We left off yesterday with the stoning of Stephen and Saul of Tarsus being one of the witnesses. Once Stephen was stoned it became open season on Christians. There was a great wave of persecution and the majority of believers in Jerusalem were scattered. It was primarily the apostles who remained. But rather than lose their zeal, the believers spread the Good News about Jesus wherever they went. One of the church fathers wrote that the church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen. Paul never forgot the way Stephen died. Yet he also didn’t hide that he was all in favor of it either. God promises in Romans 8:28 that for His people all things work together for good. Stephen’s death supplied the spark for the persecution and Saul supplied the leadership. As the believers scattered, miraculous things happened. Philip went to Samaria, where there was no love lost between Jew and Samaritan. But the gospel message transcended the barrier between them and the Spirit of God created a loving fellowship of believers out of the hate that existed. Philip preached and taught and did many miraculous signs, including casting out demons. Those who were paralyzed or lame were healed and there was great joy in the city. One thing to note about the Book of Acts is that miracles often accompany evangelism.
Simon the sorcerer was a showman. He dazzled the people of Samaria and made many self exalting claims. He held great power in Samaria but joined with everyone else and was baptized. Even so, Simon had a long way to go in learning about Christian doctrine and all about Jesus. Many believe Peter’s words to Simon in verse 21 indicate that his confession and baptism were not genuine. Church history associates Simon with heresy and identifies him as an enemy of the Christian faith. His actions have given to the vocabulary of the church the word “simony” which means the buying and selling of church offices. Word of Philip’s successes reached Jerusalem, and Peter and John came to pay a visit. Philip had been baptizing but people had not yet received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John began laying their hands on people so they could receive the Holy Spirit. This fascinated Simon and he wanted to buy this power from them. Peter rebuked Simon and called him wicked. The fact that the apostles sent two of their own to Samaria was an amazing step in overcoming prejudice. And they prayed so that their sworn enemies would also receive the Holy Spirit. This parallels the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem and marks the spread of the Holy Spirit’s power from Judea to Samaria. Simon may have been a believer but he confused the work of God with his previous magical practices. After Peter’s rebuke, Simon begged for forgiveness so that the things Peter had threatened would not happen. It is not clear however if Simon repented and turned from his wickedness.
While Peter and John were still in Samaria an Angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, sending him south along the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. The road followed the Mediterranean coastline of Palestine. Gaza was the last settlement before the desert wasteland stretching to Egypt. This was the road most travelers took to Africa. God had a divine appointment for Philip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch. From here the gospel message would take a gigantic step towards the ends of the earth. Philip obeyed the Spirit’s prompting and we see how effective Philip was as a Christian witness and evangelist. In the ancient world a eunuch was an official, typically castrated, who served in a royal court. They were often scorned by Jews because they could not perpetuate the covenant family, and the law of Moses excluded men who were damaged from the assembly of Israel. However, Isaiah spoke of God’s acceptance of both Gentiles and eunuchs. In the new covenant, all who have genuine faith have a place among the people of God. The eunuch had traveled from Africa to Jerusalem to worship in the temple, probably for one of the great Jewish festivals. Philip was very in tune with the Spirit’s prompting and he moved over to walk alongside the carriage. The eunuch was the treasurer for Candace, the queen mother who ruled Ethiopia on behalf of her son. Because the king was considered a child of the sun, he was too holy to be involved in secular affairs so his mother took over the responsibility. This eunuch was responsible for distributing the funds of the treasury based in the desires of the queen mother. When we look at Philip’s response we can see some of the same obedience in Abraham. Faith in God means being ready to move without explanation. The chariot referred to here was most likely more of an ox drawn wagon and the eunuch was part of a caravan journeying in the same direction. They would have been moving quite slowly. It was the practice of the day to read out loud and the eunuch was reading off the scroll of Isaiah. The passage was one of the suffering servant songs, most likely from 52:13-53:12. Philip asked the eunuch if he understood what he was reading but he didn’t. He invited Philip to join him in the wagon and from the passage in Isaiah, Philip taught the ethic about Jesus.
First century Jews didn’t speak much of a suffering Messiah. These people were facing the yoke of Roman rule and they believed that the Messiah would come as the lion of Judah, a delivering king, not a weak lamb. They believed and taught that the suffering one was in fact Israel. Philip explained everything to the man and as they traveled they came upon some water. The eunuch was so excited about Jesus that he wanted to stop right then and there and be baptized. After his confession to Philip, they stopped the wagon and both men got out. They went into the water and Philip baptized the man. As they came up out of the water the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away and the Ethiopian saw him no more. But he headed home rejoicing. Philip found himself at the city of Ashdod, now called Azotus. Philip preached his way up the Mediterranean coast until he reached Caesarea. He stopped in every single town along the way to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 9 is pivotal in the Book of Acts. The conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus changed everything; for the early church, for Saul/Paul, and for us. Luke recounts the story three times in the Book of Acts and Paul alluded to it several times in his letters. This was Saul’s prophetic call and commission to ministry in Jesus’ name. We are reminded that no one is beyond the power of God to reach, redeem, and use for holy purposes. Nothing is impossible for God. Paul was prepared through his training, upbringing, and experience to play a unique role in taking the gospel into the broader world as the apostle to the Gentiles. Saul had gone to the leaders in Jerusalem and asked for letters authorizing him to arrest Christians in Damascus which was 140 miles north of Jerusalem. Rome still allowed the Sanhedrin to control Jewish affairs. Synagogues were local Jewish meeting places. After the exile the Jews had begun to meet in local synagogues. They were places of worship and instruction. Synagogue services consisted of the reading of the law and the prophets, exposition of the scriptures, prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Jesus attended, taught, preached, and performed miracles in synagogues, as did the apostles. Damascus, the capital of Syria was an important center with a long and distinguished past. It was also the closest major city outside of Palestine. It took 4-6 days to reach Damascus from Jerusalem which serves to show just how intent Saul was in persecuting Christians. Damascus was the hub of a vast commercial network with caravan traders going as far as Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Persia, and Arabia. The city sat on a plain and was watered by two rivers. There was an immense temple there to the god Jupiter and a mile long colonnaded street named straight street. Damascus is one of the oldest continuously occupied towns in the world. Imagine what Saul must have been feeling and thinking as his traveling group approached Damascus. As they traveled there was a light brighter than the sun that shone around Saul. The light was so intense and penetrating that Saul fell to the ground, as did everyone who was with him. Saul wondered aloud who or what this was and thought it might be the Lord. In persecuting the church, Saul was persecuting Jesus Himself. The arguments of Stephen in his final speech, the spread of the gospel, and the extraordinary response of believers to the gospel were like goads to Saul but he refused to heed the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The men Saul was with heard the voice but saw no one and when Saul’s eyes were opened it was then that he saw his spiritual blindness. Saul ate nor drank anything for three days. His old self died and after three days Saul’s new self rose.
God used not an apostle but a layman to visit Saul. Ananias went to visit Saul with great fear and trepidation, bringing a message to him from the Lord. Ananias argued with the Lord about going but in the end he was obedient. In God’s plan for spreading the Good News, the Gentiles were next. Saul of Tarsus, now Paul was God’s choice to spearhead this expansive missionary effort to bring the Christian message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. The rest of the Book of Acts illustrates Paul’s faithfulness in carrying out this divine commission. And as Jesus predicted, Paul suffered greatly for his faith. Ananias’s God given role was to welcome Saul into the Christian family, beginning with laying hands on Saul to heal him and fill him with the Holy Spirit. The people of Damascus were amazed that Saul was preaching, because he had come to kill Christians, not defend their faith. Saul’s fame as a persecutor of Christians was well known to the Jews in Damascus. The leaders of the synagogues were probably notified of his coming and were instructed by the high priest to welcome this zealous defender of Judaism. They seemed to be unnerved at first, not only by the fact that Saul had become a Christian, but by the strength of his faith and of his argument from scripture that Jesus was indeed the promised Savior of Israel, the Messiah. The genuineness of Saul’s encounter with the risen Lord is shown in his enthusiasm and the boldness of his preaching.
So powerful was Saul’s argument from scripture that Jesus is the Christ that the Jews plotted to kill him! They even enlisted the cooperation of the governor of Damascus. Saul’s hearers were bewildered but Saul was so compelling in his claims for Jesus as the Messiah that the non believing Jews in Damascus found themselves unable to refute what he said. This must have gone in for some time before some of the non believing Jews launched a plot to kill him. Paul was spared when some of the believers let him down the city wall in a basket. This was just the first of the attempts on his life. Saul made his way to Jerusalem wanting to join the Christian community but they didn’t trust him given his recent history and violent persecution of the believers. Fortunately for everybody, Barnabas, the son of encouragement introduced the changed man to the apostles and explained his encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus, his sense of call, and his subsequent boldness in preaching in the name of Jesus in Damascus. Barnabas was able to convince the apostles that Saul’s conversion was genuine so he remained in Jerusalem where he preached boldly for his Lord. He debated with some Greek speaking Jews and again there was an assassination attempt on his life. When the believers heard about the plot Saul was once again sent away, this time to his hometown, Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia.
Verse 31 is one of several in Acts that detail the numerical and spiritual growth of the church. The first Christians were discovering the truth of the principle, the fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge. And, the people were growing in their faith. The last few verses in chapter 9 describe Peter’s itinerant ministry in Judea, especially along the sea coast. Exercising spiritual powers given to him by God, Peter performed wondrous works, including the healing of Aeneas, and the raising of Dorcas. Jesus had promised such signs and wonders to the disciples. Typical of Luke’s writing, the healing of a man is matched by the healing of a woman. The people in the area were deeply moved by these miracles, and many were drawn into the faith. Everyone who witnessed these miraculous healings came to believe in Jesus Christ. Peter stayed in Joppa for quite some time, living with Simon the tanner. Being an tanner was not a desirable job nor was it socially acceptable in Israel. A tanner had to deal with dead animals which would render them unclean. And then there was the odor of the work and the general unpleasantness.
For a time the churches had peace. This wasn’t due just to Saul’s conversion. Tiberius, the emperor of Rome died about this time and he was replaced by Caligula who wanted to erect a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple. The Jewish energy was diverted away from persecuting christians and towards Caligula. Here we see God’s sovereign hand at work, giving the early church a short season of respite so they could grow and out down roots.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W