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THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART TWELVE

SERMON DELIVERED ON 05-05-18

       Today will be sermon # 12 in our continuing journey through the book of Acts.  Last week we concluded with Peter and other of the Apostles appearing before the Sanhedrin and being questioned why they had disobeyed the orders of the religious leaders not to preach in the name of Jesus. You will remember that after the healing of the man crippled from birth, Peter and John were ordered by the religious leaders not to continue preaching Christ.  They replied in the following manner:

        Acts 4:19-20: But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."

       So the Apostles continued to preach Christ and perform miracles in His name. Many believed and the church began to grow rapidly. This greatly upset the Jewish religious leaders and they had a number of the Apostles thrown into prison.  During the night an angel released them from the jail and the very next day they were back at the temple witnessing for Christ.  The religious leaders brought them in and questioned why they had refused to follow their orders not to preach any more in the name of Jesus. 

       Peter made it very clear to them that God had virtually commissioned them to preach about Jesus and that they had to obey God rather than man. When the religious leaders heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.  But a very wise and respected teacher of the law addressed the Sanhedrin.

       The Sanhedrin was the supreme council or court of the Jewish religious system and their headquarters was the Temple in Jerusalem.  There were smaller Sanhedrin’s in every town in Israel but they were all supervised by the Great Sanhedrin located at the Temple. The Great Sanhedrin was comprised of around 70 religious leaders plus the high priest who served as its president. The members came from the chief priests, scribes, and elders, but there is no record on how they were chosen.  The Sanhedrin had its own police force that could arrest people.  The Sanhedrin could hear both civil and criminal cases and could impose the death penalty although there is some question whether they had the legal authority under Roman rule to carry out the death penalty.  They did not have the authority to crucify anyone but we do see them involved in the stoning of Stephen.   

       Acts 5:34-39: But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed them: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God."

       Gamaliel was a grandson of the famous Rabbu Hillel.  Like his grandfather, Gamaliel was known for taking a rather lenient view of the Old Testament law in contrast to his contemporary, Rabbi Shammai, who held to a more stringent understanding of Jewish traditions.  Apostle Paul attributes his training to Gamaliel.  While defending himself before a hostile crowd in Jerusalem, Paul said this:

       Acts 21:1: "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.

       Gamaliel is also mentioned in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus who wrote of the nobility of Gamaliel’s son, Simon.  Josephus’ description of Gamaliel’s family is consistent with the picture we see of him in Acts where he is seen as highly respected. Gamaliel is also mentioned in the Talmud.

       Since it is my practice to not just through out words without explaining what they mean, let me explain a little bit about the Talmud.  The word “Talmud” is a Hebrew word meaning “learning or instruction.”  The Talmud primarily contains discussions and commentary on Jewish history, the practical application of law to life and the customs and culture of the Jewish people.

       As you know, the Jews call the first five books of the OT the Torah which means “instruction, teaching or Law.”  Judaism also has what is called an "Oral Torah" which is a word of month explanation of what OT Scriptures mean and how to best interpret and apply them. These explanations were handed down by word of mouth for centuries. Finally this Oral Torah was compiled and written down in the second century AD in a document called the Mishnah. 

       Over the next several centuries, additional commentaries elaborating on the Mishnah were written down in both Jerusalem and Babylon. These additional commentaries are known as the Gemara. The Gemara and the Mishnah together are known as the Talmud. This project was completed in the 5th century A.D.

       There are actually two Talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud is more comprehensive, and is the one most people mean if they just say "the Talmud" without specifying which one.

       Now some commentators believe the reason Gamaliel said what he said in front of the Sanhedrin is because he was a secret follower of Jesus.  You will remember the Pharisee Nicodemis who communicated with Jesus in secret because he didn’t want to be identified as associating with Jesus.  However, there is no real evidence Gamaliel ever became a Christian.

       It is interesting that Gamaliel spoke of several would be leaders who started a movement and gained a following only to have their movements crushed and themselves be killed in the process.  Isn’t that what has been going on throughout history. Would be leaders come along touting revolution or some cause only to have their movements crushed often with much bloodshed.

       In the musical Les Miserables, a group of revolutionaries band together to fight government forces only to be totally defeated with only one man escaping who then sings the song “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” which reflects on how they had all met to plan the war and now they are all dead with nothing to show for their efforts but empty chairs and empty tables.  

       It is apparent during the time of the early church there numerous empty chairs and empty tables.  There were numerous false leaders and false movement’s that people got involved with which all led to disaster for those involved.  Josephus writes in his History of the Jews that there were so many false prophets and false Messiahs appearing in the first century that hardly a day went by when the Romans didn’t put one of them to death. 

       Jesus had said in the Olivet Discourse that before the destruction of the temple, many would come in His name claiming they were the Christ, that they were the promised Messiah.  Jesus said they would deceive many.  It is instructive that Josephus describes this exact thing as happening and thus provides confirmation to what Jesus said.

       Getting back to Gamaliel, it is evident that because of his strong standing in the Jewish community and the respect he garnered from the religious leadership, they actually took his advice and let the Apostles go but not before having them flogged and again ordering them not to speak in the name of Jesus. 

       Acts 5:40-42: His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.

       Now we tend to just read over the narrative about the Apostles being flogged. The religious leadership had the Apostles flogged. They apparently had the authority to do this.  In reading over this, we lose site of the suffering these men experienced in there persistence in preaching the resurrected Christ.  We tend to overlook the pain that was inflicted on these men. 

       Flogging is the act of whipping or lashing someone or the act of methodically beating the human body with special implements such as whips, lashes, rods, or any other device that inflicts pain and harm.  Flogging was a common practice on the part of the religious leaders in the first century.  As I have mentioned before, The Romans pretty much allowed the Jews to govern themselves which included they being allowed to punish those they deemed to be in violation of their interpretation of the law or any kind of behavior that they defined as unacceptable to them.  This is why the religious leaders were so feared by the general population of Jews. 

        Flogging was commonly done by both the Jews and the Romans. Jesus had predicted he would be flogged by the Gentile Romans as part of his trail. 

       Matthew 20:17: Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.

       We know from the accounts of the crucifixion that Pilate had Jesus flogged. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus prophesied the temples destruction and the disciples asked Jesus about what signs would precede this destruction.  One of the signs Jesus said would occur is that they would be flogged. 

       Mark 13:9: "You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues.

       Now flogging could be mild or it could be severe. At one point during their ministry, it is recorded that Paul and Silas were severely flogged (Acts 16:23). It is apparent Paul was flogged a number of times.

       Just as Jesus had said, those who would give witness to His resurrection and preach the good news of salvation through Him would be persecuted and such persecution would include the infliction of pain by flogging.  So the Sanhedrin had the Apostles flogged and let them go.

       We now come to Chapter 6 where because of some special needs that were being identified, it was decided to set apart seven men to take care of these needs.  So here we have the first record of the church engaging in the separation of duties.

       Acts 6:2-4: So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."

       These seven men would become the first deacons in the church.  Now in this day and age, deacons are usually chosen by the head pastor of the church or maybe by a ministerial team.  But notice how these seven men were chosen.  The leadership of the church, the Apostles, didn’t choose the seven men.  They turned this responsible over to the Brothers.  It’s recorded they gathered the disciples together and apparently it was this gathering of Disciples that choose the seven men.  We don’t know how large this gathering was but it is interesting that what today we would refer to as the laity of the church apparently were the ones who were given the responsibility of choosing the seven.  Once chosen, they were then presented to the Apostles who laid their hands on them.

       Acts 6:6: They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Laying on of Hands:

       Let’s discuss a little about the practice of “laying on of hands.”  You see this multiple times in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.  What is the significance of this practice?  What efficacy does it have? Is there actual power in the laying on of hands?  Do the hands act as a conduit for the power of God?  Does the laying on of hands have some kind of power of its own?  Is the laying on of hands only emblematic of the power of God but has no direct bearing on how that power is displayed?

       As a youth, I had an experience related to the laying on of hands. From young on I had a breathing problem where my nose was always stuffed up and I tended to breathe through my mouth.  In an effort to have this problem alleviated, my parents took me to a healing minister who was holding a healing campaign in the Chicago area.  As I have mentioned before, in my youth I attended the Pentecostal Church with my parents.  This church denomination would often sponsor healing champagnes where they would bring in a minister who supposedly had the gift of healing.  You may remember the preacher/healer Oral Roberts.  As a youth I attended several of his champagnes.  

       At any rate, my parents attended this healing champagne near Chicago conducted by a man whose last name was Brennen.   They filled out the required three by five card explaining my problem and had me join the healing line to be prayed for by pastor Brennen.  I remember him rather firmly laying his hands on my head and asking God to heal me.  Instantly I felt this surge of power pass through me and could immediately breathe freely through my nose with no obstruction.  Unfortunately, about an hour later my nose returned to being stuffed up.

       So what happened here?  The supposed healing didn’t last.  Was the power of God involved in the momentary short lived healing or did this man have some kind of power which he was able to facilitate through the mere act of the laying on of hands.  You would think if God was involved in this matter the healing would have lasted.

       Of related interest to this matter is that there is a whole field of study involving what is generally referred to as touch therapy or touch healing.  For example, researchers have taken mice and given them a terminal form of cancer and then treated them with touch therapy which is essentially the laying on of hands.  The mice that had hands laid on them totally recovered while mice in a control group with the same cancer who did not have hands laid on them, all died.

       There was no prayer to God for healing in these experiments but simply the use of touch therapy. The conclusion reached is that somehow the laying on of hands stimulated the immune systems of the mice which brought about a healing response.

       In Scripture we see hands laid on people to give them a blessing, to set them apart for special service, to receive the Holy Spirit and for facilitating a healing. When Jacob blessed Joseph's children he laid hands on them.   Jesus placed His hands on little children to bless them.  We see Jesus and his followers often placing hands on people to heal them.  And we see in Acts hands being laid on the seven men to separate and ordain them for a particular service.  Let’s look at several examples of the laying on of hands.

       Mark 5:22-23: Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, "My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live."

       As Jesus was traveling to the house of Jairus, someone came and said the child had died. Jesus arrived at the house to find many morning the childs death.  Jesus took the child by the hand and raised her from the dead.  Here are a few more examples of hands being laid on the sick to facilitate healing

        Luke 4:40: When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.

       Luke 13:12-13: When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

       Matthew 8:14-15: When Jesus came into Peter's house, he saw Peter's mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

       In Acts 28, we see Paul visiting the Island of Malta, there was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. Publius welcomed Paul and his associates to stay at his home.  The father of Publius was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him.

       When Peter and John came to Samaria in response to hearing that the Samaritans had received Christ but had not yet received the Holy Spirit, they laid hands on them to facilitate the receiving the Holy Spirit.          

       Acts 8:15-17: When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.  Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

       The sorcerer Simon was so impressed by what he saw that he offered Peter and John money to buy the ability to lay hands on people so thy could receive the Holy Spirit.

       In Acts 19 we see Paul finding some disciples at Ephesus and upon learning that they were only familiar with the baptism of John, Paul proceeded to baptize them into the name of Jesus and laid his hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit.

       In Acts 13, it is recorded that at the church at Antioch there were various prophets and teachers and one day as they were worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit is seen as leading them to set apart Barnabas and Saul for a specific work.  It is them recorded that after prayer and fasting, hands were placed on them on them and they were sent off.  This is an example of hands being laid on someone to ordain them to do a special work. 

       It is apparent that the laying on of hands is a basic doctrinal teaching of the church. It is included in a list of teachings the writer of Hebrews alludes to in speaking of not dwelling on the elementary teaching about Christ but moving on to greater things.

       Hebrews 6:1-3: Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

       Laying on of hands is seen as an elementary teaching of the church. All examples of the laying on of hands that we see in Scripture appears to imply that this practice is the primary vehicle or method by which God facilitates his power to heal, give of the Holy Spirit and facilitate blessings and ordinations. I said primary vehicle.  There certainly are examples of healings where there is not a laying on of hands. Faith is the dominate requirement 

       At one point during his ministry, Jesus entered Capernaum and a centurion came to him, asking for His help.  He explained that his servant was lying at home paralyzed and experiencing great suffering. Jesus said he would go and heal him.  The centurion replied that he did not deserve to have Jesus come under his roof but if Jesus would just say the word the servant will be healed. When Jesus heard this, it is recorded He was astonished at this mans faith.

       Matthew 8:13:  Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! It will be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour.

       While there certainly are other examples of healings in Scripture where there is no laying on of hands or any other type of contact with the healed, more often than not there appears to be some kind of contact between the healer and the healed.  The woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment apparently did not have hands laid on her but it is recorded that Jesus experienced power leaving Him when she touched Him. 

        Last week we discussed how even the shadow of Peter passing over people apparently facilitated healing.  The shadow of Peter was the contact.  While we are not told in Scripture exactly what role the laying on of hands plays in the facilitation of Gods power and will, we see the laying on of hands an elementary teaching of the church and as such we continue to uphold this teaching by laying hands on people for healings, ordinations, and the receiving of the Holy Spirit upon baptism.

       Let us now return to Acts 6:6 that started this whole discussion of the laying on of hands.  The disciples had presented seven men to the apostles to do various duties that were necessary in the church so that the Apostles could devote all their time to preaching the Gospel.  When these seven were presented to the Apostles, they prayed and laid their hands on them.  What followed was a rapid increase in church membership.

       Acts 6:7: So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

       It is significant that a number of priests became obedient to the faith. The priests were Levites and they had various responsibilities at the temple, including facilitating the Old Covenant sacrificial system. Now they were turning to Christ which meant seeing Christ as the sacrifice for sin.  All evidence points to they continuing to do their priestly Old Covenant duties and simply adding Christ to the mix. It took them some time to fully understand the significance of the Christ event and the covenantal transition that event inaugurated.

PART THIRTEEN