to glorify Jesus:

26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me, 27 and you also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27).

13 “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you” (John 16:13-14).

There is a chorus that we sometimes sing. It begins, “Father, we love you. . .” and this stanza ends, “Glorify Thy name, Glorify Thy name, Glorify Thy name in all the earth.” The next stanza says the same thing, but now it is the Son of whom we sing. My problem comes in the third stanza. Is it right to sing that the Spirit should glorify His name? I think not. His mission is to glorify the Son, just as the Son’s passion is to glorify the Father (see also John 7:18; 8:49-50, 54; 12:28; 12:31-32; 14:13; 15:8; 17:1, 4).

As I close, I think that American Christians are beginning to experience intimidation for the sake of the gospel. This should not silence us. And when it does not, persecution will follow, here, as it has elsewhere. We should expect persecution, and when it comes, we should rejoice in it, because it has come as part of the divine plan, and it is an indication that victory is ahead. May God give us boldness to proclaim the name of Jesus to a lost and doomed generation.


1 Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 8 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on December 11, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 I have chosen to replace the word “angry,” chosen by the translators of the NET Bible, and to replace it with the expression “greatly annoyed,” which is indicated in a footnote as an alternative rendering. This term is found elsewhere only in Acts 16:18, where it is rendered “greatly annoyed.”

4 This term literally means to “stand over.” With the exception of three occurrences in 1 Thessalonians and 2 Timothy, the term is only found in Luke and Acts. Every time it is employed in Luke, it describes a more intense or dramatic “coming up” or “appearing.” It is used of the appearance of the angel of God in Luke 2:9. It is used of Anna’s dramatic appearance in the temple in Luke 2:38. It describes Jesus as “standing over” Peter’s mother-in-law when He commanded her fever to leave her (Luke 4:39). It is used to describe the time when the Jewish religious leaders “confronted” (the same word, in the NASB and NKJV) Jesus for His teaching in the temple. It is used of the dramatic return of our Lord, which may catch some unprepared in Luke 21:34 (and here the NET Bible renders the word, “come down upon”). In Acts 6:2, the term is used to describe the approach of the religious leaders who drag Stephen off to trial, after which they will kill him.

5 While the NET Bible does not render it this way in verse 13, it does render the imperfect tense in this way in verse 7: “After making Peter and John stand in their midst, they began to inquire, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’” The NASB renders verse 7 in the same way.

6 In the Book of Matthew, the emphasis falls on Herod, who interprets the miracles of Jesus as evidence of John’s resurrection. Luke informs us that Herod was not alone in this conclusion. A number of people thought the same thing.

7 I understand that doing something in Jesus’ name is to do it in His power.

8 I was fascinated to find how often Jesus is identified as the Nazarene. Those who sought to arrest Jesus were looking for “Jesus the Nazarene” (John 18:7). The sign on the cross identified Jesus as “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19).

9 For example, the psalmist speaks of the Lord’s help when nations surrounded him and pushed him violently (Psalm 118:10-14). Does Peter see any parallels to his circumstances, surrounded by these Jewish religious leaders? He speaks with assurance that he will live and not die, and thus he will proclaim the works of the Lord (Psalm 118:17-18). Is Peter speaking of his confidence that these men will not succeed in killing him? I wonder. This psalm would be a source of great comfort to one suffering persecution.

10 Here are a few references to God as the Creator 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.

11 The story of Joseph and his family actually continues to the end of Genesis, but these chapters focus on the point I am seeking to make.

12 We should not forget that it was Peter who drew his sword at the time of our Lord’s arrest, removing the ear of the high priest’s servant (John 18:10). He was willing to die with Jesus, it would seem, but he could not cope with our Lord’s surrender to death at the hands of His enemies.

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9. Subtraction Leads to Multiplication - The First Instance of Church Discipline (Acts 4:32—5:11)

Introduction1

I am aware of a group of untaught Christians who apparently took our text so literally that they were seriously thinking of taking the life of one of their members, who had committed a serious sin. While I appreciate their zeal to do what the Bible teaches, I think they have misapplied Luke’s account of Ananias and Sapphira. On the other extreme, there are many more who would like to simply set this passage aside. They conclude that Peter’s actions and the resulting death of two church members is entirely uncalled for and inappropriate. Unfortunately some who reject the teaching of our text would be considered Bible scholars. These are certainly not the kind of scholars we need.

Actually, there are many who would like to set aside our text and its implications because it exposes a good deal of shoddy thinking and outright sin in the church. For example, “church growth” is a very popular subject today, but I have not personally seen any significant work on the subject which takes our text seriously. By the title I have chosen for this message, you can see that I believe “subtraction sometimes leads to multiplication.” That is to say, church discipline actually promotes church growth.

Let’s face it; none of us are really inclined to add this passage in Acts to our list of “happy texts”2 in the Bible. As we study this passage, let us beware of setting it aside as irrelevant to the church today. And let us strive to keep an open mind to its meaning and application. May we look to the Holy Spirit to expose any falsehood or deception in our thinking or practice. May this lesson help us to be “honest to God” and to others.

The Structure of Our Text

Our text falls into three major divisions:

Acts 4:32-35A general description of the health of the church in Jerusalem

Acts 4:36-37Barnabas cited as a specific example of verses 32-35

Acts 5:1-11Ananias and Sapphira serve as a stark contrast, both to verses 32-35 and to Barnabas in verses 36-37

The State of the Church in Jerusalem
Acts 4:32-35

32 The group of those who believed were of one heart and mind,3 and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but everything was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all. 34 For there was no one needy among them, because those who were owners of land or houses were selling them and bringing the proceeds from the sales 35 and placing them at the apostles’ feet. The proceeds were distributed to each, as anyone had need (Acts 4:32-35, emphasis mine).4

This is the second summary description of the state of the church in Jerusalem. The first is found in Acts 2:

43 Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and held everything in common, 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need. 46 Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, 47 praising God and having the good will of all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved (Acts 2:43-47, emphasis mine).

Both summaries emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the church, particularly through the apostles, who were proclaiming salvation through the resurrected Christ. Both texts emphasize the way the early church shared with those who were in need. In chapter 4, this sharing seems to have become a bit more formal, as now those who are giving lay the money at the feet of the apostles, so that they might distribute these funds to the needs.

Great Power

The word “great” is found three times in our text. It is worthwhile to consider those things Luke considered “great.” The first of these “greats” is “great power.” It is not surprising that Luke would emphasize the fact that “great power” was demonstrated through the hands of the apostles.5 This power is not restricted to just Peter and John, but is displayed through all the apostles. By performing healings, signs and wonders through the apostles, God authenticated the gospel as defined and declared by them. It was difficult to deny such miracles or their significance (see Acts 4:16, 22). God was indeed at work through His apostles. Those who proclaimed that Jesus Christ was alive were those who performed miracles in His name.

Great Unity6

Next, Luke calls our attention to the unity of the saints in Jerusalem. In chapter 2, the Christians were gathering together in the temple and from house to house (Acts 2:47). Now, in our text in Acts 4, Luke tells us that the saints in Jerusalem – all of them – were “of one heart and mind.” They were united by the work of Christ on the cross of Calvary and by the Holy Spirit who dwelt in and among them.

Great Grace

Luke also tells us that “great grace was on them all” (Acts 4:33). While “great power” seems to be restricted to the apostles, who performed many signs and wonders, “great grace” appears to be evident among all the saints. Notice that verse 34 begins with the word “for,” indicating that what follows is a further explanation of the statement that “great grace7 was on them all.”

Initially I was inclined to understand Luke to mean that the church showed great grace by sharing their resources with those in need. I can understand how this meaning would come to mind, but it does not appear to be what Luke intended us to understand. So far as I can tell, Luke does not use the word charis to refer to benevolent giving.8 Koinoneo or koinonia9 (the verb and noun terms denoting “fellowship” or “sharing”) are Luke’s normal way of speaking of financial sharing in Acts.

It now seems to me that Luke is informing us that God was showering His grace upon the Jerusalem church, at least in part due to the unity of the believers, as evidenced by their caring for one another in their financial needs. For various reasons these were not easy times for those living in Jerusalem, the result being that many of the saints in Jerusalem were in financial straits. It is not merely generosity which prompts those with financial resources to give, however; it is a deep unity among the saints. I recall Paul’s words in Romans 12:

9 Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another with mutual love, showing eagerness in honoring one another. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be enthusiastic in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, persist in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited (Romans 12:9-16, emphasis mine).

Great unity (“one heart and soul,” Acts 4:32) leads to empathy with those in need and thus an eagerness to give to meet those needs. Unity expresses itself in community, and community expresses itself in sharing, and in all of this, God’s grace is showered on His church, and then through it.

The health of the church in Jerusalem is seen in the way the saints responded to the needs of their fellow-believers. Apparently there was little cash on hand, probably because that had been given earlier. Thus the saints were selling some of their possessions to obtain the cash to give for the needy.

Before we leave these verses, I would like to make three observations. First, let us note that this text does not describe communism as we know it. The communism of our day says, “What’s yours is mine.” The community of believers in Jerusalem said, “What’s mine is yours.” There is a world of difference between these two methods of sharing the wealth. Communism seizes property from those who have. Theoretically, it then distributes wealth among the poor, but this seldom happens. Often those in control of the government end up with much of what they have taken from others. Christianity voluntarily gives property to relieve the needs of those who do not have. I understand that individuals retained possession of their property until a need arose, and then some would sell a particular possession at a time of need.

Second, this giving is not a matter of tithing. The saints were obligated to financially support those, like Peter, who ministered to them:

3 This is my defense to those who examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to financial support? 5 Do we not have the right to the company of a believing wife, like the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I lack the right not to work? 7 Who ever serves in the army at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Who tends a flock and does not consume its milk? (1 Corinthians 9:3-7)

Now the one who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with the one who teaches it (Galatians 6:6).

Our text deals with giving that is above and beyond the normal giving of the saints.

Third, the giving here is for ministry to those who are in financial need. The religion of the day had all kinds of excuses for not helping the poor. In a time when piety was measured in terms of earthly prosperity, those who were poor were viewed as those under divine discipline (see John 9:1-2). Thus, to give to the suffering could be viewed as resisting God. The church looked on the needy as an opportunity to express their love and (in the case of needy Christians) their unity with fellow-believers.

Barnabas: A Good Example
Acts 4:36-37

36 So Joseph, a Levite who was a native of Cyprus, called by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and placed it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:36-37).

I believe there are several reasons why Luke included this specific information about Barnabas. In the first place, Barnabas is an excellent example of what Luke has just described. Verses 32-35 provided us with a general statement regarding the health of the church in Jerusalem. Verses 36 and 37 provide us with an excellent example of the attitude of the saints in the church toward the needy and toward their own material possessions. Barnabas had a piece of property which he sold, and then brought the proceeds to the apostles to distribute as they saw fit. This is the way it was supposed to be, the way Luke had just described it in more general terms.

Secondly, Barnabas provides an excellent backdrop against which the deception of Ananias and Sapphira will be contrasted. Barnabas was a man respected by the church. He was the source of encouragement to many. He saw a need and recognized he had the resources to help meet it. Without any fanfare, he sold his property and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet. This truly good deed is in stark contrast to what we will read in the early verses of chapter 5.

Finally, this brief reference to Barnabas is Luke’s way of introducing this great leader (and example) to us, in preparation for his later appearances in Acts. Paul (Saul) will be introduced to us in Acts 8:1, while his conversion does not come until chapter 9 and his missionary career commences in chapter 13.10 Barnabas will play a significant role in the life and ministry of Paul (Acts 9:26-28; 11:20-26; 13:1ff.), will be a blessing to the saints at Antioch (Acts 20:19-30), and will minister greatly to John Mark (Acts 15:36-41). Luke chooses to focus on the heart of Barnabas and his character as the basis of a life of fruitful ministry.

I believe Barnabas’ ministry with money was the starting point of his amazing life of ministry, as seen in the Book of Acts. It was Luke who recorded these words of our Lord regarding money:

9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into the eternal homes. 10 “The one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches? 12 And if you haven’t been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:9-13).

Luke was faithful in the relatively small matter of money, and as God expanded his ministry, he was faithful there as well. Barnabas (or Joseph) was known by the apostles as the “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). I believe his selfless attitude made him a servant, who was observant of – and responsive to – the needs of others. This was apparent in the sale of his property in our text; it is likewise apparent in his responsiveness to Paul’s needs (Acts 9 and 11), those in the church at Antioch (Acts 11), and John Mark’s need of someone to come alongside (Acts 15).11

Ananias and Sapphira
Acts 5:1-11

1 Now a man named Ananias, together with Sapphira his wife, sold a piece of property. 2 He kept back for himself part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge; he brought only part of it and placed it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? 4 Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? How have you thought up this deed in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God!” 5 When Ananias heard these words he collapsed and died, and great fear gripped all who heard about it. 6 So the young men came, wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, but she did not know what had happened. 8 Peter said to her, “Tell me, were the two of you paid this amount for the land?” Sapphira said, “Yes, that much.” 9 Peter then told her, “Why have you agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” 10 At once she collapsed at his feet and died. So when the young men came in, they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear gripped the whole church and all who heard about these things (Acts 5:1-11).

Let me begin by making a few observations. First, when the sin of Ananias is described in verses 1 and 2, as well as when Peter rebukes him in verses 3 and 4, Ananias is referred to in a singular form.12 When Peter questions and rebukes Sapphira in verses 8 and 9, he uses the plural, thus linking Sapphira with the sin of her husband. Luke’s account in verses 1 and 2, along with Sapphira’s testimony in verse 8, makes it clear that she was aware of and participated in his deception. We should also note that Ananias alone appeared before the apostles with the money he claimed to be the full amount of the sale. Sapphira appears three hours later. (I have to confess, my first thought was that she was shopping!)

All of this inclines me to suspect that this deception was initiated by Ananias, and not by Sapphira.13 He is the instigator, but she – by her silence, and later by her false statement – was his accomplice, and thus she shared in his guilt and discipline. The way it worked out, Sapphira was given the opportunity to confess her role in this sin, and thus to distance herself from divine discipline. Unfortunately, she persisted in her sin.

Second, I would observe that the expressions “kept back” (verse 2) and “keep back” (verse 3) are the same verb. This verb is used only three times in the New Testament, the final time being in Titus 2:

9 Slaves are to be subject to their own masters in everything, to do what is wanted and not talk back, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, in order to bring credit to the teaching of God our Savior in everything (Titus 2:9-10, emphasis mine).

Every time this term is used in the New Testament (and elsewhere, it would seem), it has a negative connotation. While Ananias was certainly free to keep some or all of the proceeds of the sale of their property, it was stealing once he claimed to give all. I could not help but compare the sin of Ananias and Sapphira with that of Judas:

3 Then Mary took three quarters of a pound of expensive aromatic oil from pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus. She then wiped his feet dry with her hair. (Now the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfumed oil.) 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was going to betray him) said, 5 “Why wasn’t this oil sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” 6 (Now Judas said this not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money box, he used to steal what was put into it.) (John 12:3-6, emphasis mine)

While John does not use the same term we find in our text in Acts, the sin is strikingly similar. Both took something that was designated for others, setting aside a small portion for themselves. No wonder this sin was taken so seriously!

Third, I would point out that Peter did not take the lives of Ananias and Sapphira, nor did he pronounce a death sentence upon Ananias. God took the lives of Ananias and Sapphira, not Peter. Peter rebuked Ananias for his sin, but he did not pronounce sentence on him. He left this matter to God. When God took the life of Ananias, it then became clear to Peter what Sapphira’s fate would be, unless she confessed. Sadly, she did not, and she died like her husband.

I would finally observe that there is no indication Ananias and Sapphira were unsaved. It would be easy to conclude that this couple had never come to faith, but Luke makes no such indication. Christians are fully capable of such sins.

Luke does not tell us the details of how this sin came about. It could be that it happened this way:

Ananias and Sapphira come home from worship. They discuss how many of their friends have sold their property and have given the proceeds to the needy. They don’t really want to give, but feel compelled to do so. Ananias comes up with a plan, to which his wife gives her consent. They will sell a piece of property, claiming that it sold for less than they received. They will give a determined amount to the church and will keep the rest for themselves. And they will do so as if the proceeds were all that they had received for the sale of their property. They will thus give to the poor, keep some money for their own needs, and receive praise (like others) for giving sacrificially.

Such a scheme is possible, but in my mind, it is not likely. Satan is shrewd and cunning14 and works deceitfully to bring about the downfall of believers. I would be more inclined to believe that the sin of Ananias and Sapphira came about something like this:

Ananias and Sapphira become aware of the needs that exist within the believing community, and they desire to help. They cannot help but be aware of the fact that a number of their friends have already sold property and have given the proceeds to the apostles for distribution. They purpose to sell a property they own and to give all the proceeds to the needy. They have the property appraised, and its value is assessed to be $50,000. They indicate to the apostles (and perhaps others) that they intend to sell the property and give the full amount ($50,000) to the apostles. In the course of events, several buyers are intent on buying their property, and the sale price escalates to $60,000. At the same time, they become aware of some expenses that are coming up, expenses for which they have no funds in reserve. And so they decide to keep back $10,000 and give the rest ($50,000) to the church.

Somehow, the impression remains that they are giving the entire amount of the sale to the church. At some point in time, either Ananias or his wife could have corrected this misconception, but they choose not to do so. By the time the money is placed at the feet of the apostles, Ananias clearly states that this is the full amount of the sale – an outright lie. Sapphira is later given the chance to tell the truth, but not knowing what has happened earlier, she confirms the statement(s) made earlier by her husband. The lesser amount ($50,000), she affirms, was the full amount of the sale.

Often, sin starts out as a seemingly insignificant thing (like “a little while lie”) and then grows to something far bigger. Such was the case with the pilfering of Judas. Little did he know where his pilfering would ultimately lead. Peter was present when Ananias came with their contribution. He was informed (supernaturally, I believe) of the deception and rebuked Ananias for lying to the Holy Spirit, and to the church. Since he did not pronounce sentence upon Ananias, I suspect he may have been surprised when Ananias fell dead at his feet.

When Sapphira appeared some three hours later, she was completely unaware of what had happened to her husband. Peter’s question gave her an opportunity to tell the truth and to renounce the lie they had told earlier. She chose to stick with their story and to deepen her involvement in this sin of deception. Having seen how God dealt with Ananias, Peter knew how God would now deal with his wife, and so he announced the death of Ananias and pronounced the imminent death of Sapphira. And thus she died as well.

The death of Ananias and his wife had a profound impact on the church, as well as on those outside the faith. We read in verse 5 that “great fear gripped all who heard” about the death of Ananias. After the death of Sapphira, we are again told that “great fear gripped the whole church and all who heard about these things” (Acts 5:11). In verses 12 and 13, we are told the effect of this fear:

12 Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor (Acts 5:12-13, emphasis mine).

The saints (and particularly the apostles) were held in high regard by the unbelieving community, but as unsaved sinners, those outside the church did not have the courage to join the saints as they gathered. The holiness of God is a dreaded reality to those living in sin.

Conclusion

Our text is brimming with implications and applications for Christians today. We will conclude by calling attention to some areas of application.

First, our text contains much instruction regarding giving:

Giving is a by-product and outgrowth of Christian unity. Our text begins with Luke’s description of the church at Jerusalem as being of “one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32). Sharing flows from unity, and it also enhances unity:

27 At that time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, got up and predicted by the Spirit that a severe famine was about to come over the whole inhabited world. (This took place during the reign of Claudius.) 29 So the disciples, each in accordance with his financial ability, decided to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 They did so, sending their financial aid to the elders by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:27-30).

11 You will be enriched in every way so that you may be generous on every occasion, which is producing through us thanksgiving to God, 12 because the service of this ministry is not only providing for the needs of the saints but is also overflowing with many thanks to God. 13 Through the evidence of this service they will glorify God because of your obedience to your confession in the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your sharing with them and with everyone. 14 And in their prayers on your behalf they long for you because of the extraordinary grace God has shown to you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:11-15)

3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 I always pray with joy in my every prayer for all of you 5 because of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now (Philippians 1:3-5).

I have pointed out elsewhere that the term “fellowship” is frequently used in reference to sharing financially with others. Our text helps us to understand why “fellowship” is often financial. Fellowship is partnership. Our union in Christ makes us all partners, so we should naturally (rather, supernaturally) desire to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Giving need not be restricted to cash on hand. Our text makes it very clear that we should consider all our possessions as potential resources for giving to those in need. All too often we tend to think of our giving only in terms of what is left at the end of the month. Our text in Acts should correct this kind of thinking. All our possessions are potential resources to meet the needs of others. We may have an extra car, for instance, which we can give, loan, or sell to help a brother or sister in need.

Sharing should not be limited to material possessions. We should also be liberal in giving our time, our energies, and our spiritual gifts to those whose needs we can meet.

Giving is a form of encouragement. Barnabas sold his property and gave the proceeds to the apostles to meet the needs of others. Luke is careful to inform us that Barnabas was known as the “son of encouragement.” How often a gift to one in need can be an encouragement to them. I have personally been encouraged by the gifts of others, and I have seen others who have been greatly encouraged in an hour of need by a timely gift, given in Jesus’ name. It says, “God cares about you, and so do we.”

Christians can give for the wrong reasons. Jesus warns us about giving for the wrong reasons in Matthew 6:1-4:

1 “Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. 2 Thus whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. 3 But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4).

Organizations, individuals, and even churches can solicit funds by appealing to wrong motivations. It is sad to say that there are all too many who appeal for funds or donations by appealing to motives which are unbiblical. Sometimes giving becomes a kind of competition to see who can give the most (and receive praise from men for doing so). Sometimes people are prompted to give by the promise of getting something in return (which might even be a plaque, displayed in a prominent place – hardly preventing your left hand from knowing what the right is doing). The unscrupulous may solicit contributions from people (including the very poor) by promising that God will reward them many fold with riches. We should be very careful not to cause a brother to stumble by tempting him with improper motivations for giving.

Giving should be with singleness of purpose. Our text helps me to better understand Paul’s instructions in the Book of Romans, chapter 12:

6 And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; 8 if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness (Romans 12:6-8, emphasis mine).

Translations differ significantly in Romans 12:8. The term rendered “with sincerity” by the NET Bible is rendered “with liberality” in the NKJV. The ESV renders it “in generosity”; the NIV “generously.” The King James Version renders it, “with simplicity,” and this is the translation I prefer. When I looked up the Greek term haplotes in my Greek Lexicon, I found this definition:

“Of simple goodness, which gives itself without reserve, ‘without strings attached’, ‘without hidden agendas.’”15

I believe that “simplicity” or “singleness and sincerity of motive” leads to generosity. It seems clear to me that Ananias and Sapphira had dual (and even opposing) motives for their gift, which led to their hypocrisy. They were seeking to meet the needs of others while at the same time seeking their own carnal need for recognition.

Second, our text challenges the “prosperity gospel,” so popular today. The “Good Life Gospeleers” promise health, wealth, and prosperity to those who are spiritual, and especially those who are “spiritual” (generous) in their giving (to the one making this promise). Our text teaches otherwise. Think of it; this was the early, pristine New Testament church. The church in Jerusalem is made up of Spirit-filled Christians who are bold in proclaiming their faith and generous in their giving. But the fact is that the church has many members who are poor.16 They are Spirit-filled people, and yet they are poor. The whole church is not rich, as the “prosperity gospel” preachers promise us. God does not make everyone in the church rich; He provides for the essential needs of His people through the sacrificial giving of other saints. The saints who give money lay it at the feet of the apostles, to give to the poor. Thus Peter can honestly say to the beggar in chapter 3, “I have no silver or gold” (Acts 3:6). Piety does not keep us from poverty, nor does it guarantee that we will be rich in this world’s goods. God does care for the poor, and so should His saints. The prosperity He grants us enables us to minister to others, knowing that at some point in time the shoe may be on the other foot:

13 For I do not say this so there would be relief for others and suffering for you, but as a matter of equality. 14 At the present time, your abundance will meet their need, so that one day their abundance may also meet your need, and thus there may be equality (2 Corinthians 8:13-14).

Third, our text underscores the necessity and importance of maintaining purity in the local church. The church at Corinth had a member who was living in immorality with his father’s wife. Instead of being grieved and ashamed, and taking disciplinary action, the church was proud of its liberality and did nothing:

1 It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you have been deeply sorrowful instead and removed the one who did this from among you? 3 For even though I am absent physically, I am present in spirit. And I have already judged the one who did this, just as though I were present. 4 When you gather together in the name of our Lord Jesus, and I am with you in spirit, along with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 turn this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast affects the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough – you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:1-8, emphasis mine).

Paul was shocked and horrified by the report of this situation in the Corinthian church. They should have responded by removing this sinner from their midst. Even from a distance, Paul personally exercised church discipline, and urged the church to follow his example. Sin that is tolerated in the church corrupts the church. It must be removed, for the sake of holiness, for the sake of the sinner, for the sake of the gospel, and for the good of the church. I believe that our text in Acts is the first instance of discipline in the early church, and it is meant to teach us the necessity of maintaining purity in the church. If we take the sin of Ananias and Sapphira lightly and are shocked (as some “scholars” are) at the severity of God’s response to their hypocrisy, then it says more about us than about Peter and the church in Jerusalem.

Fourth, we are to learn that purity in the church actually promotes growth. Some (not all, hopefully) “seeker-friendly” churches avoid taking any disciplinary action because they fear that it will dampen the “feel-good” mood they are trying to create. They fear that the church will not grow if it takes a hard line on sin. They are wrong. True growth – growth by evangelism – takes place in the soil of purity, not in the soil of indulgence and indifference. Look at Luke’s report concerning the outcome of this (and other) events in the very next verses:

12 Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor. 14 More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women. 15 Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them (Acts 5:12-15, emphasis mine).

There are three “greats” in our text: “great power” and “great grace” (Acts 4:33); and “great fear” (Acts 5:5, 11). While the term “great” is not found in verse 14 (above), I think it would be safe to say: Great power, plus great grace, plus great fear, facilitates great growth. Purity does not hinder growth; it promotes it.

Fifth, our text reminds us how much God hates hypocrisy. In the final analysis, our text is not primarily about generosity, but about hypocrisy. God is not trying to scare us into giving. Ananias and Sapphira did not have to sell their property, nor did they need to give any of the proceeds of the sale to the church. They are not disciplined for “holding back” on God; they are disciplined for their hypocrisy – for lying to the church and to the Holy Spirit. Ananias and Sapphira sinned by trying to appear more pious than they were by lying about the amount of their gift.

The Gospels of the New Testament contain our Lord’s strong words of rebuke for hypocrites.17 Somehow, hypocrisy is not taken as seriously by Christians today as it was by our Lord. Perhaps one reason is because all of us are guilty of this sin, and we’d rather focus on the sins of others. But why was hypocrisy the first sin to be dealt with in the early church, and why were the consequences so severe for Ananias and Sapphira? I believe it is because hypocrisy is lying, and lying is contrary to the truth. Our Lord Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). The Spirit of God is the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 16:13). It is He who “guides us into all the truth” (John 16:13). It is the truth that sets us free (John 8:32). We are sanctified by the truth (John 17:17). The church is the “support and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Satan, on the other hand, is a liar, and the “father of lies” (John 8:44). The truth is foundational to everything that relates to the Christian faith. To tolerate lying (hypocrisy) is to undermine the church.

It is relatively easy to condemn the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira, but let us recognize that we are all hypocrites, and hypocrisy takes many forms. In our text, hypocrisy is seeking to appear more spiritual to others than you really are. One of the most popular excuses unbelievers employ to justify their rejection of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith is: “the church is full of hypocrites.” In truth, it is. The marvel is that God saves hypocrites, just as He saves liars, murderers, and the very worst of mankind:

9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, emphasis mine).

We would do well to give serious thought to the ways in which we mask our sins and seek to look more pious than we really are. Let Ananias and Sapphira be a warning to us that God hates hypocrisy.

Sixth, while the Spirit of God indwells the church, Satan is also at work in the church. We should not be surprised to find the Spirit of God deeply involved in the church.

21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:21-22, emphasis mine).

The Spirit is so much a part of the church that lying to the church is equivalent to lying to the Spirit. What is a bit more surprising is to find Satan actively involved in opposing the truth. He who is the father of lies seeks to promote falsehood in the church (compare 1 Timothy 4:1). While Satan is actively involved in promoting Ananias’ deception (Acts 5:3), it is likewise clear that this sin originated in his own heart (Acts 5:4; James 1:14-15). We must guard our hearts, lest Satan catch us in his evil schemes (2 Corinthians 2:10-11).

Seventh, our text gives us some additional insight into the subject of the submission of the wife to her husband. It seems clear in our text that a wife’s submission to her husband does not include participation in his sin. Sapphira should have dealt with her husband’s sin as Matthew 18:15-20 instructs. She was in no way obliged to become her husband’s accomplice in this sin. Peter gave Sapphira the opportunity to confess her role in this deception and to tell the truth. When she chose to stand by her husband in his sin, she died.

I found it interesting to note the expression Peter used in verse 9 of chapter 5:

8 Peter said to her, “Tell me, were the two of you paid this amount for the land?” Sapphira said, “Yes, that much.” 9 Peter then told her, “Why have you agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” (Acts 5:8-9, emphasis mine).

This expression, “agreed together,” is the translation of a Greek word from which the English word “symphony” is derived. It means to “be of one mind.” Isn’t that ironic? The “unity” of Acts 4:32 resulted in sacrificial giving to the needy. The “unity” of Acts 5:9 is a unity of a very different kind, resulting in sin and death. Here is an illegitimate unity. A wife is not obligated to support her husband in sin. Sapphira dies because she did support her husband’s sin.

Satan always has his counterfeits. I was reminded of counterfeit unity in Proverbs 1:

11 If they say, “Come with us!
We will lie in wait to shed blood;
we will ambush an innocent person capriciously.
12 We will swallow them alive like Sheol,
those full of vigor like those going down to the Pit.
13 We will seize all kinds of precious wealth;
we will fill our houses with plunder.
14 Join with us!
We will all share equally in what we steal
.”
15 My child, do not go down their way,
withhold yourself from their path;
16 for they are eager to inflict harm,
and they hasten to shed blood (Proverbs 1:11-16, emphasis mine).

How different this “unity” is from the unity we find in Acts. May God grant us the kind of unity which glorifies Him, and which prompts us to have fellowship with our brothers and sisters by responding sacrificially to their needs.


1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 9 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 1, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2 I have borrowed this expression from the Disney movie, “Pollyanna.” In this film, Pollyanna encourages Reverend Ford, a “hellfire and damnation preacher” in her home town, to follow the example of her (deceased) father, who chose to preach only the “glad texts” of the Bible.

3 Literally “soul.”

4 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

5 The term “apostle” may be applied beyond the 12, such as to Barnabas and Paul (Acts 14:14). Also we see Philip performing signs in Acts 8:6-7. Having said this, I still believe that “signs and wonders” were performed by a few people, known as apostles, and not by the mainstream of believers in Jerusalem. Signs and wonders set the apostles apart, so that the gospel they defined, declared, and defended would be recognized as authentic and authoritative.

6 Admittedly, the word “great” is not found here, but it is not an exaggeration to say that “great unity” was evident in the Jerusalem church.

7 Luke uses the word grace (charis) 25 times – 8 times in Luke and 17 times in Acts. Elsewhere in the Gospels, this term is found only 3 times in John. Obviously, it is a very popular term with Paul, who employs it often in his epistles.

8 In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul uses charis (grace) several times in reference to giving, but this is somewhat exceptional.

9 In Acts 2:44 and 4:32, Luke uses the related adjective, koinos, when speaking of the church having all things in common.

10 Gamaliel, Paul’s mentor (Acts 22:3) is introduced to us in Acts 5:34.

11 When I think of Barnabas, I am reminded of Joseph during his unjust period of imprisonment. Had he been feeling sorry for himself, Joseph would probably have not been alert to the needs of the “butler” and the “baker,” who were fellow-inmates (see Genesis 40).

12 For example, the verbs “sold” (verse 1) and “kept back” (verse 2) are third person singular – “He” (Ananias did this). “You” and “your” in verses 3 and 4 are singular, not plural.

13 Because of marriages like that of Ahab and Jezebel (see 1 Kings 21:25), we may be tempted to think that Sapphira prompted her husband to carry out this deception. Luke, however, seems to point to Ananias as the initiator of this sin.

14 Genesis 3:1.

15 Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Third Edition, Copyright © 2000 by The University of Chicago Press. Later in the article, this same Lexicon rejects the definition of “liberosity” or “liberality”: “The interpretation generosity, liberality has frequently been proposed for Ro 12:8; 2 Cor 8:2; 9:11, 13 (w. support sought in TestIss 3:8 [s. RCharles, Test12Patr, 1908, on TestIss 3:1, 2, 8]; Kaibel 716, 5=IG XIV, 1517 [s. L-S-J-M s.v. II, 3]), but this sense (adopted by NRSV et al.) is in dispute, and it is prob. that mng. 1 in the sense of sincere concern, simple goodness is sufficient for all these pass.”

16 We shall see this once again in the early verses of Acts 6.

17 Matthew 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; 23:13ff, 23, 25, 27ff; 24:51; Mark 7:6; 12:15; Luke 6:42; 12:1, 56; 13:15.

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10. Popularity, Persecution, and Divine Deliverance (Acts 5:12-42)

Introduction1

Our God is a saving God, a God of deliverance. The Bible is filled with examples of divine deliverance. When God brought the flood upon the earth to destroy it, He saved Noah and his family, along with a remnant of the creatures that dwell on the earth (Genesis 6-9). When Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, God rescued him from bondage and made him a great leader in the land of Egypt, and a savior to his own people (Genesis 37-50). When the Israelites were held captive as slaves in Egypt, God rescued them and eventually led them into the land of Canaan (Exodus 1-15). God often delivered David from his enemies, and especially from Saul, who sought to kill him (1 Samuel). We read of many other deliverances in the Book of Psalms. God rescued Jehoshaphat from the Syrians (1 Kings 22) and also from the Moabites (2 Kings 3). He rescued Jerusalem from the Assyrians when Sennacherib sent Rabshakeh to destroy Jerusalem and capture Judah (see Isaiah 36-37).

When we come to Acts 5, we have the account of two great deliverances – the deliverance of the apostles from their incarceration in a Jerusalem jail and from certain death at the hands of the Sanhedrin. This is a fascinating text with many applications for Christians today. Let us look to the Holy Spirit to illuminate this passage to our hearts and minds.

Our Text in Context

Acts 1 takes us to that 50-day period of time between our Lord’s resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus revealed Himself to many in very convincing ways, over 40 days (Acts 1:1-3). Our Lord brushed aside specific questions regarding the timing of His return and the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, but commanded that the gospel be taken to the end of the earth (Acts 1:6-8). After our Lord ascended into heaven, the apostles gathered together to wait, devoting themselves to prayer, and choosing Matthias as the replacement for Judas (Acts 1:12-26).

The Spirit of God came upon the church, resulting in the gathering of a large crowd, to which Peter proclaimed the gospel. About 3,000 souls were saved that day, and the church began to gather for the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. These new believers were responsive to the financial needs of their brothers and sisters, even to the point of disposing of their own possessions to meet these needs (Acts 2:42-47).

On their way to the temple for prayer, Peter and John encountered a beggar who had been lame from his mother’s womb. They healed this man in the name of Jesus and preached the gospel to the crowd that gathered in amazement. Peter made it clear in his preaching that Jesus was the promised Messiah, that He had been falsely rejected, accused, convicted, and crucified. He further declared that God had raised Jesus from the dead. To be saved, men must confess their sin and believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah (Acts 3).

This was too much for the Jewish religious leaders, particularly those who were Sadducees. They were the most threatened by the preaching of the apostles. They had played a key role in the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, they held the positions of power in Israel, and they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. And so they had Peter and John arrested and put in jail overnight, and then brought them to stand trial before the Sanhedrin the next morning. Peter’s confidence and boldness were not shaken by the efforts of the religious leaders of Jerusalem to intimidate him (and the rest who preached Jesus as the risen Messiah). He proclaimed that this lame man was healed in the name of Jesus the Nazarene, whom they had crucified, but whom God had raised from the dead. Jesus was the chief corner stone, whom they had rejected, just as the Scriptures had prophesied. Jesus was the One in whom they must believe to be saved and to enter into the promised blessings. There was no way to deny that a great miracle had been performed by the apostles, and there was little the Jewish leaders could do but threaten these apostles and command that they cease preaching in the name of Jesus. Peter and John made it clear they had no intention of following these orders, because they must testify to what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:1-22).

When Peter and John were released, they returned to their fellow believers and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. The whole church rejoiced and prayed this prayer:

24 When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, “Master of all, you who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them, 25 who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather, ‘Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things? 26 The kings of the earth stood together, and the rulers assembled together, against the Lord and against his Christ.’ 27 “For indeed both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand would happen. 29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously (Acts 4:24-31, emphasis mine).2

The saints gathered saw this persecution and opposition as the fulfillment of God’s Word, and as the futile efforts of men to thwart the sovereign plans and purposes of God. They prayed for boldness and for God’s attesting signs and wonders, so that God’s message might bring about the salvation of lost men and thus glorify God. Our text in Acts 5:12-42 is clearly the outgrowth of this prayer.

But there is one more piece of the context which is crucial to our understanding of the text before us (Acts 5:12-5:42), and that is Acts 4:32—5:11. Luke once again informs us of the care these new believers had for one another. From time to time, as the need arose, they would sell land or houses and give the money to the apostles to minister to those in need. Luke then introduces us to Barnabas, who sold a piece of his property and gave the proceeds to the apostles to distribute. There was one couple in the church – Ananias and Sapphira – who were not as noble as Barnabas. They sold a piece of land, but kept back a portion of the sale price for themselves, and then gave the rest to the apostles as though it were the total amount of the sale price. Both died because of their hypocrisy. News of this brought great fear on those who heard, believers and unbelievers alike.

The State of the Church
Acts 5:12-16

12 Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands3 of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon's Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor. 14 More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women. 15 Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them. 16 A crowd of people from the towns around Jerusalem also came together, bringing the sick and those troubled by unclean spirits. They were all being healed (Acts 5:12-16).

In response to the arrest of Peter and John, the Jerusalem saints had prayed that God would “extend His hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:30). This is precisely what God did, as Luke informs us in the verses above. The signs and wonders were incredible, so much so that the people were carrying the sick on cots and pallets, laying them beside the street with the hope that Peter might walk by and his shadow might fall on them.

We might wonder if this was mere superstition on the part of the crowds, perhaps like the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, who waited for the waters to be troubled so that he might plunge in first and be healed.4 Luke gives no indication that these efforts to fall under Peter’s shadow were futile. Instead, he tells us that people from the surrounding towns were bringing their sick and that “all were being healed” (Acts 5:16).

On the one hand, we can see that what is happening through the apostles is strikingly similar to what happened through our Lord:

17 Then he came down with them and stood on a level place. And a large number of his disciples had gathered along with a vast multitude from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon. They came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, 18 and those who suffered from unclean spirits were cured. 19 The whole crowd was trying to touch him, because power was coming out from him and healing them all (Luke 6:17-19).

On the other hand, it appears to me that what happens with Peter is an even greater miracle. In the Gospels, people were healed by touching Jesus; in the Book of Acts, people were healed by simply falling under Peter’s shadow. Thus, we appear to have a partial fulfillment of our Lord’s promise to His disciples in John 14:

12 I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing, and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:12-14, emphasis mine).

There is a second aspect to the “state of the church” as Luke describes it in Acts 5:12-16. The church was growing rapidly, in spite of the discipline of Ananias and Sapphira described at the beginning of the chapter:

More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women (Acts 5:14).

The church has been growing rapidly since Pentecost:

So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added. . . . And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved (Acts 2:41, 47b).

But many of those who had listened to the message believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand (Acts 4:4).

Now, we are told that crowds of both men and women are continuing to come to faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah. And yet this growth is in spite of great fear since the death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:5, 11).

The unbelieving people of Jerusalem are closer to the truth than their religious leaders. Their leaders cannot refute the miracles Jesus is performing through His apostles, nor can they ignore the association they had with Jesus in His ministry. Yet they will not follow the evidence where it leads. Even the unbelieving masses in Jerusalem and the surrounding cities recognized the power of God at work through the apostles. At the same time, they recognized the holiness of God and His church. They would draw close – close enough for Peter’s shadow to fall on their sick – but they would not associate with the church when it assembled.

Jealousy Disguised as Justice
Acts 5:17-28

17 Now the high priest rose up,5 and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy. 18 They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple courts and proclaim to the people all the words of this life.” 21 When they heard this, they entered the temple courts at daybreak and began teaching. Now when the high priest and those who were with him arrived, they summoned the Sanhedrin – that is, the whole high council of the Israelites – and sent to the jail to have the apostles brought before them. 22 But the officers who came for them did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the jail locked securely and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the commander of the temple guard and the chief priests heard this report, they were greatly puzzled concerning it, wondering what this could be. 25 But someone came and reported to them, “Look! The men you put in prison are standing in the temple courts and teaching the people!” 26 Then the commander of the temple guard went with the officers and brought the apostles without the use of force (for they were afraid of being stoned by the people). 27 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 teach in this name. Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood on us!”

We have just been told that “the people held the apostles in high honor” (Acts 5:13). Luke uses this expression (“to hold in high honor”) several times. Twice it is used to describe worship toward God:

And Mary said, “My soul exalts the Lord” (Luke 1:46, emphasis mine).

45 The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. . . (Acts 10:45-46, emphasis mine).

I am not suggesting that the people’s “high esteem” for the apostles was improper, but only that it was truly high esteem. If there was anything that the Jewish religious leaders who were members of the Sanhedrin wanted, it was this kind of esteem:

2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ 8 But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. 9 And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:2-12, emphasis mine).

It would seem that the religious leaders6 could not get beyond their wounded pride to consider the implications of the miracles that were taking place through the hands of the apostles. They were furious. And it was pure jealousy7 that prompted them to have all the apostles arrested and placed in jail overnight. This was the same motivation that prompted them to arrest Jesus and put Him to death:

9 So Pilate asked them, “Do you want me to release the king of the Jews for you?” 10 (For he knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of envy.) 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas instead (Mark 15:9-11, emphasis mine).

And so jealousy prompted the members of the Sanhedrin to have the apostles arrested and hauled off to a “public8 jail. It must have looked so simple to the religious elite. They would simply do what they had done before (even though it didn’t work the first time).9 They would arrest the apostles and let them spend the night in jail, pondering their fate. They would then summon for them to appear before the Council, making every effort to terrify them, and thus to silence them. Simply put, they would “turn up the heat” until they re-established their power and prominence among the people.

Things did not go well for the Sanhedrin, however. During the night, an10 angel of the Lord came and rescued them. He opened the doors of the prison and led them out. It would seem that here, as later in Acts,11 the guards were somehow anesthetized, so that they were not conscious or aware of the great escape. The angel gave the apostles very clear instructions:

“Go and stand in the temple courts and proclaim to the people all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20).

They were to return to the very place where they had been preaching. They were to return to the very same message. They were to proclaim the good news of the gospel to the people, “all the words of this life.” No modifications, no retractions, no change of course – they are to keep doing what they have been doing. Why? Because Luke is showing us that just as Jesus could not be silenced, and His power could not be overcome, so the apostles are invincible in doing the work of the resurrected Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The apostles followed their instructions to the letter. They went to the temple at the break of dawn, at the earliest possible moment. They didn’t wait until late in the day, when no access would be granted, or when no one was present. They went to the temple courts, where all the people would be gathered. And they began teaching, just as they had been doing. It was “business as usual” for the apostles. The people had to take note of this, especially since the arrest of the apostles must have become public knowledge.

All of the events of the previous night – the appearance of the angel of the Lord, the escape of the apostles, their early morning appearance at the temple courts – were unknown to the members of the Sanhedrin. And so they began the morning just as they had planned it the day before. The members of the Sanhedrin were summoned, and next, officers were sent to bring the apostles from jail to stand before them. You can imagine the shock and dismay when the officers return empty-handed with this explanation:

“We found the jail locked securely and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside” (Acts 5:23).

This was no jail break in the normal sense. The guards had not been overpowered, nor had the gates been forced open. Everything appeared normal. The guards were stationed at their post by the prison doors. The doors were securely locked. But when the doors were opened, the cell was empty.

When the commander of the temple guard and the chief priests heard this report, they were dumbfounded. They wondered where all this was leading. What was next? First, it was the empty tomb of Jesus; now, it is the empty cell. What is going on here? This does not bode well, at least not for those who oppose Jesus and His apostles.

At this moment, someone came with this report:

“Look! The men you put in prison are standing in the temple courts and teaching the people!” (Acts 5:25)

The tables have suddenly turned. The chief priests and the Sanhedrin no longer have the upper hand (They never did, but now even they know it!). I am reminded of the time that my roommate in college was looking for a new(er) car. His 1953 Ford coupe was just about worn out. He went to a car dealer friend to look at his used car lot. There he found a 1959 Chevrolet, which he test drove. The salesman made Jerry an offer, which included the trade-in of his 1953 Ford. Jerry was hoping for a better deal and for some time to think about it. He told the salesman that he would think about it and let him know. He got into his old Ford and turned the key. Nothing happened. Jerry stepped out and said to the salesman, “I accept your offer.” When his car would not start, Jerry lost all of his bargaining power. Now, the car salesman had the advantage.

So it was with the members of the Sanhedrin. The commander of the temple guard went with the officers to the temple, where they escorted the apostles back to the Council. Luke is careful to inform us that they did this without force, because they were afraid of the people (Acts 5:26). When the apostles stood before the Sanhedrin, the high priest began to question them. He accused them of disobeying their orders to cease preaching in the name of Jesus. They had not ceased at all; instead, they had succeeded in “filling Jerusalem with their teaching” (Acts 5:27). This is plainly an admission of failure on the part of the Sanhedrin and of success on the part of the apostles.

The apostles were not on the defensive at all, as the high priest backhandedly admitted when he accused them of seeking to bring “this man’s blood” on them. If their teaching had filled Jerusalem, then they must have succeeded on all counts.

Peter Becomes the Prosecutor
Acts 5:29-32

When threatened earlier by this same body of men, Peter had responded,

“Whether it is right before God to obey you rather than God, you decide, for it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).

He had given no indication that the threats of the Sanhedrin would change their actions. Indeed, he assured these religious leaders that they would continue to do what they had been doing – bearing witness to what they had seen and heard. Peter’s response on this occasion did not give the members of the Sanhedrin any encouragement either:

29 But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than people. 30 The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:29-32).

While the religious leaders had an exaggerated idea of their own importance and power, the apostles were not impressed. These were mere men, and the apostles were committed to obeying God. When they must make a choice between the two, they would serve God. They would serve the living Christ, whom the Sanhedrin had condemned and put to death. God had overruled them by raising Jesus from the dead, and by making Him both a Prince and a Savior. It was this Jesus alone who could grant repentance and the forgiveness of sins to Israel. The apostles were witnesses of these things, and the Holy Spirit bore witness with them by His acts of power through their hands.

Gamaliel to the Rescue
Acts 5:33-40

33 Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them. 34 But a Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the council and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to the council, “Men of Israel, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. 37 After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in this case I say to you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, 39 but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God.” He convinced them, 40 and they summoned the apostles and had them beaten. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them (Acts 5:33-40).

We need to be very clear in our minds as to what is about to take place according to verse 33. We read, “Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them” (Acts 5:33, emphasis mine).12 This term, rendered “furious” by the NET Bible is found only one other time in the New Testament. Once again, it is Luke who uses it, and in the Book of Acts, just two chapters later: “When they heard these things, they became furious and ground their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54, emphasis mine).

In this latter instance, Luke is describing the reaction of the same body – the Sanhedrin. In this case, their fury is in response to the strong accusations of Stephen:

51 “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become! 53 You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not obey it” (Acts 7:51-54).

When we come to Acts 5:33, we are at a point where the members are nearly out of control with rage. They are a heartbeat away from the fate of Stephen, just two chapters later. The members of the Sanhedrin are so enraged they want to kill all of the apostles. Luke leaves no doubt about this. First, he says so in verse 33: They were furious, and they wanted to execute them. Second, we see that they did kill Stephen in chapter 7. Third, Luke tells us that Gamaliel was able to convince them (Acts 5:39). We then read that they proceeded to beat the apostles. If beating the apostles was giving in to the convincing argument of Gamaliel, then being unconvinced truly must mean death for the apostles.

In our text, Luke introduces Gamaliel to us for the first time in the Book of Acts. He is described as a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, and as one who was respected by all the people (Acts 5:34). He is more than this however:

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated with strictness under Gamaliel according to the law of our ancestors, and was zealous for God just as all of you are today” (Acts 22:3, emphasis mine).

Gamaliel is a Pharisee, while those who want to kill the apostles are primarily Sadducees (see Acts 4:1; 5:17). Gamaliel is also Paul’s mentor and teacher. He is a man of great influence.

Gamaliel’s argument is a very simple one, and it is built upon facts that are well known to his colleagues. Gamaliel first sent the apostles from the Council. He did not want them to overhear his appeal, or the discussion that would follow. He wanted to be able to talk freely, and he certainly did. Now Gamaliel will press forward with his argument, with the goal of persuading his colleagues not to execute the apostles.

Gamaliel reminds the Council of their past history in regard to revolutionary groups. Theudas rose up, claiming some kind of greatness or mission, and about 400 men joined with him. But after he was killed, his followers disbanded, and the movement came to nothing. So, too, Judas the Galilean “arose13 in the days of the census and gained a following. But when he was killed, his following, like those who once followed Theudas, quickly scattered, and the movement came to nothing.

Gamaliel now draws a conclusion from these facts and applies it to the apostles of our Lord. The principle he draws might be stated this way: “Movements tend to die with their leaders.” He is not yet finished, however. There is another element in his argument. In cases where the movement does not die with the leader, but flourishes, it is possible that this movement is the work of God. To oppose a movement that is thriving might then be opposing God.

The application of this was obvious to the members of the Sanhedrin. Jesus was the leader, and He had been put to death. Normally, one would expect His followers – the disciples and others – to disband. That had not happened. Indeed, the more time that passed, the greater the boldness of the apostles and the greater the number of new followers. Persecution had done nothing to stop the growth of this movement. Does this not suggest that this movement may be a work of God? If this is the case, better leave it alone, or run the risk of opposing God.

It is interesting that Luke includes the essence of Gamaliel’s argument here for the reader to ponder. A fair amount of space is devoted to it. It must therefore be important in Luke’s mind. What is so important about Gamaliel’s counsel to the Sanhedrin? I think there are several elements.

First, Gamaliel’s counsel prevailed, and the Sanhedrin gave up its intention to execute the apostles on the spot. In other words, from a human perspective, Gamaliel’s counsel saved the lives of the apostles. It is clear that they were so furious with the apostles that they intended to kill them (Acts 5:33). He dissuaded them from doing so, thus sparing the lives of the apostles.

Second, Gamaliel’s counsel not only stops an execution, it supports the gospel.14 The more I consider the argument of this prominent scholar, the more it makes sense, and the more it supports the gospel as Luke has been proclaiming it and as the early church practiced it. Gamaliel won because he was right. Jesus was the leader who had been killed, but now they were faced with an empty tomb and with followers (apostles) who were performing signs and wonders, who were preaching with great power, so that the church was rapidly growing. All the evidence pointed to the fact that God was in this, and they had better be careful not to oppose God in their zeal to protect their interests. I am reminded of the words of our Lord, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

Third, I have to wonder if Luke is not introducing us to Gamaliel in preparation for his later appearance in Acts. You will remember that Gamaliel played a very significant role in the life of Saul, before his conversion:

1 “Brothers and fathers, listen to my defense that I now make to you.” 2 (When they heard that he was addressing them in Aramaic, they became even quieter.) Then Paul said, 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated with strictness under Gamaliel according to the law of our ancestors, and was zealous for God just as all of you are today” (Acts 22:1-3, emphasis mine).

When I ask Christians how they were brought to faith in Jesus, they almost always respond, “That’s a long story.” They realize that God used many things to bring them to faith, and often over a period of time. We will read of Saul’s conversion three times in the Book of Acts. From what we read in Acts, we know that Paul was born in Tarsus and then brought up in Jerusalem, under the tutelage of Gamaliel, the very same renowned Pharisee we meet in Acts 5. Saul was also present at the stoning of Stephen (see Acts 7:58; 8:1; 22:20).

I am inclined to think that Gamaliel’s approach to dealing with Jesus and the apostles must have been conveyed to Saul (soon to be known as Paul). In our text, Gamaliel has said, in effect, “If we cannot silence and scatter the apostles and believers in Jesus, then maybe this is a work of God, and we are fighting against Him.” Saul participates (albeit somewhat passively) in the stoning of Stephen. Then he “advances” to much more direct opposition to Christianity:

9 Of course, I myself was convinced that it was necessary to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus the Nazarene. 10 And that is what I did in Jerusalem: Not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons by the authority I received from the chief priests, but I also cast my vote against them when they were sentenced to death. 11 I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to force them to blaspheme. Because I was so furiously enraged at them, I went to persecute them even in foreign cities (Acts 26:9-11).

But it didn’t work! The church continued to grow. And when Saul was on the road to Damascus, he was encountered by the living Christ:

1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing out threats to murder the Lord’s disciples, went to the high priest 2 and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, either men or women, he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he was going along, approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 So he said, “Who are you, Lord?” He replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting! (Acts 9:1-5, emphasis mine)

By His line of questioning, our Lord has made it clear to Saul that he is persecuting Him by persecuting His church. As his teacher, Gamaliel, had said to the Sanhedrin, persecuting the followers of Jesus might just be opposing God. Now, when Saul comes face to face with the risen Lord, he learns that this is precisely what he has been doing. It was not the church that collapsed under persecution, but Saul who collapsed, when confronted by the God he mistakenly assumed he was serving by persecuting the church.

I am therefore suggesting that Gamaliel was actually used of God to promote the gospel, while at the same time he was instrumental in preserving the lives of the apostles. I have to wonder if Gamaliel was there with the Sanhedrin when Paul (the converted Saul) was brought before the Council after his arrest:

30 The next day, because the commanding officer wanted to know the true reason Paul was being accused by the Jews, he released him and ordered the chief priests and the whole council to assemble. He then brought Paul down and had him stand before them. 1 Paul looked directly at the council and said, “Brothers, I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God to this day.” 2 At that the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit there judging me according to the law, and in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those standing near him said, “Do you dare insult God’s high priest?” 5 Paul replied, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You must not speak evil about a ruler of your people.’” 6 Then when Paul noticed that part of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, he shouted out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead!” 7 When he said this, an argument began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.) 9 There was a great commotion, and some experts in the law from the party of the Pharisees stood up and protested strongly, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 22:30—23:9, emphasis mine)

In the Gospels, the Pharisees and the Sadducees conspired together to crucify Jesus. In the Book of Acts, the Pharisees seem to withdraw from opposition to the gospel, and it is the Sadducees who are seeking to stamp out Christianity. And when we come to Acts 23, it appears that the Pharisees and the Sadducees part ways, with the Pharisees actually defending Paul and other Christians. Does Gamaliel not play a significant role in all of this? I have to think so. And perhaps Gamaliel is now present in the Council, defending his former student. Let us hope that he came to know the Savior as Saul (Paul) did.

And so, to get back to our text, Luke informs us that Gamaliel’s reason won the day, and that the Sanhedrin was convinced (Acts 5:39). This does not mean that they gave up entirely, for they summoned the apostles to return, and after beating them, they once again ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then they released them (Acts 5:40).

Reason to Rejoice
Acts 5:41-42

41 So they left the council rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42 And every day both in the temple courts and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 5:41-42).

After graduating from college, I taught sixth grade for nearly two-and-a-half years. On one occasion, I found it necessary to send a student to the principal’s office for discipline. The principal was a nice fellow, but he believed in “reasoning” with the offender. After a while, the student returned to my classroom, with a big smile on his face. One of my other students observed this and remarked something to this effect: “How can he come from being disciplined and have such a big smile on his face?”

The Sanhedrin had no intention of sending the apostles away with a smile on their faces. They had hoped to send them away terrified, subdued, and silent. But it did not turn out that way at all. They were rejoicing because God had considered them worthy of suffering for the name of Jesus, the name in which they gathered, in which they performed miracles, and in which they preached. What a remarkable transformation this is from the frightened little band of followers who fled when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:50), and who hid after His death (see John 20:19). Now, suffering for being identified with Jesus is not dreaded, but received with joy, as well it should be:

7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11).

12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).

There is a direct relationship between Acts 5:41 and verse 42. When suffering is considered a privilege, then preaching will not cease, even when threatened for persisting to proclaim the good news of the gospel. It is the fear of suffering and death that silences some, but when rightly understood, suffering for the sake of Christ is an incentive for preaching. Luke tells us that the apostles not only left the Sanhedrin with smiles on their faces, but with praise in their hearts. They had been honored to suffer for the name of Jesus. They would not stop preaching in His name and proclaiming the good news that salvation was available only through Jesus.

Conclusion

As we conclude this lesson, let us consider some of the lessons we should learn from our text.

First, let us be reminded that our God is a saving, delivering, God. God delivered the apostles twice in our text. He delivered them from prison by sending the Angel of the Lord to rescue them. He also delivered them from death by the speech of Gamaliel. As we saw at the beginning of this lesson, God has been delivering men throughout the Bible. The greatest act of deliverance was our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection. There, He died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sins. He was raised to new life, so that those who trust in Him can live new lives by His power, through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Have you experienced this deliverance from sin and its guilt and punishment? If not, trust in Him today. Acknowledge your sins, and your helplessness to live a sinless life. Acknowledge that you deserve God’s eternal punishment, and that Jesus has taken that punishment on your behalf. This is the greatest deliverance of all, and it is for all who believe in Jesus.

1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – 6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:1-10).

Let those who would reject the gospel and persist in their sin heed the warning of Gamaliel. I would paraphrase it this way: “Willful unbelief is not only futile (it won’t work); it is fatal (you are opposing God).

Second, we see the theme of fulfillment in our text. The suffering and persecution that the apostles suffer here are precisely what our Lord foretold (see Matthew 10:16ff.; John 15:17-23). Also, the message which Peter boldly proclaimed through the power of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of our Lord’s promise as well (see Matthew 10:19-20). Further, we see the prayers of the early church answered, just as they had asked in Acts 4:23-30. Nothing in our text should take us by surprise. God is faithful to His purposes and His promises, and He answers our prayers.

Third, we see legitimization throughout our text. My friend Scott Cunningham called this to my attention. Luke, from the very outset of the Book of Acts, has been showing us how our Lord Jesus is still alive and at work in and through His church. That which our Lord began to do and to teach, the church continues to do and to preach. When we read of the signs and wonders that were performed at the hands of the apostles in Acts 5:12-16, we are reminded of the ministry of our Lord:

17 Then he came down with them and stood on a level place. And a large number of his disciples had gathered along with a vast multitude from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon. They came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, 18 and those who suffered from unclean spirits were cured. 19 The whole crowd was trying to touch him, because power was coming out from him and healing them all (Luke 6:17-19; see also Matthew 14:35-36; Mark 6:54-56).

When we read of the opposition to the apostles by the Jewish religious leaders, prompted by jealousy, we think back to the opposition to our Lord by these same leaders, and for the same reasons:

15 During the feast the governor was accustomed to release one prisoner to the crowd, whomever they wanted. 16 At that time they had in custody a notorious prisoner named Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?” 18 (For he knew that they had handed him over because of envy.) (Matthew 27:15-28)

47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation” (John 11:47-48).

We should thus not be surprised when we read of this same opposition to Paul, out of jealousy:

But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and they began to contradict what Paul was saying by reviling him (Acts 13:45).

But the Jews became jealous, and gathering together some worthless men from the rabble in the marketplace, they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. They attacked Jason’s house, trying to find Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly (Acts 17:5).

Jesus was put to death and confined to a tomb, and He was divinely released from death and the tomb (Acts 2:22-36; 3:14-15; 4:8-12; 5:29-32). The apostles are now released from prison (Acts 5:17-20), as Peter will be in Acts 12, and as Paul and Silas will be in Acts 16. As the religious leaders were unable to silence the powerful teaching of Jesus (Matthew 21, 22), so the religious leaders cannot silence Peter and the apostles (Acts 5:40-42). Neither can they silence Stephen, except by death (Acts 6:8-10; chapter 7); but even then the gospel was not silenced. In fact, God raised up one of those who opposed the gospel (Saul) to take Stephen’s place. And he could not be silenced either.

Over and over again as we read through Acts, we get that deja vu feeling. We have been here before, with Jesus. He is alive and at work in His church, through the Holy Spirit. The church will experience what Jesus did, and they will prevail, because Jesus did. Acts is written, in part, to legitimize the apostles – to show that they were divinely appointed and empowered to carry on the work of our Lord.

Fourth, the deliverance of the apostles was granted so that they could go and proclaim the good news of the gospel. God saved the apostles for a purpose, so that they could speak of Him to lost men. Those who were divinely delivered were told to go back to the temple and to share the message of salvation. We are saved for a purpose, and that purpose is not simply our freedom. We have been set free so that we can declare to lost men that they may be free from their sin and guilt, by faith in Jesus. As the old hymn put it, “We’re saved, saved to tell others. . . .”

Fifth, persecution did not silence the apostles, nor did it alter their message. If persecution does not silence a person, it may affect the message they proclaim. It is not surprising that the Angel of the Lord instructed the apostles to return to the temple, and to proclaim “all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20). The NASB renders this, “the whole message of this Life.” There is always the temptation to dilute or alter the message to make it less offensive, or to leave out certain critical elements. The gospel is the “good news” that God offers eternal life to all who believe. It is also the “bad news” that eternal judgment (hell) awaits sinners. We dare not leave out essential elements of the gospel, just to avoid an adverse reaction. Being ready to suffer and even to die for the name of Christ makes one bold.

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we behave with great boldness (2 Corinthians 3:12).15

Sixth, our text is an example of the blindness of unbelief. How much more evidence is needed to convince the religious leaders that Jesus is the Christ, and that they have greatly sinned by rejecting Him, and by persisting in persecuting the church? Even Gamaliel could see the error of their ways. Unbelief is not due to insufficient evidence; it is due to a hardened heart. One evidence of this hardness of heart is persecution. The Sanhedrin was forced to persecute the apostles, because they could not refute them. We see this with Stephen as well:

8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:8-14).

Elsewhere Paul tells us that men suppress the truth because of their sin:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles (Romans 1:18-23).

Seventh, God has divinely delivered His apostles in such a way as to demonstrate His sovereignty, and the invincibility of the gospel. As I have previously pointed out, God delivered the apostles in two ways: (a) by their supernatural release from prison, and (b) by being spared from death. The first deliverance came about through the Angel of the Lord.16 The second deliverance (from death) was by means of a Pharisee who was a member of the Sanhedrin. The apostles did not accomplish either by an effort on their part. They proclaimed the gospel and left their fate in the hands of God.17 They knew that their lives were in God’s hands, and they committed themselves to His keeping. They, like Paul, knew that either life or death would be glorious,18 and so they did not frantically seek to avoid persecution or death.

Here is the interesting thing. The Jewish religious leaders first attempted to silence the apostles. This failed. Then (as we see from our text) they were determined to kill the apostles, and this effort was thwarted as well. Later, in Acts 7, they will execute Stephen. While Stephen’s death precipitates a great persecution which scatters the saints, the apostles remain in Jerusalem, preaching Jesus:

And Saul agreed completely with killing him. Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1, emphasis mine).

Those who sought to silence and to kill the apostles could not silence them, and could not even drive them from Jerusalem. As our Lord said to Paul, “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by kicking against the goads’” (Acts 26:14). You can’t win when you oppose God; you can only hurt yourself. Those who love and serve God are invincible. Today we sang a song, a portion of which goes like this:

More secure is no one ever
Than the loved ones of the Savior19

Nothing could be more true. He who gave His beloved Son to save us will certainly keep us, in life and in death.


1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 10 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 8, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 What here is described as taking place “through the hands of the apostles” is understood by the apostles to be the work of God’s hand (Acts 4:30). The best the Sanhedrin can do is to violently lay hands on the apostles (Acts 5:18).

4 See John 5:1-9. In this text, there is no indication that this worked, or that it didn’t. Our Lord’s healing is contrasted with this paralytic’s efforts to obtain a supernatural healing. In Acts 5, Peter heals in the Lord’s name, so it is Jesus who is healing (compare Acts 3:6; 4:8-10).

5 I find it fascinating that Luke would choose this term to describe the reaction of the high priest and those with him to the dramatic success of the apostles. It is the same term that Luke uses to refer to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is almost as though Luke is suggesting something like this: “God raised Jesus from the dead; the best the religious leaders can do is to rise up in opposition to the followers of Jesus, the apostles.”

6 We should once again take note of the prominence of the Sadducees in their opposition to the apostles (Acts 5:17), and the relative absence of the Pharisees (except for Gamaliel).

7 There is a consistent pattern here. First, the Jewish leaders were jealous of our Lord’s success (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10. Then they were jealous of the apostles’ success, here in our text (Acts 5:17). Eventually, they will be jealous of Paul (Acts 13:45; 17:5).

8 I have pondered why Luke would include the word “public” here, when it was not necessary. What, then, is the significance of the fact that they were taken to a “public” jail? Was he stressing the fact that they were having the apostles arrested publicly – in full view of the crowds – in order to intimidate the people? Perhaps. Or, is he informing us that the public aspect of this arrest and incarceration backfired? Just as it was public information that the apostles were under arrest (“They’ve arrested the apostles!”), so their miraculous escape became public when the apostles appeared back at the temple courts, in full public view (“It didn’t work; the apostles are back, doing the same thing they were doing when they were arrested.”).

9 This tells us how powerless the religious leaders really were. They could not refute the doctrine (Jesus is alive, and He is the Messiah) nor the practice (healing all who came to them, or them to whom they came). All they could do was use brute force in a futile attempt to silence them. The truth cannot be silenced.

10 Or perhaps “the angel of the Lord” (KJV, NAB). See the note here in the NET Bible.

11 See Acts 12:5-10. Could it have been the same prison from which Peter was once again rescued?

12 The NASB reads, “But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them” (Acts 5:33, NASB; emphasis mine).

13 Once again the term “arose” is the same verb used in reference to our Lord’s resurrection. How ironic that these revolutionaries “rose up” in rebellion while our Lord “rose up” from the dead.

14 The now deceased Greek scholar, A. T. Robertson, makes this observation regarding Acts 5:39: “But if it is of God (ei de ek theou estin). The second alternative is a condition of the first class, determined as fulfilled, ei with the present indicative. By the use of this idiom Gamaliel does put the case more strongly in favor of the apostles than against them. This condition assumes that the thing is so without affirming it to be true.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931). Electronic version, as part of BibleWorks.

15 The ESV renders, “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold.” The NAU renders, “Therefore having such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech.

16 Some would say, “an angel of the Lord.”

17 Compare 1 Peter 2:21-23.

18 See Philippians 1:19-26.

19 “More Secure Is No One Ever,” words by Lina Sandell Berg, 1832-1903.

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11. Growth Pains (Acts 6:1-15)

41 So they left the council rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42 And every day both in the temple courts and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 5:41-42).1

1 Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. 3 But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch. 6 They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.

8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 All who were sitting in the council looked intently at Stephen and saw his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:1-15).2

Introduction3

The mission of the apostles (and the church) is to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus to lost men and women, beginning in Jerusalem, but extending to the entire inhabited world. This was the final command of our Lord to the apostles:

7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

If there is one thing that the Sanhedrin has made clear to the apostles, it is that they must stop preaching the good news of salvation through the risen Messiah, Jesus Christ:

And they called them in and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18).

And they summoned the apostles and had them beaten. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them (Acts 5:40).

The disciples were not intimidated. They made it clear that they intended to keep on preaching Jesus:

19 But Peter and John replied, “Whether it is right before God to obey you rather than God, you decide, 20 for it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20; see 5:27-32).

Indeed, they rejoiced because they were privileged to suffer for the name of Jesus:

So they left the council rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name (Acts 5:41).

They prayed for greater boldness to proclaim the gospel, and God responded:

29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously (Acts 4:29-31).

As a result, the Word has gone forth in power, for they did not cease to preach Jesus:

And every day both in the temple courts and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 5:42).

When we come to chapter 6, we find a different kind of threat to the preaching of the gospel. It is not another instance of persecution, nor another prohibition from the Sanhedrin; it is a crisis within the church, which could distract the apostles from their primary mission. Let us see how this crisis is dealt with, and what lessons there may be here for us.

The Structure of this Message

When I have taught through Acts previously, I dealt with Acts chapter 6 in two lessons.4 I taught Acts 6:1-7, and then dealt with the last half of chapter 6 along with chapter 7 – Stephen’s sermon and resulting stoning. I have chosen to deal with chapter 6 differently this time. We will study all of chapter 6 in this lesson, and then deal with chapter 7 in our next message.

While the chapter and verse divisions of the Bible are not a part of the original text,5 they are very useful to us. In Acts, these chapter divisions would suggest that we consider both sections together: (1) the problem of the neglected widows in verses 1-7; and, (2) the powerful preaching and resulting arrest of Stephen in verses 8-15.

I have come to the conclusion that much of Bible study has to do with “connecting the dots” of Scripture. The “dots” (so to speak) are just far enough apart that the natural man will not see the connection. The believer will see these connections through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:9-16). And so it is that I have committed to consider all of Acts chapter 6 in one message, seeking to understand not only the message of each of the two major divisions, but also to grasp the relationship between the two divisions. Let us look to the Spirit of God to make the truths of this text, like all others, clear to our hearts and minds.

The Problem of the Neglected Widows
Acts 6:1-7

1 Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. 3 But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch. 6 They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:1-7).

The Setting

As we have seen from earlier statements in Acts, the church continued to grow, in spite of opposition and persecution. Here, I believe that Luke calls our attention to the growth of the church because it was part of the problem the apostles must deal with. Church growth was a factor in the friction that was surfacing in the church due to discrepancies in the care of its widows.6 Growth has its benefits, but it also has its pitfalls.

In order to understand the problem that had arisen in the growing church in Jerusalem, we must be aware of the differences between “Greek-speaking Jews” and “native Hebraic Jews” (Acts 6:1). A “native Hebraic Jew” was most likely born and raised in Israel. In Texas, you will see cars with a bumper sticker that reads: “Native Texan.” I’ve seen others that read, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.” “Greek-speaking Jews” were most likely born and raised in one of the Greek-speaking countries outside of Israel.

It was not just a matter of the place of one’s birth, but of one’s native language. “Native Hebraic Jews” would have spoken Aramaic (closely related to Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament). “Greek-speaking Jews” would have spoken Greek and also the native tongue of their country. These would be the languages in which those gathered at Pentecost heard the praises of God:

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” (Acts 2:5-11)

The apostles (and perhaps others) who spoke in tongues were Galileans, and thus they were “native Hebraic Jews.” Those who had come from various distant locations were “Greek-speaking Jews.” The miracle at Pentecost was that those who were “Greek-speaking Jews” heard “native Hebraic Jews” speaking the praises of God in their own native language – not Greek, but the native tongue of their place of birth.

Beyond one’s place of birth and language, there were other distinctions between these two groups. Most notably, there would be significant cultural differences. They did things differently. No wonder that there were many synagogues in Jerusalem (as we will shortly see in Acts 6:9). These Hellenistic Jews met for teaching and fellowship in synagogues with people of the same place of birth, language, and culture.

The “native Hebraic Jews” may very well have been in the majority. If now, they at least had many advantages over the others. This was their turf. They were the ones who could, and would, speak with greater authority. No doubt, they tended to look down on those “late comers” who could not even speak Aramaic.

The growth of the church was one reason why the number of widows the church cared for was large. But there was another reason. Many “foreign” (i.e. “Hellenistic”) Jews felt that the end times were near, and thus they wanted to spend their last days in or near Jerusalem. This was the place where it would all come to a head. And so many widows seem to have spent most of their resources getting to Jerusalem. They may very well have left their families behind, which means their source of support was left behind.7 With such a growing population (it wasn’t just widows who wanted to relocate to Jerusalem), property in Jerusalem was scarce, and prices were undoubtedly high. The widows may have been forced to find housing outside of Jerusalem proper, perhaps in some of the “suburbs.”

While we are not told the ways in which the Greek-speaking widows were overlooked, it is not difficult to imagine some possibilities. There could have been geographic issues, like distance from Jerusalem proper. Perhaps the feeding tables were set up in Jerusalem proper, but many of the Greek-speaking widows lived too far away (and there were no “Meals on Wheels” available). Perhaps language played a part. What if the announcements as to where and when feedings would occur were written in Aramaic? The Greek-speaking widows would be left in the dark as to where to eat.

The discrepancy in the care of the widows does not seem to be intentional on the part of the native-Hebraic saints. The recent disaster with Hurricane Katrina provides us with an illustration. If I understand it correctly, it seems that shortly after the hurricane struck, the only way for people to apply for help was on-line. Now, how could someone whose home was destroyed apply on-line? The poor would not have had a computer in the first place, and they surely would not know how to use one. Help was available, but it was not equally available to all. Some inadvertently (it would appear) were given preference over others. And there was complaining as a result. No wonder.

There was grumbling8 going on in the church at Jerusalem, and the apostles learned of it. The grumblings were not the grumblings of the Greek-speaking widows; they were the grumblings of the Greek-speaking saints, who took up the cause of their widows. The grumblings were not against the apostles, but against the native-Hebraic Jews, whose widows were faring far better.

We are not given a report of the entire process, but only of its conclusion. The apostles called the believers together to announce the solution they had reached. They first set aside any expectation that the twelve should neglect the teaching of the Word in order to personally correct the neglect of the widows. It would be wrong for them to allow this problem to redirect their priorities. The apostles could, however, correct this inequity by delegation. And so they laid down the requirements for those to whom this task would be given. The men of the church should select seven men,9 who will oversee “this necessary task.”10

The apostles do specify that these seven men must be highly qualified. They must have a good reputation, and they must be “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” The apostles do not specify that these men must be Greek-speaking Jews, and yet the names of all seven are Greek names. One of these men – Nicolas – was a proselyte, a Gentile who had converted to Judaism. The church seemed to recognize that these Greek-speaking widows would best be represented and cared for by Greek-speaking men.

It is noteworthy that Stephen is named first, and that he is further described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). The second person listed is Philip. It is these two men – Stephen and Philip – who will greatly contribute to the advance of the gospel through evangelism. Both are being introduced by Luke, in preparation for further descriptions of their ministries. Stephen will follow immediately (Acts 6:8–7:60); Philip will reappear in Acts chapter 8.

The seven men were placed before the apostles, who laid their hands on them and prayed. The laying on of hands seems to have signified the identification of the apostles with these men and their ministry. In other words, these seven men were acting on behalf of the apostles. This is similar to the laying on of hands in Acts 13:3, where the church at Antioch identified with the ministry of Barnabas and Saul (Paul), when they went out as missionaries. In addition, the laying on of hands in conjunction with prayer may also involve the bestowing of gifts necessary for the task. We find this indicated in 1 Timothy 4:14 and 2 Timothy 1:6.

We should probably note that these seven men are not called “deacons” (diakonos) in this passage, although the same root word for service or ministry (diakonia – noun) is found in verses 1 (“distribution”) and 4 (“ministry”), and the verb (diakoneo) is found once in verse 2 (“to wait on”). I am therefore willing to see the apostles as functioning something like elders, and these seven as functioning as deacons. The deacons enable the elders to more effectively carry out their primary mission by relieving them of other important areas of oversight.

In verse 7, Luke gives a summary report, indicating the impact of the apostles’ decision to appoint these seven leaders.

The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7).

Three things are indicated here. First, the “word of God continued to spread.” This same expression is found later in Acts 12:24 and Acts 19:20. Luke is not describing church growth here, but rather the ever widening circle in which the gospel is proclaimed. A similar statement is made in Acts 19:

This went on for two years, so that all who lived in the province of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:10).

The Word of God was not restricted, either by the opposition of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish religious leaders, or by the threatening crisis in care for the widows.

Second, the church continued to grow in numbers: “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, . . . .” (Acts 6:7). Nothing, it seemed, could stop the growth of the church. In the light of Gamaliel’s counsel to his brethren (Acts 5:34-39), this should suggest that God was in this movement. By now, the reader is hardly surprised to read of the church’s continuing growth.

Third, we are told that many of the priests came to faith in Jesus, or rather that they became “obedient to the faith.” I have often pondered why Luke would choose to tell us this here, in this context of caring for the widows. I would note first of all that the expression “chief priests” occurs frequently in the Gospels and in Acts.11 Almost always, the chief priests are spoken of in a negative way. They were leaders in the opposition to Jesus, and in His death. When the simple term “priest” or “priests” is found, it is not nearly as negative.12 My friend remarked after this message that the priests were the “deacons” of the Old Testament system. They were, in one sense, “investigators.” Priests and Levites were sent to check out John the Baptist by “the Jews” (John 1:19). When Jesus healed a leper, He sent them to the priest to be declared clean (see Luke 5:14; 17:14). The priests routinely worked with those things which were the “shadow of things to come, the substance of which was Christ” (Colossians 2:17). The writer to the Hebrews would expand this in much greater detail. The priests would look upon the veil that was torn at the time of our Lord’s death (Matthew 27:51).

The priests would, by virtue of their work, have observed first hand the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders, who talked piously, but whose actions were an entirely different story:

40 They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. These men will receive a more severe punishment” (Mark 12:40; see also Matthew 23:13-30).

Surely James was right when he wrote:

Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:29).

If this is so, then the priests would recognize the faith of the gospel as true religion, and Jesus as the true Messiah.

I am reminded here of the doubts of John the Baptist, the question he asked of Jesus through his disciples, and our Lord’s response in Matthew 11:2-6. In effect, Jesus answered John’s question, “Look, John, at what I am doing, and judge for yourself if this isn’t the work of Messiah.” It wasn’t just what Jesus said, but also what He did, that was so compelling. The apostles were not only proclaiming the words of Jesus; they were practicing the works of Jesus. This was compelling proof for those who had eyes to see. Many of the priests therefore came to faith in Jesus, in part due to the way the church responded to the needs of its widows.

Success Leads to Arrest
Acts 6:8-15

8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 All who were sitting in the council looked intently at Stephen and saw his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:8-15).

I am not surprised to read about Stephen in these verses. After all, Stephen was just introduced in the preceding verses. But what does surprise me is that these later verses (Acts 6:8ff.) make no mention of Stephen’s work as a deacon. His work with the widows may have provided many opportunities for witness, but Luke does not directly link Stephen’s ministry as a deacon to his success as a preacher of the gospel.

To press this matter further, verse 8 seems to introduce Stephen in a whole different light. In verse 6, Stephen was described as a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” In light of the requirements set down by the apostles, he was also well spoken of and was “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). But now Stephen is described more as an apostle than as a deacon.

Earlier in the Book of Acts, Luke has said this of the apostles:

With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all (Acts 4:33).

Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico (Acts 5:12).

Now in chapter 6, we are told that Stephen was “full of grace and power” and that he was “performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). Does it not sound as though Stephen has been granted those powers restricted to the apostles earlier in this same book? His preaching ministry, then, appears to arise out of these gifts, and not out of his ministry as a deacon.13

In verses 1-7 of chapter 6, the Greek-speaking Jews were grumbling against their native Hebraic Jewish brethren. Here, certain Greek-speaking Jews are strongly opposing the preaching of a fellow Greek-speaking Jew. The Jews who oppose Stephen are obviously not Christians. Saul (later known as Paul) may very well have been among them.

There is much we would like to know that Luke does not tell us in these last eight verses of Acts chapter 6. For instance, we do not know why the twelve apostles are absent in this account. One reason may be that Stephen is a Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jew, while the twelve are native Hebraic speakers. Stephen’s teaching and preaching may have taken place in the Hellenistic synagogues, which were likely to be found in Jerusalem (or its suburbs), while the apostles preached in the temple courts. The Hellenistic Jewish synagogues appear to be the source of the opposition to Stephen’s preaching, while the native Hebraic Jews (the “establishment” in Jerusalem) are the source of the opposition to Jesus. The establishment seems to have “backed off” from their opposition, taking a “wait and see” approach, thanks to the persuasive argument of Gamaliel. Stephen’s Hellenistic opponents are unwilling to “back off.” As a Hellenistic Jew, Stephen may also have grasped more fully the implications of the gospel. He may have understood that the time for adding many Gentiles to God’s flock had come and that the Jews would be put on the shelf for a time.14 He may also have grasped more clearly that the temple would soon be sacked, along with the city of Jerusalem. His message, therefore, may have been more specific, and thus more disturbing for an unbelieving Jew.

Something else we are not told, that would be of great interest, is exactly what the content of Stephen’s preaching was. In Acts 6:8, we are simply told that Stephen was performing signs and wonders. Nothing is said about the content of his preaching. Surely it must have been similar to the preaching of Peter, as it is recorded in the early chapters of Acts. Stephen’s sermon in the next chapter may give us some taste of what was included in Stephen’s earlier preaching.

At first, these Greek-speaking Jews sought to oppose Stephen by debating with him. That did not work. I suspect that just as the Jewish religious leaders only succeeded in looking foolish by trying to debate with Jesus,15 so Stephen’s opponents only furthered his cause by arguing with him. Our Lord’s words are thus fulfilled in the preaching of Stephen:

12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you, handing you over to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will be a time for you to serve as witnesses. 14 Therefore be resolved not to rehearse ahead of time how to make your defense. 15 For I will give you the words along with the wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:12-15, emphasis mine).

When words prove ineffective and arguments fail, desperate men turn to more desperate measures. They induced some who claimed that they heard Stephen, “speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God,” (Acts 6:11). As I read these words, I am reminded of the story of Ahab and Jezebel, who similarly accused Naboth of “cursing God and the king” because they wanted his property (see 1 Kings 21:1-16). It was a carefully orchestrated conspiracy. The people believed the false testimony and were enraged, as were the elders and the scribes. Only after this did they arrest Stephen and bring him before the Sanhedrin for trial. At this trial, false testimony was given by those who accused Stephen of incessantly speaking “against this holy place16 and the law. They further testified that they heard Stephen saying that “Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this [holy] place and change the customs that Moses handed down” (Acts 6:13-14).

As is often the case, there was a measure of truth in this accusation. The temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed:

1 Now as Jesus was going out of the temple courts and walking away, his disciples came to show him the temple buildings. 2 And he said to them, “Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!” (Matthew 24:1-2)

18 So then the Jewish leaders responded, “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” 19 Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (John 2:17-19).

20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. Those who are inside the city must depart. Those who are out in the country must not enter it, 22 because these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing their babies in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led away as captives among all nations. Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:20-24).

28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For this is certain: The days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore children, and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ 31 For if such things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:28-31)

The enemies of the gospel had twisted Jesus’ words when they accused Him and so, too, did the enemies of the gospel who opposed Stephen. Jesus had spoken about the destruction of His body as a destruction of “this temple” (John 2:17-19), but that was not a reference to the actual temple in Jerusalem, but rather a reference to His death and resurrection. Jesus did speak (especially to His disciples) about the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem (for example, Luke 21:20-24), but He did not suggest that it was He who was personally going to do this in the way His adversaries (and now those who opposed Stephen) indicated. They were portraying Stephen as a kind of terrorist, just as they did Jesus.

The second line of attack was to accuse Stephen of teaching that Jesus would set aside the customs handed down to them by Moses. The inauguration of the New Covenant would change a good many things with regard to the Old Testament law. Some things (like the keeping of the Sabbath and the ceremonial food laws) would change. But many of those things that would be set aside were not actually the teachings of Moses, but rather the traditions of the Jews:

1 Then Pharisees and experts in the law came from Jerusalem to Jesus and said, 2 “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 But you say, ‘If someone tells his father or mother, “Whatever help you would have received from me is given to God,” 6 he does not need to honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God on account of your tradition” (Matthew 15:1-6).

This is something Jesus took up in His Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7). He would frequently say, “You have heard that it was said, . . . but I say to you . . .” (see Matthew 5:21-48). By this He meant, “You have heard your religious teachers say . . . (as their application of the law of Moses), but I say to you . . . ‘Here is what the law of Moses really meant; here is how you should understand the law.’” In our Lord’s teaching, His coming was to be understood as fulfillment, more than abolition:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

The message of the “witnesses for hire” was, “Jesus of Nazareth whom Stephen preaches (with great success and growing numbers of followers), threatens to destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and to cast aside Moses and his teachings.” This was anathema to devout Jews, and they responded accordingly.

What irony we find in verse 15:

All who were sitting in the council looked intently at Stephen and saw his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15).

Without a doubt, Luke intended for us to recall this Old Testament scene:

27 The Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread, and he did not drink water. He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. 29 Now when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand – when he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to approach him. 31 But Moses called to them, so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and Moses spoke to them. 32 After this all the Israelites approached, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:27-32, emphasis mine).

These Hellenistic Jews were accusing Stephen of preaching against Moses, and yet Stephen looked just like Moses, after he had been on the holy mountain speaking with God. His face was aglow. The words Stephen spoke were given to him by the Holy Spirit, and thus they were the very words of God, just like the words Moses spoke (with glowing face) were the words God had given him on the mountain. It will get even better in Acts chapter 7, for there it ends with Stephen sounding just like Jesus, at the time of His death.

Conclusion

In our text, Luke has described two situations. The first (Acts 6:1-7) describes how the apostles dealt with the inequities that existed in the treatment of the widows. The second (Acts 6:8-15) is Luke’s account of the power of God through the ministry of Stephen, and the reaction this brought from his fellow Hellenistic Jews. Let us begin by exploring the implications of these texts for us, and then conclude by considering how these two parts of chapter 6 fit together to teach us an important lesson.

(1) Legitimization. How do we know that the gospel as we have it – the gospel as set down by the apostles – is the real thing? Our text continues to demonstrate the authenticity of the apostles as those who believe in Jesus and who speak for Him, with His authority and power. During His earthly ministry, Jesus performed many signs and wonders:

1 Now Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did he get these ideas? And what is this wisdom that has been given to him? What are these miracles that are done through his hands? (Mark 6:1-2)

36 As he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen: 38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:36-38)

22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know – 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. 24 But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power (Acts 2:22-24).

So, too, the apostles performed many signs and wonders (including Stephen):

Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles (Acts 2:43).

Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico (Acts 5:12).

Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people (Acts 6:8).

You will remember that when John the Baptist had his doubts as to whether or not Jesus was the true Messiah, Jesus encouraged John to consider His works, for they were the work of Messiah:

2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds Christ had done, he sent his disciples to ask a question: 3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: 5 The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:2-6).

The Apostle James put it this way:

Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).

When the priests (and many others) beheld the way the church cared for its widows, many concluded, “This is true religion.” No wonder so many of the priests came to faith in Jesus. The words and works of the apostles were likewise the words and works of Jesus. This should have been an indication that both Jesus and His apostles were true servants of God, who spoke for Him with full authority.

The apostles are legitimized by the opposition they receive to their ministry. Just as they did as Jesus did and taught as Jesus taught, so they were opposed in the same way Jesus was. The opposition was intimidated by our Lord’s success and popularity with the people:

47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation” (John 11:47-48).

The Jewish religious leaders were likewise threatened by the success of the apostles, including Stephen:

14 More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women. 15 Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them. 16 A crowd of people from the towns around Jerusalem also came together, bringing the sick and those troubled by unclean spirits. They were all being healed. 17 Now the high priest rose up, and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy (Acts 5:14-17).

8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God” (Acts 6:8-11).

Our Lord’s opponents initially tried to discredit Jesus by debating with Him (Matthew 21:23ff.), but when they miserably failed (Matthew 22:46), they resorted to false charges (Matthew 26:59ff.), which led to His death. The same thing nearly happened to the apostles (Acts 5), and did happen with Stephen:

8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:8-14).

We will see shortly that Stephen’s death was, in certain regards, like that of our Lord. When we read the Book of Acts it has a familiar feel, as well it should, for men respond to the apostles the same way that they responded to the Lord Jesus.

(2) Cultures clash, but the gospel unites. In the end, the polarization we find between the Greek-speaking Jews and the native Hebraic Jews in Acts 6:1-7 is rooted in the clash of two different cultures. While both groups were Jewish, they were very different in their place of birth, in language, and in culture. The work of Christ at Calvary unites Jews and Gentiles in one body as “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15). Cultural differences provide potential tensions, but the gospel of God’s grace is sufficient. The decision of the apostles and the choice of the seven by the church put to rest a potential problem.

I am delighted to look out into the faces of our congregation and see a wide diversity of race and culture. I believe that true Christian unity, practiced and preserved in the context of diversity, is a distinguishing mark of Christianity. This is one of the ways the world will know we are His (John 13:34-35; 17:21). To maintain unity in diversity, we need to appreciate the value of diversity and also to be sensitive to the way our culture may adversely affect others. We need to be quick to respond biblically to tensions that may be rooted in cultural diversity.

(3) Our text is a lesson in church leadership. I am making the assumption that the twelve are roughly equivalent to elders, and that the seven are essentially deacons. If this is valid, then we should see that deacons oversee areas of responsibility so that the elders can devote themselves to their primary tasks. We might say that the deacons assist the elders by assuming administrative responsibilities that enable the elders to give more attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.

In our church, we believe that the church is to be governed by a plurality of elders. There are many ways to govern. Some elder boards rule with a heavy hand (not unlike some pastors). I believe that our text provides a model for how elders should rule. The elders listened to what was being said, and observed what was going on in the church. They responded quickly to a potentially serious problem. They reached a decision as to how it should be handled. They established priorities and laid out guidelines by which the problem would be solved. Their decision was acceptable to all parties and readily embraced by the church. The church was allowed to select their own leaders, within the boundaries of the qualifications set down by the apostles. The apostles then laid their hands on these men and prayed for them. Here is a healthy relationship between the elders and the flock. It was not congregational rule, but the elders did not fail to listen to the congregation, to respond to their concerns, and to involve them in the solution.

(4) Our text reminds us that the care of widows and the poor is a most important matter. As we have seen already, James tells us that true religion is concerned with the widows and the orphans (James 1:27). Luke has taken considerable effort to show us that the early church was deeply concerned about meeting the needs of those in the flock. Great sacrifices were made in order to care for those in need. You will recall that when the apostles commended Paul, they gave him this one instruction:

7 On the contrary, when they saw that I was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was to the circumcised 8 (for he who empowered Peter for his apostleship to the circumcised also empowered me for my apostleship to the Gentiles) 9 and when James, Cephas, and John, who had a reputation as pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do (Galatians 2:7-10, emphasis mine).

As elders, we have been discussing ways to be more in touch with the needs of our widows and other vulnerable members of our church body. As we mature as a church and so do our members, there will be an increasing number of widows and older single women in our congregation. We need to be thinking of ways that we may minister to their needs. It may be by buying or building housing, or by providing transportation, or food, or fellowship. The way we care for our widows has a great impact on other areas of ministry. The church that cares for its widows (and orphans)17 is one that will stand out as having true religion.

(5) Our text is yet another illustration of the sovereignty of God in Acts. I have to smile as I read our text, because God had a somewhat different plan than the apostles did. The apostles sought to solve a practical problem (conflict because of an inequity in the feeding of the widows) in a spiritual way. They rightly discerned their priorities and set about with the appointment of “deacons” to enable them to carry out their primary tasks (prayer and the ministry of the Word) in the church. They appointed seven men as “deacons” so that they could preach. And then God chose to make two of these seven “deacons” into great preachers. These two men, Stephen and Philip, were the key to the evangelization of the Greek-speaking Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. God modified the plan of the apostles. As good as it was, God had another plan, a better plan. God works in mysterious ways, as we see in our text.

(6) Connecting the dots of Acts chapter 6. We’re back to where we started – my sense that we should study Acts chapter 6 as a unit, because the two halves of this chapter are closely related. Let us now seek to connect the dots of these two texts, and see where it leads us.

The obvious connections are, well, obvious. In verses 1-7, Stephen is introduced as the first of the seven “deacons” who are appointed to oversee the care of the widows. In verses 8-15, Stephen is presented as the powerful preacher who seems to match the apostles in power. In verses 1-7, we find the Greek-speaking Jews murmuring against the native Hebraic Jews because their widows are receiving inferior care. In verses 8-15, we find other Greek-speaking Jews strongly opposing Stephen. When they cannot defeat him with rhetoric, they take more extreme measures – procuring false testimony against him as a blasphemer.

But what other connections do we find between the two halves of Acts chapter 6? Let me suggest that the key is understanding the fundamental unity of truth and obedience, between preaching and practice, in the Christian faith. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus underscored the necessity of hearing and doing:

24 “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!” (Matthew 7:24-27, emphasis mine)

Later in Matthew, Jesus strongly rebukes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, that is, for their failure to live according to their teaching:

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:1-4, emphasis mine).

The Book of Acts begins with these words:

“I wrote the former account, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1, emphasis mine).

Our Lord’s ministry was not just preaching. Jesus also ministered to the needs of those He encountered. He healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons, and fed the hungry. When John the Baptist expressed doubt as to whether Jesus was the real Messiah, Jesus pointed him to His deeds, and not just to His doctrine, as important as that was (Matthew 11:1-6).

The early chapters of the Book of Acts contain two of the great sermons of the Apostle Peter, and next, one great sermon of Stephen. As critical as these sermons are, we need to see that they were accompanied by service. The apostles performed signs and wonders, and many healings. The words of the apostles were accompanied by their works, and the works of those who believed their teaching. We find in Acts 2 not only a wonderful sermon (Acts 2:14-40), but the account of amazing works – not just signs and wonders, but sacrificial sharing with those in need (Acts 2:42-46). We find the same in chapters 3-5. There is both powerful preaching (Acts 3:11-26), but also powerful deeds (Acts 4:32-37). Words and works.

Now, we come to chapter 6 and the problem of the unfed widows. The apostles recognize that their primary mission is “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2, 4). But they do not minimize the importance of the work of caring for their widows. And for this reason, they appoint seven godly men to oversee this important ministry.

We might wrongly assume this means that the apostles will only pray and preach, but this is not the case. We see the healing ministry of the apostles (particularly Peter) both before chapter 6 (see Acts 5:14-16) and after (see Acts 9:36-43). As my friend put it, the apostles not only “teach,” they “touch” those who are in need.

Now, when we come to the last half of Acts chapter 6, we might suppose that we are going to be reading about widows being fed by “deacons.” We might assume that the apostles have a monopoly on the speaking ministry, and that the “deacons” are restricted to the “serving” ministry. This is not the case at all, and I think this is Luke’s point. Lest we be like the hypocritical Pharisees of Matthew 23, we must not only talk the talk, we must also walk the walk. We all must speak and serve.

Stephen, a man who has been appointed as a “deacon,” is now (Acts 6:8ff.) found to be performing signs and wonders and speaking with such power that his adversaries are unable to refute him. They must resort to underhanded schemes and brute force.

Let me put it this way. The issue in chapters 4 and 5 is this: Will the apostles be muzzled by the threats and persecution of the unbelieving Jewish leaders? The answer to this is a resounding, “No!” The issue in Acts 6:1-7 is this: Will the apostles be muzzled (or silenced) because of the physical needs of the widows? In other words, will the apostles be distracted from their primary ministry of prayer and proclamation of the gospel, by the urgent need of caring for the widows? The answer, once again, is “No!” The question in Acts 6:8-15 is this: Will the proclamation of the gospel by the “deacons” be swallowed up by the task of caring for the widows? The answer is still “No!” Teaching and touching, doctrine and practice, words and works must not be separated.

This is the message that we find in the Book of James:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that – and tremble with fear. 20 But would you like evidence, you empty fellow, that faith without works is useless? (James 2:14-20)

We seem to think that we can debate men into the kingdom of God. We cannot. Our words must be empowered by the Holy Spirit. But in addition, our lives must reflect the truth of the words we speak. Acts is not just about preaching; it is about preaching buttressed by practice.

All too often, liberal social programs sever their ties to the gospel message and the Word of God. This ministry is so important, and the needs so great, that the preaching of the gospel falls through the cracks. People thus end up with full stomachs, but empty lives. Conservative Christians sometimes take the gospel to the lost, but they don’t address their pressing physical needs. This is not true to the Christian faith, and it is counter-productive for the gospel. We must strive to maintain both preaching and practice.

(7) One last thought. There is a subtle shift taking place in our text (and also in the following chapters). There is a shift from the native Hebraic-speaking apostles to Greek-speaking apostles (Stephen, Philip, Paul, Barnabas, and so on). There is a shift from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and then to the remotest part of the earth. There is a shift from Jewish evangelism to Gentile evangelism. And the change is taking place before our very eyes in our text. I find it interesting to note that the strong opposition of Greek-speaking Jews brings about the death of Stephen, but it does not silence the gospel. It propels the gospel outward, to more distant places, and to those outside of Judaism. The death of Stephen is a pivotal event.


1 I have included the text of Acts 5:41-42 because it is closely tied to chapter 6. Chapter 5 thus ends with the statement that, in spite of the persecution and threats the apostles received at the hands of the Sanhedrin, they were not intimidated, and they were not silenced, nor did the preaching of the Word cease. Chapter 6 will introduce another threat to the preaching of the gospel – another way that the preaching of the Word might be hindered.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson11 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 15, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

4 /viewseries/20

5 http://www.fuller.edu/ministry/berean/chs_vss.htm

6 Thus, the title for this message: Growth Pains.

7 See 1 Timothy 5:3-8.

8 I prefer the term “grumbling” to “a complaint,” even though this is the way many translations render the term. This is the term used to refer to the grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness (e.g. Exodus 16:7, 8, 9, 12). Thus, the KJV reads, “. . . there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews . . . .” Above all, I prefer the rendering of the NLT: “But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.

9 The oversight of the care of the widows is given to seven men. These men are to be selected by the men (brothers) of the church. One might think that caring for the widows would be women’s work, but not the choice of the seven, nor the work of oversight, given to the seven.

10 The NET Bible rightly emphasizes the fact that this is not an insignificant matter; it is a very real and important need. It deserves the best efforts of highly qualified men.

11 Matthew = 18 times; Mark = 14 times; Luke = 12 times; John = 10 times; Acts = 11 times.

12 Only Acts 4:1-3 speaks somewhat negatively of the priests, for here it speaks of the priests, along with the captain of the temple guard, arresting the apostles for preaching in the temple area.

13 I am not suggesting that his preaching had nothing to do with his ministry as a deacon. I am only pointing out that Luke does not stress the relationship between Stephen’s role as a deacon (or prototype deacon), but rather the relationship between his endowment of great power, like the twelve apostles possessed.

14 As Paul, another Hellenistic Jew, will spell out in Romans 11.

15 See Matthew 22:46.

16 I wonder if the expression, “this holy place,” is broad enough to include both the temple and Jerusalem. Jesus warned that both would be destroyed, and Stephen may well have reflected this in his preaching.

17 We have just recently entered into this phase of ministry. Some of our members are adopting orphans. We have established a relationship with some Russian Christians who seek to minister to the many Russian orphans. This is a wonderful opportunity to practice what our Lord taught us to do.

http://feeds.bible.org/deffinbaugh/acts/deffinbaugh_acts_11.mp3
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12. The First Martyr -or- Taking God for Granite (Acts 7:1-60)

I confess that this is a play on words, but it is one that represents an important truth. The law of Moses was written on stone. The temple, too, was made of stone. In one sense, the Jews had made the law of Moses (as they interpreted it) and the temple an idol. Their “god” was a god of their making, rather than the One who made all things (Acts 4:24). They made stone (granite?) their “god.” Thus, they took God for granite, or perhaps we should say they took granite for their god.

Introduction1

In 1 Kings 21:1-24, we read how Ahab, prompted by his wife Jezebel, wrongly acquired a vineyard that belonged to Naboth. This vineyard was adjacent to Ahab’s palace in Jezreel, and so Ahab wanted it for a garden. Ahab offered a fair price. He was willing to pay cash or to trade for another piece of land. The problem was that the law forbade Naboth to sell his property, because the law required that possession must remain within his family. This way the land would remain evenly distributed among God’s people. Naboth was committed to obey the law, and thus he declined what otherwise would have been a generous offer.

Ahab was greatly depressed because he couldn’t have his garden. But Jezebel had a plan. If the law prohibited Ahab from having this property, she would twist the law in order to acquire it. In Ahab’s name, she privately instructed the elders and leaders of Naboth’s city to proclaim a fast and to set Naboth at the head of the people. The fast would give the appearance that something was wrong, and that the leaders were seeking God’s guidance to make it right. Following Jezebel’s orders, they seated two men by Naboth who would bear false testimony against him, accusing him of blasphemy against God and the king. Naboth, it would appear, was the source of Israel’s troubles, so they took him out and executed him. The murder of Naboth and the seizure of his property was carried out in the guise of upholding righteousness. What a horrible evil.

The prophet Elijah confronted Ahab and pronounced God’s judgment on him for this great evil. At the end of this account, we are given God’s assessment of Ahab and Jezebel:

25 (There had never been anyone like Ahab, who was firmly committed to doing evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel. 26 He was so wicked he worshiped the disgusting idols, just like the Amorites whom the Lord had driven out from before the Israelites.) (1 Kings 21:25-26, emphasis mine)2

These were some of Israel’s darkest days. Ahab and Jezebel hated Elijah the prophet and considered him their enemy. They sought to put him to death. It is easy to see why God’s judgment was not only deserved, but imminent.

Now consider the text before us in the New Testament Book of Acts – Acts 7:1-60. We are studying the trial of Stephen, his “sermon,” and his consequent execution by stoning. Stephen was a spiritual and highly respected man in the church at Jerusalem. He had just been chosen as a deacon, and the standard he met was unusually high:

3 But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch (Acts 6:3-5, emphasis mine).

As we noted in our previous lesson, God’s hand was upon Stephen in a very special way so that he, like the twelve apostles, was performing many great works. In addition, his preaching was so powerful that no one was able to successfully refute it:

8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke (Acts 6:8-10).

Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew, and thus his ministry appears to have been primarily in the Greek-speaking synagogues. Since no one could successfully oppose him, his adversaries (better, the adversaries of the gospel) gave up their debate and took a different approach:

11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:11-14, emphasis mine).

I could not help but see the parallels between the death of Stephen in our text and the death of Naboth in 1 Kings 21. Both Stephen and Naboth were godly men who were determined to live according to God’s Word. Since no lawful means could be found to sway them, their adversaries stooped to accusing both of blasphemy. In both cases, false witnesses were employed, and the leaders were incited to execute the righteous, as though they were wicked.

The difference between these two events is also significant. The incident with Ahab, Jezebel, and Naboth took place in the northern kingdom of Israel. We are not surprised to read of such evil in Israel. But now, in our text in the Book of Acts, we are in Judah; more significantly, we are in Jerusalem. And those who orchestrate false testimony and the resulting execution of Stephen would appear to be devout Jews who are “defending the faith.” The incident in 1 Kings 21 describes one of the lowest points in Israel’s history. The incident in our text would indicate that things have never been worse in Jerusalem. No wonder judgment is imminent. It is this very judgment of which Jesus had spoken.3 And now He continues to speak of this judgment through Stephen.

This is one of the most powerful sermons in all of the Bible. It not only speaks to the Jews of Stephen’s day, but to each one of us as well. Let us listen well to these words, and ask the Spirit of God to illuminate our hearts and minds so that we may learn why they have been preserved for us.

The Charges

In the beginning, it was charged that Stephen had spoken blasphemous words against Moses and also against God (Acts 6:11). This developed into the more specific accusation that he never ceased to speak against “this holy place and the law” (Acts 6:13). This is further explained as teaching that “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:14). In other words, Stephen is accused of teaching what Jesus taught. And what Jesus taught, so far as Stephen’s accusers claimed, was that He would destroy the temple (with Jerusalem) and the customs which the Jews attributed to Moses (even though they were man-made traditions that violated the law of Moses).4

As we noted in our previous lesson, there was an element of truth in these accusations. Jesus did teach that Jerusalem would be destroyed, and the temple along with it:

41 Now when Jesus approached and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you had only known on this day, even you, the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and surround you and close in on you from every side. 44 They will demolish you – you and your children within your walls – and they will not leave within you one stone on top of another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:41-44; see also Luke 13:34-35; Matthew 23:37—24:2; John 2:19-22).

The misrepresentation here is that Jesus posed an imminent threat to the well-being of Jerusalem and the temple. In His first earthly appearance, Jesus had not come to judge but to save. Jesus came as the promised Messiah, to bear the sins of His people, and thus to spare them from divine judgment, and to institute times of blessing. As Peter put it,

19 “Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you – that is, Jesus. 21 This one heaven must receive until the time all things are restored, which God declared from times long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:19-21).

Jesus came to turn people from their sins and thus to spare them from the horror of divine judgment. Judgment came upon Jerusalem because God’s people rejected their King (see Luke 19:41-44 and Acts 3:19-21 above). God would bring judgment upon His people because of their sin, because they would not receive the One who came to bear their judgment.

The second accusation against Stephen was that he continued to preach, as Jesus did, that the customs Moses gave them were to be set aside. It was true that “their customs,” which were wrongly attributed to Moses, would be set aside. But Jesus made it clear that His coming was to fulfill, not to abolish:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

The Old Covenant was to be set aside and replaced by the New Covenant, but this was what God had already revealed through the Old Testament prophets (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-29). Nevertheless, Stephen’s opponents succeeded in convincing many of the Jewish people and their leaders that Stephen was a traitor, who needed to die. The Sanhedrin is summoned for the third trial thus far in Acts, and when it convened, the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these things true?” (Acts 7:1)

Stephen’s “Defense”

As one can quickly sense, Stephen’s sermon is hardly a defense as we know it. Stephen is not seeking to prove his innocence, but rather he is strongly indicting his accusers for their guilt. Stephen is the prosecutor, so to speak, and is not acting as an attorney for his own defense. Stephen dies because he proves his case.

The Abrahamic Covenant
Acts 7:2-8

2 So he replied, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our forefather Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your country and from your relatives, and come to the land I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the country of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After his father died, God made him move to this country where you now live. 5 He did not give any of it to him for an inheritance, not even a foot of ground, yet God promised to give it to him as his possession, and to his descendants after him, even though Abraham as yet had no child. 6 But God spoke as follows: ‘Your descendants will be foreigners in a foreign country, whose citizens will enslave them and mistreat them for four hundred years. 7 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ said God, ‘and after these things they will come out of there and worship me in this place.’ 8 Then God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision, and so he became the father of Isaac and circumcised him when he was eight days old, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs” (Acts 7:2-8).

Initially, I looked at Stephen’s sermon as merely chronological in its structure. Thus, I was not surprised that he began with the call of Abram. After all, God’s purposes for Israel begin in the Book of Genesis with the call of Abraham and the Abrahamic Covenant. This is followed by Israel’s bondage in Egypt, the exodus, their time in the wilderness, and eventually their possession of the Promised Land. Now, as I look more carefully and seek to follow Stephen’s argument, I see that there is much more to this first paragraph which deals with Abraham, but more about this later in our message.

Here, as elsewhere in this sermon, Stephen does more than recite history, precisely as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures. In some cases, Stephen actually adds information to what we find in the Old Testament. Let me illustrate this. From the account of the call of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that this call occurred while Abram was in Haran:

31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (the son of Haran), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and with them he set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. When they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The lifetime of Terah was 205 years, and he died in Haran. 1 Now the Lord said5 to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. 2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name.” 4 So Abram left, just as the Lord had told him to do, and Lot went with him. (Now Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.) 5 And Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they left for the land of Canaan. They entered the land of Canaan (Genesis 11:31—12:5, emphasis mine).

I somehow had the impression from the Genesis account that Abram’s father, Terah, took the initiative in leaving Mesopotamia and settling in Haran. And yet Stephen tells us that “the God of glory appeared to . . . . Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran” (Acts 7:2). I do not doubt that there may have been more than one call, one in Mesopotamia and another in Haran. But it is a different, an additional, piece of information, and Stephen makes something of it here.

The Jews of Stephen’s day seem to have concluded that the temple in Jerusalem was the only dwelling place of God. To speak against “this holy place,” then, was to blaspheme. It was as though God would no longer be present with men if Jerusalem and the temple were to be destroyed. Stephen will destroy this myth by reminding his accusers that God, the God of glory, appeared to His people at a number of other places besides “this holy place.” To begin with, He appeared to Abram in Mesopotamia. Next, as Genesis informs us, God spoke to Abram at Haran. Once again God instructed Abram to leave his family and his homeland and to journey to a land not yet revealed. The inference is clear here – and is clearly stated in Genesis 12:1-3 – that God would bless him in this place to which He would lead him. The point is that God’s presence and His power are not limited to, and dare not be restricted to, one place.

When Abram arrived in the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, he did not own so much as a foot of it, but God promised that He would give it to him as his possession, and to his descendants after him. Think of it. When God made this promise with Abram he had no son and no soil (Acts 7:5). Stephen then turns to a subsequent promise of God to Abram, a promise recorded in Genesis 15 (after Abram had believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness – Genesis 15:6). God informed Abram that his descendants would live in an unidentified foreign country, where they would be mistreated for 400 years, and after this He would bring them out to worship “in this place” (Acts 7:6-7). We know, as Stephen did, that this place of bondage was Egypt. We would have to conclude that God continued to care for His people, even during the days of their captivity. God’s purposes and promises were not limited to the borders of the Promised Land.6

I have come to see verse 8 as the key verse in this paragraph:

Then God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision, and so he became the father of Isaac and circumcised him when he was eight days old, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs (Acts 7:8, emphasis mine).

We need to remember how much the Jews of Jesus’ day made of Moses, the law, and circumcision. This remains a problem in the Book of Acts7 and elsewhere in the New Testament, especially in the Book of Galatians. The Mosaic Covenant was uppermost in their minds, and thus we see their emphasis on law-keeping and on preserving the customs of Moses. Stephen is not nearly as interested in the Mosaic Covenant as he is the Abrahamic Covenant. That is because the Abrahamic Covenant is fulfilled in the New Covenant, not in the Mosaic Covenant.8

Circumcision, which was so important to the Jews, was linked more to the Mosaic Covenant than to the Abrahamic Covenant.9 But Stephen is quite clear in our text, linking the “Covenant of Circumcision” to the Abrahamic Covenant. It is thus the Abrahamic Covenant which is dominant in the remainder of Stephen’s sermon. That is because this covenant promises God’s blessings by faith, and not by works, and it promises God’s blessings to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.

If Stephen were to have stopped here, we would have the core of his argument. His opponents are upset because Stephen, like Jesus, emphasized the Abrahamic Covenant over the Mosaic Covenant. This is because salvation comes through the Abrahamic Covenant, not through the Mosaic Covenant.10 It all began with Abraham, Stephen is saying, and the covenant God made with Abraham. Circumcision is intertwined with that covenant. This is the primary covenant, and it is the basis for Israel’s hope, and that of the Gentiles as well. Obsession over the Mosaic Covenant misses the point, forgetting how it all began with the Abrahamic Covenant.

By the way, Stephen’s argument in these verses differs very little from what we read in the Book of Hebrews:

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. 9 By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, he received the ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy. 12 So in fact children were fathered by one man – and this one as good as dead – like the number of stars in the sky and like the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore. 13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:8-16).

Wherever Abraham was (in Mesopotamia, Haran, Canaan, Egypt, or Gerar), God was with him. Even when Abraham lived in the Promised Land, it was as a stranger and a pilgrim. Only hundreds of years after Abraham’s death did his descendants possess the land. Abraham’s blessings never came in his lifetime, but it didn’t matter because “the city” he looked for was a heavenly city, not an earthly one. Abraham was saved and blessed by faith, not by works, on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant, and not on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant. Stephen’s opponents are jealously seeking to preserve a covenant that has been superseded. As Stephen’s argument unfolds, watch how this core argument is expanded.

God’s People in Egypt
Acts 7:9-15

9 The patriarchs, because they were jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt. But God was with him, 10 and rescued him from all his troubles, and granted him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Then a famine occurred throughout Egypt and Canaan, causing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12 So when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our ancestors there the first time. 13 On their second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers again, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 So Joseph sent a message and invited his father Jacob and all his relatives to come, seventy-five people in all. 15 So Jacob went down to Egypt and died there, along with our ancestors, 16 and their bones were later moved to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a certain sum of money from the sons of Hamor in Shechem (Acts 7:9-15).

Israel’s sojourn in Egypt comes as no surprise to us since God had already informed Abraham of this (Genesis 15:12-21; Acts 7:6-7). But now Stephen calls attention to how this came to pass. On the surface, it may appear to be “the luck of the draw” (accidental), but in reality it is the work of the sovereign hand of God. Note how Stephen expressed it: The patriarchs were jealous of Joseph and thus they sold him into Egypt – But God was with him. His point is that God was with Joseph in Egypt. He did not have to be in Canaan to be blessed or cared for by God. He not only survived in Egypt, he thrived there, being elevated to the second highest position in the land. Then a famine occurred (an “act of God”?), which providentially brought all of Joseph’s family to Egypt, where they were divinely preserved. While they were persecuted later on, they nevertheless prospered, becoming a great nation. When he died, Jacob’s bones were buried in Canaan, in the plot of land Abraham had purchased. They were yet to possess the land God had promised.

Home at Last, Hearts Still in Egypt
Acts 7:17-43

17 “But as the time drew near for God to fulfill the promise he had declared to Abraham, the people increased greatly in number in Egypt, 18 until another king who did not know about Joseph ruled over Egypt. 19 This was the one who exploited our people and was cruel to our ancestors, forcing them to abandon their infants so they would die. 20 At that time Moses was born, and he was beautiful to God. For three months he was brought up in his father’s house, 21 and when he had been abandoned, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 So Moses was trained in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds. 23 But when he was about forty years old, it entered his mind to visit his fellow countrymen the Israelites. 24 When he saw one of them being hurt unfairly, Moses came to his defense and avenged the person who was mistreated by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He thought his own people would understand that God was delivering them through him, but they did not understand. 26 The next day Moses saw two men fighting, and tried to make peace between them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why are you hurting one another?’ 27 But the man who was unfairly hurting his neighbor pushed Moses aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us? 28 You don’t want to kill me the way you killed the Egyptian yesterday, do you?’ 29 When the man said this, Moses fled and became a foreigner in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons. 30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the desert of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and when he approached to investigate, there came the voice of the Lord, 32 ‘I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look more closely. 33 But the Lord said to him, ‘Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have certainly seen the suffering of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them. Now come, I will send you to Egypt.’ 35 This same Moses they had rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge?’ God sent as both ruler and deliverer through the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and miraculous signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers.’ 38 This is the man who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors, and he received living oracles to give to you. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him aside and turned back to Egypt in their hearts, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go in front of us, for this Moses, who led us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him!’ 41 At that time they made an idol in the form of a calf, brought a sacrifice to the idol, and began rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘It was not to me that you offered slain animals and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, house of Israel? 43 But you took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rephan, the images you made to worship, but I will deport you beyond Babylon’” (Acts 7:17-43).

We will certainly not be able to deal extensively with this text, but remember that this is what the Sanhedrin heard, and they certainly got the point. In other words, the text speaks for itself and doesn’t need a lot of explaining.

Notice how this section begins with another reference to the Abrahamic Covenant, which Stephen first mentioned (Acts 7:2-8) as the foundation for his sermon:

“But as the time drew near for God to fulfill the promise he had declared to Abraham, the people increased greatly in number in Egypt” (Acts 7:17, emphasis mine).

The events described in this section are introduced as being a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. The exodus of Israel out of Egypt is viewed by Stephen in the light of the Abrahamic Covenant more than in terms of the Mosaic Covenant.

It was during the time when the Israelites were being mistreated that Moses was born. He was a child who was “beautiful to God” (Acts 7:20). Now every child is beautiful to his or her parents, but this child was beautiful to God – God took pleasure in Moses. For three months, the life of Moses was spared, in disobedience to the command of Pharaoh:

Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “All sons that are born you must throw into the river, but all daughters you may let live” (Exodus 1:22).

At this age, it would seem that Moses’ parents could no longer keep his existence a secret, and so they “put him out to die” (Acts 7:21).11 I think Stephen wants his audience to know that Moses was rejected by his own people on more than one occasion. First, he is rejected by his family, just as Jesus was initially rejected by his siblings.12

Next, Moses was rejected by those whom he sought to save (Acts 7:23-29). Moses grew up in the household of Pharaoh, and he learned the ways and the wisdom of the Egyptians. He learned so well that Stephen tells us he was “powerful in his words and deeds.”13 When he slew an Egyptian to rescue an Israelite, this became known to others. The next day Moses sought to intercede between two Israelites, but the guilty Israelite rebuffed him, saying, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” (Acts 7:27)

Knowing that his crime was now public knowledge, Moses fled to Midian, where he lived as a foreigner. He married and had two sons there. After 40 years, the Lord appeared to him in the burning bush in the desert of Mount Sinai. Moses was curious at the sight of the burning bush and drew closer. It was then that God spoke to him:

32 ‘I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look more closely. 33 But the Lord said to him, ‘Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Acts 7:32-33, emphasis mine).

Several things are significant about these words. First, God is speaking to Moses while he is in the desert of Mount Sinai. Far from Jerusalem, God is there, and He is speaking with Moses. Second, this is not “the holy land,” or, as the Jews of Stephen’s day would say, “this holy place,” and yet God informs Moses that the ground on which he is standing is “holy ground.” This is a holy place, even if not in the Holy Land. Third, God identifies Himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In other words, God identifies Himself to Moses in relation to the Abrahamic Covenant, before the Mosaic Covenant has even come into being.

When Moses first sought to be a deliverer for his people, he was rudely rejected (“Who made you a ruler and judge over us?”). Now it is God Himself who declares Moses to be the deliverer. He became both the ruler and the deliverer of this people through the hand of God, which became evident by the signs and wonders he performed in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness (Acts 7:35-36).

This Moses, who was initially rejected but who God raised up as ruler and deliverer, spoke of the One who would come after him:

“This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers’” (Acts 7:37).14

These words should sound familiar to the reader of Acts, for Peter has cited them in chapter 3:

“Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must obey him in everything he tells you’” (Acts 3:22).

Peter then followed up with this statement in chapter 5:

30 “The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:30-31).

Stephen was accused of speaking against Moses and against God (Acts 6:11), and yet Stephen spoke of Jesus, of whom Moses also spoke. How was Jesus “a prophet like Moses”? In the context of Stephen’s sermon, he was rejected by his people, and yet he was raised to the position of ruler and deliverer by God. When it came to Moses, the people were wrong about him, and God exalted him, overruling their rejection of him. When it came to Jesus (Stephen would surely have us infer), the Israelites rejected Him, but God raised Him up as Leader and Savior, once again overruling the rejection of the people.

The problem was not with the leader (Moses or Jesus of Nazareth), but with the people. That is what Stephen now calls to the attention of his accusers:

38 “This is the man who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors, and he received living oracles to give to you. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him aside and turned back to Egypt in their hearts, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go in front of us, for this Moses, who led us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him!’ 41 At that time they made an idol in the form of a calf, brought a sacrifice to the idol, and began rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘It was not to me that you offered slain animals and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, house of Israel? 43 But you took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rephan, the images you made to worship, but I will deport you beyond Babylon’” (Acts 7:38-43).

Think of who Moses was. God has spared his life as a child. God was with him in Egypt and then in the land of Midian. But God spoke with Moses at the burning bush, and He spoke to him on Mount Sinai. He performed signs and wonders and led the Israelites out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness, on the way to Canaan. In spite of all the indications that God was with Moses, the people rejected him. In spite of the fact that they drew near to the Promised Land, their hearts were still in Egypt.

In the end, they were just idolaters. When Moses was out of sight (he was on the mountain, getting the law written on stone tablets), the people decided they wanted a “god” they could see and touch, so they instructed Aaron to fashion a golden calf for them, which they would worship. And this was but one example, for God gave the Israelites over to their desires. Throughout their years in the wilderness, in spite of the many evidences of God’s care for His people, the Israelites worshipped the idols they (or their forefathers) had served in the past.

I should point out that in this portion of his sermon, Stephen has not only given us a review of Israel’s history from the call of Abraham to their journeys in the wilderness, he has also cited the Old Testament prophet Amos (Amos 5:25-27 in Acts 7:42-43). The law and the prophets bore witness to the coming of Jesus, the Christ, as they also testified to the sin and rebellion of God’s people, Israel.

Moses has been a prominent personality in our text, but little is made of the Mosaic Covenant. Instead, much has been made of the Abrahamic Covenant. As popular as Moses would appear to be among the Jews of Stephen’s day, the fact is that Moses was rejected by the Israelites of his own day. What people really wanted was a “god” that was the creation of their own hands, a “god” they could take with them, a “god” that would do their bidding.

As prominent as Jerusalem and the temple were in the thinking of Stephen’s opponents, most of Israel’s history (that Stephen cites) takes place outside the land. This, in fact, is where the hearts of the Israelites were. Their hearts were in Egypt (Acts 7:39), and their gods were foreign deities (Acts 7:42-43). And this Moses, whom they so greatly revered, never set foot in “the Holy Land.” He only saw it from a distance, at the time of his death. Somebody is missing the point. What was so important to Stephen’s accusers was not important to the writers of the Old Testament.

One last observation from verse 43:

“But you took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rephan, the images you made to worship, but I will deport you beyond Babylon’” (Acts 7:43, emphasis mine).

The prophet Amos wrote to those living in the northern kingdom, warning them of God’s coming judgment because of their idolatry, idolatry like that of their forefathers in the wilderness. It was due to their sin that God would deport them beyond Babylon. They would be thrust out of the land, and it would be because of their sin and their resistance to the Word of God spoken through the prophets. The temple was Israel’s idol. They assumed that so long as the temple was with them, God was with them. No wonder they thought of speaking of the destruction of the temple as blasphemy. The temple would be destroyed, along with Jerusalem, because the true temple (Jesus) had come to Jerusalem, and they had sought to destroy Him.

Stephen’s Summary on “This Holy Place”
Acts 7:44-50

44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as God who spoke to Moses ordered him to make it according to the design he had seen. 45 Our ancestors received possession of it and brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors, until the time of David. 46 He found favor with God and asked that he could find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands, as the prophet says, 49 ‘Heaven is my throne, and earth is the footstool for my feet. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is my resting place? 50 Did my hand not make all these things?’” (Acts 7:44-50)

Unbelieving Jews could not stand to hear anything about the coming destruction of the temple. As the Law of Moses (or rather the traditions the Jews had made up themselves and attributed to Moses) had become an idol to the Hellenistic, Greek-speaking Jews who opposed Stephen, so had the temple. They assumed that to have the temple was to have the assurance of God’s presence among them and His blessings.15

Stephen’s adversaries greatly revered the temple, but Israel’s history does not bear out their disproportionate sense of adoration. When God manifested His presence among His people, He chose to do so by means of the tabernacle. God gave the plans to Moses while Israel was in the wilderness, and the tabernacle was constructed in exacting compliance to these plans. They brought the tabernacle with them into the Promised Land. It was with them when Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan and possessed the land. This was the case until the time of David. It was David’s idea, not God’s, to build a temple, and God granted his request, with the exception that Solomon would be the one to build it.

“Well enough,” Stephen would seem to say, “David purposed to build a temple, but one must be careful not to give the temple undue reverence and devotion.”16 Stephen now cites the prophet Isaiah:

49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and earth is the footstool for my feet.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is my resting place?
50 Did my hand not make all these things?’”
(Acts 7:49-50, citing Isaiah 66:1-2)

God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The whole earth is His footstool. How, then, can anyone suppose that any temple made with human hands can do Him justice? How can anyone assume that it can contain God? The temple was a beautiful work of the hands of man, and it had great spiritual significance, but God no long dwelled in it. As our Lord Jesus told the woman at the well, worship is not a matter of finding the right place, but of finding the right person (John 4:20-26). They have an exaggerated view of the importance of the temple.

Stephen’s Summary on Revering Moses and the Law
Acts 7:51-53

51 “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become! 53 You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not obey it.”

Stephen is certainly not pleading for his life here. He is pressing charges against his accusers, for it is they who have blasphemed God. It is they (and their ancestors) who have rebelled against Moses and the prophets. They are a stubborn people, just as God had often said of them before:

6 Understand, therefore, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is about to give you this good land as a possession, for you are a stubborn people! 7 Remember – don’t ever forget – how you provoked the Lord your God in the desert; from the time you left the land of Egypt until you came to this place you were constantly rebelling against him. 8 At Horeb you provoked him and he was angry enough with you to destroy you. 9 When I went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord made with you, I remained there forty days and nights, eating and drinking nothing. 10 The Lord gave me the two stone tablets, written by the very finger of God, and on them was everything he said to you at the mountain from the midst of the fire at the time of that assembly. 11 Now at the end of the forty days and nights the Lord presented me with the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. 12 And he said to me, “Get up, go down at once from here because your people whom you brought out of Egypt have sinned! They have quickly turned from the way I commanded them and have made for themselves a cast metal image.” 13 Moreover, he said to me, “I have taken note of these people; they are a stubborn lot! (Deuteronomy 9:6-13; see also Exodus 32:9; 33:3)

How painful it must have been for those who made so much of their circumcision to hear Stephen accuse them of being uncircumcised in their hearts and ears (Acts 7:51). When they heard Stephen’s words, they covered their ears (Acts 7:57). The Spirit of God had been in Israel’s midst in the past, but He was even more dramatically present in Jesus, and now in His apostles. To resist Jesus and the apostles was thus to resist the Holy Spirit, and thus to identify themselves with their rebellious ancestors. Their ancestors persecuted the prophets of old, who foretold the coming of the Righteous One (Acts 7:52). Now that He, the Righteous One, has come, Stephen’s adversaries have betrayed and murdered Him. Those who talk so proudly about keeping the law, given by angels, have been shown to be disobedient to it. They murdered the only One who ever met the demands of the Law. It is not Stephen who is guilty; it is his accusers! The only thing you can say for them is that they are consistent – consistently disobedient to God.

The Outcome: Stephen’s Death
Acts 7:54-60

54 When they heard these things, they became furious and ground their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked intently toward heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look!” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, shouting out with a loud voice, and rushed at him with one intent. 58 When they had driven him out of the city, they began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They continued to stone Stephen while he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, he died (Acts 7:54-60).

Can you imagine what this must have looked like from Stephen’s vantage point? Over the past 30 years, I have looked into the faces of many as I have preached. Occasionally, there will be someone whose head nods (or worse). I can understand that. Some will be listening intently, and others may be distracted. Stephen’s audience was the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court in the land. These men were the religious and political giants of the land. No doubt they were all about maintaining appearances (compare Matthew 23:5-7), so they would probably dress in a very distinguished manner and sit with great dignity and composure. This may have been the way things happened on other days, but not today! This audience must have been looking straight at Stephen. His message was not subtle; it was clear, condemning, and, worse yet, irrefutable (see Acts 6:10). There was no way to engage in debate. These men gave way to savage and primitive impulses. They were “cut to the quick.”17 They gnashed their teeth at Stephen.18 Talk about “body language.” It didn’t take great insight to discern that this crowd wanted blood, Stephen’s blood.

Dying Grace

Stephen had to know what lay ahead for him. Luke tells us what enabled Stephen to continue to stand fast, dying in a way that underscored the truth of his faith and of his sermon. Full of the Spirit, Stephen looked into heaven, which opened for him, showing him what lay ahead. He beheld the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.19

Because of modern technology, we have been confronted by the horrible images of hostages, pleading for their lives as they face death at the hands of hooded terrorists. No doubt this is precisely the picture the terrorists wanted us to see. The Sanhedrin would have no such pleasure; indeed it would be quite the opposite. Stephen told his executioners what he saw as he looked up into heaven: “Look!” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Luke 7:56)

This was more than they could take. Stephen beholds the Son of Man – Jesus of Nazareth, whom they crucified – standing at God’s right hand, in heaven. The One they rejected and killed is alive, and God the Father has made Him both “ruler and deliverer” (Acts 7:35). Stephen, whom they accused of blaspheming God, is beholding God, who awaits his entrance into his eternal reward. Stephen does not cower in fear, or plead for his life. He will die beholding the face of God. I have to believe that his face was still glowing (see Acts 6:15), like that of Moses (see Exodus 34:29-35). What a powerful way to underscore the truth of Stephen’s sermon.

This was the last straw for the Sanhedrin. They could stand it no more. They covered their ears and rushed at him, at one heart and mind with all the others, whose intent was to silence Stephen as quickly as possible. After driving him out of the city, they stoned him.

Here, Luke chooses to introduce us to Paul (or, more precisely, Saul). No doubt he was among those who debated with Stephen (Acts 6:9ff.). He might even have led the opposition to Stephen. He was probably among those who heard Stephen’s sermon preached to the Sanhedrin. He was certainly present at Stephen’s execution (or should we say his “murder”). Saul watched the cloaks of those who laid them aside to stone Stephen (Acts 7:58). I can imagine that this scene, along with Stephen’s sermon, was permanently embedded in Saul’s mind, never to be forgotten.

Luke gives Stephen the last word. One cannot miss the similarities between Stephen’s words at his death and those of our Lord at the time of His death:

Jesus: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)

Stephen: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7:59)

Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).20

Stephen: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60)

I love Luke’s final words, describing what had to be a horrible, violent death: “And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). I am of the persuasion that the external (visible) aspects of one’s death are not entirely synonymous with the spiritual realities of one’s departure from this life. I base this upon texts such as 2 Kings 2:11; 2 Kings 13:14; and Luke 16:22. In Luke 16, for example, Lazarus seems to die a miserable death. His last days were filled with misery. After his death, his body may even have been unceremoniously cast into the garbage dump, without being properly buried. The rich man is given all the comforts his money can provide.21 But something more is going on, beyond human view. Lazarus is transported to Abraham’s bosom by angels, but the rich man finds himself in torment. When Stephen died, I believe that God provided an exit worthy of a courageous martyr, and thus we are told he simply fell asleep. What a way to go, proclaiming Jesus to his very last breath.

Reading his final words, I could not help but conclude that Stephen’s death was much like that of our Lord. Both were executed for things they did not do, convicted on the basis of false charges. Both committed their spirit to God. Both asked God’s forgiveness for those who executed them. Aside from the fact that Jesus alone died as a sinless substitute, bearing the guilt and punishment for our sins, there is another great difference. Stephen died while looking into heaven, beholding heaven’s approval. When Jesus died, He was at that moment forsaken by God, because He bore our sin and guilt. No wonder we read,

At about three o’clock Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

What a horrid death that would have been. No wonder our Lord shed great drops of blood as He agonized in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). That is the death that each of us deserves for our sin, a death that Jesus endured in our place.

Conclusion

As we conclude this lesson, consider some of the ways that this text speaks to us.

First, when Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin, it is as though our Lord were on trial a second time. One of my favorite commentators on the Book of Acts observed that Stephen’s sermon in our text was quite different from the earlier sermons of Peter in Acts. Specifically, he observed that Stephen hardly mentioned Jesus, while Peter spoke plainly of Him. The more I have thought about this text, the more I am inclined to differ with this assessment. I believe that the reason we hardly find Jesus mentioned is that while Peter spoke of Jesus, Stephen spoke for Jesus. The last two verses of chapter 7 make this point clearly enough to convince me at least. Stephen was being accused of teaching what Jesus taught, and by and large, I believe this to be correct.

I think this overlapping of Jesus’ and Stephen’s teaching may be significant. Let me try to explain why. I believe that Joseph’s dealings with his brothers in Genesis 42-45 help us understand the concept of repentance. To make a long story short, Joseph virtually reconstructed the circumstances of his own betrayal by his brothers. Now, rather than having the opportunity to make Joseph a slave, his brothers had the opportunity to make Benjamin a slave. At the beginning of Joseph’s dealings with his brothers,22 it was obvious that they regretted their cruelty to Joseph (Genesis 42:21-22). But regret is not the same as repentance. It was only after Joseph’s brothers faced the same temptation (to forsake their youngest brother and thus make him a slave) and responded differently23 that Joseph recognized true repentance in his brothers, and thereafter disclosed his identity to his brothers.

From the story of Joseph, we may derive this simple definition of repentance:

TRUE REPENTANCE IS DOING IT DIFFERENTLY WHEN GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO RELIVE THE SITUATION.

I am suggesting that in Stephen, God offers the Sanhedrin a second chance. When he stands on trial before the Sanhedrin, he is being accused of the very things which were the real reasons for Jesus’ rejection and execution by the Jewish religious leaders. This was their golden opportunity to confess their sin with regard to Jesus, and to acknowledge Him as Israel’s Messiah. Instead, they even more strongly rejected the gospel. They turned into primitive savages, becoming like a pack of wolves. And in so doing, they reaffirmed their sin and their guilt in rejecting and crucifying Jesus. This was a dark day indeed for Israel’s religious leaders. The irony of all this is that because they rejected Jesus once again (so to speak), they not only confirmed their guilt; they brought on the very destruction they opposed in the preaching of Jesus and the apostles.

In the early verses of chapter 8, we read that the death of Stephen triggered a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem. I have always looked at this in a positive light. The death of Stephen brought about the persecution of the church. The persecution of the church brought about the scattering of the church to “all Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Thus, God was fulfilling the Great Commission as the gospel was being spread abroad. This is a very positive message.

But there is a dark side to this that I had previously overlooked. The church is scattered, leaving Jerusalem with a mere handful of believers. Only the apostles remain behind (Acts 8:1). Never again will we read encouraging reports about a large number of conversions in Jerusalem and of phenomenal growth in the church. When the church fled from Jerusalem, it was something like Noah and his family entering the ark, or like Lot and his family fleeing from Sodom and Gomorrah – it closed the door to repentance and salvation and opened the door for God’s judgment to fall upon this wicked city. What a tragedy for the great city of Jerusalem to be forsaken by God’s people. Jerusalem’s Day of Judgment was surely drawing near, even as they killed Stephen for warning them about it.

Second, I believe that the death of Stephen had a profound impact on Saul (Paul), one that served to prepare him for his day of salvation, and more. We know that Stephen’s preaching was so powerful and persuasive that no one could successfully refute it – even Saul (who I believe engaged in the debate with Stephen).24 I believe that Stephen’s sermon haunted Saul, until the day of his conversion.

I am even tempted to speculate further that Stephen’s sermon provided the rough outline for Paul’s later theology, after his conversion. As I was reading in F. F. Bruce’s commentary on the Book of Acts,25 I noticed he suggested that there are some strong similarities between the teaching and theology of the Book of Hebrews and Stephen’s sermon. Stephen’s sermon suggests that his thinking was ahead of its time – farther, for example, than Peter’s theology at this point in time.26 If Paul were the author of the Book of Hebrews (as I am tempted to think), then it would not be surprising to find Stephen’s theology (as found in his sermon) played out in greater detail in Hebrews. I cannot help but think of Paul as Stephen’s successor. Paul finished what Stephen started.

One more thing occurred to me regarding the relationship between Stephen and Saul/Paul. The next person (in Acts) to stand before the Sanhedrin is Paul. How different his trial turned out:

1 Paul looked directly at the council and said, “Brothers, I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God to this day.” 2 At that the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit there judging me according to the law, and in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those standing near him said, “Do you dare insult God’s high priest?” 5 Paul replied, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You must not speak evil about a ruler of your people.’” 6 Then when Paul noticed that part of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, he shouted out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead!” 7 When he said this, an argument began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.) 9 There was a great commotion, and some experts in the law from the party of the Pharisees stood up and protested strongly, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 When the argument became so great the commanding officer feared that they would tear Paul to pieces, he ordered the detachment to go down, take him away from them by force, and bring him into the barracks (Acts 23:1-10).

Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin, no doubt knowing that they wanted blood. He did not hold back; instead he delivered a blistering indictment against his accusers, which led to his death. Paul likewise later stood before the Sanhedrin. He recognized that he would not receive a fair trial either (like Stephen). He may even have discerned that they fully intended to execute him, as they had killed Stephen. Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee and causes the members of the Sanhedrin to turn on one another, like a pack of angry dogs. This turns out to be Paul’s deliverance, for the trial is aborted by the violence Paul’s words triggered.

I am not faulting Paul at all. I believe that Stephen sensed that his mission was accomplished, and that he would most glorify God by speaking plainly and by dying well. That he did. I believe that Paul realized his mission (as described in Acts 9:15-16) was not yet fulfilled. Thus, he responded in a way that gave him additional days to fulfill his calling. He, too, would die a martyr’s death, but later. This leads me to my next point, the sovereignty of God.

Third, we are once again reminded that God is sovereign in this world and over His church. God sovereignly purposes the death of Stephen, while He will spare Paul when he stands before the Sanhedrin (see above). Some of the Greek-speaking Jews seek to silence the gospel by stoning Stephen, but the end result is that the gospel is proclaimed before the Sanhedrin, and now by the scattering of the church, it is proclaimed world-wide. Greek-speaking Jews oppose the gospel, yet their opposition only serves to spread the gospel abroad to Greek-speaking people. The very thing these enemies of the gospel oppose, they end up inadvertently promoting. God uses those who obey Him to advance His gospel – men like Peter and Barnabas and Stephen. Likewise, God uses those who oppose Him to advance His gospel – men like Pharaoh of old, like Judas, and like these Greek-speaking Jews. The Book of Acts is the record of God’s sovereign work through His church, and through those who oppose His church. As our Lord will later say to Saul, “It is futile to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).

Fourth, we should learn from Stephen’s knowledge and use of the Old Testament Scriptures. We should learn from Stephen the value of history and its lessons for later generations. The Bible frequently takes us back to “ancient history” to teach us important lessons (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 9:8-10). From Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we learn of man’s sin and of God’s judgment on sinners (see, for example, 2 Peter 2:1-9). Nehemiah 9 and Daniel 9 review Israel’s history as a reminder of this nation’s sins. Psalm 78 is a review of history to recall the sinfulness of man and the faithfulness of God. Paul turns to Old Testament history to instruct the Corinthian saints about the dangers of self-indulgence (1 Corinthians 10:1-13).

We live in a day when history is not merely disdained; it is rewritten to justify crooked thinking and rotten living. We should learn from history so that we do not perpetuate the sins of the past. Let us learn from Stephen the value of history.

Beyond this, we learn from Stephen the difference between “camels” and “gnats.” Few people today preach the way Stephen did, using large portions of Scripture and drawing from them the overall, dominant themes. As a preacher I knew used to say of many other preachers, “They go down deeper and stay down longer than anyone I know.” Details are important at times, but we sometimes tend to focus on the minute details of biblical texts, rather than on the broad, sweeping themes of Scripture. How many of us can take a theme and trace it through the Scriptures as Stephen has done? Our devotional books dwell on a verse of Scripture, and sometimes less. Our daily Bible readings (even systematic Bible reading) are scattered across the Old Testament, the Book of Psalms, and a New Testament text. Why not read larger doses of Scripture, and seek to discern the broader themes of the Scriptures? Why not work at tracing themes and doctrines through the Scriptures? We need the “Vitamin C” approach to the Scriptures – we need massive doses, not a dab here and a dab there.27

Fifth, our text encourages missions. You may wonder how a passage that ends in the murder of a Christian can encourage anyone to consider missions as a calling. It really does, however. The principle which Stephen was seeking to demonstrate from Old Testament history is that God is not restricted to a particular place. Stephen reminded his listeners that God was with Abram in Mesopotamia, in Haran, in Egypt, and in Canaan. God was with Moses in Egypt, in Midian, and in the wilderness. Thus, Abram was able to leave his homeland and family and depart for an unnamed destination. Wherever a believer may be, God is with him:

7 Where can I go to escape your spirit?
Where can I flee to escape your presence?
8 If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there.
If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be.
9 If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn,
and settle down on the other side of the sea,
10 even there your hand would guide me,
your right hand would grab hold of me (Psalm 139:7-10).

Men and women, we can be assured of God’s presence, power, and protection wherever His will takes us. Parents, we can release our children to serve God wherever He may lead, knowing that God is with them. God’s presence is not limited to any one place; He is with His people wherever they may be. Now here is a truth that inspires those who would seek to serve God in distant or remote places. This leads to our next point.

Sixth, our text informs us that martyrdom can glorify God, build up the church, and can be a blessing and a privilege to those who die well for the Lord Jesus. Tertullian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Luke would surely agree with this statement. Stephen’s martyrdom launched an ever expanding missionary movement. The gospel spread from Jerusalem to “all Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.” To follow up on our last point, God is not only with us wherever we are on earth. He will also be with us in death, to take us to heaven:

4 Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff reassure me.
5 You prepare a feast before me in plain sight of my enemies.
You refresh my head with oil;
my cup is completely full.
6 Surely your goodness and faithfulness will pursue me all my days,
and I will live in the Lord’s house for the rest of my life (Psalm 23:4-6).
23 Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You hold me by my right hand.
24 You will guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
26 My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:23-26, NKJV).

Not long ago we prayed for missionaries who were returning to a dangerous part of the world. As we were preparing to pray, I called attention to these verses in Philippians 1:

19 For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 20 My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain (Philippians 1:19-21, emphasis mine).

I don’t think that Paul is asking the Philippians to pray for his safety or for a life free from suffering and persecution. Paul’s desire is to glorify God by advancing the gospel, whether this is by his life, or by his death. Paul does not dread death; he dreads living – or dying – in a way that would dishonor the Savior. Seeing Stephen’s entrance into heaven, looking into the face of His Lord, who could wish some other fate upon Stephen?

I was at a lunch some time ago with a man who is in charge of a ministry where missionaries are in grave danger. Someone suggested that there might be ways to proclaim the gospel that would minimize the risk of martyrdom. This man hesitated, and then replied that he had just told those serving under him that what the cause of Christ might need is a few more martyrs.

I don’t remember exactly when or where he said it, but I recall John Piper saying, “There is no closed country to those who are willing to die for the sake of the gospel.” Once one is committed to die (if need be) for the cause of Christ, there is nothing that can hold him (or her) back. In some parts of the world where I have ministered, missionaries seem to be the first to leave when the going gets tough. “Safety first!” seems to be the motto. That was not Stephen’s motto. He faithfully proclaimed the truth of God’s Word, knowing it would likely lead to his death. But what a triumphant death it was, even as our Lord’s death was triumphant. The same faith that enabled Abram to leave his homeland and his relatives and go to an unknown country, the same faith that enabled Abraham to offer up his only son (if need be), is the faith that enables us to live dangerously for the sake of our Lord, whose death ended once and for all the fear of death for those who trust in Him:

14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), 15 and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).

35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39).

55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! 58 So then, dear brothers and sisters, be firm. Do not be moved! Always be outstanding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:55-58).

6 Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord – 7 for we live by faith, not by sight. 8 Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So then whether we are alive or away, we make it our ambition to please him (2 Corinthians 5:6-9).


1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 12 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 22, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 See, for example, Luke 13:34-35; 19:41-44.

4 See Matthew 15:1-9.

5 Interestingly, the KJV, NKJV, NIV and others render it something like this: “Now the Lord had said . . . .” In this way, they have made the reading conform to what Stephen said in Acts 7.

6 Even Abram foolishly reasoned this way, supposing that God’s protection was only good within the borders of the land He had promised. When Abraham sojourned in Gerar, he once again misrepresented his wife Sarah as his sister. When Abimelech took Sarah, God revealed to him that Sarah was Abraham’s wife. Abraham excused his actions by claiming that he didn’t feel safe in that place. He said he thought there was “no fear of God” in that place (Genesis 20:11, NASB), which is just another way of saying he thought God would not protect him there. And yet God protected Abraham and Sarah, both in Egypt and in Gerar.

7 We will get to this in Acts 15.

8 Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant as well (Matthew 5:17-19), but only so that He could establish the New Covenant, which was far superior. The Book of Hebrews takes up this matter in much greater detail.

9 See, for example, Acts 15:1.

10 See Galatians 3.

11 Here is another of Stephen’s insights into the Old Testament account of Moses, which is not clearly stated in Exodus 1 and 2. We know that Pharaoh ordered the Israelites to kill their boy babies by casting them into the Nile (Exodus 1:22; Acts 7:19). Moses’ parents delayed as long as they could, and finally complied with Pharaoh’s orders – except that they cast Moses into the Nile in a waterproof basket. Nevertheless, Stephen makes it clear that the normal consequence of this would be the child’s death. It is not so clear in the Exodus account (Exodus 2:1-4). If his parents had not cast him into the Nile, an Egyptian most certainly would have, but God had other plans.

12 See John 7:1-5.

13 This additional information helps to put Moses’ self-deprecating remarks (Exodus 3 and 4) in perspective. He was not as poor in speech as he indicated, unless he is saying something like: “Look, I haven’t been to Egypt or spoken Egyptian for 40 years, and my Egyptian has gotten pretty rusty.”

14 Take note that Peter made a similar reference to this statement of Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15).

15 This is nothing new. The same thing happened with the brazen serpent (2 Kings 18:4) and also with the ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 4:1-6).

16 One must keep in mind the fact that Solomon’s temple was destroyed (2 Kings 25:8-17). This is really Herod’s temple (see John 2:20), which makes it a lot less glorious.

17 I prefer this rendering by the NASB (“cut to the heart,” KJV). It is the same expression that we find in Acts 5:33, except no one (like Gamaliel) attempts to curb the rage of the Sanhedrin this time.

18 A. T. Robertson likens this to a pack of wolves. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (electronic edition via BibleWorks 6), en loc.

19 Much has been made of the fact that Stephen saw the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Normally, when reference is made to Jesus being at the Father’s right hand, He is sitting. This is the only place where Jesus is specifically said to be standing at the Father’s right hand. Perhaps Jesus is standing because He is ready to take action, either welcoming Stephen or judging those who will kill him. Some think it is a way of honoring Stephen and his courageous entrance into heaven. We can only speculate.

20 The NET Bible indicates that some manuscripts omit this statement. My inclination is to accept it.

21 See Psalm 73:4-5.

22 You will recall that Joseph disguised himself so that they did not recognize him, though he surely recognized them.

23 Earlier, in Genesis 37:24-27, it was Judah who proposed to his brothers that they sell Joseph into slavery. Now, in Genesis 44:18-34, it is Judah who pleads with Joseph for Benjamin’s release, offering himself instead.

24 In Acts 6:9, we are told that some from . . . Cilicia . . . opposed Stephen. Tarsus was a city of Cilicia (Acts 21:39), and we know Paul was present at Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1-3).

25 F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 132.

26 Remember that Peter was a native Hebraic Jew while Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew. Also, Peter had some hard lessons yet to learn, as we see in Acts 10 and 11. Stephen’s thinking seems to be more advanced than Peter’s, especially when it came to the expansion of the church to Gentiles.

27 When I preached this message, I wrongly referred to the “Burma Shave approach: A little dab ‘ll do ya.” I was quickly corrected after the message. This was a Brillcream slogan, not a Burma Shave slogan. Regardless, little dabs of Scripture will not do us as well as large doses.

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13. The People God Uses (Acts 8:1-40)

1 And Saul agreed completely with killing him. Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. 2 Some devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was trying to destroy the church; entering one house after another, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

4 Now those who had been forced to scatter went around proclaiming the good news of the word. 5 Philip went down to the main city of Samaria and began proclaiming the Christ to them. 6 The crowds were paying attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the miraculous signs he was performing. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, were coming out of many who were possessed, and many paralyzed and lame people were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.

9 Now in that city was a man named Simon, who had been practicing magic and amazing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great. 10 All the people, from the least to the greatest, paid close attention to him, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called ‘Great.’” 11 And they paid close attention to him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip as he was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they began to be baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after he was baptized, he stayed close to Philip constantly, and when he saw the signs and great miracles that were occurring, he was amazed. 14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 These two went down and prayed for them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. 16 (For the Spirit had not yet come upon any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now Simon, when he saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power too, so that everyone I place my hands on may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could acquire God’s gift with money! 21 You have no share or part in this matter because your heart is not right before God! 22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that he may perhaps forgive you for the intent of your heart. 23 For I see that you are bitterly envious and in bondage to sin.” 24 But Simon replied, “You pray to the Lord for me so that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” 25 So after Peter and John had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many Samaritan villages as they went.

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 So he got up and went. There he met an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and was returning home, sitting in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” 31 The man replied, “How in the world can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of scripture the man was reading was this: “He was led like a sheep to slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In humiliation justice was taken from him. Who can describe his posterity? For his life was taken away from the earth.” 34 Then the eunuch said to Philip, “Please tell me, who is the prophet saying this about – himself or someone else?” 35 So Philip started speaking, and beginning with this scripture proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 36 Now as they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water! What is to stop me from being baptized?” 38 So he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any more, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through the area, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.1

Introduction2

In the Old Testament, God seldom used those who appeared to be the “most likely to succeed.” He used Moses, who was an escaped fugitive and who made all kinds of excuses as to why he was not the one God needed to deliver the nation Israel from its Egyptian bondage. He used David to kill Goliath, in spite of his youth and the disparaging comments of his brothers. He used Samson and Balaam, and even Balaam’s donkey. God used Pharaoh and his hardened heart to demonstrate His power over the gods of Egypt.

The New Testament is no different. He used “foot in mouth” Peter to play a major role in the proclamation of the gospel, and yet Peter was a man who denied his Lord publicly. The Apostle Paul summed up God’s amazing way of using the most unlikely people when he wrote:

26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

The Book of Acts is no exception. God has already used Peter to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah to crowds of people in Jerusalem, as well as to the Jewish Sanhedrin, the highest religious and civil court in Judaism. God used Stephen to preach in Greek-speaking synagogues, which led to his arrest and trial before the Sanhedrin. Instead of defending himself, Stephen indicted his accusers, showing their charges to be inconsistent with Old Testament teaching, and their resistance to God’s Spirit to be entirely consistent with Israel’s rebellion against God and His appointed servants.

Our last lesson ended with the stoning of Stephen. Acts 8 is a description of the spread of the gospel following Stephen’s death. In our text, God will employ several unlikely individuals to promote the preaching of the gospel. Who God uses and how He uses them will prove instructive and encouraging to us. Let us listen to God’s Spirit as He speaks to us through this great text.

Saul, the “Father of Missions” in Acts
Acts 8:1-3

1 And Saul agreed completely with killing him. Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter3 throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. 2 Some devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was trying to destroy the church; entering one house after another, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8:1-3).

Just a couple of verses before this, we read these words by which Luke introduced Paul to the readers of the Book of Acts:

When they had driven him out of the city, they began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul (Acts 7:58).

At first glance, it might look as though Saul played but a small part in the death of Stephen. But this was hardly the case, as we begin to discover in the introductory verses of chapter 8. We are told Saul was in wholehearted agreement with those who killed Stephen. This appears to have whetted his appetite for more aggressive opposition to the saints dwelling in Jerusalem. We now find Saul going house to house, seeking to identify those who were Christians. He then arrested those who believed in Jesus and hauled them off to prison.

Opposition to the preaching of the gospel seems to take a turn here. For whatever reason, the manifestations of the opposition to the gospel have changed. Initially, opposition was directed against the apostles and not so much toward the church as a whole. Thanks to Gamaliel’s counsel, the Sanhedrin seems to have significantly reduced its overt opposition to the apostles as they took more of a “wait and see” approach to their preaching. Now the opposition seems to come more from the unbelieving Greek-speaking Jews, and it is focused on the new believers, rather than on their native Hebraic leaders (the twelve). This resulted in the scattering of the church with only the apostles remaining behind in Jerusalem.

Notice how Luke contrasts Saul (Acts 8:3), who had a hand in Stephen’s death and who is persecuting the church, with those devout men who mourned over the death of Stephen and gave him a proper burial (Acts 8:2). In the Old Testament, godly men retrieved the bodies of Saul and his sons and gave them a proper burial, for which David commended them (1 Samuel 31:12-13; see 2 Samuel 2:4-7). Those who buried Stephen were surely putting themselves at risk by identifying with him, especially since a great persecution had broken out against the believers in Jerusalem.

Success in Samaria
Acts 8:4-8

4 Now those who had been forced to scatter went around proclaiming the good news of the word. 5 Philip went down to the main city of Samaria and began proclaiming the Christ to them. 6 The crowds were paying attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the miraculous signs he was performing. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, were coming out of many who were possessed, and many paralyzed and lame people were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city (Acts 8:4-8).

Luke does something interesting here, and I believe he does so to conform to his outline for the Book of Acts, which he disclosed in Acts 1:8:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

So far in Acts, we have seen the gospel spread throughout Jerusalem with the church growing rapidly – until the stoning of Stephen, that is. Now the church has scattered. In Acts 8:4-25, Luke describes how the gospel is proclaimed in Samaria. In Acts 9:31, we are told that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria experienced peace and thus was strengthened.” So by Acts 9:31, the gospel had been preached in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria. It is not until Acts 11:19 that Luke takes up the preaching of the gospel beyond Judea and Samaria. And thus the preaching of the gospel follows that geographical pattern God set down in Acts 1:8.

Those who were scattered from Jerusalem went forth preaching the good news of the gospel. A number of believers were scattered throughout Samaria (Acts 1:2). We would do well to recall the strained relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans were considered inferior because they were a mixed race. After years of warning by the prophets, the northern kingdom of Israel persisted in its idolatry, and so God gave them over to the Assyrians (see 2 Kings 17). The Assyrians carried off much of the population of Israel to distant places and replaced the Israelites with subject peoples who were transplanted from other lands. The result was a mixed race that persisted in idolatry.

From this point on, there was great hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritan woman at the well was therefore shocked that Jesus would have anything to do with her:

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone off into the town to buy supplies.) 9 So the Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you – a Jew – ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink?” (For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.) (John 4:7-9)

When Jesus sent His disciples to seek accommodations in a Samaritan village, they were turned away because they were on their way to Jerusalem. James and John knew how they wanted to deal with this:

51 Now when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem. 52 He sent messengers on ahead of him. As they went along, they entered a Samaritan village to make things ready in advance for him, 53 but the villagers refused to welcome him, because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. 54 Now when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them (Luke 9:51-55, emphasis mine).

In the heat of a debate with Jesus, the Jewish religious leaders chose these words as the most insulting remark they could think of:

“Aren’t we correct in saying that you are a Samaritan and are possessed by a demon?” (John 8:48)

Jesus did not share this hatred for Samaritans. He healed ten lepers. At least one of these lepers – the only one to return to Jesus to give thanks – was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19). Thanks to the woman at the well – a Samaritan woman – not only she but many from her village came to faith in Jesus (John 4:3-42). When Jesus needed an illustration of loving one’s neighbor, He told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Surely some who lived in Samaria were at least vaguely familiar with Jesus.

Though many persecuted saints from Jerusalem found their way to Samaria, Philip seems to have been selected as an example (a rather dramatic one at that) of those who were scattered. He made his way to a city of Samaria, perhaps “the chief city” of Samaria.4 Philip began to preach Jesus as the Christ in this Samaritan city. If you have ever done any street preaching, you know that the crowds aren’t that big, and the presentation doesn’t capture the attention of all. Many will pass by, ignoring the preaching altogether. These folks all hung on every word Philip spoke. Luke tells us they “were paying attention with one mind” (Acts 8:6). I believe our text supplies two main reasons for this rapt attention to Philip’s preaching.

The first reason for the unusual attention given to Philip and to his preaching is recorded in verses 6-8. Philip’s ministry, like that of Stephen (Acts 6:8-15) and the apostles before that (Acts 2:43; 5:12), was authenticated by many signs and wonders. In Philip’s case, many of those who were demon possessed were dramatically delivered as the demons came out with loud shrieks. In addition, many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. As a result, there was great rejoicing in that city. No doubt these signs and wonders gave Philip’s preaching a “ring of authority,” so that people paid close attention to what he said.

There is a second reason for the attention people paid to Philip’s preaching, and it is described for us in the following verses.

Simon the Magician
Acts 8:9-13

9 Now in that city was a man named Simon, who had been practicing magic and amazing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great. 10 All the people, from the least to the greatest, paid close attention to him, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called ‘Great.’” 11 And they paid close attention to him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip as he was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they began to be baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after he was baptized, he stayed close to Philip constantly, and when he saw the signs and great miracles that were occurring, he was amazed (Acts 8:9-13).

Suppose that Harry Houdini were alive today and that he lived in Dallas, Texas. If he were scheduled for a performance, a large crowd would surely show up. For years, Houdini amazed the crowds with his incredible escapes. Now suppose that a young preacher came to town and that his preaching was accompanied by many awesome signs and wonders. Imagine that it became known that Houdini was so taken with this young preacher that he gave up his performances to follow that young preacher wherever he went. He would sit in the front row and marvel at the signs and wonders that accompanied the preacher’s sermons. Would you not agree that Houdini’s awe and wonder, along with his appearances in the crowds who listened to the preacher, would greatly contribute to the popularity of this young preacher?

I think this is what happened with Philip and Simon the magician. For years, Simon had been amazing the folks of this Samaritan city – and the rest of Samaria – with his magic. Through slight of hand (or possibly by employing powers from the dark side), his power seemed unlimited. Simon was not reluctant to promote himself, either. Luke tells us that he “claimed to be someone great” (Acts 8:9). We are then told that the people thought of him as God. (In their minds, he is virtually the counterpart of Jesus.) Simon made no attempt to correct the popular misconception. I suspect that he promoted such thinking. In some ways, then, Simon was a Samaritan “messiah.” What an impact his “conversion” made on the people of Samaria. And not only did he profess belief and submit to baptism, he virtually attached himself to Philip, following him wherever he preached. No wonder the Samaritans were listening so intently to Philip.

The Arrival of the Apostles
Acts 8:14-17

14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 These two went down and prayed for them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. 16 (For the Spirit had not yet come upon any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17).

Until now, signs and wonders had only been performed by Philip (and of course the twelve apostles and Stephen before him). Philip’s signs and wonders seemed to be limited to exorcisms and healings. Philip had baptized new believers, including Simon, but none had yet received the Holy Spirit. God sovereignly delayed this until the arrival of two apostles, who were sent from Jerusalem as representatives of the twelve (Acts 8:14). I have to smile when I recall that John was one of the two disciples who had asked permission to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52-56). Now, as it were, he calls down the Spirit of God to fall upon these new Samaritan believers.

Much discussion has been devoted to explaining why the Spirit waited to “baptize” these new believers. We must begin by noting that our text does not directly give us the answer. Several possible reasons do come to mind. First, these new believers must be embraced as full-fledged members of the church by the Jewish Christians (see Ephesians 2:11-22). Who better to validate their faith in Jesus than two of the apostles from Jerusalem? In Acts 11, Peter will argue that he had to accept the new believers to whom he preached in the house of Cornelius and that he was obligated to baptize them. Here, Peter and John witness the “baptism of the Spirit,” which is God’s seal on the conversion of these believers. How could they deny what God had done, to which He bore witness through the coming of the Spirit on these believers?

Second, these new Samaritan believers needed the affirmation and confirmation of their equal standing in Jesus by the actions of the apostles sent from Jerusalem. Just as the Jerusalem Jews needed confirmation of the conversion of these Samaritans, so the Samaritans needed confirmation of their acceptance and affirmation by the Jewish apostles, as represented by Peter and John.

Third, there may be a deliberate “division of powers” here. That is, Philip had a certain function, but that function had its limits. The apostles took up where Philip’s responsibilities (and authority) left off. This was a matter of practical import. Philip was very highly regarded by the Samaritans. There was a danger of Philip being too highly esteemed (as can be seen with Simon). Notice how quickly Simon transfers his attention to Peter and John after their arrival. It might have been very unhealthy for Philip to have carried out all of the spectacular functions which, instead, were divided between Philip and Peter and John.

Simon and Simon (Peter)
Acts 8:18-25

18 Now Simon, when he saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power too, so that everyone I place my hands on may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could acquire God’s gift with money! 21 You have no share or part in this matter because your heart is not right before God! 22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that he may perhaps forgive you for the intent of your heart. 23 For I see that you are bitterly envious and in bondage to sin.” 24 But Simon replied, “You pray to the Lord for me so that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” 25 So after Peter and John had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many Samaritan villages as they went (Acts 8:18-25).

I find it interesting that Simon the magician did not express a desire to obtain the power that was demonstrated by the signs and wonders performed by Philip. He was very eager, however, to obtain the power that he saw as a result of the laying on of hands by Peter and John. What was the difference? While Luke tells us that Philip cast out demons and healed those who were paralyzed and lame (Acts 8:7), he does not tell us exactly what happened when Peter and John laid their hands on the new believers. Something rather spectacular must have occurred, or Simon would not have been so eager to obtain this power. I think it is safe to speculate that something happened that was similar to Pentecost, as described in Acts 2:1-4. We do know that when the apostles laid their hands on these Samaritan believers, they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17).

Simon was wrong to offer money to obtain the power to do what Peter and John had been doing. In the first place, this power was restricted to Peter and John. Not even Philip had been given this kind of power. Simon, therefore, was asking to have the power of an apostle. Second, Simon was asking for the power to bestow the Holy Spirit on everyone (Acts 8:19). Whoever he laid his hands on would receive the Spirit. The Holy Spirit was to come only upon genuine believers. Simon seems to care little about the necessity of belief; he wants merely to market the manifestations of the Spirit as a commodity. Third, by viewing the gift of the Spirit as a commodity to be bought and sold, he implied that this was a matter of works, not of grace. How horrible it would be if salvation could be bought and sold. Buying and selling the presence of the Spirit is just as wrong, and for the same reason. Salvation and the indwelling of the Spirit is a gift of grace, not goods to be bought and sold.

The seriousness of Simon’s sin is indicated by the severity of Peter’s response to Simon’s request:

“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could acquire God’s gift with money!” (Acts 8:20)

J. B. Phillips renders Peter’s words, “To hell with you and your money.” In a footnote, Phillips indicates that his rendering is precisely how the original text reads, and he bemoans the fact that many translations have paraphrased these words. How ironic that a paraphrase is more accurate than a supposedly literal rendering.

There are many who would like to conclude that Simon never really was saved. They would like to believe that Christians never had such worldly motives, but we should know our own hearts well enough to admit that on occasion our motives are not that different from those of Simon. Think, for example, of the sinful motives of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, or of Gehazi’s sin in 2 Kings 5:20-27.

It is not so easy to write Simon off as an unbeliever. We must first come to terms with Luke when he tells us that Simon believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13). Even after Simon tries to buy apostolic powers, Peter does not call on him to repent and be saved, but rather to repent of this specific sin, and ask forgiveness for it (Acts 8:22). Peter has a particular sin in mind and not Simon’s sins in general.

Furthermore, Peter told Simon that he had “no share or part in this matter” (Acts 8:21). A simple reading of this statement would seem to lead one to conclude that “this matter” is the bestowing of the Spirit, not the matter of being saved. Simon is “bitterly envious and in bondage to sin” (Acts 8:23). I understand these words in the light of this text in Deuteronomy:

14 “It is not with you alone that I am making this covenant by oath, 15 but with whoever stands with us here today before the Lord our God as well as those not with us here today. 16 “(For you know how we lived in the land of Egypt and how we crossed through the nations as we traveled. 17 You have seen their detestable things and idols of wood, stone, silver, and gold.) 18 Beware that the heart of no man, woman, clan, or tribe among you turns away from the Lord our God today to pursue and serve the gods of those nations; beware that there is among you no root producing poisonous and bitter fruit. 19 When such a person hears the words of this oath he secretly blesses himself and says, “I will have peace though I continue to walk with a stubborn spirit.” This will destroy the watered ground with the parched. 20 The Lord will be unwilling to forgive him, and his intense anger will rage against that man; all the curses written in this scroll will fall upon him and the Lord will obliterate his name from memory. 21 The Lord will single him out for judgment from all the tribes of Israel according to all the curses of the covenant written in this scroll of the law” (Deuteronomy 29:14-21, emphasis mine).

This is a very interesting text, a text that applies to Simon and to his sin. In Deuteronomy, Israel is about to enter into the Promised Land. They have entered into a covenant relationship with the God of Israel. These are a people who have a history of idolatry.5 They are well aware of the idols of Egypt and of the nations through which they have passed. They could easily be tempted to embrace some of these gods and, at the same time, still profess allegiance to God.6 God’s covenant was not given as a “good luck charm,” a license to do whatever they wanted and still expect God’s blessings. And so Moses warns the Israelites not to turn back to their old ways and to serve other gods (idols). He tells them not to expect God’s blessings when they continue to live as they once did, before they were redeemed. This would make them a “root producing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deuteronomy 29:18).

Simon seems to be doing what God warned Israel not to do. Previous to his coming to faith, Simon’s magic not only appears to have made him a very comfortable living; it also made him a very popular and powerful man. When the gospel came to Samaria, Simon believed, but he did not seem to grasp the implications of his faith in regard to his previous way of life. It would seem that Simon asked to buy the power and authority of the apostles to bestow the Holy Spirit so that this might be his new, and even more powerful, performance. He was seeking to upgrade his previous performance. In reality, this was turning back to his old ways, to his old magic, and thus it was turning away from God. That was a most dangerous thing to do.

Simon’s response to Peter’s rebuke is less than encouraging:

“You pray to the Lord for me so that nothing of what you have said may happen to me” (Acts 8:24).

Peter urged Simon to repent of this sin, and instead, Simon urged Peter and John to pray for him themselves (Acts 8:24). It is as though he fears that his prayers will not count, but he assumes that the prayers of Peter and John will. At best, this reveals an inadequate grasp of doctrine. As Paul put it,

5 For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time (1 Timothy 2:5-6).

The writer to the Hebrews said,

15 For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Simon seems focused on the apostles, as though their prayers for him would be more effectual than his own prayer of repentance. That is a serious error, but I believe there is another error here as well. Simon is not as concerned with the fact that he has sinned as he is about the consequences of his sin. He asks the apostles to pray so that the consequences of his sin might not come upon him. I guess what I am saying is this: Simon does not express concern for the impact of his sin on his relationship with the Lord; instead, he only seems only to be concerned about suffering the penalty for his sin.

Is Simon Saved?

A good deal of attention has been given to this question, and it is interesting to see how many want to disown Simon as a true believer. Let’s face it; it makes us uncomfortable to think that a true believer could be guilty of this kind of sin. How much easier it is to explain Simon’s actions as those of one outside the faith. After all, if Simon could sin this way as a Christian, then I am in danger of committing the same sin. If Simon is not a true believer, then I don’t need to be very concerned about his sin.

I confess that I have been inclined to view Simon as a non-Christian myself. But I am most reluctant to conclude that the Bible does not mean what it rather clearly states. We are told plainly that Simon himself believed (Acts 8:13). In the context, the rather clear inference is that Simon believed, just as other Samaritans had (see Acts 8:13). One might even go so far as to say that some Samaritans were drawn to faith in Jesus because Simon believed.7 I think we are better off to take the text as it is rather than set its statements aside. And so we will deal with Simon as though he was a believer (as the text states). Isn’t his sin one which any Christian could commit? I believe so, and thus there is in Peter’s strong rebuke a warning for us all. We will come back to this at the close of this message.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
Acts 8:26-40

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 So he got up and went. There he met an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and was returning home, sitting in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” 31 The man replied, “How in the world can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of scripture the man was reading was this: “He was led like a sheep to slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In humiliation justice was taken from him. Who can describe his posterity? For his life was taken away from the earth.” 34 Then the eunuch said to Philip, “Please tell me, who is the prophet saying this about – himself or someone else?” 35 So Philip started speaking, and beginning with this scripture proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 36 Now as they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water! What is to stop me from being baptized?” 38 So he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any more, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through the area, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea (Acts 8:26-40).

I have heard it said that Philip was called to leave a thriving and successful ministry in Samaria to go out to this desert road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza. I’m not so sure that this is the case. In verse 25, we read that the Apostles Peter and John have finished their ministry in Samaria and have headed back to Jerusalem, preaching Jesus as they went. It looks as though the task in Samaria was finished, so that the evangelist (Philip)8 could leave to minister elsewhere. The disciples left, heading back to Jerusalem, while Stephen was directed to go the opposite way on this road, toward Gaza.

Notice that Philip is not told why he is to go this way, although he will shortly find out. He is not told anything regarding what ministry he will perform, or to whom. He is simply instructed to go in a certain direction. Philip faithfully obeys, and thus he encounters the eunuch. This eunuch was a very influential man. He was a court official of the queen of Ethiopia and was in charge of her treasury (Acts 8:27).

His visit to Jerusalem was not official. He was interested enough in the Jewish faith to make this long journey. He had come to worship and was now returning home. He had somehow acquired a portion (if not all) of the Book of Isaiah and was reading it aloud as he traveled. The Spirit of God now directed Philip to make contact with the chariot. Even here, divine guidance is not entirely specific. Assuming that there was at least a driver, and perhaps someone else (a guard?), Philip is pointed in the right direction and is required to assess the situation and respond appropriately.

Philip could hardly miss this opportunity. The eunuch was reading aloud from the words of Isaiah 53. Specifically, Luke indicates that he was reading the words of Isaiah 53:7-8. If this is where he was in Isaiah at that moment, then we can confidently assume that he has already read the earlier verses, which are all about the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. Philip did not need to be told what to do next. He simply asked the eunuch if he understood what he was reading. The eunuch did not. He could not figure out whether Isaiah was speaking of himself, or of someone else. He invited Philip into his chariot, so that he could explain the meaning of this prophecy.

Opening his mouth,9 Philip began at this text and preached the Lord Jesus to him. How I would have loved to hear that Bible study. It must have been something similar to what Jesus taught the two men on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:25-27). The heart of the eunuch was prepared, and he quickly embraced Jesus as his Messiah. They approached some source of water, perhaps an oasis of some kind, and the eunuch seized this opportunity to be baptized. When they came out of the water, Philip was snatched away by the Spirit, and the eunuch went on his way back to Ethiopia, rejoicing in his salvation.

Conclusion

I set out in this message to find the connective link between these two accounts in chapter 8 of Acts: (1) the story of the salvation of the Samaritans (including Simon); and, (2) the account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. The one clear link between these two accounts is Philip. He is instrumental in the conversion of many Samaritans, as well as in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. But is this the only connection, the only link? I think not. I perceive it to be the obvious link, which prompts us to look more deeply for other, more subtle (but substantial) links.

While there may be similarities between the Samaritan revival and the salvation of the eunuch, let’s begin by considering the differences in these two accounts. I believe that Luke has deliberately set these accounts side-by-side so that we will note a contrast between them.

There are some obvious contrasts, of course. Philip is in the city in Samaria; he is on a desert road with the eunuch. The Samaritans are Israel’s neighbors, but they are greatly disliked by the Jews because they are considered half-breeds; the eunuch is a God-fearing Gentile, and thus accepted as such by the Jews. These, however, are not the points of contrast on which I wish to focus.

Consider the degree to which signs and wonders have played a role thus far in the Book of Acts. It was the miracle at Pentecost that first attracted a crowd, to which Peter preached a powerful message about Jesus the Messiah (Acts 2). It was the healing of the lame man outside the temple which created the next occasion for Peter to preach, so that many more came to faith. As persecution began to arise, the church prayed for boldness and for God’s hand to be apparent in signs and wonders, and God answered their prayers (Acts 4:23-31). The death of Ananias and Sapphira was also understood as an act of God, bringing fear to believers and unbelievers alike (Acts 5:11, 13). Nevertheless, the hand of God continued to work in a powerful way (Acts 5:14-16). Stephen was likewise distinguished by his powerful preaching, accompanied by wonders and signs (Acts 6:8-10).

With all these miracles, one might become overly attracted to signs and wonders, “addicted,” dare I say, to the spectacular. I believe that this happened to Elijah, and God found it necessary to correct his thinking regarding the spectacular:

9 He went into a cave there and spent the night. All of a sudden the Lord spoke to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the Lord, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.” 11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord. Look, the Lord is ready to pass by.” A very powerful wind went before the Lord, digging into the mountain and causing landslides, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the windstorm there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a soft whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his robe and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. All of a sudden a voice asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9-13)

God was not to be found in the great wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but rather in the soft whisper. There may be some today who suppose that unless there are unusual signs and wonders, God may not be present, and He may not be powerfully at work in our midst. This is not to deny signs and wonders, but only to show that God can powerfully save men without them.

Now consider our text. Up to this point in Acts, God’s presence and power have been demonstrated by great signs and wonders. But He has also been at work through great preaching. When we come to Acts 8, we are hardly surprised to find signs and wonders associated with Philip’s ministry (Acts 8:5-8, 13). Simon’s obsession with miracles (both those of Philip and those of Peter and John) should serve to caution us regarding similar fixations. We then see Simon’s obsession turn to sin when he seeks to buy the power to bestow the Spirit of God on men (for a fee, no doubt). As the account of the Samaritan revival comes to a close, we do not have a very good feeling about Simon. All does not end “happily ever after” for him. At the least, we wonder if he ever truly repented of this particular sin.

And then we come to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch at the end of chapter 8. Here the spectacular is largely missing. Granted, God’s Spirit directs Philip to the desert road where he meets the eunuch, and He then instructs Philip to make contact with this man. But none of this supernatural guidance is known to the eunuch. From his vantage point, nothing spectacular has occurred prior to his faith in Jesus. That is, he was not aware of anything spectacular, so spectacular events had no bearing on his conversion – unlike Simon the magician, whose conversion seems to have been heavily influenced by signs and wonders. Only after the eunuch was saved and baptized did he observe something spectacular – Philip’s amazing exit.

Since signs and wonders were not the explanation for the conversion of the eunuch, to what do we attribute his conversion? I think the answer is: the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the testimony of this man of God. The eunuch’s heart was already prepared when Philip encountered him. He must have had a fair knowledge of the Jewish faith, enough to prompt him to travel a long distance to worship in Jerusalem. He must have paid a high price for his copy of Scripture. The Spirit of God not only prompted Philip to make the journey to meet the eunuch, He also opened the heart of the eunuch to receive Stephen’s exposition of the Word.

I think the point is clear. Signs and wonders were necessary to accredit the apostles as God’s authoritative spokesmen (2 Corinthians 12:11-13; Hebrews 2:1-4). But they are not necessary for the on-going work of evangelism.10 The conversion of Simon, based heavily on signs and wonders, is certainly not described as being superior to the conversion of the eunuch, which was not prompted by such miracles. Put differently, the conversion of the eunuch was every bit as miraculous as that of Simon and the Samaritans. Signs and wonders are thus portrayed as optional, and not as requirements, for evangelism.

Next, I find in our text further examples of the sovereignty of God. I see this in the way God employs all things to promote His glory. God used the opposition of the Sanhedrin, the stoning of Stephen, and the opposition of Saul to scatter the Jerusalem saints, and thus to set in motion the fulfillment of the Great Commission. God used Simon the magician to testify to the true and greater power of God through Philip and the apostles (Peter and John). Because of Simon’s fascination with the signs and wonders performed by these men, many Samaritans gave a listening ear to the preaching of the gospel, and many came to faith. I believe that God also used the Ethiopian eunuch to proclaim the gospel in Ethiopia. God used those who obeyed Him, those who sought Him, and those who opposed Him to accomplish salvation, and thus to glorify Himself.

Furthermore, we see how God sovereignly prepared the hearts of men. God prepared Saul for salvation through his instruction by Gamaliel, by his role in the stoning of Stephen, and by his opposition to the church. God prepared the people of Samaria by using Simon the magician. (He may also have prepared the Samaritan people by the salvation of the Samaritan woman – see John 4:3-42.) God’s preparation of the heart of the Ethiopian is quite evident. He was ready for the witness of Philip.

I also see the sovereignty of God in the way He worked strategically through key individuals. The other day, my friend, Fred Smith, was discussing the concept of the “key log.” Logs are sometimes transported to a lumber mill by way of a river. At times, the logs will “jam,” forming a kind of dam, thus preventing the logs from moving downstream. In a log jam, there is usually a “key log,” a log that, if removed, will impact all the others, clearing the jam. You might say that the “key log” is the strategic log.

I believe we see God at work strategically in the Book of Acts moving “key logs” so that others were greatly impacted. God frequently multiplies the impact of the gospel by raising up or making use of strategic people. We have seen several strategic people in the last few chapters of Acts (chapters 6-8 in particular). God raised up two men – Stephen and Philip – from among the seven “deacons” who were appointed to oversee the care of the widows in Jerusalem. Stephen played a key role in the proclamation of the gospel, both by his preaching, and by his martyrdom. Philip also played a crucial role in evangelizing Samaria, as well as in pointing the Ethiopian eunuch to Jesus. The Ethiopian eunuch must have played a strategic role in taking the gospel to Ethiopia. God placed him in a very influential position, and this would have made him a strategic person in the spread of the gospel in his country. God also used Simon as a “key log” or strategic person. Because he had a very large following, his decision to follow Jesus must have caused others to listen to Philip’s preaching with interest. Saul is perhaps the most strategic person of all. His conversion is the watershed of Gentile evangelism in the Book of Acts.

What we have said above has a great deal to do with evangelism. First of all, it should impact our prayer life. We ought to be encouraged to pray for the salvation of the lost. We should even be encouraged to pray that God would save strategic individuals, so that their conversion and faith would impact large groups of people. Our church has partnered with the Church of the Open Door in California to pray for the salvation of key, strategic people who will impact many others, and perhaps bring about a great revival in our nation and abroad.

Twice in recent years, we have asked Colin McDougall from the Church of the Open Door to come to our church and speak on the topics of discipleship and prayer. One of the many things I have learned from Colin is that we should pray much more that God would prepare the hearts of lost sinners, and then bring them to us (or us to them). Colin has found that God has brought people to him whose hearts have been prepared for the gospel. In the Book of Acts, Luke reveals how God has prepared men and women to receive the gospel. Let us be encouraged to pray more in this regard – pray that God would open the hearts of men and women, and then lead us to them, or them to us, with the good news of the gospel.

As I was thinking about our text, it occurred to me that Simon’s sin is one that can be a temptation for any Christian. Simon sought to prostitute the grace of God, so that it served his personal interests. He wanted to “broker” God’s grace, buying the power to bestow the Spirit and (undoubtedly) selling the gift of the Spirit for personal gain. This is a most serious matter, as we should be able to discern from the severity of Peter’s rebuke.

Simon’s sin may take a slightly different form in our lives, but in essence, it is the same. God has given every Christian at least one spiritual gift so that we may edify (or build up) the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Peter 4:10-11). Our gifts are not given so much for our own personal benefit (though we do benefit from them) as they are for the building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:12, 26). Salvation is by grace, apart from human merit or contribution. How dare anyone seek to pervert or prostitute God’s grace for personal gain! And that gain is not always monetary. It may be that we misappropriate the grace of God for the praise of men and ego satisfaction. Let us beware of misappropriating those manifestations of divine grace, for purposes other than edifying men and glorifying God. Here is a sin of which we are all capable, and of which most of us are, at one time or another, guilty.

How different Simon was from Saul – soon to be the Apostle Paul. After believing in Jesus, Simon sought to “use” God to his own advantage; Saul, on the other hand, was eager to be used by God, for the spread of the gospel. When Simon believed in God, he did not seem to grasp that he had died in Christ, and that his life as a believer was to be entirely new. That is something that Saul quickly grasped, and later taught:

I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

17 So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. 19 Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn about Christ like this, 21 if indeed you heard about him and were taught in him, just as the truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image – in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth (Ephesians 4:17-24).

The radical change that salvation is designed to produce is symbolized in Christian baptism. When we were joined with Christ by faith, we were joined to Him in His death to sin, and in His resurrection to newness of life. And thus we dare not revert back to our former attitudes, motivations, and actions:

3 Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life. 5 For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection. 6 We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 (For someone who has died has been freed from sin.) 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, he is never going to die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 For the death he died, he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:3-11).

God used a Simon and an unbelieving Saul, but how much better to be used like Philip, who obediently followed the leading of the Holy Spirit, and willingly bore testimony to the Lord Jesus. He knew the Scriptures so well he could take up from the very text the eunuch was reading, and beginning there, proclaim the Lord Jesus. May we be that kind of instrument in God’s hands, to the salvation of the lost and to the glory of God.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 13 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 5, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 This term “scatter” is used only by Luke and is found only in Acts 8:1, 4 and 11:19. As some commentators have noted, it is a word used for the scattering of seed, an apt way to describe the dispersion of the church and the resulting spread of the gospel.

4 The Greek manuscripts differ as to whether the definite article (“the”) is present before Samaria. Thus, some translations render, “a city of Samaria,” while others render it, “the city of Samaria.” Obviously, the translators of the NET Bible concluded that the definite article should be included, and they rendered it in such a way as to convey the idea that this particular city was “the main city of Samaria.”

5 Stephen referred to the idolatry of Israel in his sermon, when he cited Amos 5:26-27 (Acts 7:43).

6 This is essentially what they did with the golden calf (see Exodus 32:1-8).

7 Their conversion was the sovereign, saving work of God, and God used Simon’s conversion as one of many means He used to point others to Jesus.

8 In Acts 21:8, he is called “Philip the evangelist.”

9 The expression, to open one’s mouth (and then to speak), is not unique to this text. We find it in Matthew 5:2, where Jesus began to teach the Sermon on the Mount. I cannot help but note the close proximity of this statement in Acts 8:35 to the statement from Isaiah 53:7, cited in Acts 8:32: “. . . so he did not open his mouth.” Jesus was silent at His death (see also 1 Peter 2:22-23), and so it is Philip who speaks to explain Messiah’s death and resurrection, and the salvation it achieved. We, too, are to open our mouths and speak of Him who suffered silently (see Colossians 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15).

10 I am not saying that God cannot or will not use signs and wonders in this age if He sovereignly chooses to do so; I am saying that we dare not insist that He must do so.

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14. The Salvation of Saul (Acts 9:1-31)

1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing out threats to murder the Lord’s disciples, went to the high priest 2 and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, either men or women, he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he was going along, approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 So he said, “Who are you, Lord?” He replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting! 6 But stand up and enter the city and you will be told what you must do.” 7 (Now the men who were traveling with him stood there speechless, because they heard the voice but saw no one.) 8 So Saul got up from the ground, but although his eyes were open, he could see nothing. Leading him by the hand, his companions brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he could not see, and he neither ate nor drank anything.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias,” and he replied, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 Then the Lord told him, “Get up and go to the street called ‘Straight,’ and at Judas’ house look for a man from Tarsus named Saul. For he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and place his hands on him so that he may see again.” 13 But Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem, 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to imprison all who call on your name!” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house, placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came here, has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, his strength returned.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “This man is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and were saying, “Is this not the man who in Jerusalem was ravaging those who call on this name, and who had come here to bring them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 But Saul became more and more capable, and was causing consternation among the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. 23 Now after some days had passed, the Jews plotted together to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plot against him. They were also watching the city gates day and night so that they could kill him. 25 But his disciples took him at night and let him down through an opening in the wall by lowering him in a basket.

26 When he arrived in Jerusalem, he attempted to associate with the disciples, and they were all afraid of him, because they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took Saul, brought him to the apostles, and related to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he was staying with them, associating openly with them in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He was speaking and debating with the Greek-speaking Jews, but they were trying to kill him. 30 When the brothers found out about this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus. 31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria experienced peace and thus was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, the church increased in numbers.1

Introduction2

When I study a passage, my first task is to read it over and over until I know what questions need to be answered. Then I continue to read the text and a few commentaries, meditate, and discuss it with others until the answers to my questions become clear. Our text in Acts 9 describes the conversion of Saul, who will eventually become known as Paul the Apostle. Luke has already recorded the conversion of a number of people in the Book of Acts, but no conversion account is as prominent as that of Saul. What is different about Saul’s conversion is that it is recorded three times in Acts, and in considerable detail. Noting this, I was able to articulate the questions which I needed to answer in order to adequately understand and explain this text. The questions are:

    1. Why is the conversion of Saul so important that it is repeated three times in Acts?

    2. What is unique about this conversion account?

    3. What does Saul’s conversion have to do with people today?

Of all the miracles recorded in the Book of Acts, the conversion of Saul is one of the most spectacular and one of the most significant. Let us look to the Holy Spirit, who was at work in the early church and who is likewise at work today, to enlighten our minds so that we might understand and apply this text which He inspired.

Stopping Saul in His Tracks
Acts 9:1-9

1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing out threats to murder the Lord’s disciples, went to the high priest 2 and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, either men or women, he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he was going along, approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 So he said, “Who are you, Lord?” He replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting! 6 But stand up and enter the city and you will be told what you must do.” 7 (Now the men who were traveling with him stood there speechless, because they heard the voice but saw no one.) 8 So Saul got up from the ground, but although his eyes were open, he could see nothing. Leading him by the hand, his companions brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he could not see, and he neither ate nor drank anything (Acts 9:1-9).

If Saul appears to be merely standing by when Stephen is stoned (Acts 7:58), this impression is quickly corrected as the Book of Acts unfolds. Just a few verses later, we read,

But Saul was trying to destroy the church; entering one house after another, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8:3).

Now we read that Saul is “still breathing out threats to murder the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1). Saul is not merely threatening murder, he is participating in it; indeed, he is instigating it. Saul appears to be the ringleader of the opposition to the church:

“I persecuted this Way even to the point of death, tying up both men and women and putting them in prison” (Acts 22:4).

“And that is what I did in Jerusalem: Not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons by the authority I received from the chief priests, but I also cast my vote against them when they were sentenced to death” (Acts 26:10).

The word “still” (Acts 9:1) is significant. It indicates that Saul has been “breathing out threats to murder” for some time. It indicates that Stephen’s death did not slow Saul down at all. Instead, it would appear that it fueled the “fire” of his zeal to crush Christianity. As I have said earlier, I believe that Saul is the ringleader, the driving force behind the persecution that has arisen against the saints.3

Initially, Saul’s activities seem to have been limited to Jerusalem,4 but as the church scattered, Saul’s activities became “international.” He received letters from the high priest which authorized him to go to the synagogues of other (foreign) countries:

I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to force them to blaspheme. Because I was so furiously enraged at them, I went to persecute them even in foreign cities (Acts 26:11).

One such “foreign country” was Syria, with Damascus as its capital city. There was a large congregation of Jews living there, and the high priest’s letter seemed to give Saul the authority of extradition, so that he could arrest Christian Jews and take them back to Jerusalem for punishment. The journey to Damascus was approximately 150 miles, which shows how serious Saul was in his opposition to Christianity.

Paul was traveling to Damascus when he was divinely intercepted. It was high noon, but he was smitten by a light far brighter than the sun (Acts 26:13). It drove Saul and his companions to their knees (Acts 26:14). All saw the light and heard the voice, but they did not understand it (Acts 22:9); only Saul understood. Luke gives more detail in chapter 26:

13 “About noon along the road, Your Majesty, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining everywhere around me and those traveling with me. 14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by kicking against the goads’” (Acts 26:13, emphasis mine).

One thing is clear to me: God was not seeking to save anyone but Saul here. All saw the light, but only Saul saw our Lord. All heard the voice, but only Saul understood it (Acts 9:7). And what was said was addressed specifically to Saul, and not to the rest. It is clear that our Lord intercepted Saul to save him, and this He did.

In this account, Saul asked but one question:5Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:5) You can imagine the impact of the words spoken in answer to this question: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting!” (Acts 9:5) Our Lord then instructs Saul to enter the city, where he will be told what he should do. How ironic that Saul is now being led to Damascus by others, just as he must have led believers to their trial and their death in Jerusalem. Saul is being led to Damascus, when he had planned to lead others out of Damascus. The letters in Saul’s hand no longer have any authority. Now he is following orders from Jesus.

Saul got up from the ground, but without his sight. He had been blinded by the great light. He was led into Damascus, where he must have been met by someone appointed by the Lord (see Acts 9:6). He was taken to the house of Judas (see verse 11), where he neither ate nor drank (nor saw anything) for three days. I believe this was a very significant time for Saul. He had been well trained in Judaism. He knew the Old Testament well, and he thought he was serving God by persecuting the church. Now he knew that the One whom he opposed, the One he thought to be dead, was alive. Saul likewise learned that his persecution of the church was really persecuting Jesus.

Saul had a great deal of knowledge, but this encounter with Jesus changed everything. Saul had been wrong on one crucial point: Jesus was not a heretic or a revolutionary; Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. This one fact forced him to rethink and to rearrange all of his theology.

Let me attempt to illustrate it this way. Suppose that I had made a map. On it, I had the names of various countries, cities, rivers, and so on. As I was following this map to a certain destination, I got lost, and then someone pointed out that I had reversed north and south. This would require me to rearrange everything on the map. That is the way it was with Saul. For those three days, he had to rethink his understanding of the Old Testament and of the preaching he had heard from men like Stephen. If Jesus was the Messiah and He had risen from the dead, Paul had been completely wrong, and he must now set aside his religious beliefs for something very different (and yet based upon the same Old Testament facts).

Two Visions6
Acts 9:10-19a

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias,” and he replied, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 Then the Lord told him, “Get up and go to the street called ‘Straight,’ and at Judas’ house look for a man from Tarsus named Saul. For he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and place his hands on him so that he may see again.” 13 But Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem, 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to imprison all who call on your name!” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house, placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came here, has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, his strength returned (Acts 9:10-19a).

We find Saul at the home of a man named Judas. Was Judas one of those Saul intended to arrest? I would think that Ananias must have been a target. Ananias was a highly respected Jew, but he was also one who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. Luke describes the process by which our Lord brought Ananias and Saul together. Once again, it is clear that our Lord is specifically seeking out Saul.

The Lord spoke to Ananias in a vision, instructing him to go to the house of a man named Judas, where he would find Saul of Tarsus.7 Ananias was told that Saul was praying and that he had been given a vision that a man named Ananias would come and restore his sight. Ananias was a good and godly man, but it seemed inconceivable to him that Saul could ever be converted to faith in Jesus. And so he reminded the Lord that Saul was a man who had done great harm to the saints in Jerusalem. He was also aware that Saul had come with authority from the chief priests to seize Christians and take them back to Jerusalem.

The Lord’s answer to these concerns was to indicate that Saul’s conversion would literally turn his life upside-down. Saul was God’s “chosen instrument.” He would carry the name of Jesus to Gentiles, to kings, and to the people of Israel. How much more radically could Saul’s life change? From being a persecutor of the church to becoming a preacher of the gospel, that is what our Lord had in store for Saul. But there was more. The one who had brought so much suffering to the saints would himself suffer greatly for the name of Jesus.

This was enough to convince Ananias. He left to go to the house of Judas, where he found Saul just as the Lord had indicated. Placing his hands on Saul, Ananias told him that he had been sent to restore his sight and to bestow the Spirit on him. At that moment, the scale-like impediments to his sight fell away, so that Saul could see again. Saul got up, was baptized, and then ate to regain his strength.

Preaching in Damascus and the First Fruits of Opposition
Acts 9:19b-25

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “This man is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and were saying, “Is this not the man who in Jerusalem was ravaging those who call on this name, and who had come here to bring them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 But Saul became more and more capable, and was causing consternation among the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. 23 Now after some days had passed, the Jews plotted together to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plot against him. They were also watching the city gates day and night so that they could kill him. 25 But his disciples took him at night and let him down through an opening in the wall by lowering him in a basket.

What an amazing time this must have been, with Saul enjoying the fellowship of other believers in Damascus. And remember, these are the very ones he had intended to identify, arrest, and carry off to Jerusalem. This is surely a miracle, and it is followed up with yet another miracle: Saul immediately went to the synagogues and began to preach that Jesus is the Son of God. These synagogues were expecting Saul – expecting him to come and rid them of those troublesome followers of Jesus. Instead, Saul came as a follower of Jesus, and he preached it. No wonder folks were amazed at what they heard. Paul’s reputation preceded him, so that they knew who he was and why he had come.

It wasn’t long before some unbelieving Jews had heard enough of Saul’s teaching. After a few days, they plotted together to kill Saul. But Saul heard of their plot and knew that they were waiting for him to leave the city so that they could capture him. Saul already had some “disciples,” some who had come to faith as a result of his preaching. These disciples took Saul in the cover of darkness and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall, so that he escaped.

Journey to Jerusalem
Acts 9:26-30

26 When he arrived in Jerusalem, he attempted to associate with the disciples, and they were all afraid of him, because they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took Saul, brought him to the apostles, and related to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he was staying with them, associating openly with them in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He was speaking and debating with the Greek-speaking Jews, but they were trying to kill him. 30 When the brothers found out about this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus (Acts 9:26-30).

Initially, I supposed that when Saul arrived in Jerusalem he attempted to meet with the twelve, but the term “disciple” is not used of the apostles in Acts. These “disciples” are the new believers in Jerusalem, the kind of folks that Saul sought to arrest and to kill. No wonder they were apprehensive about welcoming Saul into their fellowship. Saul’s efforts to meet with them had all the earmarks of a trap, the kind of trap Saul would have used before his conversion.

To my knowledge, Barnabas and Saul had never met until now. Barnabas is a man who is true to his character, as described in Acts 11:

20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, 24 because he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and a significant number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to look for Saul (Acts 11:20-25).

Barnabas was a man who was both “full of the Holy Spirit” and full “of faith.” He had the faith to believe that Saul could be saved. And so when Saul arrived in Jerusalem, somehow the paths of these two believers crossed. He not only knew the story of Saul’s conversion, but also had heard the reports of how Saul had boldly proclaimed Jesus in Damascus. (Had some of the saints in Damascus accompanied Saul back to Jerusalem?) From this point on, Saul was welcomed into the fellowship of the saints in Jerusalem. He also began to proclaim Jesus and was engaged in debate by the Greek-speaking Jews (who seem to have taken over the cause of opposing Christianity). Soon, these unbelieving, Greek-speaking Jews were seeking to kill Saul. It was the only way they could silence him! His fellow-believers learned of those who were seeking to kill Saul. They took Saul to Caesarea and sent him from there to Tarsus, his home town, where he would be safe.

Peace
Acts 9:31

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria experienced peace and thus was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, the church increased in numbers (Acts 9:31).

Here is another one of Luke’s “progress reports” in the Book of Acts. What makes it interesting is that it immediately follows the account of Saul’s conversion, not to mention his retreat to Tarsus. Two questions come to mind. First, “What is the connection between Saul’s conversion and the peace Luke describes in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria?” The second is, “What is the relationship between Saul’s conversion and his retreat to Tarsus and the continued growth of the church?”

I don’t mean this unkindly, but in Acts, I don’t see much peace when Paul is present. He is something like a burning match at a fuel spill. This was certainly true when Saul was opposing the church as an unbeliever. He would go from place to place, seizing saints and dragging them off to Jerusalem for trial and punishment (Acts 22:4; 26:10-11). When Saul was converted, this was undoubtedly a massive blow to those Jews who opposed Christianity, for Saul seemed to be their inspirational leader. But Saul was just as aggressive in bearing witness to Jesus as Messiah as he was in opposing Him. Thus, he was forced to flee from Damascus (Acts 9:20-25) and then from Jerusalem (Acts 9:28-30). The truth is that peace came only after Paul’s departure from a certain city. It is true in our text, and it is true elsewhere as well (see Acts 13:50; 14:5-6, 19; 17:10, 14; 19:20—20:1). Saul’s conversion resulted in a period of exile,8 and this contributed greatly to the peace which returned to Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.

Conclusion

Having studied our text, we must now return to the questions which we raised at the beginning of this message:

    1. Why is the conversion of Saul so important that it is repeated three times in Acts?

    2. What is unique about this conversion account?

    3. What does Saul’s conversion have to do with people today?

We will begin by addressing the first two of these questions together.

(1) First of all, this is a dramatic conversion. I’ve heard many wonderful testimonies as to how our Lord has drawn an unbeliever to faith, but none can match the incredible sequence of events surrounding Saul’s conversion. How many Christians can claim that they were saved as the result of a face-to-face confrontation with the risen Lord Jesus?

(2) The conversion of Saul depicts the elements of conversion that are common to every believer. Consider, for example, the obvious fact that Saul was not seeking God but was actively opposing Him. Salvation is not the result of lost men seeking God, but of God seeking lost men:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44, emphasis mine).

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that remains, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you” (John 15:16, emphasis mine).

9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 10 just as it is written:

“There is no one righteous,
not even one,
11 there is no one who understands,
there is no one who seeks God
.
12 All have turned away,
together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness, not even one”
(Romans 3:9-12, emphasis mine).

1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – 6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:1-9).

Saul’s salvation was not the result of his religious striving, but the result of being sought and subdued by the saving grace of God:

1 Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! To write this again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials 4 – though mine too are significant. If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. 6 In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. 7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness (Philippians 3:1-9).

Saul’s conversion was not the result of his seeking or striving; instead, it was the sovereign work of God, so that He might display His wondrous mercy and grace:

12 I am grateful to the one who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me faithful in putting me into ministry, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I was treated with mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and our Lord’s grace was abundant, bringing faith and love in Christ Jesus. 15 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them! 16 But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the eternal king, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen (1 Timothy 1:12-17).

Saul’s conversion, like that of every believer, is a dramatic change of mind with regard to the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Salvation is all about Jesus:

Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

10 (The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has testified concerning his Son.) 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life (1 John 5:10-12).

Saul was confronted by our Lord Jesus. He learned that his opposition to the church was ultimately opposition to Jesus. He learned that Jesus was God, and that He had been raised from the dead. He was convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah, God’s only provision for eternal life. That is what every person must acknowledge who comes to saving faith:

8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach), 9 because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation (Romans 10:8-10).

My point in all this is that while Saul’s conversion was spectacular, it was not really unique. It served to dramatically illustrate what happens whenever anyone is drawn to faith in the Lord Jesus.

(3) Saul’s conversion is a strong message and object lesson to unbelieving Jews (as well as to unbelieving Gentiles). Paul’s account of his conversion in Acts confronts unbelieving Jews with the gospel, the same message which they must embrace if they are to enter into the blessings promised to Abraham and his descendants. Paul was as Jewish as one could get, and yet he was not saved. His Jewish zeal did not and could not save him. He would later write:

9:30 What shall we say then? – that the Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness obtained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith, 31 but Israel even though pursuing a law of righteousness did not attain it. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but (as if it were possible) by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 just as it is written, “Look, I am laying in Zion a stone that will cause people to stumble and a rock that will make them fall, yet the one who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

10:1 Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God on behalf of my fellow Israelites is for their salvation. 2 For I can testify that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not in line with the truth. 3 For ignoring the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking instead to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes. 5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is by the law: “The one who does these things will live by them.” 6 But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach), 9 because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation. 11 For the scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him.

The only true Jew is the Jew who embraces Jesus as the Messiah, by faith receiving the salvation He accomplished at Calvary:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. 15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. 16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants – not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed – the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do. 18 Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, “so will your descendants be.” 19 Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do. 22 So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness. 23 But the statement it was credited to him was not written only for Abraham’s sake, 24 but also for our sake, to whom it will be credited, those who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification (Romans 4:13-25, emphasis mine).

(4) Saul’s conversion is the basis of his apostleship. You will remember that when the apostles chose a replacement for Judas, they required that this person must have seen the risen Lord (Acts 1:21-22). Saul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus was his encounter with the risen Lord:

7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy 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 has not been in vain. In fact, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, this is the way we preach and this is the way you believed (1 Corinthians 15:7-11, emphasis mine).

It is important to note that in his conversion experience, Saul not only saw the risen Lord, he was given a very specific commission. You might call it Saul’s “Great Commission”:

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

12 A man named Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who live there, 13 came to me and stood beside me and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight!’ And at that very moment I looked up and saw him. 14 Then he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has already chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear a command from his mouth, 15 because you will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard (Acts 22:12-15).

15 So I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this reason, to designate you in advance as a servant and witness to the things you have seen and to the things in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me’” (Acts 26:15-18).

(5) Saul’s conversion is yet another witness to the fact of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Jesus spoke to Saul, and he spoke to Jesus. Jesus was (and is) alive; His body was not decaying in a Jerusalem tomb (see Acts 2:24-36). Those with Saul could testify that something unusual, even supernatural, took place, but they were not privileged to see all that he saw. They did not see the risen Lord Jesus.

(6) The conversion of Saul is a turning point in the Book of Acts and in the history of the church. Things would never be the same after Saul came to faith. In Acts, Saul (Paul) is the key figure in the evangelization of the Gentiles. In the epistles, Paul is the key New Testament author to explain God’s purpose for the evangelization of the Gentiles (see, for example, Romans 9-11; Ephesians 2:11-22).

(7) Saul’s conversion is a key to understanding Paul’s theology in the New Testament. F.F. Bruce has written:

“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.”9

Paul writes not only from a deep and profound knowledge of God’s grace, but also from a deep and profound experience of God’s grace. When you read Paul’s teaching on divine election (see Ephesians 1 or Romans 9), or the miracle of being transported out of death and into eternal life (Ephesians 2:1-10), you can see how his conversion illustrates these truths.

Saul’s conversion is a watershed event in the New Testament. No wonder we find three different accounts of his conversion in the Book of Acts. One can hardly overestimate the impact Paul has had on Christianity.

The final question which I raised at the beginning of this lesson is this: “How does Saul’s conversion relate to evangelism today?” Let me suggest some ways in which Saul’s conversion in our text should impact Christians today.

Saul’s conversion should serve to greatly encourage Christians today to evangelize. What an encouragement for us to pray for the salvation of the lost! To press this even further, our text should prompt us to diligently pray for those who seem least likely to be saved. Would you not admit that many of us have a certain number of people whom we consider “least likely to be saved”? It may be a relative, an associate at work, or a friend to whom we have witnessed over a long period of time, but seemingly in vain. Paul was hopelessly lost. He not only rejected Christ, he actively opposed Him. But God intercepted Saul and stopped him in his tracks, dramatically saving him and radically transforming his life. God can do that to anyone. The more impossible a particular person’s salvation appears to be, the greater the glory that goes to God when that person is saved. Ultimately, it is not our logic or our persuasiveness that saves men, but God’s Spirit who drives the truth of the Word home, convicting sinners of their sin, and opening their darkened eyes to see the truth in Jesus:

8 “And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment – 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:8-11).

Salvation is “of the Lord” (see Jonah 2:9; Psalm 3:8). It is ultimately His doing. We do not have to move men’s hearts or to out-argue them. We need only petition the God who finds no pleasure in the destruction of the lost, but delights in the salvation of lost sinners.

1 First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, 2 even for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, 4 since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

We must pray much more for the salvation of the lost, and then ask that He will use us as He draws sinners to faith.

The account of the conversion of Saul is a great text for those who have not yet come to faith in the Lord Jesus. We read that Saul came face-to-face with Jesus of Nazareth. Someday every unbeliever will come face-to-face with Jesus as their Judge:

42 “He commanded us to preach to the people and to warn them that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 About him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:42-43).

30 Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31, emphasis mine).

And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment (Hebrews 9:27).

3 For the time that has passed was sufficient for you to do what the non-Christians desire. You lived then in debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness, carousing, drinking bouts, and wanton idolatries. 4 So they are astonished when you do not rush with them into the same flood of wickedness, and they vilify you. 5 They will face a reckoning before Jesus Christ who stands ready to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:3-5, emphasis mine).

When He returns to this earth, our Lord will judge those who have persecuted His saints:

3 We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith flourishes more and more and the love of each one of you all for one another is ever greater. 4 As a result we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions you are enduring. 5 This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment, to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which in fact you are suffering. 6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed – and you did in fact believe our testimony (2 Thessalonians 1:3-10).

The difference is that when Saul stood before our Lord, it was so that he might be saved from judgment. When men stand before our Lord at His second coming, there will no longer be an opportunity for salvation, but only for judgment.

7 For the hidden power of lawlessness is already at work. However, the one who holds him back will do so until he is taken out of the way, 8 and then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will destroy by the breath of his mouth and wipe out by the manifestation of his arrival. 9 The arrival of the lawless one will be by Satan’s working with all kinds of miracles and signs and false wonders, 10 and with every kind of evil deception directed against those who are perishing, because they found no place in their hearts for the truth so as to be saved. 11 Consequently God sends on them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false. 12 And so all of them who have not believed the truth but have delighted in evil will be condemned (2 Thessalonians 2:7-12).

Do not wait until it is too late, my friend. Trust in Jesus today. In this way – and this way only – you will find the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of eternal life.

1 Now because we are fellow workers, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “I heard you at the acceptable time, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” Look, now is the acceptable time; look, now is the day of salvation! (2 Corinthians 6:1-2)

If you think you are too good to need salvation, remember that Saul was zealous for his religious faith, but he was terribly lost and in need of salvation. Being good, apart from God, is really being bad. If you think you are too wicked to be saved, once again think of Saul, who tells us that he was the “chief of sinners”:

15 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them! 16 But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

When God saved Saul, He saved the worst of sinners, so that every other sinner would know God’s offer of salvation applies to him. Trust Him today.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 14 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 5, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 Saul does not appear to have taken the advice of his teacher and mentor, Gamaliel (see Acts 5:34-40; 22:3).

4 For Paul’s activities in Jerusalem, see Acts 9:13, 21, 26.

5 In Acts 22:10, we learn that Saul also asked, “What shall I do, Lord?

6 It has been observed that there are some interesting parallels between the “two visions” of Ananias and Saul in our text and the visions of Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10. This may be worth further investigation.

7 Giving Ananias this specific information made this an exercise of faith for him. He knew all too well who Saul was, and what he had come to do.

8 We learn from Paul’s words in Galatians 1:15-24 that his absence from Jerusalem and Judea was not an unfruitful one. This was undoubtedly a time of spiritual instruction and growth for him.

9 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 113.

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15. The Perfecting of Peter (Acts 9:32-10:48)

32 Now as Peter was traveling around from place to place, he also came down to the saints who lived in Lydda. 33 He found there a man named Aeneas who had been confined to a mattress for eight years because he was paralyzed. 34 Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus the Christ heals you. Get up and make your own bed!” And immediately he got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which in translation means Dorcas). She was continually doing good deeds and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became sick and died. When they had washed her body, they placed it in an upstairs room. 38 Because Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them, and when he arrived they brought him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him, crying and showing him the tunics and other clothing Dorcas used to make while she was with them. 40 But Peter sent them all outside, knelt down, and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her get up. Then he called the saints and widows and presented her alive. 42 This became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 So Peter stayed many days in Joppa with a man named Simon, a tanner.

1 Now there was a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort. 2 He was a devout, God-fearing man, as was all his household; he did many acts of charity for the people and prayed to God regularly. 3 About three o’clock one afternoon he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God who came in and said to him, “Cornelius.” 4 Staring at him and becoming greatly afraid, Cornelius replied, “What is it, Lord?” The angel said to him, “Your prayers and your acts of charity have gone up as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa and summon a man named Simon, who is called Peter. 6 This man is staying as a guest with a man named Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who had spoken to him departed, Cornelius called two of his personal servants and a devout soldier from among those who served him, 8 and when he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

9 About noon the next day, while they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted to eat, but while they were preparing the meal, a trance came over him. 11 He saw heaven opened and an object something like a large sheet descending, being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth and wild birds. 13 Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; slaughter and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “Certainly not, Lord, for I have never eaten anything defiled and ritually unclean!” 15 The voice spoke to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean!” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into heaven.

17 Now while Peter was puzzling over what the vision he had seen could signify, the men sent by Cornelius had learned where Simon’s house was and approached the gate. 18 They called out to ask if Simon, known as Peter, was staying there as a guest. 19 While Peter was still thinking seriously about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look! Three men are looking for you. 20 But get up, go down, and accompany them without hesitation, because I have sent them.” 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, “Here I am, the person you’re looking for. Why have you come?” 22 They said, “Cornelius the centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man, well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to summon you to his house and to hear a message from you.” 23 So Peter invited them in and entertained them as guests. On the next day he got up and set out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him.

24 The following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting anxiously for them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 So when Peter came in, Cornelius met him, fell at his feet, and worshiped him. 26 But Peter helped him up, saying, “Stand up. I too am a mere mortal.” 27 Peter continued talking with him as he went in, and he found many people gathered together. 28 He said to them, “You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, yet God has shown me that I should call no person defiled or ritually unclean. 29 Therefore when you sent for me, I came without any objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” 30 Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock in the afternoon, I was praying in my house, and suddenly a man in shining clothing stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your acts of charity have been remembered before God. 32 Therefore send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter. This man is staying as a guest in the house of Simon the tanner, by the sea.’ 33 Therefore I sent for you at once, and you were kind enough to come. So now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to say to us.” 34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him.1

Introduction2

Matthew and Luke have already introduced us to a centurion. Luke’s account particularly serves as a backdrop to our text in the Book of Acts:

1 After Jesus had finished teaching all this to the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave who was highly regarded, but who was sick and at the point of death. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they urged him earnestly, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 because he loves our nation, and even built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not presume to come to you. Instead, say the word, and my servant must be healed. 8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him. He turned and said to the crowd that followed him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith!” 10 So when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well” (Luke 7:1-10; see also Matthew 8:5-13).

Luke’s earlier text is relevant to our passage in Acts in several ways. Here, Jesus deals with a devout centurion, a centurion much like Cornelius. The descriptions of these two centurions are quite similar, in that both men are pious and are well regarded by the Jews. In Luke’s Gospel, the centurion urges Jesus not to come to his house, while in Acts, Cornelius does invite Peter into his home (just as Peter had invited his servants into the home in which he was staying). Finally, Jesus commends the faith of the centurion (Luke 7:9). Matthew goes into greater detail:

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him asking for help: 6 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.” 7 Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “ I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel! 11 I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” And the servant was healed at that hour (Matthew 8:5-13, emphasis mine).

In other words, Jesus says that because of his faith, this Gentile centurion will enter into the blessings of the kingdom of heaven, while many Jews will be cast into outer darkness (hell). The significance of these observations will become clear as we study our text in Acts.

I have chosen to end this message at Acts 10:35 because the focus of this lesson is on Peter. It is Peter who is being perfected in our text, and thus it is Peter who becomes a “fulfilled Jew” in this passage. In our next lesson, we will consider the impact of Peter’s visit on Cornelius and on those Gentiles gathered with him, as well as upon the Jews. I believe the lesson God teaches Peter in Acts 10 and 11 is one of the most prominent and one of the most crucial theological truths in the Book of Acts. These chapters are the “high water mark” of Acts, theologically speaking. Therefore, we must be sure to get the message God was teaching Peter.

Peter Heals Aeneas at Lydda
Acts 9:32-35

32 Now as Peter was traveling around from place to place, he also came down to the saints who lived in Lydda. 33 He found there a man named Aeneas who had been confined to a mattress for eight years because he was paralyzed. 34 Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus the Christ heals you. Get up and make your own bed!” And immediately he got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord (Acts 9:32-35).

Peter has boldly proclaimed the gospel in Jerusalem. In Acts 8, Peter and John went down to Samaria when they heard that many had trusted in Jesus. It was not until these two apostles arrived and laid their hands on the new believers that the Spirit came upon them in power. After departing from Samaria, Peter visited a number of Israelite cities to which the saints in Jerusalem had scattered (see Acts 8:1, 4ff.). In our text, Peter first visits Lydda, then Joppa, and finally Caesarea.3

There are a group of believers in Lydda (Acts 9:32). Aeneas may well have been one of these believers, though we cannot say for sure. Nevertheless, Peter encounters Aeneas, a man whose paralysis had confined him to a bed for eight years (Acts 9:33). Seeing his condition, Peter spoke up, telling this man that Jesus the Christ had healed him (Acts 8:34). Furthermore, Peter instructed Aeneas to get up and take his bed with him. Aeneas did get up and walk and presumably took his bed with him, which inspired many others to trust in Jesus for salvation.

What is of particular interest to me is that this healing is similar to the healing of the paralytic in Luke 5:4

18 Just then some men showed up, carrying a paralyzed man on a stretcher. They were trying to bring him in and place him before Jesus. 19 But since they found no way to carry him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down on the stretcher through the roof tiles right in front of Jesus. 20 When Jesus saw their faith he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” 21 Then the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to think to themselves, “Who is this man who is uttering blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their hostile thoughts, he said to them, “Why are you raising objections within yourselves? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralyzed man – “ I tell you, stand up, take your stretcher and go home.” 25 Immediately he stood up before them, picked up the stretcher he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God. 26 Then astonishment seized them all, and they glorified God. They were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen incredible things today” (Luke 5:18-26, emphasis mine)

Two similarities are evident. First, the condition of the man in Luke’s Gospel is similar to that of the lame man in Acts 9:32-35. Both men were paralyzed. Second, the words Peter spoke to Aeneas are similar to those spoken by Jesus:

“. . . stand up, take your stretcher and go home” (Luke 5:24).

“Get up and make your own bed!” (Acts 9:34)

We will see more about this similarity later in the lesson.

Peter and the Raising of Dorcas at Joppa
Acts 9:36-43

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which in translation means Dorcas). She was continually doing good deeds and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became sick and died. When they had washed her body, they placed it in an upstairs room. 38 Because Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them, and when he arrived they brought him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him, crying and showing him the tunics and other clothing Dorcas used to make while she was with them. 40 But Peter sent them all outside, knelt down, and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “ Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her get up. Then he called the saints and widows and presented her alive. 42 This became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 So Peter stayed many days in Joppa with a man named Simon, a tanner (Acts 9:36-43, emphasis mine).

Peter was some distance away, and thus Dorcas would have been dead for a considerable period of time before he arrived – long enough that raising her to life would have been a substantial miracle (similar to the raising of Lazarus in John 11). This is the first record of Peter (or any other apostle) raising someone from the dead. The power of the Lord was clearly upon Peter.

What is most striking about this miracle is its similarity to the raising of the daughter of Jairus as recorded in Mark 5:5

35 While he was still speaking, people came from the synagogue ruler’s house saying, “Your daughter has died. Why trouble the teacher any longer?” 36 But Jesus, paying no attention to what was said, told the synagogue ruler, “Do not be afraid; just believe.” 37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38 They came to the house of the synagogue ruler where he saw noisy confusion and people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 When he entered he said to them, “Why are you distressed and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40 And they began making fun of him. But he put them all outside and he took the child’s father and mother and his own companions and went into the room where the child was. 41 Then, gently taking the child by the hand, he said to her, “ Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up.” 42 The girl got up at once and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). They were completely astonished at this. 43 He strictly ordered that no one should know about this, and told them to give her something to eat (Mark 5:35-43, emphasis mine).

Peter not only does what Jesus has done; he does so speaking similar words.

Double Vision
Acts 10:1-16

1 Now there was a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort. 2 He was a devout, God-fearing man, as was all his household; he did many acts of charity for the people and prayed to God regularly. 3 About three o’clock one afternoon he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God who came in and said to him, “Cornelius.” 4 Staring at him and becoming greatly afraid, Cornelius replied, “What is it, Lord?” The angel said to him, “Your prayers and your acts of charity have gone up as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa and summon a man named Simon, who is called Peter. 6 This man is staying as a guest with a man named Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who had spoken to him departed, Cornelius called two of his personal servants and a devout soldier from among those who served him, 8 and when he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa (Acts 10:1-8).

Luke introduces us to a centurion named Cornelius. Luke’s description of Cornelius is similar to that of the centurion Luke has described in Luke 7:1-10. Both are devout, God-fearing men. Both are known for their prayers and for their acts of charity. Cornelius seems to have communicated his faith to those in his household because they appear to share his faith. The vision Cornelius received came at three o’clock in the afternoon, the normal time for Jewish prayers in the afternoon (see Acts 3:1; 10:30). After his angelic visitation, Cornelius explained everything to his servants and the devout soldier he sent to Peter’s residence.

When the angel appears to Cornelius, it is not because this man lacks faith, but because he (like the centurion in Luke 7) would not have even considered asking a Jew to his home. Thus, God had to prepare both Cornelius and Peter for this breech of tradition. When the angel appeared, Cornelius responded in a way that revealed his faith: “What is it Lord?” (verse 4). I am reminded of Samuel’s response to the divine call in 1 Samuel 3:

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).

Cornelius is a most remarkable man.

9 About noon the next day, while they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted to eat, but while they were preparing the meal, a trance came over him. 11 He saw heaven opened and an object something like a large sheet descending, being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth and wild birds. 13 Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; slaughter and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “Certainly not, Lord, for I have never eaten anything defiled and ritually unclean!” 15 The voice spoke to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean!” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into heaven (Acts 10:9-16).

At just the right moment in time, God spoke to Peter in a vision. This vision, like that of Cornelius, came at a time when the recipient of the vision was in prayer. It was lunch time, and Peter was hungry. I can almost hear Peter say, “I’m hungry enough to eat a horse!” What came next would cause Peter to lose his appetite. The meal was still being prepared and so Peter used this time to pray. In his vision, Peter was instructed to kill and eat various kinds of animal life, some of which would have clearly been unclean according to Jewish food laws. Some of these unclean animals (such as the “reptiles”) were also totally unappealing as food.

Peter’s response to the Lord’s instruction in this vision is interesting when compared to the earlier responses of Saul and Cornelius:

Saul: “Who are you Lord?” (Acts 9:5)

Cornelius: “What is it Lord?” (Acts 10:4)

Peter: “Certainly not, Lord!” (Acts 10:14)

The vision is repeated two more times, so it is very clear to Peter that God is revealing something of great importance.6 Peter had no idea at that moment what the dream meant, or how it was to be applied, but that would soon become clear.

Cornelius’ Messengers Arrive From Caesarea
Acts 10:17-23

17 Now while Peter was puzzling over what the vision he had seen could signify, the men sent by Cornelius had learned where Simon’s house was and approached the gate. 18 They called out to ask if Simon, known as Peter, was staying there as a guest. 19 While Peter was still thinking seriously about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look! Three men are looking for you. 20 But get up, go down, and accompany them without hesitation, because I have sent them.” 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, “Here I am, the person you’re looking for. Why have you come?” 22 They said, “Cornelius the centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man, well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to summon you to his house and to hear a message from you.” 23 So Peter invited them in and entertained them as guests. On the next day he got up and set out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him (Acts 10:17-23).

You can imagine Peter’s bewilderment as a result of his noontime vision. What did it mean? What was he supposed to do about it? Just then the messengers from Cornelius arrived at the door of Simon the tanner’s home. These men had been told to go to Joppa and find a man named Simon Peter, who was staying at the home of a tanner named Simon, whose house was by the sea. This was not the same as being given an address, which meant that the messengers had to stop and ask for directions7 (something men are not found doing very often). I believe this detail is supplied because it indicates that these Gentile messengers did not arrive secretly. They must have asked directions on more than one occasion, drawing attention to themselves and to their arrival. Add to this the fact that they stood outside Simon’s house, calling out to ask if this was where Simon Peter was staying. This had to attract a good deal of attention and arouse considerable curiosity.

It was at this moment that the Spirit gave Peter some very clear instruction. He informed Peter that three men were looking for him and told him to go downstairs and accompany them without hesitation, because He had sent them. So far as we are told, the Spirit did not mention that these three men were Gentiles, though this would become apparent all too soon. Peter went downstairs and identified himself and then asked the reason for their coming. They told Peter about Cornelius and then repeated the story of how the angel had instructed Cornelius to send for him because he had a message for them.

Peter invited these men into the house where they spent the night (and no doubt were also fed). I cannot help but think that it was a whole lot easier for Peter to invite these men into Simon’s home in Joppa than it would have been to invite these Gentiles into a Jewish home in Jerusalem. The fact that Peter was able to stay with a tanner, an occupation that may well have rendered him unclean, may have indicated that Peter had already become less meticulous about some of the Jewish distinctions between clean and unclean.

Peter Gets the Message
Acts 10:24-35

24 The following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting anxiously for them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 So when Peter came in, Cornelius met him, fell at his feet, and worshiped him. 26 But Peter helped him up, saying, “Stand up. I too am a mere mortal.” 27 Peter continued talking with him as he went in, and he found many people gathered together. 28 He said to them, “You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, yet God has shown me that I should call no person defiled or ritually unclean. 29 Therefore when you sent for me, I came without any objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” 30 Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock in the afternoon, I was praying in my house, and suddenly a man in shining clothing stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your acts of charity have been remembered before God. 32 Therefore send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter. This man is staying as a guest in the house of Simon the tanner, by the sea.’ 33 Therefore I sent for you at once, and you were kind enough to come. So now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to say to us.” 34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him (Acts 10:24-35).

When the centurion pled with Jesus to heal his servant (Luke 7:1-10), Jesus set out on his way to this man’s home. When Jesus was not far from his house, the centurion sent some of his servants to persuade Jesus not to come any further, but simply to heal his servant from a distance. Now why would anyone not want Jesus to be a guest in their home? The centurion knew all too well that Jews did not defile themselves by entering a Gentile home (compare John 18:28), so he made it easy for Jesus not to come any further. And in so doing, he demonstrated his great faith. He believed that Jesus could heal from a distance, because of His great authority.

Cornelius was well aware of this matter of defilement as well, but he had been divinely instructed to invite Peter to his home. It was thus with a great sense of expectation that Cornelius waited for Peter’s arrival, along with those friends and relatives he had summoned as well. When Peter arrived, Cornelius prostrated himself at the feet of Peter. Most translations indicate that Cornelius “worshipped” Peter. I am inclined to agree with the NIV, which says that he “fell at his feet in reverence.” I don’t believe that Cornelius worshipped Peter as though he were God. I think he showed reverence for Peter as God’s spokesman, as an apostle.

I do find Peter’s response to this reverential response most informative. Peter refuses to receive worship, and rightly so. When Paul healed the lame man at Lystra, the people attempted to worship him, along with Barnabas. These two apostles fervently sought to put an end to such worship (see Acts 14:8-18). Herod received worship and seemed to enjoy it, and he died a terrible death as a result (Acts 12:20-23). Peter made it clear to Cornelius that he was but a mere man, and as such, Cornelius’ act of reverence was not only uncalled for, but inappropriate. Those who would give men too much glory and reverence should listen carefully to the words of Peter.

Going inside the house, Peter discovered that many had gathered in anticipation of his arrival. Peter began by explaining how it was that he was divinely directed to enter this Gentile home, in spite of his predisposition not to do so. Peter’s words are both interesting and significant:

28 He said to them, “You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, yet God has shown me that I should call no person defiled or ritually unclean. 29 Therefore when you sent for me, I came without any objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:28-29)

I find it interesting that Peter believes it is unlawful for him to associate with or visit a Gentile (verse 28). As I read these words, I asked myself this question: “Just where does it say in the Old Testament Law that a Jew cannot associate with a Gentile by entering his home?” I then came upon this statement by A. T. Robertson:

But there is no O.T. regulation forbidding such social contact with Gentiles, though the rabbis had added it and had made it binding by custom. There is nothing more binding on the average person than social custom.8

I am therefore inclined to say that having social contact with a Gentile was not contrary to Old Testament law, but rather was a violation of Jewish tradition. One might be defiled by eating foods that were unclean, but we must remember that our Lord Jesus nullified these food laws:

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand. 15 There is nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.” 17 Now when Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” ( This means all foods are clean.) 20 He said, “What comes out of a person defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 23 All these evils come from within and defile a person” (Mark 7:14-23, emphasis mine).

Another thing that fascinates me is that Peter is now somehow able to grasp not only the principle, but also its application. I am reminded of the “old Peter” we find in Matthew. In chapter 14, Jesus feeds the 5,000, even though the disciples didn’t see how it was possible. In chapter 15, the disciples (which surely included Peter) could not seem to figure out how God could feed the 4,000, even after the feeding of the 5,000. In chapter 16, Jesus warned of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6), and all the disciples could think about was literal bread. Only the Canaanite woman understood that bread was a symbol, and she grasped the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ words (Matthew 15:21-28).

Now, Peter seems able to leap beyond the literal message conveyed in his dream (don’t call food unclean that God has made clean) to the deeper meaning – don’t call people unclean whom God has made clean:

He said to them, “You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, yet God has shown me that I should call no person defiled or ritually unclean” (Acts 10:28).

But it went even beyond this. Peter was just now beginning to understand that God does not show partiality among those whom He saves:

34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him (Acts 10:34-35).

God broke down the old barriers that separated Jews and Gentiles, making one new man, one new entity, the church, composed of believing Jews and Gentiles. This was accomplished through the saving work of Jesus on the cross of Calvary:

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh – who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands – 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, 15 when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).

This truth was a mystery, revealed but not understood by Old Testament saints; it was a mystery God chose to unveil through the ministry of Paul and others:

1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – 2 if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that by revelation the divine secret was made known to me, as I wrote before briefly. 4 When reading this, you will be able to understand my insight into this secret of Christ. 5 Now this secret was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, 6 namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. 7 I became a servant of this gospel according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the exercise of his power. 8 To me – less than the least of all the saints – this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ 9 and to enlighten everyone about God’s secret plan – a secret that has been hidden for ages in God who has created all things. 10 The purpose of this enlightenment is that through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and confident access to God because of Christ’s faithfulness (Ephesians 3:1-12).

Peter now asks why Cornelius has sent for him. Cornelius repeats the story of how he received instructions from an angel to summon Peter. He tells Peter that they now eagerly await the word which he was commanded to bring to them. Peter begins his message by telling them what God has just taught him: God does not show partiality, but He saves both Jews and Gentiles by grace, through faith in the shed blood of Jesus on the cross of Calvary.

Conclusion

I have chosen to conclude this lesson here, because the focus has been on Peter and Cornelius. In the verses that follow, Peter will proclaim the gospel, Cornelius and those gathered will believe, the Spirit will baptize them, and then Peter’s Jewish colleagues in Jerusalem will object. That is another lesson. But for now, let us conclude by focusing on the lessons that we should learn from our text.

First, we should observe from our text that it is God who prepares and changes men’s hearts. In Acts 9, God prepared Saul for conversion in some rather dramatic ways. He also prepared the heart of Ananias for the task He had for him. Objections were divinely overcome; they were not set aside by debate or human efforts. In our text, we see God’s preparation of both Peter (the reluctant believer) and Cornelius. Peter was reluctant to associate with Gentiles, much less to take the gospel to them. God’s preparatory work in Peter’s heart was done just as the messengers sent by Cornelius arrived. Cornelius was reluctant to ask a Jew to enter his house (just as the centurion in Luke 7:1-10 had been), but God prepared him to obey and send for Peter, just as He prepared all in his house to believe the gospel Peter would proclaim.

Our friend, Colin McDougall of Church of the Open Door, has rightly contended that we need to spend much more time in prayer for evangelism, asking God to prepare those for the gospel whom He will send our way. We should ask God to prepare our hearts so that we might perceive open hearts and proclaim Jesus. But we should also ask God to work in the hearts of those to whom we desire to speak. Prepared hearts respond to God’s Word.

Note, too, the perfection of God’s timing in preparing hearts. God’s perfect timing is evident in the conversion of the Ethiopian in chapter 8, of Saul in chapter 9, and of Cornelius and his guests in chapter 10. God’s timing is frequently not ours, but His timing is perfect. When He sets out to do something, He prepares the way for it to happen, and He orchestrates every detail perfectly. Have you questioned God’s timing, or God’s ability to save? If so, I suggest that you meditate on these conversion accounts in Acts.

Second, we should learn that prayer is a two-way conversation. The Book of Acts has great lessons for us on the subject of prayer. When men and women pray in Acts, great things happen. What I see in our text is that God speaks to men when they are in prayer. Prayer is not just men and women speaking to God; prayer is God speaking to those who are listening to Him when they pray. In chapter 9, Paul’s vision is apparently associated with Paul’s prayer (see Acts 9:11-12). In chapter 10, Cornelius was in prayer when God spoke to him about sending for Peter.9 Many of us spend all of our time talking to God, rather than listening for God to speak to us in some way. In my life, this is usually through thoughts that come to my mind. Sometimes it is insight into a passage that I’m thinking about, or praying about. Sometimes it is a thought about how to respond to a difficult situation. I have found that having a pencil and paper nearby is helpful when praying. Prayer is a two-way conversation.

Third, we should observe that Peter has become a fulfilled Jew. Consider how the argument of our text develops. First, we read about how God used Peter to heal Aeneas (Acts 9:32-35), and there is the account of the raising of Dorcas, who had died (Acts 9:35-43). In these two accounts, we see Peter performing miracles that remind us of miracles Jesus had performed. We even find a similarity in the words Peter employed and those Jesus used. In other words, Peter is acting and talking like Jesus.

Years ago, I was preaching a sermon, and I said the word “God.” As this word came out of my mouth, I realized that I had pronounced it just like one of my heroes, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson. Without even thinking about it, I had imitated Dr. Johnson. That is a compliment to Dr. Johnson. In our text, Peter was beginning to act and to talk like Jesus. This is exactly the way it should be.

It is not until Acts chapter 10, however, that Peter really begins to think like Jesus. Peter and his fellow-apostles had some distorted ideas about the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in Christ. He could only think of Gentiles coming to faith by becoming Jews – that is, they could only enter into the blessings of God’s covenant by converting to Judaism as a proselyte. When Jesus commenced His earthly ministry, He made it very clear that He had come to save both Jews and Gentiles:

21 Then he began to tell them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read.” 22 All were speaking well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words coming out of his mouth. They said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” 23 Jesus said to them, “No doubt you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ and say, ‘What we have heard that you did in Capernaum, do here in your hometown too.’” 24 And he added, “I tell you the truth, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up three and a half years, and there was a great famine over all the land. 26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a woman who was a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, yet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, forced him out of the town, and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way (Luke 4:21-30).

When Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, He marveled at this man’s faith and made it very clear that many like Cornelius would enter into the kingdom of heaven, while many Jews would not:

10 When Jesus heard this he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel! 11 I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” And the servant was healed at that hour (Matthew 8:10-13).

It is not until Peter’s vision and his encounter with Cornelius that this apostle finally began to grasp what God had purposed from eternity to accomplish through the church. The Abrahamic Covenant had been distorted and abused by many of the Jews for centuries. Listen, once again, to what God promised Abram:

1 Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
2 And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
3 And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, NASB).

Abraham and his sons were not only to receive God’s blessing; they were to become a source of blessing to the world. Those who blessed him would be blessed; those who cursed him God would curse. Abraham’s seed would become a blessing to the world. His “seed,” according to Paul was the Lord Jesus, Israel’s Messiah:

15 Brothers and sisters, I offer an example from everyday life: When a covenant has been ratified, even though it is only a human contract, no one can set it aside or add anything to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ (Galatians 3:15-16).

God’s promised blessings came through Abraham’s “seed,” the Lord Jesus. Those who bless Him (believe in His sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary) will be blessed; those who curse Him (by rejecting His saving work at Calvary) will be cursed.

Being a son of Abraham is not about one’s physical ancestry; it is about one’s relationship to Jesus, the Messiah, by faith:

6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, 7 nor are all the children Abraham’s true descendants; rather “through Isaac will your descendants be counted.” 8 This means it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God; rather, the children of promise are counted as descendants. 9 For this is what the promise declared: “About a year from now I will return and Sarah will have a son” (Romans 9:6-9).

14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. 15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. 16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants – not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed – the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do (Romans 4:14-17).

As I understand the Scriptures, a “fulfilled Jew” is not merely a Jew who has come to trust in Jesus at the Messiah; a “fulfilled Jew” is a Jew who has trusted in Jesus as the Promised Messiah, and who is now sharing the good news with Jews and Gentiles alike. God would not allow Peter and his Jewish colleagues to restrict the gospel to Jews alone. Thanks to Cornelius, Peter became a completed Jew. Praise God.

Let me quickly add that Gentiles are “fulfilled” in a similar way. They are fulfilled by being fruitful. They not only accept the gospel for themselves, but they seek to share it with all who are lost, Jews and Gentiles alike.

If salvation is not by works, but is rather a result of God’s grace, received by faith alone, then no one gets to heaven based upon their race, or upon their worthiness. Everyone who gets to heaven gets there by God’s grace. Thus, God does not show favoritism to Jews. He saves Jews and Gentiles alike, by faith. Therefore Peter has no grounds for considering Gentiles to be unclean and unworthy of salvation because all men, Jew or Gentile, are sinful and unworthy, and thus all those who are saved are saved by grace, apart from any merit of their own:

9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 10 just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one, 11 there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood, 16 ruin and misery are in their paths, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness. 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works? No, but by the principle of faith! 28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too! 30 Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith (Romans 3:9-30).

What Peter does in our text in the Book of Acts is a watershed event. Its importance can hardly be overemphasized. It opens the door to a whole new era – one might even say a whole new dispensation. Remember our Lord’s response to Peter’s great confession:

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (Matthew 16:15-19).

Our Lord’s response to Peter’s great confession was a promise to give Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Scholars are not entirely agreed as to what this means, but many contend that this is perhaps Peter’s most important use of the “keys” our Lord promised him. In Acts 2, it was Peter who declared that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Peter held his Jewish audience responsible for the death of Jesus and declared that Jesus had risen from the dead. Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the promised Messiah and that all who believed in Him would be saved. Thus, Peter “opened the door” for the Jews who had rejected Jesus. Next, Peter opened the door for the Samaritans who had trusted in Jesus as their Messiah (Acts 8:14-25). Now, at last, Peter has opened the door of salvation for Gentiles who believe in Jesus. Gentiles no longer need to become Jewish proselytes to enjoy fellowship with God, or with their Jewish fellow believers.

And so I will end with this question, “Have you received the gift of salvation by faith in Jesus that God has offered to Jews and Gentiles alike, without favoritism or partiality?” This is a great truth, but it will do you no good unless you have received God’s offer of salvation by trusting in His death, burial, and resurrection.


1

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 15 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 26, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 Caesarea is north and west of the city of Jerusalem, on the Mediterranean coast. Joppa is approximately 35 miles south of Caesarea, still on the Mediterranean coast. Lydda is inland, about 11 miles southeast of Joppa.

4 See also Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:3-12.

5 See also Matthew 9:18-26; Luke 8:49-56.

6 I am reminded of Pharaoh’s two-fold dream and Joseph’s grasp of what this repetition meant: “The dream was repeated to Pharaoh because the matter has been decreed by God, and God will make it happen soon” (Genesis 41:32).

7 Our text indicates the messengers “had learned where Simon’s house was . . .” (verse 17). I prefer the NASB rendering: “. . . the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house. . . .”

8 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931). Electronic version, as part of BibleWorks.

9 We know that Cornelius was a man of prayer (Acts 10:4, 31). We also know that his vision of the angel took place at three o’clock in the afternoon (Acts 10:3). This was the normal afternoon time of prayer (Acts 3:1).

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16. Gentile Faith; Jewish Fears (Acts 10:36-11:30)

34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all) – 37 you know what happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of all the things he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and caused him to be seen, 41 not by all the people, but by us, the witnesses God had already chosen, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to warn them that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 About him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” 44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “No one can withhold the water for these people to be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 So he gave orders to have them baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for several days.

1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.” 4 But Peter began and explained it to them point by point, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, an object something like a large sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came to me. 6 As I stared I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild animals, reptiles, and wild birds. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; slaughter and eat!’ 8 But I said, ‘Certainly not, Lord, for nothing defiled or ritually unclean has ever entered my mouth!’ 9 But the voice replied a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean!’ 10 This happened three times, and then everything was pulled up to heaven again. 11 At that very moment, three men sent to me from Caesarea approached the house where we were staying. 12 The Spirit told me to accompany them without hesitation. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He informed us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter, 14 who will speak a message to you by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 Then as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore if God gave them the same gift as he also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.”

19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews. 20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, 24 because he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and a significant number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught a significant number of people. Now it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. 27 At that time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, got up and predicted by the Spirit that a severe famine was about to come over the whole inhabited world. (This took place during the reign of Claudius.) 29 So the disciples, each in accordance with his financial ability, decided to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 They did so, sending their financial aid to the elders by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 10:34—11:30).1

Introduction2

I have a friend who grew up in jail. This was not because he was a criminal, but because his father was the county sheriff for many years. The sheriff was in charge of the jail, and his family lived in the building where the jail was located. When my friend’s father died, I went to the funeral service. At the service, we met a man who had been confined to a wheelchair for some time. He shared a story about my friend’s father that illustrates our text in the Book of Acts.

It was the time of the county fair, and this handicapped fellow decided he wanted to attend. Upon his arrival, he went to the ticket booth to purchase his ticket. With ticket in hand, he made his way to the gate. The problem was that the gate was not wide enough for his wheelchair to pass through. The person at the gate seemed unsympathetic and unwilling to help. It was at this very moment that the sheriff arrived on the scene. He sized up the situation and with a mighty kick, knocked down the gate and helped the man through.

In Acts 1, our Lord gave this “Great Commission” to His disciples:

7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

The apostles were instructed to wait until the Spirit came upon them, empowering them to carry out the Great Commission.3 The Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, as described in Acts 2. The result was that Peter preached a powerful sermon which God used to save many. In the Spirit’s power, the apostles performed miracles, which provided more opportunities to proclaim the gospel (see Acts 3). But as the apostles continued to heal and to preach in the name of Jesus, the Sadducees and other Jewish religious leaders became increasingly concerned, so that they began to persecute the apostles (see Acts 4:1-31; 5:12-42). The powerful preaching of Stephen was answered by his stoning (see Acts 6-7). This resulted in a great persecution that scattered the Jerusalem church abroad:

And Saul agreed completely with killing him. Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1).

The gospel was advancing in a way that partially fulfilled the Great Commission given in Acts 1:8, but this was far less than what our Lord had commanded. For one thing, the gospel was spread only as far as “all Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1; 9:31). 4 For another, the apostles had not yet come to terms with the fact that the gospel was the good news of salvation for Jews and Gentiles, without distinction. Up to this point in time, it was assumed that in order to be a Christian, one must either be Jewish, either by birth or by becoming a Jewish proselyte. The failure of the apostles to aggressively fulfill the Great Commission seems to have been fueled, to some degree, by their belief that the gospel should not go to the Gentiles. There were a few exceptions – God fearers – like the centurion in Luke 7:2-10, the Ethiopian eunuch, and Cornelius, but these all appear to be people of influence and means, who employed their resources in the service of Judaism.5

There were certain excuses for the apostles’ inaction which could have been used. For example, we know from our text that they believed the Gentiles should not be evangelized as Gentiles because they were considered unclean,or because of the Jewish food laws. Also, someone might turn to those instances where our Lord seems to forbid His disciples to take the gospel to the Gentiles, or to the Samaritans (see Matthew 10:5-6). But one must also explain why Jesus made it clear from the outset of His ministry that He had come to save Gentiles (see Luke 4:16-30). And one must explain how Jesus Himself went into Gentile territory with the gospel (John 4:3-42; Matthew 15:21-39). More than this, one must explain the words of Jesus to the centurion, by which He indicated that believing Gentiles will enter the kingdom while many Jews will not:

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him asking for help: 6 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.” 7 Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “ I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel! 11 I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” And the servant was healed at that hour (Matthew 8:5-13, emphasis mine).

In addition to this, one must explain why the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:7-8) clearly included going to the Gentiles. There was a major theological roadblock to the evangelization of Gentiles which had to be removed before the Great Commission could be fulfilled. In Acts, God has already dealt with Peter on this matter in chapter 10, and now through Peter, God will open the door to worldwide evangelism. Our text is foundational to the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of the church, and to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The truth that is unveiled here will become the bedrock foundation for much of the teaching we find in the New Testament. We must therefore listen carefully to what God has for His people to learn.

The Gospel, Short and Simple
Acts 10:34-43

34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all) – 37 you know what happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of all the things he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and caused him to be seen, 41 not by all the people, but by us, the witnesses God had already chosen, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to warn them that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 About him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:34-43).

Luke is preparing the reader for the next stage in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In the first part of chapter 9, he records the dramatic conversion of Saul. Saul, soon to be known as Paul,6 will play a crucial role in the evangelization of the Gentiles. Another crucial role will be played by Peter. Peter was the one to whom the “keys to the kingdom” were given by our Lord (Matthew 16:19). He must first be convinced that God has purposed the gospel to save Gentiles as well as Jews. We dealt with this in our last lesson (Acts 9:32—10:35). Now we shall see how God used Peter and his visit to the home of Cornelius to convince his fellow apostles and others that the gospel is for Jews and Gentiles alike, without distinction.

After hearing how God had directed Cornelius to send for him (10:30-33), Peter shared what God had just taught him:

34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him” (Acts 10:34-35).7

Being Jewish did not give the Jewish people a “leg up” when it came to salvation. Not all Jews were destined to salvation (Romans 9:6-8). While the Jews were privileged in many ways,8 they were not predisposed to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The law condemned Jews, just as it did Gentiles (Acts 15:10-11; Romans 3:9-20). The Jews did fall under greater condemnation because of their greater knowledge (Romans 2), and they were likewise judicially blinded (Romans 11:25; see also 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:4).

The gospel was not for Jews only. From the very beginning, God had purposed to save men from every race, tribe, and tongue:

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, NASB, emphasis mine).

9 And thus the Gentiles glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Because of this I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and I will sing praises to your name.”

10 And again it says:
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

11 And again,
“Praise the Lord all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him.”

12 And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
and the one who rises to rule over the Gentiles,
in him will the Gentiles hope” (Romans 15:9-12).

9 They were singing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were killed, and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. 10 You have appointed them as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).

9 After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. 10 They were shouting out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)

6 Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, and he had an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language, and people. 7 He declared in a loud voice: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has arrived, and worship the one who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water!” (Revelation 14:6-7)

When we come to Acts 10:36-43, we find one of the most concise summations of the gospel in the Bible. It is almost as though Luke has provided us with a summary of the contents of one of the New Testament Gospels. Take note of the following elements:

    1. The gospel began with the preaching of John the Baptist (Acts 10:37).

    2. The baptism of Jesus, when He was divinely designated as Messiah and empowered with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38).

    3. In His earthly ministry Jesus did good, healed the sick, and delivered those held captive by the devil (Acts 10:38).

    4. Jesus was crucified by those who rejected Him (Acts 10:39).

    5. The resurrection of Jesus was evidenced by His appearances to many, and to the apostles in particular (who were appointed to testify to His resurrection) (Acts 10:40-41).

    6. Jesus then gave His witnesses the Great Commission (Acts 10:42).

    7. Jesus is Lord of all (Acts 10:36).

    8. The Lord Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).

    9. Everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus receives the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 10:43).

    10. This salvation is available to men of every nation, without distinction (Acts 10:34-35, 43).

    11. This gospel is the fulfillment of the message of all the Old Testament prophets (Acts 10: 43).

Salvation and the Witness of the Spirit
Acts 10:44-48

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “No one can withhold the water for these people to be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 So he gave orders to have them baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for several days (Acts 10:44-48).

Peter had not said all he intended, but obviously he had said enough. He was just warming up when the Spirit fell on all those who had gathered to hear him speak. It goes without saying that their hearts had been prepared because they immediately grasped the good news. (My assumption is that as Old Testament saints – God fearers – they already knew and believed9 most of what Peter told them.) What they really needed to hear was not only that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but that faith in Him would bring the forgiveness of sins, whether for the Jew or for the Gentile.

The divine witness to the salvation of these Gentiles came as the Spirit fell on all of them.10 The circumcised believers who accompanied Peter from Joppa were astounded “that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles (Acts 10:45, emphasis mine). They were speaking in tongues and praising God, just as men were when the Spirit came at Pentecost (see Acts 2:4, 11). Peter really had no other choice than to order that these saints be baptized.

We are told that these saints asked Peter to stay on for several days, and it seems quite clear that this is what he did. I think this means several things. First, it seems to have given some time to return to Jerusalem ahead of Peter and to report these events to his staunch Jewish brethren (see Acts 11:1-2). Second, it meant that Peter had to have stayed in this Gentile home and eaten Gentile food. It would have been one thing for Peter to have preached and then to have left immediately; he preached and stayed on, not unlike our Lord did in that Samaritan town (John 4:39-43).

Showdown in Jerusalem: From Protest to Praise
Acts 11:1-18

1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.” 4 But Peter began and explained it to them point by point, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, an object something like a large sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came to me. 6 As I stared I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild animals, reptiles, and wild birds. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; slaughter and eat!’ 8 But I said, ‘Certainly not, Lord, for nothing defiled or ritually unclean has ever entered my mouth!’ 9 But the voice replied a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean!’ 10 This happened three times, and then everything was pulled up to heaven again. 11 At that very moment, three men sent to me from Caesarea approached the house where we were staying. 12 The Spirit told me to accompany them without hesitation. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He informed us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter, 14 who will speak a message to you by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 Then as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore if God gave them the same gift as he also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:1-18).

Word of what had happened in Caesarea quickly reached the Jewish brethren in Jerusalem,11 even before Peter himself had returned. It is obvious that his Jewish brethren were distressed with what they had heard. The accusation they made against Peter is interesting:

“You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them” (Acts 11:3).

They faulted Peter for having eaten with men who were uncircumcised. Had those who had gathered in the home of Cornelius been Jewish proselytes, rather than mere “God fearers,” they would not have had grounds for objection. They don’t challenge Peter for preaching the gospel to Gentiles. They don’t question why he did not circumcise these believers. They don’t object to the fact that he had them baptized. But in my opinion, these things are really not what they objected to. They really objected to him preaching the gospel to Gentiles and to his accepting them as “clean.” Notice the conclusion these “concerned brethren” reached after Peter explained what happened:

“So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:18).

The real issue then was the evangelization of Gentiles, as Gentiles, without first requiring them to embrace Judaism by becoming Jewish proselytes.

Peter wisely and patiently retold the entire story to his Jewish brethren from the beginning. He started with his vision and reported how the Spirit had directed him to accompany the messengers Cornelius sent to bring him to Caesarea. God was in this from beginning to end. How could Peter do anything else? He clinches his defense by focusing on the baptism of the Spirit which he and his Jewish companions witnessed:

16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore if God gave them the same gift as he also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” (Acts 11:16-17)

How does this make a compelling concluding argument? There are at least two forceful points contained in Peter’s argument. First, Peter asserts to his Jewish brethren that what happened to Cornelius and his associates was precisely the same thing that happened to them at Pentecost. These Gentiles received the gift of the Spirit in exactly the same way the Spirit fell on those who had gathered at Pentecost. My sense is that many of those who challenged Peter were present at the first Pentecost. One must conclude, then, that God did not distinguish between the first Jewish believers at Pentecost and these Gentile believers in Caesarea. How can one prohibit what God has produced? How can one view Gentiles as outsiders when God has placed His seal upon them?

Second, Peter argues from the words of the Lord Jesus:

“And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 11:16, emphasis mine).

We know our Lord spoke these words to His apostles in Acts 1:5, but Peter’s wording implies that Jesus made this statement at other times as well. How do these words justify Peter’s actions? Jesus promised that the Spirit would baptize them in the near future. This happened to Jewish believers at Pentecost. Now it has happened again, to Gentile believers in Caesarea. But more than this, our Lord’s words indicated a relationship between John’s baptism with water and the subsequent baptism of the Spirit.12

I believe Peter’s logic works something like this. The Lord Jesus regarded John’s baptism as important (remember that our Lord’s disciples baptized as well – John 4:1-2), but He also indicated, as did John,13 that there was to be a greater baptism than this, a baptism of the Spirit. The normal sequence at that point in time had been water baptism, then Spirit baptism.14 If Spirit baptism followed water baptism in Acts, and if Spirit baptism was greater than water baptism, then how could the former (water baptism) be denied when the latter (Spirit baptism) had already occurred? How could Peter say “No!” to water baptism when God had already said “Yes!” to Spirit baptism? Peter’s actions were in response to what God had said and done. No one could condemn Peter for acting consistently with God.

Just as Peter had no choice but to baptize these believing Gentiles, the circumcised believers who had initially objected to Peter’s actions now had no choice but to change their minds as well.

When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:18, emphasis mine).

For some reason, it had never occurred to these circumcised saints that God had purposed to save Gentiles as Gentiles, without having first become a Jewish proselyte. To us, this seems like a minor point. To these Jewish saints, it was a complete paradigm shift which turned their theology and practice upside-down. To the New Testament epistles and to us, this revelation is a foundational truth concerning the church.

I have struggled with this passage previously because I could not understand why Luke did not make more of Mark 7:

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand. 15 There is nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.” 17 Now when Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” ( This means all foods are clean.) 20 He said, “What comes out of a person defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 23 All these evils come from within and defile a person” (Mark 7:14-23, emphasis mine).

Why did Peter and Luke leap from his thrice-repeated vision about clean and unclean animals (food) to accepting Gentiles as fellow saints? I now see that I was reasoning in the wrong direction. I was reasoning that because Jesus had declared all foods clean, Peter was now free to preach the gospel to Gentiles. But the reasoning is really the reverse. Gentiles are clean, not because of what they eat, but because of the saving work of Jesus Christ on their behalf, a work they have embraced by faith. In Mark 7, Jesus taught that it was not food that defiles men; what defiles us is what comes out of us (wicked thoughts, words, deeds), not what goes into us (food). The reason fellowship with Gentiles is allowed (including eating their food) is because God has saved them; God has given them clean hearts. Because He has made believing Gentiles clean, we can fellowship with them as peers. It is not about external things like food, but about internal things like a changed heart. God made Gentiles clean by saving them, and thus neither Peter nor any Jewish saint should dare to call them unclean by refusing fellowship with them.

The Church at Antioch
Acts 11:19-30

19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews. 20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, 24 because he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and a significant number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught a significant number of people. Now it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.

27 At that time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, got up and predicted by the Spirit that a severe famine was about to come over the whole inhabited world. (This took place during the reign of Claudius.) 29 So the disciples, each in accordance with his financial ability, decided to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 They did so, sending their financial aid to the elders by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:19-30).

When we come to Acts 11:19 we find several significant changes:

(1) We have a change in personnel. Luke changes from Peter and his fellow Hebraic Jews to Barnabas and Saul, who are Hellenistic Jews.

(2) We have a change in time. At Acts 11:19, we are taken back to the time frame of Acts 8:1 – Stephen’s death, the resulting persecution of the church, and the scattering of the saints.

(3) We have a change in place. We move from Jerusalem to Antioch.

I must confess that because of these changes, I have agonized about verses 19-30. I couldn’t decide whether to include them with this lesson, and thus to keep them with chapter 11, or whether to include them in the next lesson, with chapter 12. So how do these changes justify dealing with Acts 11:19-30 as a part of the previous context? I think I’m beginning to understand the flow of Luke’s argument here. See if you agree.

More than the change in place or personnel, I was troubled by the change in time that occurs at Acts 11:19. Why go back to the time frame of Acts 8:1? I believe it is because Luke wants us to see that God is orchestrating a most important event by achieving two things simultaneously. We have observed simultaneous action already, beginning at Acts 8:1. While God was preparing the Ethiopian eunuch for salvation, He was also guiding Philip to their meeting place in the desert (Acts 8:26-40). While God was preparing Saul for conversion, He was preparing Ananias for meeting with Saul to restore his sight (Acts 9:1-19). While God was preparing Cornelius for the arrival of Peter, He was also preparing Peter to go to the home of a Gentile (Acts 10:1-33).

The same thing is happening in our text. While God is preparing the Jerusalem church to acknowledge the inclusion of Gentile believers into the church – thus paving the way for the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Acts 11:1-18) – He is also beginning to evangelize Gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:19ff.). Thus, the stoning of Stephen brought about the persecution and the scattering of the Jerusalem church, resulting in: (a) the conversion of Jews and Samaritans15 (Acts 8:1-25); and, (b) the salvation of Gentiles like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), those in the household of Cornelius, and those in Antioch (Acts 10:1—11:30).

While the Jews in Jerusalem were debating the legitimacy of the salvation of Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18), God was already at work saving Gentiles. I think that it was very shortly after the decision of Acts 11:18 was reached that God brought the news of the church in Antioch to the church in Jerusalem. This is the reason for the sequence of events as we find them in Luke’s account. What the Jerusalem church leaders (including the apostles) had decided in principle (Acts 11:18), they now had to act upon in practice – by sending Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 11:20ff.).

God did not require the Hebraic Jerusalem Jews (the apostles and others) to lead the charge in evangelizing to the “uttermost part” of the earth. As the Scripture says, “. . . he knows what we are made of; he realizes we are made of clay” (Psalm 103:14). Instead, God raised up Hellenistic Jews like Stephen and Philip (Acts 6-8) and Saul (Acts 9) to carry the torch of Gentile evangelism. But it was important – indeed it was necessary – for the apostles and the Jerusalem Hebraic Jews to acknowledge this truth so fundamental to the life and function of the church: In Christ God has brought together in one body, the church, both Jews and Gentiles, without partiality. Jews and Gentiles are equal members in the body of Christ.

26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).

Acts 11:19-26 is a wonderful account about this magnificent man, Barnabas, who was indeed “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). He not only acknowledged the salvation of these Gentiles, he delighted in it (Acts 11:23). And he wisely sought out Saul to come and minister to this new church (Acts 11:25-26). Surely this is the beginning of a wonderful partnership of Barnabas and Paul in the gospel that will blossom in the near future (Acts 13:1ff.). Above and beyond all of this, we see that God has begun to evangelize the Gentiles, and that this Gentile evangelization has been sanctioned by the Hebraic Jerusalem Jews, including, in particular, the apostles. This is a monumental precedent in the history of the church.

The closing verses of Acts 11 – verses 27-30 – are significant in several ways. First, this passage once again demonstrates that when someone becomes a saint, their wallet is likewise sanctified. One finds it difficult to ignore Luke’s emphasis on financial generosity as a result of coming to faith in Jesus. We find this stated in Acts 2:44-45; in Acts 4:34-37; and again (somewhat less directly) in Acts 6:1-6. Now, in Acts 11:27-30, we find the newly-saved saints in Corinth sharing their financial resources with the needy Jewish saints in Judea and Jerusalem. Loving God is accompanied by a love for others (Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:8-10). And our love flows from God’s love for us (1 John 4:19).

Second, we find that the generosity of the saints in Antioch is practiced even before the actual crisis has come. Prophets, including Agabus, arrived in Antioch with the revelation that a famine was coming to the whole world. The saints were told there would be a famine in the near future. (It wouldn’t require a prophet to inform you of an existing famine.) The saints at Antioch began to set money aside before the crisis had even come, so that funds would be on hand when they were needed. This is anticipatory generosity. The point is that these new Gentile believers were eager to give to their Jewish brethren.

Third, these verses demonstrate that accepting Gentiles as fellow believers was not a decision that put the Jews at a disadvantage, but one that resulted in blessing for the Jewish saints. For some, accepting Gentile evangelism probably came hard (see Acts 15:1). Was accepting the Gentiles as fellow believers a burden that Jewish saints must begrudgingly bear? As Paul would say, “God forbid!”16 Shortly after the church in Antioch was born, they began to demonstrate their unity with their Jewish brethren by sharing with them in their time of need. Embracing Gentile saints was a blessing to the Jews, and not a curse.

Conclusion

When I was in college, I majored in political science. One of my courses was Constitutional Law. In this course, I learned about some Supreme Court decisions which were landmark rulings that set a precedent of great magnitude. The conversion of Cornelius and those gathered with him resulted in a decision by the Jerusalem church leaders which set the course for the church and the rest of the New Testament. It removed a significant theological roadblock to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The gospel was intended for both Jews and Gentiles, without distinction. The New Testament writers – Paul in particular – will herald and expound this theme:

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh – who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands – 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, 15 when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Let us conclude by considering some of the implications and applications of this text for Christians today.

(1) This is the gospel, by which all men can be saved. I don’t know of any text that summarizes the gospel more concisely than Peter’s words, spoken to Cornelius and those with him. This is the gospel in a nutshell. Our Lord came to this earth, was baptized by John and by the Holy Spirit. In this way, He was designated as God’s Messiah and was empowered to carry out His earthly ministry. Jesus did many miracles, setting Himself apart from all others. He was the Messiah, but He was rejected and crucified by those He came to save. God overruled this by raising Jesus from the dead. He provided convincing proof of this resurrection by many appearances to those appointed as witnesses. The apostles were witnesses of the resurrection, appointed to proclaim the gospel to all who would believe, Jew or Gentile. Jesus will come again to judge those who have rejected Him. He is Lord of all. Have you trusted in Jesus?

(2) There is but one gospel, by which Jews and Gentiles alike must be saved. There are some today who would suggest that while Jesus may be “a way,” He is not “the way.” The Bible teaches that Jesus is the only way to heaven:

Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Jews and Gentiles alike can find the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of heaven only through faith in Jesus.

(3) The gospel is only for those who are unclean and completely unworthy of it. One of the reasons why we are disobedient to the Great Commission is that we do not wish to preach the gospel to those we deem unworthy of it. Earlier in our service today, one of our missionaries told us that some of the tribes where he serves questioned the wisdom of going to this one particular tribe with the gospel. What was worse, some fellow missionaries even questioned going to this tribe. We all have people whom we deem unworthy of the gospel, or unsavable. Our text should remind us that the gospel is only for those who are unworthy of salvation and who cannot make themselves acceptable in God’s sight. May I ask you to consider those whom you may have deemed unworthy of the gospel? God wants to teach us that all men are unworthy of the gospel, but that the gospel is for all men. That is because the gospel is the good news that salvation is a gift, given by grace through faith in Jesus.

(4) Salvation is of the Lord. It wasn’t Peter who took the initiative to bring the gospel to Cornelius and his household; it was God. God prepared Peter and those who would hear his message. It wasn’t Peter who persuaded Cornelius and friends to believe; God did. They came to faith apart from an invitation. And it wasn’t Peter who baptized them in the Spirit. Peter was an instrument in the hands of the Redeemer, but he wasn’t the cause of these conversions.

We live at a time when people are obsessed with methods. They wish to know the methods of those who are successful. This is not altogether a bad thing. But let us take note that the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul, and Cornelius were not saved because of some slick evangelistic approach. They were saved because God prepared their hearts and drew them to Himself by faith. More important than having the right method is preserving and proclaiming the right message. Many are seeking to modify the message of the gospel to make it more palatable. Our task is to proclaim the gospel that God has given us in His Word, the gospel that Peter and Paul have proclaimed in the Book of Acts. If salvation is “of the Lord” – and it surely is – then let us spend more time in His Word and in prayer, asking God to prepare the hearts of lost people and to draw them to faith.

(5) I am amazed at the faith of men like Cornelius. How quickly and eagerly he embraces the gospel. Here is a man who must have been an Old Testament saint at the time the gospel came to him. No wonder he is so quick to respond to the truth of the gospel. It is men like Cornelius who help me understand why Paul could so quickly appoint elders in the churches he planted. These church leaders must have been Gentiles who were very much like Cornelius, men who had considerable knowledge from the Old Testament, as well as knowledge about the life and ministry of Jesus. It was a short leap, so to speak, to trust in Jesus as the Promised Messiah, and to understand that He saves both Jews and Gentiles alike, on the basis of faith.

(6) The baptism of the Spirit (Pentecost) and even the filling of the Spirit does not make one instantly spiritual, nor does it insure that one’s understanding of Scripture is complete. Peter and his fellow apostles had been baptized by the Spirit at Pentecost, but they were surely wrong about the Gentiles and salvation. I sometimes hear or read of those who seem to think that if they’ve experienced the Spirit as folks did in the Book of Acts, they are assured of being spiritual, and of being right in their interpretation of Scripture. Peter was an apostle, and he was Spirit-filled at Pentecost. But Peter did not have it all figured out the moment the Spirit came upon him. It took the dramatic events of our text to convince Peter that he was wrong.

This text has removed all of our excuses for not seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. May God grant us the grace to pursue the evangelization of lost men, women and children, from every people group, tongue and tribe, to the glory of God.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 16 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 12, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 Acts 1:4-5.

4 We will shortly see from Acts 11:20 there were some who went out from Jerusalem who did preach the gospel to Gentiles, but this was not initiated or sanctioned, as yet, by the apostles.

5 See Luke 7:3-5; Acts 10:1-2, 31.

6 See Acts 13:9.

7 See how Paul develops this theme in Romans 2:15-16, 25-29. Those who would suggest that Peter and Paul were at odds with each other are simply (and badly) mistaken.

8 See Romans 9:4-5.

9 Take note of “you know” in Acts 10:37.

10 There is a certain similarity here to the baptism of our Lord. It was as the Spirit came upon our Lord and remained on Him that John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:32-34). Our Lord’s baptism designated Him as the Messiah and empowered Him for His ministry. When the Spirit baptized Cornelius and his household, it designated them as true believers.

11 It seems as though the only news communicated was that Peter had gone to a Gentile home, eaten with them, and preached the gospel. The full account of what happened does not seem to be told until Peter himself tells it.

12 We see this same connection again in Acts 19:1-7.

13 See Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33.

14 See also Acts 19:5-6.

15 Who were considered half-Jews.

16 See, for example, Romans 3:4, 6, 31. It is now translated “Absolutely not!” (NET Bible) or “May it never be” (NASB), but I still like the old King James rendering, “God forbid!”

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17. The First Gentile Church (Acts 11:19-12:25)

1 About that time King Herod laid hands on some from the church to harm them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, executed with a sword. 3 When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter too. (This took place during the feast of Unleavened Bread.) 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison, handing him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him. Herod planned to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but those in the church were earnestly praying to God for him.

6 On that very night before Herod was going to bring him out for trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the prison cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly!” And the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. 8 The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” Peter did so. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.” 9 Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening through the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they had passed the first and second guards, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went outside and walked down one narrow street, when at once the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from everything the Jewish people were expecting to happen.”

12 When Peter realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many people had gathered together and were praying. 13 When he knocked at the door of the outer gate, a slave girl named Rhoda answered. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she did not open the gate, but ran back in and told them that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 But they said to her, “You’ve lost your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was Peter, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 Now Peter continued knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were greatly astonished. 17 He motioned to them with his hand to be quiet and then related how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He said, “Tell James and the brothers these things,” and then he left and went to another place.

18 At daybreak there was great consternation among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 When Herod had searched for him and did not find him, he questioned the guards and commanded that they be led away to execution. Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 Now Herod was having an angry quarrel with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they joined together and presented themselves before him. And after convincing Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, to help them, they asked for peace, because their country’s food supply was provided by the king’s country. 21 On a day determined in advance, Herod put on his royal robes, sat down on the judgment seat, and made a speech to them. 22 But the crowd began to shout, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck Herod down because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died.

24 But the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying. 25 So Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem when they had completed their mission, bringing along with them John Mark. 1

Introduction2

Some time ago a friend was diagnosed with incurable cancer. He knew the Lord and was prepared to “go home” to be with Him. In what seemed to be his last days, he received correspondence from many who wished to express their sympathy. One such friend wrote to say his good-by’s. Not long after this, my “dying” friend received word that his friend has just died of a heart attack. My friend, on the other hand, was cured and lived for a number of years.

I am reminded of this saying that we find in the Old Testament:

“Tell him the one who puts on his battle gear should not boast like one who is taking it off” (1 Kings 20:11).

Things don’t always end the way they begin, especially for the Christian. Our text begins with Peter in prison, awaiting his execution, guarded as if he were “Israel’s Most Wanted” man. King Herod appears to be in control, having already put James to death, he waits for the Passover week to end so that he can execute Peter. By the time our chapter is over, Peter will not only be alive, but free, while Herod will have died a terrible death.

Our text marks an important turning point in the Book of Acts. From this point on, Peter virtually disappears, except for a brief moment in chapter 15, while Paul dominates the remainder of the book. The gospel is on its way to the “uttermost parts of the earth.” Our text is filled with important lessons for us to learn, so let us ask God to illuminate our hearts and minds through His Spirit as we study this text.

Crucial Questions

There are several questions one must answer in order to grasp the message of this chapter. Let me begin by listing them:

    1. What happened?

    2. What would have happened if God had not intervened?

    3. How do the events of this chapter affect the progress of the gospel in Acts?

    4. How does this text and its message affect me?

Herod vs. God
Acts 12:1-5

1 About that time King Herod laid hands on some from the church to harm them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, executed with a sword. 3 When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter too. (This took place during the feast of Unleavened Bread.) 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison, handing him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him. Herod planned to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but those in the church were earnestly praying to God for him (Acts 12:1-5).

The name “Herod” should sound familiar to anyone who has read the New Testament. The fact is that there are a handful of “Herod’s” in the New Testament, and thus we would do well to distinguish one from another. We will consider four “Herods.”

The first Herod we meet is “Herod the Great.” This is the “Herod” who was ruling in Jerusalem when the magi came looking for the one who was born “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:1-17). This would therefore be the Herod who killed the babies of Bethlehem, seeking to destroy the newly born “King of the Jews.”

The next Herod we encounter is Herod Antipas. This is the one who beheaded John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29) and before whom our Lord Jesus stood trial (Luke 23:7-12).

The third Herod is Herod Agrippa I. This is the “Herod” of our text, the Herod who killed James and sought to kill Peter (Acts 12:1-23). This is the Herod who was eaten by worms and died.

The fourth Herod is Herod Agrippa II. This is the “Herod” before whom Paul will stand trial a little later in the Book of Acts (Acts 25:13-32).

With the introductory words, “about that time,” Luke links the events of chapter 12 to those of chapters 10 and 11. You will remember that Peter and John were sent to Samaria (Acts 8:14), where they remained for some time, and then visited other believers on their return to Jerusalem (Acts 8:25). It may have been that while Peter and John were absent, James was arrested and put to death. Herod may have seized Peter shortly after his return to Jerusalem. It appears that after Peter’s arrest, the other leaders went underground (see Acts 12:17).

We are not told why this Herod suddenly turned against the church. Perhaps it was growing too large and was becoming too influential. Perhaps it was because Christians had a higher allegiance to God than to governmental authority (see Acts 4:19; 5:29). Herod appears to be opposing the church by systematically executing its top leadership. James was arrested and executed first, then Peter was arrested, with the intent of executing him as well (Acts 12:4). You will remember that our Lord’s “inner circle” was composed of Peter, James, and John (see, for example, Matthew 17:1; Mark 5:37). One cannot help but think that John is Herod’s next target, perhaps to be followed by the rest of the apostles.

It would appear that Herod put James to death for his own reasons, and without pressure. But when he did so, it soon became apparent that this action won the favor of many of the Jews. Herod’s popularity suddenly increased – and Herod was all about popularity (he was a politician after all). His decision to arrest Peter and put him to death was influenced by the favor he had gained by executing James with the sword (no crucifixion for him).

James was with His Lord, and it appeared that Peter would soon follow, but there was one problem – the Feast of Unleavened Bread had begun. This is the feast which immediately follows Passover and lasts one week. This would not be a good time to execute Peter. He would have to wait until the feast was over – a couple of days or more. Herod must have heard about Peter’s earlier escape (Acts 5:17-25) because he took extreme measures to insure that this did not happen again. Peter was, for all intents and purposes, in maximum security. Four squads of soldiers guarded him, four men for every six-hour shift, twenty-four hours a day. Peter was chained to two guards, one on each side. Besides, there were the normal gates and (I suspect) guards.

Luke makes a point of putting all the obstacles and dangers right alongside the statement that “those in the church were earnestly praying to God for him” (verse 5). Once again, God has raised the level of difficulty to the maximum, so Peter's escape will testify to His power and thus glorify Him. James has already died, so that Peter’s death seems a certainty. Peter cannot possibly escape, and it is just hours before his trial and death. It is only now that God acts to deliver him.

The Great Escape
Acts 12:6-11

6 On that very night before Herod was going to bring him out for trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the prison cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly!” And the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. 8 The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” Peter did so. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.” 9 Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening through the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they had passed the first and second guards, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went outside and walked down one narrow street, when at once the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from everything the Jewish people were expecting to happen” (Acts 12:6-11).

Only a few hours were left for Peter. There seems to be little hope left. Besides the normal prison security measures, four guards are assigned just to make sure that Peter does not slip away from prison again, as he did earlier.

One might think that Peter’s escape would be done in a most secretive manner. The guards are fully anesthetized in some miraculous way, something like Saul’s men were given a “sound sleep,” enabling David and Abishai to slip into Saul’s camp, past all of his guards, and take the king’s spear (see 1 Samuel 26:5-12. These fellows would not have awakened no matter how much noise Peter made. And there was noise, I believe.

An angel of the Lord appears, accompanied by a bright light (verse 7). He strikes Peter on the side, and this probably prompted a protest from Peter – at least a few groans. The chains fell from Peter’s hands and this, too, would not have been free from noise. Having been in a good many prisons (as a Prison Fellowship instructor), I know that when prison gates open and close, they are noisy. But most interesting is the fact that the angel spoke to Peter three times, yet not one word is recorded about keeping silent (such as whispering). The angel was fully confident that they had nothing to fear from these guards, who were “out like a light.” It was a bold escape, completely fitting for an escape accomplished by a sovereign and all-powerful God.

The other thing that strikes me about our text is the passivity of Peter. Peter is not one to take a passive role, but in this account, it is very clear that God is the One taking action. Peter was asleep when the angel appeared, and Peter had to be awakened. Peter was not wide awake (with fear), nor was he seeking to find some way of escape. He did not force the front gate open, or even push it open; it opened by itself (or at least by an unseen hand – verse 10). For the whole time he was being released, Peter was not even aware that this was really happening. He assumed that it was a vision (which wasn't unreasonable, given the fact that he recently had a vision – see chapter 10). In Peter’s mind, he was asleep throughout the entire escape. Only after he was completely liberated did Peter comprehend that his experience was real.

Verse 11 is significant because it informs us that Peter finally grasped what had happened. He was delivered by the Lord’s angel, not only from Herod’s hand, but also from what the Jewish people were expecting. It is not just Herod who has set himself in opposition to the church, and thus to our Lord; it is the Jewish people as well. Once again, opposition to our Lord has spread to the general population and not just its leaders.

Informing the Faithful
Acts 12:12-17

12 When Peter realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many people had gathered together and were praying. 13 When he knocked at the door of the outer gate, a slave girl named Rhoda answered. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she did not open the gate, but ran back in and told them that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 But they said to her, “You’ve lost your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was Peter, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 Now Peter continued knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were greatly astonished. 17 He motioned to them with his hand to be quiet and then related how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He said, “Tell James and the brothers these things,” and then he left and went to another place (Acts 12:12-17).

I think I enjoy this part of the story more than any other, probably because I can identify with the believers and their lack of faith. Notice the contrast between the ease of getting out of prison, as opposed to the difficulty of getting into the house of Mary. My son-in-law, Jeff Hayden, drew this cartoon, which aptly expresses the contrast in the ease of Peter’s escape from prison and the difficulty of his entrance into Mary’s house.

Peter knew that the church would be concerned about him and that he alone could explain what had happened to him (neither the soldiers nor Herod ever arrived at any satisfactory explanation). And so before he went underground, Peter made his way to Mary’s house. There he was confronted with an outer gate. We are hardly surprised that it was securely locked. No doubt the Christians who had gathered may have expected soldiers to come and arrest more of their number.

While the church continued to pray, Rhoda, the servant girl went to answer the knock she heard at the outer gate. She immediately knew it was Peter, but left the door closed and locked out of sheer joy, not out of unbelief. She reported the good news to the saints who had gathered for prayer, but could not convince them that their prayers had actually been answered. This does make me wonder just what they were praying for at this point in time. Were they praying for a supernatural escape, or were they praying for a quick and painless death? We are not told what they were praying for, but only that they refused to believe it was really Peter at the gate. They thought that Rhoda was out of her mind or that what she had seen was his angel (was this something like his ghost?).

Peter persisted in knocking until they let him in, at which time he explained how God had rescued him. He then instructed them to inform James and “the brothers” (whom I assume to be his fellow-apostles), and then he, too, went to another place, no doubt where he could not be found by Herod. It is interesting that the angel did not instruct Peter to go to the temple and preach in a very public way, as was the case with his earlier escape (see Acts 5:20). Has the time for preaching and evangelism in Jerusalem come to an end? Is this what must happen before the gospel can be proclaimed broadly to the Gentiles?

No Explanations
Acts 12:18-23

18 At daybreak there was great consternation among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 When Herod had searched for him and did not find him, he questioned the guards and commanded that they be led away to execution. Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 Now Herod was having an angry quarrel with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they joined together and presented themselves before him. And after convincing Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, to help them, they asked for peace, because their country’s food supply was provided by the king’s country. 21 On a day determined in advance, Herod put on his royal robes, sat down on the judgment seat, and made a speech to them. 22 But the crowd began to shout, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck Herod down because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died (Acts 12:18-23).

One can hardly imagine the consternation of the soldiers and Herod the next morning. We are not told whether the prison gate and the cell door were open or closed the next morning. We don’t know exactly when the guards became fully aware of the escape. But what we do know is that there was every appearance of an “inside job.” That is, there seemed to have been no way for Peter to have escaped without active participation on the part of the guards. How could you explain the loosened chains, the extra security, and yet the absence of Peter?

Herod made a very thorough inquiry into this matter, but found no other explanation than negligence (at best) or a conspiracy (at worst). And thus he had the guards all executed. How ironic! The very guards who would have led Peter to trial and then to his death were now being led away to their death, while Peter was alive and free.

Herod decided it was time to leave town. I would have left town as well. The people of Jerusalem had to have known about Peter’s arrest and pending execution. Peter’s empty cell was as impossible to explain as the empty tomb. If Herod was seeking to abolish the church by arresting and executing it leaders, he was not doing very well at it. He had succeeded in killing James, but Peter and the others had disappeared. Herod was not doing well at opposing the church, or at pleasing the Jews who hated the church. Maybe it was a good time to be needed elsewhere. But then things would not go well for Herod in Caesarea either.

The people of Tyre and Sidon were dependent upon Herod for their food supply. Some sort of rift had occurred in their relationship between the people of Tyre and Sidon and Herod, and they were most eager to mend their relationship with him. They managed to win over Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, so that he persuaded Herod to give them an audience, at which time they would ask for reconciliation. On the appointed day, Herod appeared before the people in all his royal splendor, at which time he also gave a speech. The people of Tyre and Sidon seized on the occasion to heap inappropriate praise upon the king: “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” they shouted.

Later on in Acts, similar praise will be offered to Paul and Barnabas by the people of Lystra. They could not have responded more quickly or fervently to silence such words, which were completely inappropriate (Acts 14:14-18). Herod, on the other hand, hesitated. No doubt, he relished the praise. He who opposed God by opposing His church now was playing god, and it cost him his life. An angel of the Lord (was it the same angel who spared Peter from death by releasing him from prison?) struck Herod with a miserable illness, so that he was eaten by worms and died. It was not a dignified death. For all of his royal pomp and circumstance, and for all the adoration as a god, his death was hardy regal.

Final Assessment
Acts 12:24-25

24 But the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying. 25 So Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem when they had completed their mission, bringing along with them John Mark (Acts 12:24-25).

I return to the verse I cited at the beginning of this message:

“Tell him the one who puts on his battle gear should not boast like one who is taking it off” (1 Kings 20:11).

In our culture we say, “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.” Things sometimes end very differently from the way they began. In our text, it appeared as though Herod might annihilate the church by executing its top leaders. The final words of our text tell us that the Word of God triumphed. Herod could not stop the progress of the gospel, nor could he destroy the church. The Jewish religious leaders could not stop it, and neither could Herod, with all the support of Rome. Its progress could not be stopped; indeed, the next chapter sees an even greater growth of the gospel.

The last verse takes us back to Barnabas and Saul, who will play a dominant role in the advance of the gospel in the remaining chapters of Acts. Apparently, they return from Antioch just after Peter’s escape and Herod”s death. Thus, they were out of Herod’s reach and kept from harm. If this is so, then they escaped from Herod’s grasp in a providential way.

We are also told that they brought John Mark with them. He will accompany them on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5) and then abandon them when the going gets tough (Acts 13:13). Disagreement over taking Mark with them on their second missionary journey will produce two missionary teams (Acts 15:36-41).

Conclusion

At the beginning of this message, I listed some questions, the answers to which would be the key to understanding our text. The first question was, “What happened?” Hopefully, we have answered this question. The last three questions are very important:

“What would have happened if God had not intervened to save Peter and to remove Herod?”"
“How do the events of this chapter affect the progress of the gospel in Acts?”
“How does this text and its message affect me?”

It is now time to answer these questions.

Up to this point, the Roman government has been reluctant to resist or oppose Jesus or those who followed Him. Herod Antipas (the predecessor of Herod Agrippa in our text), was actually eager to see Jesus, hoping that He might perform some miracle (Luke 23:8). Like Herod Antipas, Pilate found no guilt in Jesus, even though the Jewish leaders accused Him of inciting the people to rebellion (Luke 23:13-16). Indeed, Pilate knew the real reason the Jewish leaders opposed Jesus (Matthew 27:18). Pilate actually dreaded condemning Jesus and sought to release Him, especially after his wife informed him of her dream (Matthew 27:19-26).

All this is to show that the Roman government did not see Christianity as a dreaded foe, as the Jewish leaders did (see John 11:48). Herod’s actions in our text could have set a precedent that would have branded the church as the enemy of Rome, thus making Christians criminals. Humanly speaking, this would have hindered the spread of the gospel for many years to come. Peter’s escape and Herod’s death returned things to the status quo, facilitating the spread of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, beginning in Acts 13.

Thus, when Paul and Silas are arrested and beaten for proclaiming the gospel in Philippi, the city officials ultimately reversed their actions, leaving the new believers in Philippi free to practice their faith (see Acts 16:35-40). In Acts 18, the Jews again opposed Paul and Silas and the gospel, accusing them of preaching a gospel contrary to Judaism and to Rome. Out of Gallio’s disdain for the Jews, he refused to distinguish Christianity from Judaism, thereby maintaining the assumption that it was really a Jewish faction. This meant that Christianity was deemed a legitimate religion in the eyes of the Roman government.

In Acts 21, Paul follows the counsel of the Jerusalem church leaders and takes four men along with him to the temple to offer sacrifices. His Jewish opponents misrepresent Paul’s actions and seek to kill him for allegedly defiling the temple (by bringing Gentiles into an area forbidden to them). The Roman army intervened, sparing Paul’s life. This began a process by which Paul would proclaim the gospel to Gentile leaders, all the way to Rome. It was under Roman protection that Paul and others advanced the gospel in Acts.

Were he allowed to persist in his intended course of action, Herod would have changed the course of history. He would have established a new precedent, namely that Christianity was an illicit religion. Christians would have been dealt with as criminals, and the apostles would have been hunted down as revolutionaries. By the events of our text, the God of all history spared Peter and removed Herod (who was playing god). Thus the advance of the gospel (Acts 13 and following) was assured.

Our text illustrates the sovereignty of God over human history, as well as His sovereignty over His church. One of the themes that runs throughout the Book of Acts is that of the sovereignty of God. The eleven apostles chose Matthias as the replacement for Judas, yet we hear virtually nothing of him in the rest of the Book of Acts. God sovereignly chose Saul (Paul), and he dominates the last half of the Book of Acts. The church chose seven men to oversee the care of their widows, so that they (the apostles) could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:1-7). God chose two of these seven men to powerfully preach the Word and to be key leaders in the advance of the gospel (Acts 6:8--8:1).

Now, we find Herod opposing the church and seeking to kill its leaders. God will turn this situation completely around in Acts 12. Listen to these words written by John Stott:

“The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison, and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free and the Word of God triumphing.” 3

I cannot help but remember the response of the Jerusalem saints to the opposition of the Jewish leaders:

23 When they were released, Peter and John went to their fellow believers and reported everything the high priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, “Master of all, you who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them, 25 who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather,

‘Why do the nations rage,
and the peoples plot foolish things?
26 The kings of the earth stood together
and the rulers assembled together,
against the Lord and against his Christ.’

27 “For indeed both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand would happen. 29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:23-30).

How foolish for men to set themselves against God and against His church! God is sovereign over His church and over all history. No matter how great and powerful a king or a nation may be, they cannot thwart the purposes of God. And no matter how few, how weak, or how precarious a position we may find ourselves in, we will prevail because God’s purposes will always prevail.

Our text presents us with a mystery. In this text, we read that James was executed while Peter was delivered from death. We would do well to recall the relationship between Peter and James. Peter, James, and John were a part of the “inner circle of three” that we read about in the Gospels (see, for example, Matthew 17:1; 26:37: Mark 5:37). Jesus invested more in these three disciples than the others. One of these three (James) died first; another (John) died last. Each of these three had the same exposure to Jesus, the same intensive training. Why would God appear to “waste” His efforts on James by his premature death?

The first answer must be, “We don't know, because God has not told us why James died first.” We must assume that his death somehow was instrumental in the progress of the gospel, as we can see in the case of Stephen’s death. In the final analysis, we must rest in the sovereignty of God, knowing that He purposed this for His good pleasure. God is God, and thus He can do as He sees fit. The explanation may only be revealed to us in heaven.

The second answer may reveal something about us. We tend to look at things pragmatically. It would appear that James was at the pinnacle of his productive life. For him to die (seemingly prematurely) appears to be a senseless loss. But this assumes that God “uses” people only for what they can produce. This assumes that God’s only interest in His saints is what they can do for Him.

This kind of pragmatism is often revealed by our choices and actions. Why is it that we spend more time evangelizing and discipling on the college campus than we do in the retirement homes or in an AIDS hospice? How is it that our homogeneous seeker-friendly churches seem to be found in the better parts of town, and they appeal to the upper middle class? I fear we may tend to minister to and among those whom we perceive to have the most promise, who seem to have the most to offer our Lord in service.

And yet this does not seem to square with the people to whom our Lord ministered, or even those He chose to be His disciples. Suppose that God chose us because He desired a relationship with us, more than because He saw how much we had to offer Him in service?

I was recently reading through the Book of Genesis and came upon Enoch in Genesis 5. There I read that Enoch walked with God, and he was no more, because God took him (Genesis 5:24). Did God take Enoch because there was nothing left for Enoch to do, or did God take him to heaven because He desired to have a more intimate relationship with him?

It is true that Herod was the instrument by whom James was executed, but we could just as easily say, “And James walked with God, and he was no more, because God took him.” Why do we think that James was short-changed and that Peter was the fortunate one? If we believe Paul’s words in Philippians 1 correctly, then must we not say that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)? For His own purposes, God took James, and He spared Peter, but we should not feel sorry for James. He is the one who saw Jesus face to face first, while Peter and John had to wait.

Our text is but one of many texts which teach us that our God is the God of great reversals. He is not just the God of revisions, but the God of reversals. Israel was held captive in Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth at the time. Pharaoh was not about to let this people go, but after ten plagues he did. Then Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued the Israelites. The Israelites found themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the approaching Egyptian army. It looked as though they were finished. “But God . . . .” God made a path in the midst of the sea, and the Israelites passed through, walking on dry ground. When the Egyptian army sought to follow them, they became mired in the mud, and they all drowned in the sea. God is the God of reversals. We can see this over an over in the Old Testament and in the New.

We were dead in our trespasses and sin. Our actions were not those of men who were free (though we thought so), but rather the actions of those who were held captive by Satan. We could not live up to God’s standard of righteousness. We could do nothing to save ourselves. We were helpless and hopeless – lost in sin. “But God . . .” (see Ephesians 2:1-10). We who were dead in our sins were made alive. We who were separated from God and from our fellow man were reconciled to Him, and to others. We who once were in darkness have come to the light. God is a God of reversals.

God often waits to act until the last moment, until it would appear that all hope is lost. And then when He acts in a dramatic way, it is obvious that only He could have done it. When He acts when all hope is gone, He receives all the glory. And we, like the saints gathered in the home of Mary, are not inclined to believe it.

These past few weeks we have been praying for a very young child named Courtney. Courtney’s body is riddled with cancer. At first it appeared that medical science might offer some hope, and we prayed that it would work. Now, all medical hope is gone. All that can save Courtney is a class A miracle from God. I fear that our prayers at this moment may be like the prayers of some of those gathered in Mary’s house. I don't know this for a fact, but from their response to the appearance of Peter, I can’t help but wonder if some were not praying for a quick and painless death for Peter: “Lord, make the sword sharp and the execution effective.” I fear that we may be faltering in our prayers for Courtney at the time when they are most needed.

I want to tell a story about Hugh Blevins, a fellow elder for many years. One of our elders was diagnosed with cancer when he was in his 30’s. We prayed, and Dan was in remission for five years. Then the cancer came again with a vengeance. We prayed fervently at first, but when death seemed inevitable, the tone of our prayers began to change. One day our brother Hugh had something like this to say to us. “Men, I don't know whether God will heal Dan or not, but I do know that He is able to heal Dan, even now. I cannot stop praying for Dan’s healing until Dan is healed, or until he dies.”

That is the way I want to pray for little Courtney, and for every other situation that seems impossible. I don’t want to be found doubting God’s power, or the fact that He can and does heal today. On the other hand, I do not know whether Courtney is a “James” or a “Peter.” If God takes Courtney home, it will be a blessed thing. And if He heals her and has many years of life for her, it will also be a blessing from God. But let us not cease to pray in faith until God’s purposes for her are known.

If you are reading this message and your life is in utter chaos and ruin, let me assure you that our God is a God of reversals. He can turn your life around, just as He did Saul (now known as the Apostle Paul). He alone can save; He alone can reverse your life. Trust in Jesus, who was put to death for your sins, and who was raised from the dead. He can turn death into life, darkness to light, hopelessness into hope and everlasting joy.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 17 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 19, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: To the Ends of the Earth (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1990), p. 213.

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18. The First Missionaries (Acts 13:1-13)

April 2, 20061

1 Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul. 2 While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off. 4 So Barnabas and Saul, sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.

5 When they arrived in Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. (Now they also had John as their assistant.) 6 When they had crossed over the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. The proconsul summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But the magician Elymas (for that is the way his name is translated) opposed them, trying to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul (also known as Paul), filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him 10 and said, “You who are full of all deceit and all wrongdoing, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness – will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 Now look, the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind, unable to see the sun for a time!” Immediately mistiness and darkness came over him, and he went around seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, because he was greatly astounded at the teaching about the Lord.

13 Then Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia, but John left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:1-13).2

Introduction

A number of years ago two friends and I were going to travel together to India, where we would minister together. One friend was black, the other was blind. We were all together at a church just before we left this country. A friend introduced us as, “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” My friend Willie’s wife immediately called out, “My Willie is good!” Before I could respond, my friend Craig called out, “I’d rather be ugly than bad!” Some might have thought we were a pretty motley crew, but in the light of our text, I think we were just the right blend of culture and experience.

For some parents, the conception of a child has come as a complete surprise. The birth of the church at Antioch came as a complete surprise to the church in Jerusalem.

19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews. 20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts (Acts 11:19-23).

New though this church may have been, it was showing encouraging signs of growth and maturity. Already there were five gifted men, capable of teaching the saints. This group of gifted men made it possible for the church at Antioch to send out the first foreign missionaries to the Gentiles. And how appropriate, because the salvation of Gentiles at Antioch was the result of certain unnamed saints who fled from Jerusalem, but who did not restrict their witness to Jews. Now this church would become the launching pad for missionary outreach that would result in many (predominantly) Gentile churches. Our text describes the first missionary journey.

I have to confess that I experienced something of a letdown as I was preparing for this message. It didn’t take me long to realize that after the miraculous events of chapter 12, this next chapter in Acts seemed a bit more ordinary. Chapter 12 begins with Luke’s description of the miraculous deliverance of Peter from death at the hand of Herod, and it ends with the amazing account of the death of Herod. How can you top stories like this? I will share the resolution of my inner turmoil at the end of this lesson.

Setting Apart Barnabas and Saul
Acts 13:1-4

1 Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul. 2 While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off [released them]. 4 So Barnabas and Saul, sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus (Acts 13:1-4).

Let us begin by noting the plurality of gifted teachers in the church at Antioch. From the time of its birth, Barnabas and (shortly after) Saul were teaching the new believers. There were probably other leaders who had initially come to Antioch with the good news of the gospel. But now, not much later, we find that there are five gifted men who are capable of teaching and leading the church. Unlike some churches today, this church was not dependent upon one man. In the providence of God, there were enough gifted men in leadership to send two of them away without harm to the mother church.

Here is the ideal for any church. Leadership by a plurality of gifted and godly men is definitely the ideal, and it paves the way for real church growth, the kind of growth that results from sending out missionaries and planting new churches. Plurality of leadership and gift is one of the things I have always appreciated about our church. It does not depend on any one man, and it has the stability of a number of very gifted teachers. We have been privileged to send out a number of missionaries3 to various parts of the world.

Let us also note the diversity of the leaders in the church. It is impossible to know all that we would like about these five men, but it is generally accepted that these men reflect racial, cultural, and socio-economic diversity. Barnabas was a Hellenistic Jew; in fact, he was a Levite. He was born in Cyprus (Acts 4:36). Barnabas was well-respected by the Hebraic Jewish apostles (Acts 9:27; 11:22-24). Simeon, who was called Niger, seems to have been a Black believer:

Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon ( called the black man), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul (Acts 13:1, New Living Translation, emphasis mine).

There was also Lucius of Cyrene. We should remember that it was men from Cyprus and Cyrene who first brought the gospel to Antioch (Acts 11:20). Perhaps Lucius was one of these men. Manaen (the Greek form of a Hebrew name) was likely a Hellenistic Jew. But Luke wants us to know that he grew up with Herod Antipas, the one who killed John the Baptist and before whom our Lord stood trial. One would have to say that he was a part of the upper levels of society. And then there was Saul from Tarsus in Cilicia, who had been trained at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

These five leaders in the church at Antioch represented a broad racial, cultural and socio-economic range. This diversity gave the church great strength. It was also the occasion for their unity to testify to the power and presence of our Lord in their midst. Having diversity among the leaders made it easy for the church at Antioch to have great diversity as well.

Many mega churches today grow because of their homogeneous makeup. “Birds of a feather flock together,” we say, and it tends to be true. But the church should reflect a broad range of diversity. It is our unity in the midst of diversity which demonstrates the power of the gospel (see Ephesians 2:11-22). Diversity, not only in leadership but also in the congregation is something I greatly desire to see. I am grateful that God seems to be granting diversity to us as a church.

Prophets and Teachers

Luke tells us that there were both prophets and teachers in the church (verse 1). The grammar of this verse may very well distinguish the first three men as prophets, from the last two men who are teachers.4 Prophets are listed first, teachers are referred to second (or last). Barnabas is listed first; Saul is listed last. One can hardly doubt that the order of reference is significant, especially since the order of naming Barnabas and Saul will reverse in our text.

We know from what we have already been told about Barnabas5 that he was highly regarded by the apostles. When news of the new church at Antioch reached the apostles, they sent Barnabas. Barnabas then sought out Saul and brought him to Antioch to help in the ministry. As I was reflecting on this text, the thought occurred to me that I could think of Saul as an apprentice to Barnabas. That is a very hard thing to imagine, but I believe it to be true to some degree.

We should not be surprised. Joshua was a helper to Moses, as Elisha was to Elijah. Timothy was a helper to Paul before he was sent out on his own.6 It was a number of years after Saul’s conversion that he became known as an apostle (indeed, the change occurs in our text). Can you even imagine Saul giving his first message and watching the saints whisper to one another, “I’d rather hear Barnabas any day.”?

My point is that Paul did not “start at the top.” He served where God led him, and in His own good time, God advanced him to greater responsibilities and authority. One of the things that gives me great joy is to watch the younger generation develop and mature in their ministry. This morning a young woman played for the offertory, and she did very well. In the years to come, she will do even better. Saul was still in his developing years when he went to Antioch to minister there. And develop he did! Thank God for a church that facilitated that development.

While they were serving the Lord and fasting. The term rendered “serving” is interesting. It is this Greek term that is used to depict the ministry performed by the Old Testament priests (see Exodus 28:35, 43; 29:30; see also Hebrews 10:11). I think this is significant because here we see Gentile ministry that is described by the Old Testament term for priestly ministry. This reminds me of Peter’s words in 1 Peter:

4 So as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but chosen and priceless in God’s sight, 5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it says in scripture, “Look, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and priceless cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will never be put to shame.” 7 So you who believe see his value, but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, 8 and a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:4-9, emphasis mine).

I am likewise fascinated by the way Luke has linked “serving the Lord” with “fasting.” It was “while they were serving the Lord and fasting” that the Holy Spirit spoke to the church to set these two men apart. Almost every commentator and preacher I have ever heard or read has dealt with fasting here as though it were somehow in competition with serving the Lord. One approach is to view “serving the Lord” as a synonym for prayer. Thus, they were praying and fasting. I find this explanation unsatisfactory. If Luke meant that they were praying and fasting, why didn’t he just say so, as he will do in Acts 13:3? Another is to view “serving the Lord and fasting” as two separate activities – two things going on simultaneously.

We should probably begin with a brief definition of fasting:

Fasting is the setting aside of normal appetites or activities for the purpose of pursuing things of greater spiritual importance.

Thus, fasting is giving up something good and acceptable in order to pursue something even better. As I have observed elsewhere in relation to Isaiah 58:13-14,7 keeping the Sabbath is a form of fasting. One sets aside the pursuit of personal pleasure for taking delight in the Lord. In 1 Corinthians 7:5, we find yet another unexpected form of fasting:

5 Do not deprive each other, except by mutual agreement for a specified time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then resume your relationship, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:5).

The sexual fasting of a husband and wife is for the purpose of undistracted prayer, but it is to be for a limited time.

Finally, there is the most common form of fasting – the foregoing of eating – almost always for the purpose of facilitating prayer.8

Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off (Acts 13:3).

When they had appointed elders for them in the various churches, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the protection of the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).

My point is that fasting is not done in isolation, but in conjunction with something else. It seems to be generally accepted that the fasting of the five men named (or of the entire church)9 was prompted by some sense of need or urgency. We are told that “they” felt some need for direction or divine guidance, and so they fasted. Some would say that “serving” was prayer.

It would seem that the nearest antecedent to “they” in verse 2 would be the five men who were just named. I would further take it that these five men were “serving the Lord” by exercising their gifts and functions in the church. I would suggest that it is at least possible that the fasting was that of the five men, and that it was related to their ministry. In other words, they devoted themselves to serving the Lord as they fasted. Fasting here, then, is related to service, rather than to prayer. Prayer was no doubt a part of their service because we recall that the apostles purposed to devote themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4).

My point for pressing this understanding of fasting here is that God spoke to these men while they were consumed in their ministry. Further, it seems likely that the Spirit of God spoke through one of the three men identified as prophets (verse 1). So what’s the difference? I think that Luke is telling us that God revealed His will for Barnabas and Saul while they (the other three) were fully engaged in ministry. I don’t think they were setting aside their ministry to fast, but they were fasting to facilitate their service. There is a time for waiting, but in my experience, this is necessary after God has revealed His will, and not before. For example, God revealed to Abram that he and Sarai would have a son (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6). Abram and Sarai had to wait 25 years for that son, but they did not need to wait to know that they would have a son. In fact, Abram first had to obey God by leaving his homeland and going to Canaan before God revealed that a son was to be born.

Too many Christians seem to think that they should sit on the sidelines of life and wait for God to tell them what to do. God has told us most of what we are to do in His Word. When special guidance is required, He will supply that as well, but this usually comes while we are busily engaged in ministry. This was the case when Paul and his team had set out on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:40—16:10). A few Christians may be working when they should be waiting, but many more seem to be waiting when they should be working.

Let me press my point further. The Spirit of God did not say as much as we might have expected:

While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).

The Spirit did not specify where Barnabas and Saul were to go, nor did He indicate precisely what their ministry would be. It was simply “the work to which I have called them.” How, then, were they or the church to know what that ministry would be? This is not as difficult as it may seem. First, God told Paul about his future ministry when he was saved:

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

Secondly, the ministry to which God had called Barnabas and Saul is that which they had already been doing, together:

23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, 24 because he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and a significant number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught a significant number of people. Now it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:23-26).

The ministry to which they were called was a ministry they were already doing. They were simply led to do it in other places. Not only had they been doing this ministry, but they had obviously been doing it exceedingly well. That is obvious by the growth and maturity of the church, and by the leaders that were named.

Third, the guidance of the Holy Spirit came not to Barnabas or Saul alone, or even to the two of them. The Spirit’s guidance came to the church and through the leading men in the church. In a way, we could say that neither Barnabas nor Saul had a dominant hand in the process by which they were designated and sent forth. It was the Holy Spirit and the church that played the most dominant roles:

2 While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off. 4 So Barnabas and Saul, sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus (Acts 13:2-4).

Review and Application

Let me pause for a moment to review what we’ve seen and to reinforce what the Spirit of God is teaching us here about divine guidance.

First, God’s guidance came to those who were actively engaged in ministry. If we wish to know God’s will, let us begin by doing what He has commanded in His Word.

Second, God’s guidance was revealed, in part, through the ministry in which they were already engaged. The “ministry to which He had called them” was, in effect, “the ministry to which He had already called them.” They knew what they were to do in the future because they were already doing it, and doing it well.

Third, God’s guidance extended the ministry of those who were doing their present ministry well. Sometimes it would seem that some consider full-time Christian ministry because they are not doing well in their present service and are frustrated because of this. They seek to find success elsewhere because they feel they are failing at what they are doing. My sense is that God promotes those who are doing well at what He has already given them to do (see Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 16:1-13).

Fourth, God’s guidance was not merely individual, but it came about through the church. Our culture is so competitive and individualistic that we think God speaks only to us. I’ve heard stories about preachers who were fired by the church board and who have responded, “God hasn’t revealed that to me.” (He will, when the paycheck stops.) Why do we think that God speaks and guides personally, apart from the wisdom and guidance of mature and godly church leaders? God’s guidance for Barnabas and Saul came to the church and through the church.

Fifth, God’s guidance was only for the next step, not for the entire future. God guides us on a “need to know” basis. He does not unfold the entire plan before us, for our approval; He reveals the next step for us. Our obedience to that next step will open the door to further guidance, as it is required. For example, the Spirit instructed the church to set apart Barnabas and Saul, but before the chapter is over it will be “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:1). God didn’t reveal this transition ahead of time, but only in time. We also know that Paul and Barnabas will split up into two missionary teams (Acts 15:36-41). In addition, Paul and Silas and the others will need further specific guidance when they reach Mysia (Acts 16:6-10). These things will be revealed in the proper time. For now, the church, along with Barnabas and Saul, knows all that is necessary for them to be obedient to the divine call.

After a season of fasting and prayer, the church sent off 10these two beloved leaders. The laying on of their hands conveys identification between the sending church and those being sent. Thus, when the first missionary journey is completed, they will return to the church with a full report and then remain on there for some time (Acts 14:27-28).

Having said this, it is important to take note of the fact that this laying on of hands did not imply the same kind of regular financial support we are familiar with today. In 1 Corinthians 9:1-23, Paul says that he and Barnabas set aside their right to be supported by those to whom they ministered, so that the gospel might be more effectively proclaimed. There were all kinds of “religious missionaries” who sold their gospel at a price. Paul wanted none of this. The gospel was the message of free grace, and he wanted his preaching to be free as well.

Paul did accept support from others, but this was very rare, and only from the church at Philippi. We find reference to this giving in Acts 18 and Philippians 4:

1 After this Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to depart from Rome. Paul approached them, 3 and because he worked at the same trade, he stayed with them and worked with them (for they were tentmakers by trade). 4 He addressed both Jews and Greeks in the synagogue every Sabbath, attempting to persuade them. 5 Now when Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul became wholly absorbed with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 18:1-5).

14 Nevertheless, you did well to share with me in my trouble. 15 And as you Philippians know, at the beginning of my gospel ministry, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in this matter of giving and receiving except you alone. 16 For even in Thessalonica on more than one occasion you sent something for my need (Philippians 4:14-16).

Paul was what is sometimes called a “tentmaking” missionary. In his case, he literally made tents for a living (Acts 18:3). He was determined not to be a burden on those to whom he ministered. Instead, Paul worked himself so that he could give to those in need:

33 “I have desired no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine provided for my needs and the needs of those who were with me. 35 By all these things, I have shown you that by working in this way we must help the weak, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus that he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:33-35).

This is not to condemn those who are legitimately supported in their ministry, but only to suggest that there are other ways to be a missionary besides the classical models with which we are familiar. In fact, modern missions may be forced to return to the “tentmaker” model as more and more countries are closing their doors to traditional missionaries. While traditional missionaries may be rejected, those who come with highly valuable skills will be welcomed, in spite of their commitment to Jesus Christ.

The church “released” Barnabas and Saul, but it was the Spirit who “sent them out” (Acts 13:4). Since Antioch was not a port city, these two traveled to Seleucia, a port about 16 miles to the west. There they boarded a ship and sailed for Cyprus. It was a logical choice for their first destination. Barnabas was born there, and it was on their way to other target cities. Since some of those who started the church in Antioch were from Cyprus, they may have had contacts there.11

A Sample Ministry in Cyprus
Acts 13:5-12

5 When they arrived in Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. (Now they also had John as their assistant.) 6 When they had crossed over the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. The proconsul summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But the magician Elymas (for that is the way his name is translated) opposed them, trying to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul (also known as Paul), filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him 10 and said, “You who are full of all deceit and all wrongdoing, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness – will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 Now look, the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind, unable to see the sun for a time!” Immediately mistiness and darkness came over him, and he went around seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, because he was greatly astounded at the teaching about the Lord (Acts 13:5-12).

Salamas was an influential city on the eastern side of Cyprus. When they arrived there, Barnabas and Saul went to the Jewish synagogues where they began to proclaim the Word. There was good reason for doing this. In the first place, Paul (and Barnabas) were committed to the principle of preaching “to the Jew first, and then to the Gentiles” (see Romans 1:16). Another practical reason is that this is where both Jews and Gentile God-fearers congregated. It is apparent that visitors like Barnabas and Saul were invited to share a message with those gathered (see Acts 13:15), something Paul would never pass up.

It is right at this point that Luke chooses to inform his reader that John Mark accompanied Barnabas and Saul on this missionary journey (Acts 13:5). We should recall that Mark was the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). This reference to Mark’s involvement in this missionary journey will pave the way for Luke’s comment in verse 13 that John Mark forsook them at Perga in Pamphylia and returned to Jerusalem. Mark’s desertion here will be the occasion for a strong disagreement between Barnabas and Paul, and as a result, they will divide into two missionary teams (Acts 15:36-41).

When Barnabas and Saul passed through the island of Cyprus and came to the city of Paphos, they encountered two very interesting men; one a Jew, the other a Gentile. The Jew was a false prophet named Elymas, or Bar-Jesus,12 the latter of which means “the son of Jesus.” Jesus was a common name at the time so we dare not read too much into this name. On the other hand, his familiar name seems like a most interesting coincidence.

Elymas is also identified as a magician or sorcerer (verse 6). I had to ask myself, “Just how could a Jew become a magician (or sorcerer)?” Then I remembered the story of the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19:

13 But some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were possessed by evil spirits, saying, “I sternly warn you by Jesus whom Paul preaches.” 14 (Now seven sons of a man named Sceva, a Jewish high priest, were doing this.) 15 But the evil spirit replied to them, “I know about Jesus and I am acquainted with Paul, but who are you?” 16 Then the man who was possessed by the evil spirit jumped on them and beat them all into submission. He prevailed against them so that they fled from that house naked and wounded. 17 This became known to all who lived in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; fear came over them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. 18 Many of those who had believed came forward, confessing and making their deeds known. 19 Large numbers of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them up in the presence of everyone. When the value of the books was added up, it was found to total fifty thousand silver coins (Acts 19:13-19).

These seven sons of Sceva were Jewish. Their father was a high priest! They attempted to exorcise demons from people by naming the “Jesus whom Paul preaches” (Acts 19:13). The demons knew Jesus all too well, and Paul also, but they did not know these Jewish exorcists. And thus these seven sons were overpowered and badly beaten by the demons.

There are three things about this incident that interest me most. First, these seven men were Jews. They seem to be only an example of what a larger group of Jewish exorcists are doing. Second, it would appear that they were seeking to earn a living (or more) by casting out demons in the name and power of someone they did not know. Third, the saints in Ephesus who heard of this were deeply impressed. A very large group responded by forsaking the practice of magic and burning their books on the subject (Acts 19:18-19). They understood that what these sons of Sceva were doing was practicing magic.

I think I can understand why some Jews were attracted (addicted?) to magic. Their religion had become a legalistic system of works: “If I do this, this, and this, God will do that.” That, my friend, is magic. Magic is man’s attempt to manipulate God to produce a desired outcome. Unfortunately, Christians are subject to the same malady: “If I pray this prayer (for example, ‘the prayer of Jabez’), then I can be assured of success or prosperity.” Or, “If I will send a gift of $10 to this ministry, God will reward me ten fold.”

Elymas had some kind of relationship with Sergius Paulus, the Gentile proconsul13 in Salamas. Sergius Paulus seems to have been influenced by Elymas, and he seemed to stick close to this political official. I am inclined to think that this Gentile official believed that true religion must be Jewish. Think of being able to worship and serve just one God, rather than a whole pantheon of gods. But then Barnabas and Saul arrived in town, and the proconsul summoned Barnabas and Saul, so that he could hear the Word of God from them. Elymas strongly opposed this meeting. Luke is very clear that Elymas intended to keep Sergius Paulus from the faith (Acts 13:8).

Suddenly and unexpectedly, Paul rises to the occasion. Notice the change of name that takes place in Acts 13:9. Also note Luke’s indication that Paul was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 9). Paul is not acting on his own initiative; he is being prompted by the Holy Spirit. Paul seems to be able to look into the very soul of this man and to size him up spiritually – and it isn’t a pretty picture. Paul has some very strong words of indictment against Elymas. Notice the accusations. Elymas is …

… a man who is “full of deceit and wrongdoing”

… a “son of the devil”

… the “enemy of all righteousness”

“making crooked the straight paths of the Lord”

How strange it must have felt for Paul to cast a temporary spell of blindness upon Elymas. We cannot help but think of Saul’s three-day blindness. Paul’s blindness seemed to be a merciful thing, giving him time to reflect on his opposition to the gospel, and to consider repentance. Perhaps God was being merciful to Elymas as well.

Here is the irony – the man who sought to keep the proconsul from the faith actually becomes an instrument by which God brings the proconsul to faith:

Then when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, because he was greatly astounded at the teaching about the Lord (Acts 13:12).

I am not surprised to read that some actually question the genuineness of the proconsul’s faith. I am both surprised and disappointed that any conservative evangelical scholar would give such a suggestion a moment’s thought. Think about it for a minute. Luke has given Elymas more attention than the proconsul. He has indicated to the reader that Elymas sought to keep the proconsul from the faith. Paul strongly rebukes Elymas and then casts a spell of blindness on him. The proconsul is amazed and is said to come to faith. Are we, for even a moment, to suppose that Elymas succeeded, but the gospel did not? Surely the proconsul came to faith, in spite of Elymas’ best efforts to prevent it, and through the opposition of Elymas.

A Change in Leadership
Acts 13:13

Then Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia, but John left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).

The first thing we observe from this verse is that Paul is now perceived as the leader of this missionary team. It is my opinion that Barnabas saw this as well and, like John the Baptist (John 3:30) and even our Lord (Philippians 2:3-8), did not grasp for the preeminence once possessed.

The second function of this verse is to report to the reader that John Mark went AWOL (absent without leave). When they reached Perga in Pamphylia, John Mark left Paul and Barnabas and returned to Jerusalem. We are not told why Mark did this, but it is clear that Paul saw this departure as abandoning his post. In Acts 15:36-41, Paul and Barnabas will disagree so strongly about whether or not to give John Mark a second chance on the second missionary journey that they will part ways (thus forming two missionary teams).

It does appear that the gospel is not preached in Perga at this time, but that Paul and Barnabas merely pass by (or pass through) Perga without proclaiming the gospel. It is only on their return trip that the gospel is preached in Perga:

And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia (Acts 14:25).

The ministry at Cyprus has ended, and the ministry in Asia Minor begins.

Conclusion

The sending out of Barnabas and Saul is the beginning of a new era in the carrying out of the Great Commission. Now the gospel is headed for the “farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Missionaries are not providentially thrust out by a wave of persecution (Acts 8:1); two missionaries are sent out by the Holy Spirit through the church at Antioch. Here is “missions” as we have yet to see it in the gospels or Acts. From this point on, we see very little of Peter or the other apostles in Jerusalem.14 Paul is the dominant personality throughout the remainder of the Book of Acts. The gospel is now on its way to Rome.

The sending forth of Paul and Barnabas (as we now have it) is instructive to the church today regarding the sending out of missionaries. I have suggested some possible areas of application above. This text also instructs us regarding how we may know the will of God. It is not exhaustive, but it is suggestive.

Of all the events that took place on the island of Cyprus, why does Luke choose this one incident in Salamas (concerning Elymas and Sergius) to report to his readers? I believe there are at least two reasons why Luke included this story. First, I believe that Paul’s confrontation of Elymas was a dramatic turning point in Paul’s ministry. It was at Paphos that Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit and took the lead in rebuking Elymas. And that is why the very next verse (13) begins, “Then Paul and his companions … .” From here on out, it will be Paul who will be named first.15 We can therefore see that God has sovereignly elevated Paul from that of being an assistant to Barnabas to becoming the dominant leader.

Secondly, I believe Luke uses Elymas as a prototype of the Jewish opposition that is to come. Luke makes a point of telling us that Elymas is a Jew. He is a Jew who strongly opposes Sergius Paulus hearing and embracing the gospel. In this case, the reasons for the behavior of Elymas may be self-serving. He seems to have had significant influence with the Gentile proconsul, and this would have been lost if Sergius Paulus embraced the gospel. But whatever the reason, Elymas, a Jew, resisted the conversion of Sergius Paulus, a Gentile. But his resistance was not effective. Because of the judicial blinding of Elymas, Sergius Paulus comes to faith. So, too, the resistance of the Jews to Paul’s preaching of the gospel does not succeed. Indeed, Jewish resistance opens the door to the preaching of the gospel (see Romans 11:25-32).

Let’s come back to the matter of the “letdown” I experienced when I left the dramatic events of chapter 12 behind and moved to our text. Chapter 12 did have some rather spectacular events – the dramatic deliverance of Peter from prison and from the jaws of death; and, the death of Herod. It reminds us of the story of Mordecai and Haman in the Book of Esther. Haman plots to execute Mordecai, but Mordecai is exalted, and Haman is hung on his own gallows.

Our text in Acts 13 does have a bit of drama – Paul casts a spell of blindness on Elymas, the Jewish magician who opposes the gospel. But it is not as spectacular as the events of chapter 12. Rather than comparing these two chapters in terms of their spectacularity, let us consider them in the light of their long-term results. Peter was dramatically spared, but he and his ministry definitely fade from this point on in the Book of Acts. Herod died, and he was not successful in dealing with Christianity as an illegal sect. This did have long-term effects, but they don’t appear to be dramatic at this point.

Now let us consider the sending forth of Barnabas and Saul in chapter 13. The Holy Spirit was instrumental in this new venture, but Luke is deliberate in his avoidance of the spectacular aspects of His role in thrusting forth a new missionary movement. And yet the results are spectacular. The gospel now goes deliberately and purposefully to the Gentiles. Many Gentiles come to faith and numerous churches are planted. The gospel goes from Antioch to Rome. This is spectacular, or if we wish to avoid that word, the events of our text are significant. Beyond this, a man who once traveled to various foreign countries to oppose the gospel is now traveling from country to country preaching that same gospel he once opposed.

Here is a lesson to be learned: We dare not gauge the significance of a life or of a ministry by its spectacularity. I am reminded of the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17-19. Elijah has a dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in chapter 18. They seek to gain the attention of their “god” but nothing happens. Elijah prays, and fire dramatically descends from heaven, consuming not only the sacrifice and the wood, but the rocks and water in the surrounding trench. Elijah then prays, and rain will soon follow – after 3 ½ years of drought (see also James 5:17-18). And yet when Jezebel threatens Elijah, he flees. He leaves his servant behind and goes into the wilderness to die. God then meets with Elijah on Mount Horeb. He does not speak through the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire; instead He speaks through a still, small, voice.

The lesson is quite obvious: Don’t always look for God in the spectacular. God was going to accomplish His work, but it would be through others than Elijah. It would be through Elisha, Hazael, and Jehu. Hazael and Jehu were hardly pious men. We should not gauge the significance of what God is doing by the “spectacularity” of the events.

By the way, this principle also applies to spiritual gifts. Some people in Corinth tended to equate spirituality and significance in terms of the practice of certain spectacular gifts. The apostle Paul made it clear that the more important gifts may not be the spectacular ones:

18 But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided. 19 If they were all the same member, where would the body be? 20 So now there are many members, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot, “I do not need you.” 22 On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, 23 and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our unpresentable members are clothed with dignity, 24 but our presentable members do not need this. Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another (1 Corinthians 12:18-25).

If I understand Paul correctly, he is saying that the least important gifts have the compensation of having more pizzazz than the more important gifts. Think about this in terms of the body. The most important organs in my body are those which are not visible – organs like my heart, liver, and kidneys. I can live with my arms or legs cut off. I can live with my eyes put out. I can live without my hearing. But I cannot live without my heart, liver, or kidneys. Let us beware of pursuing the spectacular on the false premise that significance and success are measured in terms of the dramatic.


1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 18 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on April 2, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 I use the term “missionaries” broadly because some have gone out as tentmakers, earning a living by some skill and then using their employment and location as an opportunity to proclaim and promote the gospel.

4 The great Greek scholar, Dr. A. T. Robertson (now deceased), wrote: “The double use of te here makes three prophets (Barnabas, Symeon, Lucius) and two teachers (Manaen and Saul).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (electronic version in BibleWorks 6).

5 See Acts 4:36-37; 11:19-30.

6 See, for example, 1 Timothy 1:1-4.

7 See “A Christmas Message in an Unexpected Text,” /article/christmas-message-unexpected-text-fasting-and-incarnation-isaiah-58-61-matthew-2-philippians .

 

8 See 2 Samuel 12:16; Ezra 8:23; Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 9:3; Luke 2:37; 5:33; Acts 13:3; 14:23.

9 The “they” in verse 2 is not clarified, so that it could refer either to the five leaders named or to the entire church.

10 The term rendered “sent off” could just as easily be translated “released.” I think that this may better express the emotional bond that existed between these men and the church at Antioch. Remember Paul’s sorrowful parting from the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20:36-38).

11 This observation thanks to Ray Stedman, who taught on this passage some years ago:

http://www.pbc.org/library/files/html/0432.html.

12 Note that Elymas or Bar-Jesus gets more attention from Luke than does Sergius Paulus.

13 A. T. Robertson writes, “Luke used to be sharply criticized for applying this term to Sergius Paulus on the ground that Cyprus was a province under the appointment of the emperor with the title of propraetor and not under the control of the senate with the title of proconsul. That was true B.C. 30, but five years later it was changed to proconsul by Augustus and put under the control of the Senate. Two inscriptions have been found with the date A.D. 51 and 52 with the names of proconsuls of Cyprus and one is in the Cesnola Collection, an inscription found at Soli with the name of Paulus as Proconsul, undoubtedly this very man, though no date occurs.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament.

14 We do see them briefly in Acts 15, and again in Acts 21.

15 There are only a couple of exceptions to this (Acts 14:14; 15:12, 25).

 

8 See 2 Samuel 12:16; Ezra 8:23; Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 9:3; Luke 2:37; 5:33; Acts 13:3; 14:23.

9 The “they” in verse 2 is not clarified, so that it could refer either to the five leaders named or to the entire church.

10 The term rendered “sent off” could just as easily be translated “released.” I think that this may better express the emotional bond that existed between these men and the church at Antioch. Remember Paul’s sorrowful parting from the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20:36-38).

11 This observation thanks to Ray Stedman, who taught on this passage some years ago:

http://www.pbc.org/library/files/html/0432.html.

12 Note that Elymas or Bar-Jesus gets more attention from Luke than does Sergius Paulus.

13 A. T. Robertson writes, “Luke used to be sharply criticized for applying this term to Sergius Paulus on the ground that Cyprus was a province under the appointment of the emperor with the title of propraetor and not under the control of the senate with the title of proconsul. That was true B.C. 30, but five years later it was changed to proconsul by Augustus and put under the control of the Senate. Two inscriptions have been found with the date A.D. 51 and 52 with the names of proconsuls of Cyprus and one is in the Cesnola Collection, an inscription found at Soli with the name of Paulus as Proconsul, undoubtedly this very man, though no date occurs.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament.

14 We do see them briefly in Acts 15, and again in Acts 21.

15 There are only a couple of exceptions to this (Acts 14:14; 15:12, 25).

 

http://feeds.bible.org/deffinbaugh/acts/deffinbaugh_acts_18.mp3
Biblical Topics: 
Passage: 
/assets/worddocs/deff_acts_18.zip
/assets/worddocs/deff_acts_18_sg.zip

19. The Gospel and the Gentiles (Acts 13:14-52)

14 Moving on from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch, and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the law and the prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, “Brothers, if you have any message of exhortation for the people, speak it.”

16 So Paul stood up, gestured with his hand and said, “Men of Israel, and you Gentiles who fear God, listen: 17 The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay as foreigners in the country of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. 18 For a period of about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. 19 After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, [Deuteronomy 7:1] he gave his people their land as an inheritance. 20 All this took about four hundred fifty years. After this he gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21 Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man from the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 22 After removing him, God raised up David their king. He testified about him: ‘I have found David the son of Jesse to be a man after my heart, who will accomplish everything I want him to do.’ 23 From the descendants of this man God brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, just as he promised. 24 Before Jesus arrived, John had proclaimed a baptism for repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 But while John was completing his mission, he said repeatedly, ‘What do you think I am? I am not he. But look, one is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the sandals on his feet!’

26 Brothers, descendants of Abraham’s family, and those Gentiles among you who fear God, the message of this salvation has been sent to us. 27 For the people who live in Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize him, and they fulfilled the sayings of the prophets that are read every Sabbath by condemning him. 28 Though they found no basis for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had accomplished everything that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and placed him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he appeared to those who had accompanied him from Galilee to Jerusalem. These are now his witnesses to the people. 32 And we proclaim to you the good news about the promise to our ancestors, 33 that this promise God has fulfilled to us, their children, by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my Son; today I have fathered you.’ [Psalm 2:7] 34 But regarding the fact that he has raised Jesus from the dead, never again to be in a state of decay, God has spoken in this way: ‘I will give you the holy and trustworthy promises made to David.’ [Isaiah 55:3] 35 Therefore he also says in another psalm, ‘You will not permit your Holy One to experience decay.’ [Psalm 16:10] 36 For David, after he had served God’s purpose in his own generation, died, was buried with his ancestors, and experienced decay, 37 but the one whom God raised up did not experience decay. 38 Therefore let it be known to you, brothers, that through this one forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by this one everyone who believes is justified from everything from which the law of Moses could not justify you. 40 Watch out, then, that what is spoken about by the prophets does not happen to you: 41 ‘Look, you scoffers; be amazed and perish! For I am doing a work in your days, a work you would never believe, even if someone tells you.’” [Habakkuk 1:5]

42 As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people were urging them to speak about these things on the next Sabbath. 43 When the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who were speaking with them and were persuading them to continue in the grace of God.

44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city assembled together to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and they began to contradict what Paul was saying by reviling him.

46 Both Paul and Barnabas replied courageously, “It was necessary to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have appointed you to be a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” [Isaiah 49:6; see also Luke 2:29-32; Luke 4]

48 When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed.

49 So the word of the Lord was spreading through the entire region. 50 But the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high social standing and the prominent men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and threw them out of their region. 51 So after they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, they went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.1

Introduction2

This past week, the headlines informed us of the discovery of a 1700-year-old document called the “Gospel of Judas.” This “gospel” was written by a member of a Gnostic cult known as the Cainites. This group sought to represent Cain, the original bad boy of the Bible (not counting his father, Adam), as a true hero rather than as a villain. (They insisted that he showed real courage when he opposed God.) Why would it surprise us that a member of this group (already branded as heretics in their day) would write a document alleging that Judas (the most prominent “bad boy” of the New Testament) was really a hero as well? Judas, they would have us believe, had more insight and understanding of our Lord’s mission than all the rest, and therefore he betrayed our Lord at His request, knowing that he (Judas) would be “crucified” (figuratively speaking, of course) as a villain for centuries. But in the end, he would be rewarded by the Lord.

For many people, and all too many “scholars,” this will prompt endless hours of study, discussion, and debate. For those who are already predisposed to doubt the Word of God, it will be another excuse to call the canonical (biblical) gospels into question and cause some gullible people to reconsider the authenticity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank God that on this Palm Sunday we are privileged to have the inspired Word of God in our hands. Specifically, we are studying the second volume of a masterful, historical work, divinely inspired, carefully penned, and based on eye-witness testimonies. Together these two volumes (the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts) give us a history of the gospel of Jesus Christ, from the time of our Lord’s birth to the spread of the gospel throughout the known world of New Testament times.

Today we have come to the 13th chapter of the Book of Acts and to the first recorded sermon of the Apostle Paul. It is the Sabbath, and so we find Paul in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, proclaiming the good news of salvation by faith in the shed blood of the risen Christ. In contrast to “the Gospel of Judas,” which allegedly calls into question the sum total of the biblical gospel, the “gospel according to Paul” does just the opposite. The gospel Paul (and all the other apostles) proclaimed was the consummation of all that the Old Testament promised and anticipated. Paul presented the gospel in such a way that it connected all the dots, reaching the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s only provision for the forgiveness of our sins. In his sermon, which indicts the people of Jerusalem and their leaders for the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, Judas is never mentioned. Judas is no sacrificial lamb, on which the guilt of all mankind can be laid; that is the task that only the sinless Lord Jesus could fulfill. We are all guilty of rejecting Jesus as God’s promised Messiah.

The message that Paul preaches is so compelling that no one in our text is able to dispute his facts, or his theology.3 There is no debate on this particular Sabbath, or on the next, when the entire city comes to hear what Paul has to say about Jesus and Judaism. The rejection of Jesus and of Paul’s gospel is far less sophisticated and intellectual than that, as we shall soon see.

As we approach this lesson, let us do so with joyful and grateful hearts, knowing that we have the sure and faithful Word of God as our text, a Word which is not shaken by newly revealed heresies. And let us look to the Spirit of God to quicken our hearts and minds to respond to the truth as we should.

The Setting

In our last lesson, we studied the first 13 verses of Acts 13. There we noted how the Holy Spirit designated Barnabas and Saul as missionaries to be sent out with the gospel to the Gentiles. Luke then tells of their ministry on the island of Cyprus. He chooses to focus on one segment of their ministry at Paphos, a leading city on the western end of Cyprus. There they encountered Elymas the Jewish false prophet and magician, also known as Bar-Jesus. Elymas had somehow attached himself to Sergius Paulus, the proconsul residing in Paphos. When the proconsul wanted to speak with Barnabas and Saul to hear more of their message, Elymas did everything he could to hinder this man from coming to faith. Filled with the Spirit, Paul took the lead in condemning the resistance of Elymas, punctuating this with a curse of blindness. Witnessing the authority with which Paul proclaimed the gospel, the proconsul gave heed to the gospel message and came to faith.

Passing by Perga
Acts 13:13-15

13 Then Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia, but John left them and returned to Jerusalem. 14 Moving on from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch, and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the law and the prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, “Brothers, if you have any message [literally “a word”] of exhortation for the people, speak it” (Acts 13:13-15).

Paul and his companions” sailed north to Asia Minor, arriving at Perga in Pamphylia. It was here that John Mark left them and returned home to Jerusalem, something which Paul interpreted as desertion or abandoning his post.4 John Mark’s actions here will result in a strong disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, resulting in the split-up of their team, thus forming two teams (Acts 15:36-41). It would appear that there was no significant preaching here in Perga, but instead the gospel was proclaimed on their return through Perga (Acts 14:25).

From Perga, the missionaries traveled on to Pisidian Antioch. This is not the “Antioch” of Syria, where the first missionary journey began, but the “Antioch” of Asia Minor, some 350 miles or so northwest of Syrian Antioch. On the Sabbath, Paul and Barnabas went to the synagogue. This became Paul’s normal pattern for introducing the gospel in a town or city (see Acts 17:1-2). It was also the practice of our Lord:

Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people (Matthew 4:23).

Then Jesus went throughout all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness (Matthew 9:35; see also 12:1; 13:54).

The synagogues were an ideal place to commence their ministry when Paul and Barnabas arrived at a new city. If there was a synagogue in the city, they would go there on the Sabbath and preach the gospel. Here, one would find Jews and Gentile proselytes or God-fearers, who were at least somewhat devout in their pursuit of Judaism. Paul consistently followed the practice of going to “the Jew first, and then to the Gentiles” with the gospel (see, for example, Acts 3:26; 19:8-10; Romans 1:16; 2:9).

The synagogues provided an ideal forum for preaching the gospel. Luke provides us with the most information about the synagogues and how they functioned (Luke 4:16-30; Acts 13:14-16). From Luke 4:16-30, we see that there was the reading of some portions of the Old Testament Scriptures (on this occasion, it included Isaiah 61:1-2). Jesus was free to expound on that text, which He did, revealing that He was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. In our text in Acts, we learn that there was a reading from the Law and the Prophets. There were synagogue officials present who were in charge of the meeting, but they granted the opportunity for men (including visitors) to speak. It was in response to this invitation that Paul spoke at Pisidian Antioch.

Luke does not tell us what the Scripture reading was on this occasion. It would not surprise me if, in the providence of God, the texts were directly related to the message Paul was about to preach. While we do not know the texts that were read, we do know that when Paul preached, he reviewed a good deal of Old Testament history, referring to a number of Old Testament texts in support of his conclusion.

From Abraham to Jesus
Acts 13:16-25

16 So Paul stood up, gestured with his hand and said, “Men of Israel, and you Gentiles who fear God, listen: 17 The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay as foreigners in the country of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. 18 For a period of about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. 19 After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan,5 he gave his people their land as an inheritance. 20 All this took about four hundred fifty years. After this he gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21 Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man from the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 22 After removing him, God raised up David their king. He testified about him: ‘I have found David the son of Jesse to be a man after my heart, who will accomplish everything I want him to do.’ 23 From the descendants of this man God brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, just as he promised. 24 Before Jesus arrived, John had proclaimed a baptism for repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 But while John was completing his mission, he said repeatedly, ‘What do you think I am? I am not he. But look, one is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the sandals on his feet!’ (Acts 13:16-25)

Preliminary Observations

(1) Paul’s message is quite brief. Some have suggested that Paul’s message was much longer than this and that Luke has provided us with a kind of “Readers Digest” abridgement of that message. This is certainly possible, and it no doubt this is true of some other messages in the New Testament, such as Peter’s message at Pentecost in Acts 2. But I’m not so sure that Paul’s message in the synagogue was much longer than what Luke has recorded. First of all, Paul and Barnabas were newcomers, virtual strangers to the synagogue leaders and people of Pisidian Antioch. While opportunity might be granted to speak at great length later on, this message was to be “a word of exhortation.”6 I seriously doubt that they were surrendering the meeting to a complete stranger for a lengthy message.7

(2) Second, this message was addressed to Jews and Gentiles alike. We should note from verse 16 that Paul clearly addressed his words to both Jews (“men of Israel”) and Gentiles (“you Gentiles who fear God”). This will again be the case in verse 26:

“Brothers, descendants of Abraham’s family, and those Gentiles among you who fear God, the message of this salvation has been sent to us” (Acts 13:26).

(3) Paul’s message assumes a familiarity with the Old Testament. We should further note that whether Jew or Gentile, those addressed were familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures. (They should be, since portions of the Law and the Prophets were read each Sabbath in the synagogue.) Paul’s message is one that is adapted to his audience. When Paul speaks to pure pagans, he must approach them differently because of their ignorance of the Scriptures (see Acts 17:16-31).

(4) Paul moves through Old Testament history at a very rapid pace. Paul surveys Old Testament history at a very rapid pace. He covers the 450 years from the call of Abraham to Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land in 3 verses (Acts 13:17-19). He does not go into any detail in any part of his Old Testament survey. He will go into greater detail when he comes to New Testament history. Let us take note of all that Paul covers in his rapid sprint through the Old Testament.

A Sprint through the Old Testament and then to the New

Paul begins with the call of Abraham and the patriarchs and with Israel’s sojourn in Egypt where they became a great nation (Acts 13:17a). He then briefly mentions their exodus from Egypt (Acts 13:17b). He covers the 40-year sojourn in the wilderness in 1 verse (Acts 13:18), and then in another verse, summarizes Israel’s possession of the Promised Land (Acts 13:19). The period of the judges is covered in half of one short verse (Acts 13:20b).

Paul is a bit more leisurely (a whole 2½ verses!) when he comes to the time of Samuel and Israel’s first kings (Acts 13:20b-22). When the people asked for (okay, demanded) a king, God gave them Saul, who reigned 40 years and then was replaced by David, a man after God’s heart. From David, Paul leaps forward hundreds of years to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is David’s offspring (and thus He is often called the Son of David).8

One must ask why Paul would skip so many years of Old Testament history in order to leap forward in time to the coming of Jesus. There are several reasons, I suspect. First, Paul did not have a great deal of time to present this “word of exhortation.” Second, this was history his audience already knew. Third, Paul will soon show that the Old Testament prophets foretold the coming of Jesus and the major events of His life and ministry. Fourth, after the time of David, things went rapidly downhill until the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Fifth, Jesus was the legitimate “Son of David,” the promised Messiah. Jesus truly took up where David left off and went far beyond anything David could have ever done. David was a mere man, and a sinner at that. Jesus was the God-man, who was without sin. Jesus was that One who would sit on the throne of his father David forever (see 2 Samuel 7:12-14a).

Paul gives more emphasis to Jesus than to anything or anyone else in our text, and rightly so. He begins with the ministry of John the Baptist. John not only proclaimed a baptism of repentance, he also publicly denied that he was the Messiah. Instead, he designated Jesus as God’s Messiah,9 insisting that he was not even worthy to untie the sandals of our Lord (Acts 13:25).

Jesus Is the Promised Messiah
Acts 13:26-37

26 Brothers, descendants of Abraham’s family, and those Gentiles among you who fear God, the message of this salvation has been sent to us. 27 For the people who live in Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize him, and they fulfilled the sayings of the prophets that are read every Sabbath by condemning him. 28 Though they found no basis for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had accomplished everything that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and placed him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 3