Yesterday we read about Barnabas who was part of the early church. When the community had need, he sold a field and laid the money at the apostles feet. Just as with Jesus, there were serious disciples and then there were groupies, so too with the new church. Ananias and Sapphira were some of the groupies. Luke was fond of balancing a positive example with a negative one. Ananias and Sapphira were severely tempted by the desire to be held in high regard, like Barnabas. But he didn’t have the same moral character as Barnabas did. Ananias had not been forced or asked to sell his property or to give the proceeds away. At a time when others were seeking to serve their fellow believers, Ananias and Sapphira were seeking to serve themselves. Their sin was in their pretense and deception. In lying about their property sale Ananias was not just lying to others but to the Holy Spirit, that is to God. His actions compromised the transparent sincerity, unity, and integrity of the church at its very foundation, and so he fell under the direct judgement of God. They most likely believed in Jesus Christ but they succumbed to pride and greed. Note that the word filled here is used of both the Holy Spirit and of the evil one. It also means to take control or possession of. The evil one is the author of all lies. When they lied they took upon themselves the moral character of the one who is behind all lies, the evil one. The other part is that they didn’t have to give all of the proceeds to the church. They were within their rights to keep whatever they wanted. Their stewardship was between them and the Lord. But they wanted others to believe they had sacrificed everything when in fact they had only given a portion to the Lord. The punishment may seem extreme but God does not like or condone deception and division. And the early church was vulnerable to great spiritual danger. We must remember too that Jesus promised that the power of hell would not destroy this fledgling church in its infant stages. When Ananias lied to the apostles judgement was swift. He fell down and breathed his last. He was carried out and buried. When Sapphira came later she had no idea what had happened to her husband. Peter gave her a chance to tell the truth. She too lied and suffered the same fate. The sudden judgements on both Ananias and Sapphira had a very sobering effect on the Christian community and all who heard about the incident. The believers were reminded that they needed to be pure, and for the non Christians the believers’ integrity was reestablished. After that, all the people had high regard for them. But it also made outsiders wary of joining a movement with such high standards. The divine pruning helped new growth to follow.
As in Jesus’ ministry, the apostles preaching was accompanied by many miraculous signs and wonders, including convincing works of healing and exorcism. In the ancient world many people believed that a person’s shadow could possess magical healing powers. The people referred to in verse 15 were not necessarily Christians, but those who believed that Peter, as an advocate of a new religion had magical powers. The people imposed their superstitions on this new faith. But God, working miracles through the apostles never failed to bring complete physical healing. No one dared join them. Maybe the standards were too high or the lifestyle too daunting. It is certain that the Christians were markedly different than the unbelievers around them. The apostles second clash with Judaism came because of the religious leaders jealousy. There was strong opposition to the apostles. The Sadducees were wealthy and powerful and they had access to the temple police force. Sadducees opposed belief in resurrection and they were determined not to allow the apostles to proclaim their message about the resurrection of Jesus without challenge. They also sensed that their grip on the Jewish people was lessening, so out of their great jealousy they attacked the apostles. The irony here is that the Sadducees didn’t believe in angels either, denying their existence. But it was an Angel of the Lord who came in the night, opened the gates of the jail, and brought the apostles out. They then instructed the apostles to go back to the temple and speak the words of life found only in Jesus Christ. And at daybreak they did just that. The members of the Sanhedrin arrived for the trial but the apostles were not in jail. In those days if a prisoner escaped the jailer had to trade his life for the escapee. The apostles were nowhere to be found but while they were looking someone came into the chambers and told the leaders that the apostles were right back where they had been, preaching, teaching, and healing. The apostles were arrested again but there was no violence because they were afraid the people would stone them! The leaders were up in arms because they had told the apostles never to speak of Jesus again. The apostles response was the same as before. They were eye witnesses to what had happened to Jesus and were compelled to share, required to testify. Jesus had told them they would be His witnesses while the council said you will not. But all authority comes from God. Again God thwarted the Jewish leaders plans to stop the apostles, this time through a member of the Sanhedrin. Gamaliel was an eminent Pharisee, a leader of the high council, and a famous teacher of the law. If you were lucky you were a disciple of Gamaliel. He was a grandson of the famous rabbi Hillel and a brilliant spiritual leader. He was also the teacher of Saul, later Paul. He was so gifted that when he died people said the glory of the Torah ceased, and purity and sanctity died out as well. He was well respected and chose this time to speak. He reminded the Sanhedrin that there had been many who came pretending to be someone great. Once they were killed or arrested, their movements fizzled out and nothing more happened. Perhaps this thing with Jesus and his apostles would fizzle out as well. If it did, nothing else needed to be done and no action was necessary. But if this was the real deal, if this was from God, no human would be able to overthrow them and they would be fighting against God. Nobody wins that fight. The leaders agreed with Gamaliel but just because, they flogged the apostles. This is the first recorded instance of physical persecution against the followers of Jesus, and the apostles rejoiced because they had been counted worthy to suffer like Jesus had. WOW!
The number of believers was growing, including Greek speaking believers. They had probably lived elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world and may have still observed some Greek customs. The Hebrew speaking Jews were more traditional Jews and they had better connections in and around Jerusalem. There may have been animosity among the two groups, even among the new believers. There was distrust and tension about the care of widows. The issue here was not about blame but instead what could be done to remedy the injustice. This threatened the growth and development of the church with rumblings of discontent. The leaders recognized that the problem needed to be addressed but they were also sharp enough to recognize priorities. They couldn’t leave what God had called them to do, the declaring and preaching the word of God and establishing the church in prayer. So, they called a meeting of all the believers to address the dispute. The solution was to select wise and spirit filled men to oversee the food distribution. The community accepted this decision and chose from the ranks of Greek speaking believers seven men who would be devoted to this special ministry. Once the men were chosen the apostles laid hands on them. This was not for the purpose of receiving the Holy Spirit. They had already done that. This was a conferring of responsibility on these seven men to carry out this vital ministry. Once this had been done there was growth and an increase in the number of believers, including many of the Jewish priests! This is the first of three places Luke records that God’s message continued to spread. The new church learned that when difficulties arose, God’s message could overcome the challenges. Acts can be considered the unhindered message of Good News.
Stephen, who was a man full of God’s grace and power performed amazing miracles and signs among the people, serving primarily at the Synagogue of the Freedmen where the Greek believers met. But there were Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia there who began stirring up trouble there. Many believe Saul was part of this crowd. These men found someone to lie about Stephen, just like they did to Jesus. They accused him of blasphemy. They incited a riot. Stephen was arrested and false charges were leveled against him. They brought him before the Sanhedrin, the false charges were leveled against him and then everything came to a standstill. Stephen’s face became as bright as an angels and the high priest, probably Caiaphas, asked if the accusations were true. For the next 53 verses Stephen testified about his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Instead of defending himself against their prosecution Stephen became a witness in God’s prosecution of them, exposing their stubbornness and unfaithfulness to God. Stephen’s recital of Israel’s past reminded them of their repeated rejections of those whom God had sent. Stephen’s review of Israel’s history has three principal parts: dealing with the work of the patriarchs, the ministry of Moses, and the role of the tabernacle and the temple. Stephen followed up his historical survey with a clear attack on the hard heartedness of his own people. With a prophetic challenge, he urged them to stop rebelling against the Holy Spirit and turn to God with repentance and faith. You will notice a discrepancy in numbers here. In the Torah Moses wrote that the number of Jacob’s family that went to Egypt was 70, but Stephen said 75. This is most likely because he was using the Greek translation of the Hebrew text called the Septuagint. This includes three descendants of Ephraim and two of Manasseh which makes 75. Stephen also pointed out that just as the ancient Jews had rejected what Moses was saying, now he was speaking to descendants who were still rejecting God’s deliverers, in this case Jesus, the ultimate deliverer. He quoted Amos 5:25-27 to illustrate how the people of Israel rebelled against Moses. Molech was a Canaanite god to whom human sacrifices were offered. Rephan was a star god identified with the planet Saturn, who was worshiped by the Israelites in the wilderness wanderings.
One of the charges Stephen was speaking against was the temple. The leading priests and scribes controlled the temple commerce and had a vital business interest in maintaining their enterprises unhindered. That is why these leaders were so worried about the temple despite the fact that God Himself had said that the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. Stephen raised the same charge that God had raised again at His people in the wilderness: that they were heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. They rejected both the gospel and the Holy Spirit. And they were acting just like their ancestors had. They even killed the one who predicted the coming of the Righteous One, the Messiah. Here Stephen was referring to John the Baptist. Stephen put the council on the spot when he asked which of the prophets did their ancestors not persecute. He didn’t shrink back from accusing the Sanhedrin of handing Jesus over to death, becoming his murderers. At this point the Sanhedrin members had heard enough. They were infuriated by Stephen’s accusations and they shook their fists at him out of their rage. Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit, evidenced by the fact that all he sought to do was please God. He responded to this terrifying moment in the way that God would be glorified. Stephen completely trusted the Holy Spirit to empower him to respond in the proper way.
Stephen was looking heavenward and he saw the glory of God. He was gazing past death to what lies after that. Jesus was standing in the place of honor at the right hand of the Father. Normally we see Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand but it may be that Jesus was standing to welcome Stephen, the first martyr, to heaven with honor. He had confessed his Lord faithfully on earth, and now his Lord honored His promise to confess His faithful servant in heaven, standing as faithful witness to defend him. The Jewish leaders understood that Stephen was speaking of Jesus as the divine Son of Man, a title that speaks of Jesus’ power and authority. When were were little kids we put our hands over our ears so we couldn’t hear what we didn’t want to hear. But these were grown men, religious leaders in the temple…and they put their hands over their ears and started shouting. It must have been quite a sight. But they believed that the comparison of Jesus to the divine Son of Man was a horrible blasphemy. These men rushed Stephen and drug him out of the city and began to stone him. Jewish law did not permit stoning within the city walls. Witnesses took off their cloaks, the outer garments, and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul. These were not the ones who were doing the stoning, but instead witnessing the execution. In Biblical times laying your cloak at someone’s feet indicates that you are a witness to the event, and you vow yourself to be a faithful and true witness. You will tell the whole truth regarding the matter. But there are others who believe these cloaks did belong to those who were stoning Stephen. The cloaks we’re expensive and they were heavy. Taking them off would allow for freedom of movement and the work of stoning someone wouldn’t get the cloaks dirty. We see here that Saul didn’t participate in the actual stoning of Stephen but he was watching and he approved. We also see that Saul was trusted by the executioners and witnesses. Based on his prayer, Stephen knew his work on earth was done. And like Jesus before him, Stephen prayed that the Lord wouldn’t charge these men for their sins. Jesus clearly taught His followers the import of forgiveness and prayer. The Lord answered Stephen’s prayer in the affirmative in the case of Saul. See Acts 9:1-43.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W