A People of Faith.

54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

1 And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. – Acts 7:44-8:3 ESV

Stephen had called out the high priest and the Sanhedrin. These powerful and influential religious leaders of the Jews were the guilty culprits, not him. They were supposed to be the spiritual shepherds of Israel, but Stephen had exposed them for what they were: stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, who always resist the Holy Spirit. They were just like their ancestors, whose rebellion against God Stephen had just outlined for them in great detail. These men were supposed to be man of faith, like Abraham, Joseph, Moses and David. They should have expected the unexpected from God. Of all people, they should have known what the Scriptures said and how God had repeatedly told of new things to come. The author of Hebrews provides further proof that Abraham, Joseph, Moses and David were men of faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. – Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV

Abraham, whose only possession in the land of Canaan was the tomb in which he buried his wife, believed God and kept waiting for the promise of God to be fulfilled.

22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones. – Hebrews 11:22 ESV

Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his own brothers, kept faithfully trusting in God, eventually being appointed the second-highest ranking official in the land of Egypt. But he was so convinced of God’s promise concerning the promised land, that he made his brothers swear to return his bones there after his death.

24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. – Hebrews 11:24-26 ESV

Moses gave up the privileges that came with being the adopted son of Pharaoh, instead risking it all in order to faithfully serve God. He obeyed God, leading the people of Israel out of Egypt and all the way to the land of promise. And then the author of Hebrews sums up his recounting of those patriarchs who exhibited faith in their God.

32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Hebrews 11:32-34 ESV

All of these individuals led lives of faith. They placed their trust in God, never knowing quite how things were going to turn out, but leaving the outcome up to God. But the men to whom Stephen had just delivered his message were men of little faith. They no longer expected God to do great things. They were content with the Mosaic Law, the Temple and their own status as spiritual leaders of Israel. It didn’t seem to bother them that they were under oppressive Roman rule and that the spiritual climate within Israel was at an all-time low. Stephen had clearly pointed out that they were just like their ancestors, who had rejected the leadership of Moses and the prophetic warnings of the prophets. The high priest and the Sanhedrin had rejected the Righteous One of God, and were now rejecting His Spirit-filled apostles. They wanted nothing to do with the gospel. They rejected the words of Peter, John, and Stephen, refusing to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and had been resurrected from the grave. In fact, it is when Stephen claims to see a vision of the resurrected Lord that these men lose it.

55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 56 And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!” – Acts 7:55-56 NLT

That was all it took. Stephen’s Spirit-inspired vision of the risen Lord left the Jewish religious leaders seeing red. They immediately assaulted Stephen, dragging him outside the city, where they stoned him to death. And in doing so, they revealed that their faith was in something other than God. They worshiped the status quo. They had made idols out of the Mosaic Law and the Temple. They were not interested in what God was doing in their midst, but only in what God had done in the past. These men had no expectation that God would do great things in their midst. Their faith was in what they could see and touch, including their own status as religious leaders and the bricks and mortar of the Temple itself. They took comfort in the law, even though they failed to keep it. They sought salvation through their own self-effort and saw no need for a Savior. In their minds, they were already righteous before God because they were the chosen people of God, the keepers of the law of God, and the proud occupants of the Temple of God.

So, like their ancestors before them, they killed the messenger of God. And in doing so, they refused the message God had proclaimed through him. And this tagic event brought a dramatic change to the atmosphere within Jerusalem. No longer would the city be a safe and inviting environment for the followers of Jesus. Luke points out that “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1 ESV). And he drops the name of a man who would play a vital role in both the church’s persecution and the gospel’s proclamation: Saul. He is only given a mention in these verses, but in a relatively short period of time, Saul would become a key player in the ongoing drama surrounding the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ.

There are a number of things presaged in these verses. First of all, the future role of Saul as both a persecutor of the church and as its poster-boy for conversion stories. His presence at Stephen’s stoning and his approval of his death, provide us with a glimpse into what was to come. God was at work. He was moving behind the scenes in ways that even the apostles could not have foreseen. Little did they know that the escalating tension between the Jewish religious leaders and the church was going to have a positive impact on the spread of the gospel. We must always recall what Jesus had said to His disciples just prior to His ascension. “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 end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV). Yet, up until this point in Luke’s account of the church’s growth and spread, the gospel had yet to make it outside the city walls of Jerusalem. But what does he say happened as a result of Stephen’s death and the subsequent persecution of the church? “…and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1 ESV). The new believers were forced to flee for their lives, vacating the confines of Jerusalem and heading out into the surrounding regions, even as far as Samaria. God was using what appeared to be a tragic event to accomplish His divine will for the church. What the people of God had been unwilling or unready to do, He made happen. He used the persecution by the religious leaders to force His own people to do what Jesus had commanded them to do. And this new era in the life of the church was going to take faith. No longer would they be able to remain in the close community they had established and enjoyed in Jerusalem. Unlike the Jews, God was not satisfied with the status quo. The gospel was meant to be spread. The community of faith was meant to be shared. The good news of Jesus Christ was intended for any and all who would hear it and accept it, regardless of race or creed.

Saul, who would later become known to us as Paul, would one day pick up the mantel of Stephen and take the good news to the Gentiles. It was he who wrote, “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes–the Jew first and also the Gentile” (Romans 1:16 NLT). The man who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen and approved of their actions, would one day face stoning himself, for preaching the gospel boldly and without apology. He would become a man of great faith, who willingly suffered for the sake of Christ, because he had placed his hope in the future promises of Christ. Which is why he could say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

Stephen, a man of great faith, died at the hands of men of little faith. But the God in whom Stephen had placed his faith, was not done. His church, while facing persecution, was far from finished. It would continue to grow. The Spirit would continue to move. Men and women would continue to place their faith in a faithful God who was doing new and exciting things in their midst. And while Saul was busy ravaging the church, our faithful God had plans for Saul would radically revolutionize his life and forever alter the trajectory of the gospel.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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The Righteous One.

44 “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,

49 “‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
    or what is the place of my rest?
50 Did not my hand make all these things?’

51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:44-53 ESV

Having been accused of blasphemy against Moses and God, Stephen refuted those charges by showing his reverence for both. At the same time, he revealed that it was his Jewish brothers who had failed to truly honor Moses. In fact, he gave proof that they, like their ancestors, really rejected Moses, refusing to listen to his prophecy regarding the coming Messiah. Not only that, they were guilty of idolatry, just like their ancient ancestors. In fact, they had made idols out of the land of Judah, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple of God. Which is the next topic in Stephen’s message. He had been accused of speaking against the Temple and of having taught that the resurrected Jesus was going to tear it down. These were false accusations, but that didn’t keep Stephen from using them to teach those in his audience an important object lesson regarding the Temple.

He starts out discussing the Tabernacle, the temporary, portable structure that God had commanded Moses to build during Israel’s years in the wilderness. This structure had been of God’s design and had a definitive, God-ordained purpose. The book of Exodus records for us how the Tabernacle was to be used.

34 Then the cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 35 Moses could no longer enter the Tabernacle because the cloud had settled down over it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

36 Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it. 37 But if the cloud did not rise, they remained where they were until it lifted. 38 The cloud of the Lord hovered over the Tabernacle during the day, and at night fire glowed inside the cloud so the whole family of Israel could see it. This continued throughout all their journeys. – Exodus 40:34-38 NLT

It was designed to function during their journey from Egypt to the promised land. Inside, in the Holy of Holies, was contained the Ark of the Covenant, on top of which was the Mercy Seat, the place of atonement. It was over that spot that the cloud hovered that signified God’s presence. Inside the Ark of the Covenant were the tablets of stone that contained the testimony of God, the Ten Commandments, given to Moses on Mount Sinai. God’s law and God’s presence went before the people of Israel, guiding them both morally and literally. Whenever the cloud of God’s presence moved out of the Holy of Holies, the people were to pack up the Tabernacle and follow wherever He led, taking the law with them as they went.

And Stephen points out that this had been the pattern all the way up until the people arrived in the land promised to Abraham by God. At that point, the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, had ended up in Shiloh. The book of Joshua records: “Now that the land was under Israelite control, the entire community of Israel gathered at Shiloh and set up the Tabernacle” (Joshua 18:1 NLT). Evidently, the Ark and the Tabernacle remained in Shiloh until the day that Israel determined to treat the Ark like a good luck charm and take it into battle against the Philistines. It was captured and, seven months later, returned. But it did not go back to Shiloh. Instead, it ended up in a place called Kiriath-jearim.

1 So the men of Kiriath-jearim came to get the Ark of the Lord. They took it to the hillside home of Abinadab and ordained Eleazar, his son, to be in charge of it. The Ark remained in Kiriath-jearim for a long time—twenty years in all. During that time all Israel mourned because it seemed the Lord had abandoned them. – 1 Samuel 7:1-2 NLT

It seems that the people of Israel had a somewhat spotty relationship with the Tabernacle and the Ark. These items had become little more than symbols of God’s power and presence. And God would use their loss of respect for the Tabernacle and the Ark to remind their future descendants that He takes obedience to His will quite seriously. Consider these sobering words, spoken by God to His prophet, Jeremiah, and intended for the people of Israel who had seen the Temple as the modern-day version of the Tabernacle.

1 The Lord gave another message to Jeremiah. He said, “Go to the entrance of the Lord’s Temple, and give this message to the people: ‘O Judah, listen to this message from the Lord! Listen to it, all of you who worship here! This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says:

“‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the Lord’s Temple is here. They chant, “The Lord’s Temple is here! The Lord’s Temple is here!” But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.

“‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, 10 and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—only to go right back to all those evils again?” – Jeremiah 7:1-10 NLT

God went on to tell Jeremiah to give the following message to the people:

“Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel.” – Jeremiah 7:12 NLT

Shiloh, the former home to God’s Tabernacle, lay in ruins when God spoke these words to Jeremiah. The town’s claim to fame of having once held the Tabernacle of God, was not enough to stop its destruction for its unfaithfulness. And God wants the people of Israel to know that Jerusalem would not fair any better, just because it contained the Temple.

The fact was, the Temple had been David’s idea, not God’s. Which is the point that Stephen seems to be making. It was David who had proposed the idea of building God a great house in which to dwell. But God had responded to David’s grand scheme with the following words:

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’” – 2 Samuel 7:5-6 NLT

God would eventually allow David’s son, Solomon, to build the Temple, which Stephen points out. But Stephen showed that it was not a house that God desired, but obedient people. He quotes from the prophet Isaiah to make his point.

1 This is what the Lord says:

“Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?
    Could you build me such a resting place?
My hands have made both heaven and earth;
    they and everything in them are mine.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!

“I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts,
    who tremble at my word.” – Isaiah 66:1-12 NLT

God desired obedience to His word, not a place in which to dwell. He didn’t need a house. He needed His people to humbly submit to His will. And, as Stephen is attempting to point out, Gods will was that they submit to and accept Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. God had chosen to dwell among them in the form of His own Son. Jesus, the Son of God, had become God incarnate, God in human flesh. And as the apostle John pointed out in his gospel, “the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14 NLT). The glory of God no longer hovered over the Ark inside the Temple. And with Jesus’ departure, the glory of God had come to rest on those who had placed their faith in Jesus as their Savior. God dwells within those who have accepted His Son as the sacrifice for their sin debt. He indwells them in the form of His Holy Spirit. And the author of Hebrews provides us with some exciting news.

11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
    after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
    and write them on their minds,”

17 then he adds,

“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”  – Hebrews 10-11-17 NLT

God now writes His law on the hearts of men, not on tablets of stone. He resides in the hearts of men, not buildings made of brick and mortar. And yet, that was the very thing the people in Stephen’s audience refused to accept. So, he blasts them for their stubborn refusal to recognize the hand of God working in their midst. He exposes them as stubborn and stiff-necked, a people who “always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51 ESV), just as their ancestors had.  Even the Old Testament prophets, who had announced the coming of the Righteous One, had been killed by the people of Israel. And Stephen accuses the high priest and members of the Sanhedrin of having betrayed and murdered Jesus. Just as their ancestors had received the law and had refused to keep it, they had received the Messiah and had refused to accept Him.  The glory of God had appeared right in their midst, and they had ignored Him. Now, the glory of God had shown up in the form of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by signs and wonders, and they refused to believe it. It does not appear that Stephen was attempting to change their minds. He was not trying to convince them to accept Jesus as their Savior. He already knew that their minds were made up and their rejection of Him was permanent and irreversible. And their reaction to Stephen’s words will prove him right.

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Returned Redeemer.

30 “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’

35 “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and 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 your brothers.’ 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:

“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
    during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
43 You took up the tent of Moloch
    and the star of your god Rephan,
    the images that you made to worship;
and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’” – Acts 7:30-43 ESV

Forty years after having fled from Egypt to Midian, Moses received a visit from God. For four long decades he had been a recluse, living in relative isolation, tending sheep and trying to forget that initial stirring in his heart to redeem his people from their slavery in Egypt. But when his first attempt to rally to the cause of the Israelites had failed, he had fled. His own people had rejected him, shouting, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” (Acts 7:27 NLT). Now it was time for him to return. But he would be doing things God’s way. He would be acting on behalf of God, speaking His words, and performing signs and wonders in His power. God had a commission and a mission for Moses.

“I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groans and have come down to rescue them. Now go, for I am sending you back to Egypt.” – Acts 7:34 NLT

Moses had been rejected by the people, but “this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer” (Acts 7:35 ESV). His initial efforts to rescue them had been rebuffed and his motives questioned. His own people refused to see him for who he was: God’s redeemer. But the second time, when he showed up, he would have God’s Good Housekeeping seal of approval and “by means of many wonders and miraculous signs, he led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through the wilderness for forty years” (Acts 7:36 NLT). 

The crowd to whom Stephen spoke revered Moses. They saw him as their deliverer and law-giver. They held him in very high-esteem. And the whole reason Stephen was having to give this speech was because he had been falsely accused of speaking against Moses and the law, teaching that the customs the held near and dear were no longer valid.

“This man is always speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses. We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” – Acts 6:13-14 NLT

But Stephen clearly states his respect for Moses. He had no intention of undermining his role as Israel’s deliverer and law-giver. But he did want to point out that Moses had done far more than just give the people the law. He had prophesied that another prophet would come. “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers” (Acts 7:37 ESV). Moses had known that he was not the end-all. He had been used by God to deliver the people out of bondage, but there was another who would come after him. Peter had picked up on this very same topic in his address to the crowd in Solomon’s Portico.

17 “Friends, I realize that what you and your leaders did to Jesus was done in ignorance. 18 But God was fulfilling what all the prophets had foretold about the Messiah—that he must suffer these things. 19 Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. 20 Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and he will again send you Jesus, your appointed Messiah. 21 For he must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised 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 own people. Listen carefully to everything he tells you.’ 23 Then Moses said, ‘Anyone who will not listen to that Prophet will be completely cut off from God’s people.’” – Acts 3:17-23 NLT

Moses and the law were never intended to be the end-all. Moses was a deliverer, but not the deliver. The law was given by God, but was never intended to be the means by which people gain acceptance from God. The apostle Paul tells us quite plainly why the law was given.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

20 God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. 21 So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. – Romans 5:20-21 NLT

And despite the high value the people of Israel placed in the law, they had never managed to keep it. In fact, while Moses had been on the mountain top receiving the law from God, the people of Israel had been busy coercing Aaron to make them an idol. Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving “living oracles” from God, and they were worshiping a false god. Stephen flatly states, “Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt” (Acts 7:39 ESV). While the people of Israel revered Moses, Stephen reminded them that their ancestors had actually turned against him. In essence, they had not only rejected Moses, but God Himself. They had turned back to worshiping one of the gods they had served in Egypt.

For forty long years, the people of Israel would be led by God through the wilderness. He would cloth them, feed them, and guide them. He would protect them from their enemies and bless them with His presence. But all the while they would “serve the stars of heaven as their gods” (Acts 7:42 NLT). And God would indict them for their unfaithfulness during those years.

42 “Was it to me you were bringing sacrifices and offerings
    during those forty years in the wilderness, Israel?
43 No, you carried your pagan gods—
    the shrine of Molech,
    the star of your god Rephan,
    and the images you made to worship them.
So I will send you into exile
    as far away as Babylon.” – Acts 7:42-43 NLT

Try to imagine how the high priest and the members of the Jewish council are receiving these words from Stephen. He is recounting some of the less-than-flattering days of their history. He is reminding them of their long track record of unfaithfulness to Moses and, ultimately, to God. They had a long-standing tradition of disobedience. And Stephen would not let them forget that “our ancestors refused to listen to Moses. They rejected him and wanted to return to Egypt” (Acts 7:39 NLT).

What’s his point? What is it that Stephen is attempting to do? He is simply reminding them that God had sent them a redeemer and rescuer before, and they had rejected him. And now, God had sent them another Redeemer, the very one Moses had prophesied about, and they had rejected Him as well. Not only that, they had put Him to death. And it seems that the high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin had made idols out of the law and the Temple, worshiping them rather than the One whom God had sent to redeem them. They idolized the city of Jerusalem, the glory of the Temple and the “living oracles” given to them by Moses. But they refused to recognize and receive the Savior and Redeemer sent to them from God. Jesus addressed this very issue in a discussion He had with some Pharisees who had accused His disciples of breaking the Sabbath law.

Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God, and he and his companions broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. And haven’t you read in the law of Moses that the priests on duty in the Temple may work on the Sabbath? I tell you, there is one here who is even greater than the Temple! But you would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” – Matthew 12:3-8 NLT

Jesus was greater than the Temple. He was more important that Moses or the law. In fact, He was the fulfillment of the law, having kept it to perfection and satisfied the just demands of God. And what Stephen seems to be pointing out is that, while the Jews had rejected Jesus, He had returned in the form of His Spirit-filled disciples, offering His own people yet another chance to receive salvation and freedom from slavery to sin. But they would have to recognize Him as the returned Redeemer and receive Him as their long-awaited Messiah.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Rejected Rescuer.

17 “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.

23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.” – Acts 7:17-29 ESV

Stephen is subtle. He recounts the history of Israel, but he does so in such a way that he purposefully leaves out certain facts while highlighting others. At this point in his speech, he has transitioned to the point in Israel’s history where they are living in the land of Egypt. Having arrived 400 years earlier as Jacob’s small family unit of no more than 75, their numbers had exploded, And the situation in Egypt had dramatically changed. Joseph and the Pharaoh who had so graciously welcomed Jacob four centuries earlier are both dead. There was a new Pharaoh in charge and we know from the Exodus account that he feared the sheer numbers of the Israelites. So, he instituted a program of intense oppression and extermination, commanding that all the male babies born to the Israelites be killed. Yet God had other plans. But before we go there, let’s take a look at an interesting statement that Stephen made. In verses 17, it says, “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham…” What is Stephen referring to? What promise does he have in mind? If we go back to God’s original call of Abraham, recorded in the book of Genesis, God said to Abraham:

1 “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

Is this the promise to which Stephen is referring? Or is it tied to what God said some time later, recorded in chapter 17 of the book of Genesis?

4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:4-8 ESV

Was this the promise Stephen had in mind? Or was it this lesser emphasized, but just as significant promise God had made to Abraham regarding the 400-years of affliction his descendants would have to endure in Egypt?

13 “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation…” – Genesis 15:13-16 ESV

The truth is, Stephen most likely had all these promises in mind. But he was emphasizing this particular promise because it was essential to the overall plan of God. They would have to be afflicted before they could be rescued. And it is interesting to note that, in the book of Exodus, Moses points out that their affliction by the Egyptians had a positive impact on their numbers. He states, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12 ESV). Even Pharaoh’s decree that the male babies be killed was met with resistance, as the Hebrew midwives refused to obey his command. And one of those babies to be spared was Moses. He would be rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh himself, being raised in his home like a son. And Stephen points out that the day came for Moses, when “it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel” (Acts 7:23 ESV). This is a detail not found in the book of Exodus. Stephen seems to be saying that Moses, after 40 years of living as an Egyptian, was directed by God to visit his Hebrew brothers. And what he saw appalled him. He saw the suffering and the abuse. And his anger resulted in him taking the life of an Egyptian whom he had seen beating a Hebrew slave. And Stephen points out Moses’ motivation for doing what he did: “He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25 ESV). Even at that point in his life, Moses seemed to sense a divine call on his life. He had put two and two together and began to realize that he was in the same position Joseph had been in 400 years earlier, when he had been the second-most powerful man in the land of Egypt and had been used by God to spare the Israelites from the famine in the land. Moses wanted to rescue his people. He wanted to use his power and influence to make a difference. But his efforts failed. Rather than viewing Moses as their rescuer and redeemer, the people of Israel sarcastically responded: “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” (Acts 7:27 ESV). They questioned his authority. They refused to accept his validity as a rescuer. So, Moses was forced to run for his life, escaping to the land of Midian, where he would remain for 40 years.

Remember, the audience to whom Stephen was speaking was entirely Jewish in makeup. It included the high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council. These men were Sadducees and Pharisees, powerful religious leaders who would have known well the story of Moses. But Stephen is pointing out something they knew, but in a way to make a point they had failed to see. Moses was the God-ordained redeemer of the people of Israel. And yet, when he showed up on the scene, he was rejected. They failed to see him for who he was. In the midst of their captivity and suffering, they had chosen to reject the very one God had sent to be their rescuer. And the other thing Stephen is subtly pointing out is that the 400-years of captivity in Egypt had been part of God’s promise to Abraham. Their captivity had to precede their redemption. And yet, through it all, God had been fulfilling the promises He had made to Abraham. He was making of them a great nation. He was blessing them by abundantly multiplying their numbers. But He had chosen to do it in the land of Egypt, not within the land of Canaan. And He was doing it apart from the law, which had not yet been given. He was doing it without a Temple or a sacrificial system. All the things the Israelites held near and dear, and which they had accused Stephen of demeaning or speaking ill of, were non-existent when God was blessing the people of Israel in Egypt. The land of Canaan, the Temple, the Law and the sacrificial system had all become sources of inordinate pride for the people of Israel. They saw themselves as God’s chosen people because of those things. They saw no need for this Savior of whom Peter, John, Stephen and the rest of the disciples spoke. They didn’t need rescue. They didn’t need a redeemer. And like their ancestors, who had rejected Moses, the Jews listening to Stephen had been guilty of rejecting Jesus. In the opening chapter of his gospel, the apostle John recorded the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people.

10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. – John 1:10-11 NLT

Like Moses, Jesus had been rejected. And as in the case of Moses, God was not done with Jesus or the people of Israel. There would be a period of delay. Moses would spend 40 years in the wilderness of Midian, before he received God’s official call and commissioning. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, suffering hunger and thirst, and enduring the temptations of Satan, before, in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4), He was sent by God to act as the Savior and Redeemer of His people.

Yes, the people of Israel were living in the land of Canaan. They had their glorious Temple and the sacrificial system that went with it. They had the law provided to them by Moses. But for hundreds of years they had lived under the oppression of nations like Rome. Ever since they had returned to the land during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, they had lived without a king, and under the subjection of some foreign power. They were no better off than their ancestors who lived in Egypt. They needed salvation. They were in desperate need of rescue. But in response to God’s gracious offer of salvation, made possible through the death and resurrection of His own Son, the people of Israel were still sarcastically asking, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Wondrous Ways of God.

And Stephen said:

“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.

“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.” – Acts 7:2-16 ESV

What is Stephen doing? Why in the world would this Hellenistic Jew take so much time explaining the history of Israel to the high priest and other religious leaders of Israel? Doesn’t it appear a bit condescending on Stephen’s part? It is essential that we keep in mind the accusation that was leveled against Stephen. He is responding to the charge of blasphemy – against God and Moses. This was a serious charge that could easily result in his death, so it was important that he explain himself and prove that he was innocent of any and all charges against him. What appears to be an unnecessary lecture on Israelite history was actually Stephen’s rebuttal. He is showing that, even as a Hellenistic Jew, he was fully steeped in the history of Israel but, more importantly, he was intimately familiar with the God of Israel.

Stephen begins his defense by describing God as the “God of glory” – a direct reference to Psalm 29:2.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.

Seven times in this very short Psalm, King David refers to “the voice of the Lord.” He states that the voice of the Lord is powerful, full of majesty, flashes forth flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, and causes the wild animals to give birth. For Stephen, the issue is the glory of God as revealed through the voice of God. He speaks. He calls. He commands. And Stephen reminds his listeners about God’s call of Abraham. He appeared to Abraham and said, “Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you” (Acts 7:3 ESV). God had spoken and given very specific directions to their great patriarch. He had directed Abraham to leave Ur and to relocate his family to the land of promise – the land of Canaan. This land would become the Holy Land, the homeland of the Israelites and a possession that brought them great pride. But Stephen reminds them that Abraham, the one to whom the land was promised, never owned an inch of it during his lifetime. Instead, the promise was to be fulfilled to his descendants. 

“But God gave him no inheritance here, not even one square foot of land. God did promise, however, that eventually the whole land would belong to Abraham and his descendants—even though he had no children yet. – Acts 7:5 NLT

But before that could happen, the descendants of Abraham would be forced to live “in a foreign land, where they would be oppressed as slaves for 400 years” (Acts 7:6 NLT). It’s vital that we understand what Stephen is doing here. He is portraying the God of Israel as one who speaks, and when He does speak, His words are often difficult to understand and His ways are beyond our ability to comprehend. Why would God have commanded Abraham to leave Ur, promised him land, but never have given him possession of the land? Why would He have chosen Abraham to be the father of a great nation, when God knew full well that Abraham’s wife was barren? And when Sarah finally did conceive and the descendants of Abraham began to increase, why did God ordain their slavery in the land of Egypt for 400 years? And why had God sealed His covenant with Abraham by requiring the circumcision of every male member of his household? As we will see, this was a sign of the promise. It was a permanent reminder that God would do what He had said He would do. The sign of circumcision was a mark of ownership. Abraham’s descendants belonged to God.

In this speech, Stephen touches on some of the most critical junctures in Israelite history, pointing out the difficult to comprehend ways of God. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, was sold into slavery by his own brothers. But God had a purpose behind those actions. It was Joseph who would rise to power, becoming the second highest official in the land of Egypt. He would be placed by God in a position of power and prominence, fully prepared to respond to the needs of his family when they arrived in Egypt looking to escape the famine in the land of promise. And when Jacob, his remaining sons, and their families arrived in Egypt, they were only 75 in number. Not exactly a great multitude. And Stephen points out that Jacob died and was buried in the land of Egypt. He had left his homeland in a state of devastation, due to a famine. He had given up his possession in the promised land to live in a foreign land. But it had all been part of God’s grand plan for the people of Israel. And Stephen points out that Jacob’s bones eventually made it back to Canaan, and were buried in a tomb that had been originally purchased by Abraham, many years earlier – the only plot of land he ever owned in Canaan.

Even for the Israelites in Stephen’s audience, who would have known this story well, it was a reminder of just how remarkable their nation’s legacy really was. It would have been easy for them to forget how they had arrived at where they were. Their establishment as a nation had not been easy. And had it not been for the sovereign hand of God, they would not have existed at all. From the call of Abraham to the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt, it had all been part of God’s plan for the people of Israel. And there was more to come. God had not been done. They were not to remain in Egypt. God had plans to get them back to the land of promise. And Stephen will next retell the story of the deliverance of Israel at the hands of Moses – another man, chosen by God, to play a part in the establishment of the nation of Israel, the people of God.

And perhaps you can begin to see where Stephen is going with all this. On the one hand, he is clearly proving His love and respect for God. He is anything, but blasphemous. But even more importantly, Stephen is pointing out that Yahweh was and still is a promise-making, promise-keeping God. Yes, they were now in the land of Canaan, and the Jews took great pride in their promised possession of that land. But for Stephen, there was more. There was an ever greater portion of the promise that they were missing. The land was an inheritance, but not the inheritance. God had something far greater in store for them than just a portion in the land of promise. He had Jesus, the promised Messiah and Savior of the world.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Growing Opposition.

10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” – Acts 6:10-7:1 ESV

Stephen found himself in a dispute with some men from the synagogue of the Freedmen. These were former Roman slaves who had converted to Judaism and would have been considered Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews. Luke tells us they had at one time been citizens of such places as Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia. And while they were Hellenists, like Stephen, they took exception to his teaching and preaching. Stephen was “full of grace and power” and “was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8 ESV), but these men were, for some reason, unimpressed. Luke does not reveal to us the content of Stephen’s message to them, but he simply records that “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10 ESV). Stephen was speaking in the power of the Spirit of God and was most likely sharing the good news concerning Jesus’ resurrection and His offer of eternal life to all who would accept Him as their Messiah and Savior. But when the Freedmen found themselves unable to successfully refute the words of Stephen, they resorted to false accusations and liable. They encouraged others to come forward and accuse Stephen of blasphemy against Moses and God. And when Stephen was eventually hauled in front of the Sanhedrin, they had false witnesses ready to report that, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-14 ESV). Stephen was being falsely portrayed as a rebel and a radical. All of this should have an eerily familiar ring to it. In his gospel, Mark records a similar encounter between Jesus and the Sanhedrin.

53 They took Jesus to the high priest’s home where the leading priests, the elders, and the teachers of religious law had gathered..55 Inside, the leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find evidence against Jesus, so they could put him to death. But they couldn’t find any. 56 Many false witnesses spoke against him, but they contradicted each other. 57 Finally, some men stood up and gave this false testimony: 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with human hands, and in three days I will build another, made without human hands.’” 59 But even then they didn’t get their stories straight! – Mark 14:53, 55-59 NLT

Stephen, like Jesus, was simply doing the will of God, but he too faced opposition and the animosity of men who would resort to lies and half-truths in order to shut down the truth of God. What was it that Stephen had been teaching and preaching? Luke does not tell us. But it is quite easy to assume that Stephen was simply teaching what he had been taught by the apostles. And they had been keeping the command of Jesus, given to them as part of His great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV). 

Because of the nature of the accusations against Stephen, it is likely that he had been recounting many of the words of Jesus Himself. He could have been reiterating the content of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where He had refuted the interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees concerning the Mosaic Law. Jesus had raised the bar when it came to obedience to the law, demanding behavior that was far more than exterior in nature, but which flowed from the heart. And it was Jesus who had told the crowd that day on the hillside, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 ESV). It had been Jesus who had said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6 ESV). Whatever it was that Stephen had been saying and teaching, there were those who twisted his words and contorted his meaning in order to set him up as a troublemaker. They accused him of blasphemy or speaking evil of Moses and of God. In essence, they were accusing Stephen of attacking everything they held dear: The great patriarch, Moses, and his law; the holy Temple of God; and Yahweh Himself.

What is interesting is that Luke prefaces all of this with the statement that Stephen was “full of grace and power.” He was not belligerent or abusive. He was gracious, kind and operating under the divine influence of the Spirit of God. His words were true. His intentions were pure. His motivation was godly and based on a desire to see others come to faith in Christ. But, like Jesus Himself, Stephen was misunderstood and falsely accused. He was portrayed as a dangerous menace to the Jewish way of life. But Luke portrays Stephen in a completely different light when he describes “his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15 ESV). Like Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, Stephen literally glowed with the glory of God. And the members of the Sanhedrin, Stephen’s accusers, and the men from the synagogue of the Freedmen, all saw this phenomena. Luke describes them as being transfixed, their eyes locked on the glowing face of Stephen. And whether these men recognized it or not, this should remind us of a similar scene recorded in the Old Testament, involving Moses and the people of Israel.

29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. – Exodus 34:29-30 NLT

Moses had been with God. Stephen was filled with the Spirit of God. And it showed. But the reaction of the crowd surrounding Stephen would be quite different than that of Aaron and the people of Israel. Luke simply records that the high priest responded by asking Stephen a question: “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1 ESV). Once again, there is a remarkable similarity between this event and that of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin on the night He had been betrayed by Judas. Mark records that, after having heard the false accusations against Jesus, the high priest turned to Him and asked, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” (Mark 14:60 ESV). And Mark states that Jesus remained silent.

But, as we shall see, Stephen will speak up. He will use the opportunity placed before him to answer each and every accusation against him. But not in an attempt to escape the hostility of the Sanhedrin, but to share the truth regarding Moses, the law, and Yahweh, the God of the Jewish people.  He will launch into one of the longest messages recorded in the New Testament. And he will speak under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit, delivering a powerful message that is not only gospel-centered, but an historically based retelling of God’s relationship with the Jewish people. He will take their accusations of blasphemy and soundly refute them, revealing his strong knowledge of Hebrew history, even though he was not a native-speaking Hebrew.

Stephen, full of grace and power, was facing the hostility of a crowd filled with hate and envy. These men could not understand what was going on. They saw Stephen and the other disciples of Jesus as nothing more than a threat to their way of life. They were a nuisance and their message regarding Jesus as the Messiah was a direct threat to their entire belief system. Or so they thought. But Stephen is about to expose their gross misunderstanding of all that they held dear. He is going to use their own heritage against them, revealing that Abraham, Joseph, Moses, the law, the tabernacle, David, and Solomon were all pointing to someone and something far greater: The Righteous One.

Jesus had come and they had missed Him. Or, at least, they had refused to accept Him. Now, the Spirit had come, and they refused to acknowledge Him, and instead, attributed His work to drunkenness on the part of the disciples. Stephen, like the apostles, was “doing great wonders and signs among the people”, but there were those who rejected these outward manifestations of the Spirit’s power, and did all that they could do to discredit God’s messenger, to deny the Spirit’s power and to destroy the gospel of Jesus Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Conflict in the Camp.

1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. – Acts 6:1-9 ESV

One of the things that’s easy to miss while studying the book of Acts is the sovereign hand of God working behind the scenes. Luke’s retelling of the events surrounding the early days of the church and its subsequent growth can come across as nothing more than an historical record. But Luke, while historically accurate and faithful to provide us with a reliable account of those days, does so much more. Under the inspiration of the Spirit of God himself, he pens a detailed chronicle of God’s divine orchestration of each and every phase of the church’s growth. Events that appear, at first glance, to be little more than chance occurrences or the unplanned results of fate are, on closer examination, the result of God’s sovereign hand.

The fact that the Holy Spirit came during the feast of Pentecost is not to be overlooked. The day of Pentecost was an annual spring feast at which the Jews presented the first-fruits of their wheat harvest to God. In essence, as a result of the Spirit indwelling the disciples and empowering them to speak in foreign languages, thousands came to faith in Christ that day. They became the first-fruits of what would become an ever-increasing harvest of believers. As we read through Luke’s account, we find a steady stream of examples illustrating God’s behind-the-scenes activity in the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church.

Peter and John didn’t just happen to run into the lame man at the Gate Beautiful leading into the Temple. It had been a divinely ordained encounter. The fact that Peter’s healing of the man took place at the hour of prayer, when the Temple grounds were filled with people, was not a case of good timing, but of God’s planning. And more than 5,000 people came to faith as a result. Even the arrest of Peter and John, clearly the decision of the high priest and the Jewish council, was actually preordained by God. Their arrest provided them with an opportunity to speak truth to these important religious leaders, but more importantly, it forced the rest of the disciples to pray, asking God to provide them with boldness. Their arrest proved that there would be strong opposition to their efforts and created in the disciples a growing dependence upon God. It was all part of the plan. And when you consider the fact that the early converts to Christianity were made up of people from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, it explains how the church was able to meet the physical needs of its growing congregation. The rich were selling their properties and giving the proceeds to the apostles so that no one had any need. This was not a case of human generosity, but divine planning. God was at work, bringing into His rapidly growing family a diverse group of individuals, then moving in their hearts so that the needs of all were met.

And we see that same thing illustrated in these opening verses to chapter six. Luke describes a situation that had arisen within the church, that was the result of its continued expansion. He mentions two groups of individuals: The Hellenists and the Hebrews. These were all Jews who had come to faith in Christ and who “worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity” (Acts 2:46 NLT). But Luke mentions that “there were rumblings of discontent” (Acts 6:1 NLT). A dispute had arisen within the church between these two groups of people. There was conflict in the camp. And it would be easy to assume that this was out of God’s will and not a part of His plan. But look closer. Take notice of what is really going on here. Sometimes we must look beyond what appears to be the obvious in order to see the subtle, invisible hand of God at work. First of all, this dispute was taking place between two different sets of Jews: First were the Hellenists, or Greek-speaking Jews. These were Jews who had left Palestine as a result of one of the many diasporas or forced dispersions. They had ended up living in foreign lands and had picked up the Greek language and customs. Some would have been in Jerusalem in order to celebrate Passover and the Feast of Pentecost. They could have been part of the original crowd that heard the disciples speaking in tongues and came to faith. Others could have accepted Christ as a result of the message Peter preached in Solomon’s portico. These were Jews who were not native to the land of Israel and who would have been looked down on by the native Hebrews. And that seems to be the source of the conflict. The Hellenistic Jews were complaining that their widows were being overlooked by the native Jews. Keep in mind, this was all taking place within the church. These were new converts to Christianity who were arguing over an issue of discrimination within their own ranks. How could this be of God? Why would He allow this to happen? What good could come from this kind of conflict within the body of Christ?

Luke records that “the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples” (Acts 6:2 ESV). The 11 disciples of Jesus, plus Matthias, Judas’s replacement, called together what was probably the original group of 120 disciples who had been in the upper room at Pentecost. They recognize that the growing church is creating an increasing demand on their time, distracting them from doing what Jesus had commanded them to do: To teach and lead. They express their concern: ““It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2 ESV), and then ask that recommendations be made for men who might step in and help with this dispute and the future distribution of funds and resources within the church. The men whose names are submitted must meet a set of standards. They must be “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3 ESV). Now, had this conflict not taken place, this selection process might never have occurred. It was the growth of the church and the inclusion of Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews that had caused the problem. And the problem had exposed an even more important need: The expansion of the leadership team to meet the growing demands of the ever-increasing congregation.

And Luke records that, “they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch” (Acts 6:5 ESV). What is important to notice here is that these seven men all have Greek names. Since the original complaint had come from the Greek-speaking Jews, it made sense that men who were more than likely Hellenists themselves, would be the best choices for handling the issue. And, whether we see it or not, this is where God’s sovereign hand is at work. Note that one of the men mentioned is Stephen. We will hear more about him in the days ahead. He will play a significant role in the continued spread of the church. But what is really happening here is the divine plan of God preparing the church to spread beyond the confines of Jerusalem and outside the context of Judaism. If you recall, Jesus had told the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere–in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NLT). So far, they had not left the city of Jerusalem. They had not ventured beyond the city walls. Jesus had clearly commanded them to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19 NLT). But they were still in Jerusalem.

That’s where God comes in. He was working behind the scenes, orchestrating events in such a way that the gospel would eventually spread beyond the city of Jerusalem and into the rest of Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. In fact, that is what the rest of the book of Acts is all about. And this little dispute between the Hellenists and native Jews would be the impetus. These godly men with Greek names were chosen to meet the needs of the Greek-speaking widows. They were selected to serve. But they would do much more. As we will see, Stephen will end up sharing the gospel and sacrificing his life for the cause of Christ. In the verses that follow, we will see Stephen doing far more than serving widows. He will be sharing the gospel, and the group to whom he ministered was made up “ Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia” (Acts 6:9 NLT). They were part of the synagogue of the Freedman. These would have been former Roman slaves who had been granted their freedom and who had become Jews. They would have been considered Hellenists, and who better to share the gospel with them than one of their own: Stephen.

A dispute had resulted in the appointment of a new set of leaders. And those leaders had been Greek-speaking Jews, of whom one was a man named Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, full of grace and power. And he would to be far more than an adequate servant or deacon. He would be an evangelist. And, because of the mighty hand of God, working behind the scenes, the gospel was about to break through the confines of Jerusalem and burst beyond the ethnic barrier of Judaism, all the way to the ends of the earth.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Worthy to Suffer.

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, 40 and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. – Acts 5:27-42 ESV

The Sanhedrin had arrested the apostles and had them thrown in jail. Then God had released them and commanded them to get back to work. A little confused and embarrassed, the Sanhedrin had to have them arrested again and brought back for interrogation. Now, the apostles found themselves, once again, standing before the Jewish council, and the high priest reminded them: “We gave you strict orders never again to teach in this man’s name!” (Acts 5:28 NLT). And, as a result of their disobedience, they had created an incendiary situation in Jerusalem, even blaming the Sanhedrin for the death of Jesus. “…you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about him, and you want to make us responsible for his death!” (Acts 5:28 NLT). The high priest was simply stating the facts as he saw them. Nothing about his statements was false or inaccurate. The apostles had disobeyed their orders to cease and desist. On the occasion of their arrest, Peter and John had clearly stated, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20 NLT). And they had proved true to their word. And now, standing before the Sanhedrin yet again, Peter and the apostles affirm the high priests accusations in no uncertain terms.

29 But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after you killed him by hanging him on a cross. – Acts 5:29-30 NLT

They were not going to stop preaching, teaching and healing in Jesus’ name. They still held the Jewish leadership responsible for the death of Jesus. And they were not going to retract their story that Jesus had risen from the dead. In fact, Peter makes it clear that Jesus was not only alive, He was seated at the right hand of the Father, a clear reference to Jesus being the Son of God. And he presents himself and the rest of the apostles as clear evidence or proof that these things are true. Not only had they seen Jesus alive and watched Him ascend back into heaven, they had received the power of the Holy Spirit, as was clearly evident in all that they had done in the city of Jerusalem. These men, who at one time had been in hiding, immediately after the death of Jesus, had somehow been transformed and re-energized. Something had radically changed them, and the Sanhedrin were unable to recognize that this change was divinely ordained. All they saw was a growing group of radical troublemakers who were spouting heresy and leading the people astray. And because the Sanhedrin was made up primarily of Sadducees, who enjoyed a very comfortable relationship with the Roman government, they saw the apostles as dangerous and a threat to their way of life.

The words of Peter so infuriated the council, that they decided to kill them. Capital punishment sounded like the only plausible solution. But cooler heads prevailed. Luke records that a member of the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, spoke up and presented a well-reasoned argument. He reminded his fellow members that they had seen these kinds of thing before. There had been other insurgencies and revolutionaries show up over the years and, if given enough time, they had proven short-lived and no threat at all. He advised patience. He recommended that they do nothing rash. And he warned them to consider the possibility that, if this whole thing was of God, they would not only prove unsuccessful in their attempts to thwart it, they would be guilty of opposing God Himself. That last point seemed to get their attention. So, rather than have the apostles killed, they simply flogged them and warned them once again to never again speak in the name of Jesus again. Then, they released them.

What happens next is remarkable, and Luke, having been an eye-witness to these events, tells us exactly what happened. “The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus” (Acts 5:41 NLT). These men had been flogged, an excruciating form of punishment reserved for the wicked. In the Mishnah, the oral record of Jewish law, that made up part of the Talmud, it is written, “And they shall justify the righteous and condemn the wicked: and it shall be if the wicked man deserve to be beaten [flogged], that the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten . . . forty [lashes].” And yet, after having been lashed or flogged 40 times, Luke records that these men walked away from the experience rejoicing. They saw their suffering as a form of honor, having allowed them to experience some of what Jesus, their Savior, had endured before His death. They saw their own suffering as something worth rejoicing about. That kind of mindset blows most of us away. It seems so odd and abnormal. It’s counter-intuitive. Nobody in their right mind rejoices in suffering. But we have to keep in mind that the apostles had watched their friend and Messiah undergo tremendous torture and an agonizing death by crucifixion – all on their behalf. They had seen Him suffer and die, so that they might have life. And they had encountered the risen Christ, even seeing the nail prints in His hands and feet and the wound from the spear in His side. They knew well the sufferings of Jesus. That’s how they could see their own suffering as cause for rejoicing. And the apostle Paul would pick up on this theme, chronicling his own suffering on behalf of Jesus.

23 “Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. 24 Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. 26 I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. 27 I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.” – 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 NLT

Paul “boasted” about these things, because he saw them as badges of honor. He was proud of his many sufferings on behalf of Christ. He even states, “If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am” (2 Corinthians 11:30 NLT). And everything Paul endured on behalf of Christ had been in fulfillment of the words spoken by Christ to Ananias regarding Paul. “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16 NLT).

One of the things that should jump out at us from this story about the apostles and their joy at suffering for Jesus, is the powerful evidence it provides for the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. Think about it. What would have driven these men to endure what they did? Why in the world would they have risked their lives for something that was totally untrue? What would have possessed them to concoct a story about Jesus’ resurrection, and then endure arrest and flogging as a result? Not only does Luke provide us with evidence of the Spirit’s power, revealed in the miracles the apostles performed, we see it in the endurance they displayed. They kept teaching and preaching. They kept believing and obeying. Threats wouldn’t detract them. Flogging couldn’t dissuade them. Suffering wasn’t something to avoid at all costs, but something worthy of rejoicing in. Why? Because it meant that they were doing what they had been commanded to do. They were experiencing exactly what Jesus had said they would.

20 “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” – John 15:20-21 ESV

It would be Peter who would later write these encouraging words. And he did so based on his own experience as one who suffered greatly on behalf of Jesus.

12 Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. 13 Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world. – 1 Peter 4:12-13 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Not Again!

19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21 And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.

Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. 25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. – Acts 5:19-26 ESV

This may sound a bit strange, but there’s a part of me that feels sorry for the Jewish religious leaders. I know they’re supposed to be the villain in this story, but they come across as so hapless and helpless in Luke’s account. It is almost as if Luke was intentionally trying to add a bit of levity to the situation. The high priest and the Jewish council or Sanhedrin, over which he presided, had arrested Peter and his fellow apostles for their activities in Solomon’s Portico on the Temple grounds. Their crime? According to Luke, they “were performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people” (Acts 5:12 NLT) and “people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed” (Acts 5:16 ESV). Not exactly sinister and seditious activity. But Luke makes it pretty clear what the real motivation was that led the Sanhedrin to arrest the apostles. “The high priest and his officials, who were Sadducees, were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17 NLT). They were jealous. They didn’t like the idea that huge crowds of people were flocking to seen and listen to these uneducated disciples of the dead rabbi, Jesus. They had spent a lot of effort getting rid of their former master. He had been a thorn in their side for three years, teaching about His Kingdom and calling the people to repentance. This Jesus had said some fairly caustic and cutting things to and about them. He had been a nuisance, but now they were facing a resurgence of interest in His teachings on the part of the people because of His trouble-making disciples. And it didn’t help that a big part of the apostles’ popularity was their teaching regarding the resurrection of Jesus and His offer of eternal life. The Sanhedrin was made up primarily of Sadducees, a Jewish religious sect that rejected the possibility and plausibility of resurrection, so this was a particularly touchy subject for them.

So, out of jealousy and frustration, the Sanhedrin had placed the apostles under arrest. Think of it as a form of crowd control. With Peter and this companions in jail, the crowds at Solomon’s Portico would disperse and this would give the Sanhedrin time to think about what their next steps should be. This was not the first time the apostles had faced confinement for their activities. Back in chapter three, we have Luke’s report of the arrest of Peter and John for preaching in Solomon’s Portico.

1 And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. – Acts 3:1-3 ESV

On that occasion, they had threatened and warned the apostles to cease and desist, and had “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 3:18 ESV). Peter and John had politely refused, stating, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 3:19-20 ESV).

Now, here they were again. Peter had been true to his word, and they had not stopped speaking about, and in the name of, Jesus. So, the Sanhedrin had arrested them one more time. The truth is, they were at a loss as to what to do with these men, because the growing popularity of the apostles was going to be a problem. Thousands had chosen to follow their teachings, and many more were attracted to their miracles and signs. If they shut them down, they could have a riot on their hands. So, they arrested them, most likely in the hopes that they could threaten them once again and bring this entire thing to an abrupt halt. But this is where it gets humorous and the Sanhedrin begin to garner my sympathy. They had no idea what or who they were up against. Luke simply records:

19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21 And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach. – Acts 5:19-21 ESV

The Sanhedrin had the apostles locked up and God set them free. The Sanhedrin were most likely planning to tell the apostles to shut up, and God commanded them to speak up. And He specifically told them to “speak to the people all the words of this Life.” The Greek word, zōē, is translated from the same Hebrew word from which the Greek word for salvation comes. So, God was commanding Peter and the apostles to preach about the salvation or new life found in Christ. It is the same message Peter had spoken to the Sanhedrin in his first encounter with them – “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV). It is the same message Peter and the other disciples had heard Jesus teach. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV).

While the apostles were preaching new life through Christ, the high priest and his associates were sending the Temple guard to retrieve their prisoners and bring them into their presence so they could interrogate them. But surprise! They weren’t there. Their cells were empty. And the report of the guards had a somewhat familiar ring to it.

“We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” – Acts 5:23 ESV

In his gospel, Matthew records a similar, miraculous release of a servant of God.

And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. – Matthew 28:2-4 ESV

Not only were the guards paralyzed with fear and the massive stone rolled away from the opening. The occupant of this prison was released from the bonds of death and resurrected to new life. Jesus was made alive and set free from the penalty of death. He had paid the price and satisfied the just, holy demands of His Father. And Matthew goes on to record what happened when these guards reported back to the chief priest and the religious leadership.

11 …some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. – Matthew 28:11-15 ESV

God had set Jesus free. And the Sanhedrin had resorted to lying about it. They fabricated a lame story in an attempt to cover up what had really happened. And they paid off the guards, commanding them to state that the body of Jesus had been stolen by His followers. But now, almost two months later, there was renewed talk of Jesus having been resurrected and ample proof that these claims were true. Miracles and signs were being performed by the followers of Jesus. People were being healed. Lame men walked. Demons were being cast out. The gospel was being preached and lives were being transformed. And Luke simply states, “Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to” (Acts 5:24 ESV). Just when these men thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. And the bad news was followed by even worse news.

25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. – Acts 5:25-26 ESV

How do you stand opposed to God? What are you supposed to do when your greatest enemy is God Almighty. The Sanhedrin could concoct all the fake stories they could come up with, but they could not contradict the truth of God. They could deny Jesus’ existence, but they couldn’t do a thing to prevent the message of His resurrection and the reality of redemption taking place all around them. They had killed Him and God had brought Him back to life. They had threatened the apostles and they had continued to speak in Jesus’ name. They had attempted to imprison God’s messengers and confine their message, but God had released them to do what they had been commissioned to do.

The Sadducees were sad, you see. They had no chance of stopping what God had ordained. They could try, but they would fail. And even one of their own, a man named Gamaliel, would end up giving them some very wise counsel regarding the apostles.

38 “…keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” – Acts 5:38-39 ESV

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Growing in Numbers and Reputation.

12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16 The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.

17 But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy 18 they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. – Acts 5:12-18 ESV

After the surprising deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, Luke provides a brief description of the emotional state of the church: “Great fear gripped the entire church and everyone else who heard what had happened” (Acts 5:11 NLT). News of God’s judgment against Ananias and Sapphira had spread. And it seems that, because Peter had been the primary spokesperson during the interrogations of this unfortunate couple, their deaths became associated with him. He was the one who called them out and so, it must have been him who struck them down. At least, that’s how it appeared to all those who had witnessed the events first-hand. And as a result, the reputation of Peter and the other apostles grew in stature among the people. Their ability to perform “signs and wonders” was attracting crowds and the attention of the religious authorities. Just as in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the high priest and the Sanhedrin found themselves dealing with a growing movement that was threatening their status as religious leaders. The people were turning to the apostles, initially attracted by their miracles, but also intrigued by their message concerning Jesus’ resurrection and His offer of eternal life. Luke tells us, “more and more people believed and were brought to the Lord—crowds of both men and women” (Acts 5:14 NLT). But there were others who, out of fear of the Jewish religious leaders, avoided any association with the apostles and their ever-expanding congregation. There was still a risk associated with this new and growing sect, and many wanted to steer clear.

Peter, John and the other apostles continued to meet in Solomon’s Portico, one of the few spaces large enough to hold the growing number of converts who flocked to hear their teaching. And anywhere the apostles went, large numbers of the infirm and suffering followed them. These people had everything to gain and nothing to lose. They had no reason to fear the Sanhedrin, because their lives were already filled with suffering because of their physical conditions. And Luke records that their desire for healing was so great and their belief in the apostles’ miraculous powers was so strong, that they thought even Peter’s shadow passing over them could provide healing. Luke does not tell us whether this actually happened or if it was simply a case of wishful thinking on the part of those who were sick and lame. But this kind of thing would not have been unheard, because Luke later records a similar scenario involving the apostle Paul.

11 God gave Paul the power to perform unusual miracles. 12 When handkerchiefs or aprons that had merely touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases, and evil spirits were expelled. – Acts 19:11-12 NLT

All we know is that God was at work, moving among the people and utilizing the apostles as His instruments of healing and as His witnesses to the resurrection power of Jesus. People were hearing of all that was happening within the city of Jerusalem and soon, there were others arriving in town from the outlying villages. Good news travels fast. Miracles attract crowds. Messages of hope tend to get peoples’ attention. News of what was happening in Jerusalem was getting out. The rumors that Jesus was alive had begun to spread. Reports were circulating that the very same kind of miracles, signs and wonders He had performed were taking place again. This time, at the hands of His disciples. The lame walked. The blind saw. The demon-possessed had their demons dispossessed. And thousands of Jews were placing their faith in Jesus Christ as their Messiah and Savior. These were heady days for the disciples. It seems that all they did was blessed by God. Their preaching was powerful and impactful. They possessed the power to heal and the authority to cast out demons. They were respected and, due to the incident with Ananias and Sapphira, feared by the people. But they were also despised. Luke will use these verses as a transition to set up the battle the apostles were going to face due to their efforts on Jesus’ behalf. They had already been hauled before the high priest and the Sanhedrin. Now, Luke tells us:

17 The high priest and his officials, who were Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. – Acts 5:17-18 NLT

Suddenly, the apostles found themselves experiencing incarceration, rather than public adulation. They went from basking in accolades to confinement in the stockade. And it was all in fulfillment of Jesus’ words.

“Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. They will do all this to you because of me, for they have rejected the one who sent me.” – John 15:20-21 NLT

“You will be dragged into synagogues and prisons, and you will stand trial before kings and governors because you are my followers.” – Luke 21:12 NLT

It would have been easy for the disciples to have looked at what they had been able to do and see their efforts as fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” – John 14:12 ESV

But, their ability to do the works of Jesus would be accompanied with the requirement that they suffer like Jesus. They had most likely forgotten what Jesus had said regarding this matter.

“Do you remember what I told you? ‘A slave is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you.” – John 15:20 NLT

Jesus faced opposition, and so would they. He was forced to endure the hatred and animosity of the religious leaders, and so would they. Doing the works of Jesus will inevitably bring with it the suffering of Jesus. Obeying the will of the Father will always attract the wrath of the enemy. The disciples were quickly discovering that they were in a spiritual battle. There were forces gathered against them that were determined to oppose and annihilate them. Peter and his companions were learning the invaluable lesson that the apostle Paul so clearly pointed out:

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12 NLT

Their good deeds would be met with evil intent. Their efforts on God’s behalf would be opposed by Satan and his minions. And the sooner they realized that this was a spiritual battle, the more seriously they would take their role and their total need for God’s assistance. The apostle Paul understood the nature of this spiritual battle and man’s complete dependency on God for survival and success.

We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. 4 We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NLT

Peter, John, and the rest of the apostles found themselves in jail. They were facing some serious opposition. The Sanhedrin was made up of powerful men who had tremendous influence and who could not only make the apostles’ lives miserable, but non-existent. Their hatred for the apostles was palpable. Their animosity toward the name of Jesus and anybody associated with it was unquestionable. And they were out to destroy any and all who spoke in His name. The growing number of followers and growing reputation of the apostles was being met with the increasing animosity of the enemy. The battle lines were being drawn. The tension was mounting. But the apostles would soon learn that what Jesus had said to Peter was true. When Peter had confessed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 NLT), Jesus had responded: “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16:17-18 NLT). All the powers of hell will not conquer the church that Jesus was establishing on this earth. The efforts of the apostles would be opposed, but they would not be thwarted. The church would face persecution, but it would never face elimination. What the apostles were doing was the work of God, and as a result, they would face the worst the enemy had to offer. But they would prevail.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson