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THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART THIRTEEN

SERMON DELIVERED ON 05-19-18

       This will be Sermon number 13 in our continuing series on the book of Acts.  Last time we discussed several issues related to the setting apart of seven men to handle the mundane duties of the developing Church.  This was done so that the Apostles could devote all their time to preaching the Gospel. 

       As we noted last time, these seven men were chosen on the basis of them being full of wisdom and of the Spirit of God.  While it is evident they were chosen for the express purpose of attending to administrative duties of the church, it is also apparent they were given special powers and abilities to witness for Christ and perform signs and wonders.  We see this clearly manifested in Stephen who was one of the seven men set apart for administrative duties.

       Acts 6:8-9: Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.  Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)--Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen.

        It is apparent that Stephen was not only performing administrative duties but was powerfully preaching Christ and doing wonders and signs to back up his teaching.  The Synagogue of the Freedmen is believed to be a group of Jews or converts to Judaism who were former slaves but had somehow gained their freedom.  These Freedmen were from Cyrene, an ancient Greek city located in what today is north-eastern Libya, Alexandria Egypt, the Roman provinces of Cilicia located on what is today the southern coast of Turkey and from Asia.

        It is apparent these Freedmen were devout followers of the Jewish faith and subsequently opposed to what Stephen was preaching.  Its recorded they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by which he spoke.  So they did what is often done when ones belief system is challenged and one can’t intelligently respond to the challenge. They attacked the person challenging them rather than admit to being wrong about their beliefs.   

       Acts 6:11-14: Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God." So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us."

       How often has this been repeated in human history?  How often has someone presented a legitimate challenge to an existing paradigm only to be discredited, not by having their challenge invalidated but by being falsely accused of something in an attempt to damage their character?  Well, that is what happened to Stephen.  Just as had been the case with Peter and John and other of the Apostles, this recently ordained deacon was being taken to task by members of the Jewish religious community.  When they could not stand up to Stephen’s arguments about the truth of the Christ event, they resorted to bringing false witness against him in an effort to shut him up.

       So they brought Stephen before the Sanhedrin.  We discussed the Sanhedrin last time and showed the power they had over the people and how fearful the general Jewish public were of this ruling body of men.  Well Stephen wasn’t fearful at all.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit and took full advantage of the opportunity given him to confront the Jewish leadership.  It is reported that his face was like the face of an angel.

       Acts 6:15: All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

       The Greek rendered “angel” is angelos.  This word appears 186 times in the NT. The basic meaning of this word is “a messenger or envoy.  It is used extensively in the NT to identify a messenger of supernatural origin, a heavenly messenger.  So when it is said that they saw that his face was like the face of an angel, they must have noticed something glorious about his continence or simply saw in his face an expression of fearlessness and great confidence. 

       Well, whatever it was they saw, Stephen didn’t disappoint. The high priest asked Stephen if the charges against him were true.  Stephen chose not to defend himself against the charges which he knew were false. If he would have chosen to do so it would simple have been his word against that of his false accusers which would not have solved anything.  Since there probably were at least two or thee accusers witnessing against him, he probably would have lost that battle anyway.  The cards were stacked against him.

       What Stephen did do was provide a comprehensive history if Israel beginning with God calling Abraham and going all the way to their killing of Jesus.  He spoke of how the descendants of Abraham would be enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years. He went on to detail how God would punish the nation that enslaved them after which they would occupy the Promised Land.

       He recited how God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision and how Abraham became the father of Isaac and Isaac became the father of Jacob who became the father of the twelve patriarchs.  He told of how the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph and sold him as a slave into Egypt. He told how God was with Joseph and gave him wisdom which enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh King of Egypt which resulted in the Pharaoh making Joseph ruler over Egypt and all his palace.

       He recalled how a famine struck all of Egypt and Canaan, and how Jacob heard there was grain in Egypt and sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain. He told of the reunion between Joseph and his brothers and how Joseph brought his whole family to live in Egypt.

       He spoke of Moses being brought up by Pharaoh's daughter and how he was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. He went on to show how Moses had to flee Egypt after it was discovered he had killed an Egyptian. He told of Moses’ experience with the burning bush and God directing Moses to go to Egypt to deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage.

       He reiterated how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert. He told of how the Israelites refused to obey Moses and wanted to return to Egypt and went so far as to sacrifice to a golden calf.  He continued to show how God led them to the Promised Land and yet they turned to worshiping foreign gods resulting in they being exiled.  He spoke of David and Solomon and the building of the temple.  Then he brought things right up to date and got personal.

       Acts 7:48-53: "However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says, "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me says the Lord?”  Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?' .  "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!  Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him-- you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."

       Stephen must have known he was signing his own death warrant with this kind of rhetoric before the high priest and the ruling body of the Jewish religious system. It is recorded that the members of the Sanhedrin were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. Then Stephen said something that sealed his doom.

       Acts 7:55-56: But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."

       Stephen is shown to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  What does that mean?  In Luke 24, Jesus is recording as telling His disciples that after His ascension to the Father they were to stay in the city of Jerusalem were they would be clothed with power from on high.  We know that occurred when the Apostles were filled with the Spirit on Pentecost.  In John 14 and 15 Jesus shows the Holy Spirit as being a Spirit of truth.  In a letter to Timothy, Paul identifies the Holy Spirit as not being a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self discipline. 

       So when it is said that Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit, it means he was filled with power, truth, love and self discipline.  When it is said he looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God it is likely he was having a vision of God’s throne and Jesus there with God the Father.  When he shared what he was experiencing with the Sanhedrin, they became enraged.  He was essentially telling them that the man Jesus whom they had put to death was alive and well and at the throne of God.  To the Sanhedrin, this was the height of blaspheme.

       Acts 7:57-58: At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.

       As discussed previously in this series, there is some question whether first century Jewish leadership had the authority under Roman rule to put someone to death.  We know they couldn’t crucify anyone. There is historical evidence that the Romans did not allow the Jews to put someone to death. On the other hand, in his History of the Jews, Josephus indicates the Jews were allowed to stone someone provided they were given permission to do so by the presiding Roman governor.

       In the case of Stephens stoning, it is apparent that this was a moment in time emotional reaction to what Stephen said. There was no gaining of Roman permission to stone Stephen.  He wasn’t even given a trial by the Sanhedrin. He was simply dragged out of the city and stoned.  This was virtually a mob slaying. 

       Acts 7:58-60: Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.

       The witnesses were the false witnesses who had testified against Stephen as we saw in Acts 6:13.  As seen in the Law (Deuteronomy 17:7)  the witnesses to the violation of the Law were to be the first ones involved in putting the violator to death  After they had commenced the process of execution, then others could join in the stoning as well.  It is interesting that Stephen did the same thing Jesus did on the cross. He asked that the sin being committed against him be not held against them.  Like Jesus, Stephen displayed a forgiving attitude.  Remember, one of the attributes of being filled with the Holy Spirit is love.  As was true with Jesus, Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit as we discussed earlier.

       You will notice that a young man by the name of Saul is mentioned for the first in Scripture.  While Saul is not identified as one of the stoners, it is apparent he was their approving of the stoning as seen in verse one of Acts 8.

       Acts 8:1-4:  And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.   On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.   Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

       The stoning of Stephen generated a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem.  It is apparent the religious ruling body had enough of being blamed for the death of Jesus and hearing it preached He was resurrected from the dead and was present with the Father in the heavenly realm.  It is apparent Saul was a rising star among the Jewish leadership and took it upon himself to be a prime mover in destroying the church. 

       It is recorded that all except the Apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.  We don’t know from the narrative who the “all that were scatted” included. As we move through Acts 8, it would appear the all were leaders in the church and not general church members.  Saul is seen as going from house to house and dragging men and women off to prison.  It appears this was being done in Jerusalem. This tells us that general church members had not scattered but remained in Jerusalem. The very fact the Apostles are shown as not being scattered tells us they remained in Jerusalem and if they remained in Jerusalem they must have had churches they were overseeing. 

       By the time of the stoning of Stephen there apparently were thousands of Christians in Jerusalem.  As pointed out in my last sermon in this series, after Stephen and the six other men were ordained as deacons, it is recorded that the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.  The fact that a large number of priests had become obedient to the faith must have been particularity galling to the Sanhedrin. 

       Now those who were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria had a pretty good chunk of territory to cover.

       Judea had a number of cities and Samaria to the north was inhabited by a hybrid group of Jews.  As pointed out earlier in this series, the Samaritans were a hybrid group of people.  They were the descendants of the Israelites who had intermarried with the Assyrians and other nationality groups during the Assyrian captivity.  They had their own temple and their own worship system. They had developed a hybrid form of Judaism wherein they combined Mosaic regulations with various practices of pagan worship. 

       There was great animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans, more so than between Jews and Gentiles. We see this in Christ's parable of the "Good Samaritan." So when the Samaritans accepted the Christian message it was another giant step forward in the growth and development of the Christian Church. 

       In Acts 8:4, it is recorded that those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.  We also see recorded that the Apostles, although staying in Jerusalem, made various trips outside of Jerusalem to preach the Gospel.  It is recorded that Philip went down to a city in Samaria to proclaim Christ.  It is stated that when the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said.  

       As preciously covered in this series, as was the case during he ministry of Jesus, the Apostles continued to show signs and wonders as confirmation of the power they had been given and as witness to the source of that power which they proclaimed to be the risen Christ Jesus.  It is recorded that Philip facilitated the release of evil spirits from many and many paralytics and cripples were healed. This all resulted in there being great joy in the city where Philip was preaching.

       Beginning in Acts 8:9, we have the account of the sorcerer Simon who had apparently practiced magic in Samaria for a long time and amazed the people of Samaria with his magic. The Greek word rendered sorcerer in some English translations simply means one who practices the magic arts.  He is sometimes referred to as Simon Magus which is Latin for Simon the magician. Unlike modern day magicians, Simon was looked upon as having divine power. He apparently had a great following.   

       There are all kinds of legends about Simon including his being able to fly.  Some second and third century Christian writers attribute to Simon a variety of doctrinal heresies including various Gnostic teachings. Gnosticism was a popular doctrinal system that developed in the early second century and beyond.  Gnostic is a Greek word which means “to know” or “to have knowledge.

       Gnosticism teaches that matter is inherently evil and spirit is good. Therefore, anything done in the body, even the grossest of sins, has no bearing on ones life in the here and now or after physical death because real life exists in the spirit realm only.  One can participate in this spirit realm by acquiring special knowledge, thus the designation Gnosticism.  Salvation is seen not as through the sacrifice of Christ but through attaining knowledge of the spirit realm.

       To what extent Simon contributed to this doctrine is not clear. A lot that is written about Simon has not been clearly documented so I will not spend time sharing what may be fraudulent information.  We will simply stick to what the Scriptures reveal about this man and leave it at that. 

       Acts 8 reveals that when the Samaritans believed Philip’s message about the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus, they were baptized, both men and women.  It is also reported that Simon himself believed and was baptized after which he followed Philip everywhere and was astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw Philip do.  I can image he would have been impressed.  This guy was use to performing acts of magic which probably did not include the healing of paralytics and cripples as he saw Philip doing. 

       When the apostles in Jerusalem heard the Samaritans had accepted the message about Christ and had been baptized, they sent Peter and John to them who then prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.  It is reported that the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them but that they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

       When Peter and John arrived, they placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. In my last sermon in this series, I discussed in some detail the issue of the laying on of hands and how the book of Hebrews lists it as one of the basic doctrines of the church.  We saw that the laying on of hands appears to in many cases facilitate the transfer of the authority and power of God. 

       Now it may be asked why these Samaritans didn’t receive the Holy Spirit upon baptism. On the day of Pentecost, Peter had told the crowd to repent and be baptized and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. There is no indication in Peter’s declaration that those being baptized would have to wait to receive the Spirit at a later time.  Why did these Samaritans have to wait until Peter and John laid hands on them?  Could not Philip have laid hands on them to receive the Spirit? 

       A second question that may be asked is how did these Samaritans know they had received the Holy Spirit after Peter and John laid hands on them?  While we can’t know for sure what was going on here, we can consider some possibilities.

       The receiving of the Holy Spirit by the Samaritans may have been purposely delayed by God so that leadership from the Jerusalem church would have the opportunity to make a connection with them and see first hand that God was indeed making salvation available to the Samaritans as he had done to the Jews. Remember, the Samaritans were despised by the Jews.  While it is true that Phillip had gone ahead and preached to the Samaritans, it may be that greater confirmation was necessary to convince church leadership that these despised Samaritans were indeed being accepted for salvation.

       It must be remembered that starting with the events that took place at Pentecost, a great deal of change was taking place as to how one relates to God.  Covenantal transition was taking place were the Mosaic System was being slowly phased out and replaced by the New Covenant System, a system open to all of mankind. It wasn’t easy for the Jewish Christians and their leadership to move from a system based on ethnicity and exclusiveness to a system of inclusiveness where all peoples could be included in the Israel of God, even these despised Samaritan’s.

       If receiving of the Holy Spirit was withheld from the Samaritan’s to allow for conformation that God had accepted even these despised Samaritan’s, there is every reason to believe that when these Samaritans received the Holy Spirit they spoke in tongues as a witness to them and to Peter and John that they had indeed received the Spirit. 

       As we will see as we proceed with this series, this same confirmation took place later on when the Gentile Cornelius and his family spoke in tongues confirming to Peter and his associates that the equally despised Gentiles also had been granted salvation. It took the witness of speaking in tongues to convince Peter and his associates that the Gentiles also were being accepted for salvation. That the Samaritans probably spoke in tongues when Peter and John laid hands on them is further indicated by what happened next.

       Acts 8:18-19: When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money and said, "Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit."

       We see the sorcerer Simon trying to buy the ability to lay hands on people so that they receive the Holy Spirit.  How did Simon know the Samaritans had received the Holy Spirit?  Simon must have seen some outward manifestation of these Samaritans receiving the Spirit to make him want the power to duplicate what Peter and John did.  Since we see speaking in tongues as the outward witness of receiving the Spirit on Pentecost, there is good reason to believe these Samaritans spoke in tongues as a witness to having received the Holy Spirit and this is what Simon the sorcerer seen and heard.

       Upon seeing this, and he being the magician that he was, he probably interpreted what he heard as some kind of magical act that Peter and John were able to perform and wanted to be able to add this magical act to his repertoire of magical acts that he already had.  Well, we see in Acts 8:20-23, Peter put Simon in his place in a hurry and warned him of the consequences if he didn’t repent and get his heart right with God.

       Acts 8:20-23: Peter answered: "May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin."

       It has been speculated by some that the reason the giving of the Holy Spirit was initially withheld from the Samaritan’s was that God wanted to insure that Simon would be shown to be a fraud and no longer have the kind of influence and sway over the Samaritan’s that he apparently had.  The Scriptures do record that Simon had quite the following.

       Acts 8:9-11: Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, "This man is the divine power known as the Great Power." They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic.

       Simon apparently had quite the following and maybe God wanted to insure this man was put in his place and not remain a distraction to the Samaritan’s who were coming to accept Christ. 

       Regardless of what the true reason was for the delay in the Samaritan’s receiving the Holy Spirit, we know it all turned out for the best and it is recorded that Peter and John returned to Jerusalem and on their way back preached in many Samaritan villages.

PART FOURTEEN