Acts 9:31-35

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I am linking verse 31 with what follows, rather than attaching it to what preceded, not only because of its themes, but also because there is a little Greek construction (men … de … for any readers who remember 1st year Greek) which can’t be translated into English, which links verse 31 with verse 32. After reading the previous section, with all the drama of fear and debates and escapes, it seems strange that Luke goes on to say in the first verse of this paragraph, that the church throughout all the lands it had spread thus far “had peace”. It can only be explained by the phrases that follow: (1) being built and going in the fear of the Lord; and (2) multiplying by the encouragement of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, the peace which the church experiences does not arise from an absence of conflict, or any human activity, but from God himself. Instead of fearing the opposition, the church fears the Lord. Instead of being discouraged by the situation, they are encouraged by the Spirit. And thus the church continued to multiply.

Now Luke tells a couple of stories to further encourage the reader and show how the church was multiplying. We will look at one story today and the second tomorrow. Philip had gone south-west on his journey from Jerusalem to Gaza (8:26); now Peter is going north-west from Jerusalem, to Lydda and then to Joppa. The text suggests that Peter is traveling to visit the disciples who had been scattered by the persecution at the beginning of Chapter 8.

When he arrives at Lydda, Peter finds the paraplegic Aeneas. I presume that Aeneas was not yet a disciple, as he has been lying down for eight years and probably never visited Jerusalem to hear the good news. Just as Jesus had famously healed the paralyzed man in Luke 5:17-25, so Peter acts here, explicitly asserting that Jesus is the one doing the healing. There is a curious expression here; while Jesus told the paralyzed man to “get up, pick up your bed/mat”, Peter tells Aeneas to “rise and spread yourself”. Every translation I looked at explains it as ‘make your bed’ or words to that effect, but the text doesn’t actually mention a bed at all. Why would he have to make his bed? I visualize him rather stretching out his twisted limbs for the first time in eight years, something I have seen physiotherapists and my own mother do with people who have underused limbs. Regardless of this little detail, Aeneas indeed arises, and all those who lived in Lydda (and Sharon) turned to the Lord as a response to such an amazing miracle.

This is an example story to show the church multiplying beyond Jerusalem. Peter sees that the power to heal comes not from himself, but from Jesus. I am reminded of the mission hospital near my home in Asia; their pharmacy packets read ‘We give medicine, but Jesus is the healer’. If we want to see the church multiply, we also must walk in the fear of the Lord – not fear of the authorities, nor fear of the society or our friends – and being encouraged by the Holy Spirit, to do good works like healing in the name of Jesus. Note that the phrase in verse 31 is not ‘power of the Spirit’, but encouragement or comfort or urging. How is the Spirit urging me today?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, let me be open and responsive to the urging and encouragement of your Holy Spirit. I thank you that you are the great healer, and pray you would use me to dispense your healing, whether literally or figuratively. Your mission was to bind up the broken-hearted and proclaim liberty to the captives; empower me to be a part of your mission, with your boldness and confidence. Help me to fear you, Lord, above all else.

Acts 9:20-30

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Apart from the three days in the dark, Saul’s mental transformation was instant. Becoming more able while staying with the disciples in Damascus, Saul immediately preached in the Jewish synagogues (to which he had originally been sent by the high priest in Jerusalem, ironically) that Jesus is the Son of God. When we hear this phrase, we usually associate it with the divinity of Jesus. But for Saul it more likely had to do with his position as Messiah, the anointed king of the Jews, with the background of scriptures like Psalm 2 and 2 Sam 7 in his mind (cf Acts 9:22). The Messiah (‘Christ’ in Greek) would re-establish the reign of God over all the kingdoms of the world. Saul was convinced, and wanted to convince others, that Jesus was that Jewish Messiah, Lord and King of all. The verb (sumbibazo) which Luke uses here suggests that Saul put together the Old Testament scriptures in a way that made it undeniable that Jesus was the fulfillment of what had been promised.

This preaching led the Jews to plot together to destroy Saul, as they had with Jesus himself. (Again there is an interesting turn of phrase here: ‘enough days were fulfilled’, rather than the time simply passing.) When Saul and the disciples came to know about the plot, they devised an escape plan, lowering Saul through the wall while the Jews were watching the gate. Sounds like a great movie in the making!

However, when Saul arrived in Jerusalem, his troubles were not over; the disciples there, like the Jews of Damascus, found it difficult to believe that he had really transformed from a disciple-hunter to a disciple himself. After winning the approval of the apostles through the thoughtful kindness of his eventual friend and mission-partner Barnabas – wow, it seems he actually asked what happened instead of making assumptions! – Saul was able to speak boldly and move freely in Jerusalem. However, as he continued speaking and arguing with the Greek-speaking Jews, they also tried to destroy him, and so Saul was brought to Caesarea to be sent by boat back to his home town, Tarsus.

In a few verses, Saul has moved from Damascus, to Jerusalem, and via Caesarea to Tarsus. He has also moved, in this chapter, from being a persecutor of Christians to being a persecuted preacher of Christ. What can we take from this passage to apply to ourselves? Firstly, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, how committed you are, or how bold you are: not everyone is going to listen to you or accept what you say. In fact, there may be very few people who listen. Secondly, fear and mistrust are natural reactions to confusing events and changed people. May we be like Barnabas, willing to listen and understand and stand up for those who find themselves between the cracks of society. May we also be wise friends, like the disciples in both Damascus and Jerusalem, who read the dangerous situations well and support others in times of need. Finally, and most importantly, Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord of the world, and thus the Lord of you and me. He deserves our obedience.

Prayer: Lord of the nations, thank you for revealing yourself to Saul and to me. Help me, by the power of your Holy Spirit, to speak boldly and with insight into your scriptures, regardless of the response from others who do not accept what I say. Help me also to be a wise and loving friend, to listen to people and try to understand them before making assumptions about who they are and what they have done.

Acts 9:10-19

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The riveting story of the conversion of Saul continues in today’s reading. How would you feel if you were Ananias? The text doesn’t reveal any of his feelings, but I can imagine it was quite shocked-out-of-your-skin terrifying. First of all, it is not often that God appears to people in visions, and especially not with such clear instructions of what to do, including the name of the street he is to go to. Secondly, the instruction was to find Saul, whom Ananias knew had come to Damascus to seek him, possibly to bind him and extradite him to Jerusalem for trial, perhaps to be stoned or jailed. Thirdly, the Lord told Ananias that Saul already knew his name, that it was a man called Ananias who would come and lay hands on him to restore his sight. Whatever Ananias does, he is in some kind of trouble.

Thus far in my life and ministry, God has not spoken to me with such clarity. He hasn’t told me any names of streets I should go to or people I should lay my hands on. So I haven’t had the opportunity to argue with him about the wisdom of his specific plans and purposes. Ananias didn’t put up much of a fight, but it seems he didn’t think it was a good idea to walk into the home where the chief persecutor of Christians was waiting for him. Despite his fear, Ananias was obedient to the Lord. He even called Saul ‘brother’.

This passage talks about names a lot. I count six times from verses 10 to 16, plus another two occurrences of ‘called’ in the sense of naming. Is it intentional, and if so, what is Luke trying to draw our attention to? Surely the weight falls on verses 16-17, where Saul will carry Jesus’ name and suffer for Jesus’ name. If it wasn’t for Ananias’ reference to ‘your name’ in verse 14, we might not be sure that it is the Lord Jesus who he knows is speaking to him; we might assume a more general reference to God. Ananias knows this is Jesus speaking, that those who follow him are his holy saints, and that it was Jesus himself, the risen Lord, who appeared to Saul on the way to Damascus. Back in verse 5, Jesus had identified himself to Saul with the famous words ego eimi, a phrase with redundant verb that suggests Jesus is the personification of the great Lord Yahweh who revealed himself to Moses in Ex 3:14.

We started by contemplating how Ananias felt when Jesus spoke to him. Now let us enter the world of Saul, who has been sitting in the dark eating and drinking nothing for three days. Since his vision of Jesus on the road, he has had another vision of a man called Ananias who will lay hands on him and restore his sight. Whatever else Saul was praying about we don’t know, but we can imagine the somersaults his mind must have been turning as he went through a theological revolution. Suddenly, here is Ananias laying his hands and telling me what only I knew – that Jesus appeared to me on the road. And this Jesus sent this Ananias, and he knows where I am and who I am and what I need. I can see again, and not only with my physical eyes. Life is beginning anew for me. Let me die symbolically through baptism and let me live again. Strengthen me with food and with your word from your disciples.

Prayer: Jesus, I acknowledge that you are Lord. Sometimes it is scary to obey you. Help me to trust that you know all things and that all things and all people are in your hands. Help me overcome my fear of what might happen when I go to people who I think oppose you. Fill me with your Holy Spirit and let the scales fall from my eyes so that I can see the world as you see it.

Acts 9:1-9

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The significance of our story today cannot be overestimated. In fact, it is so important that it will be repeated twice more in this book, as Saul himself recounts his experience before the Jews in Jerusalem (ch 22) and before the Palestinian King Agrippa in Caesarea (ch 26). This is not only a turning point in the Book of Acts, but in the whole history of the world.

We met Saul briefly in 7:58 and 8:1-3. Here in 9:1ff he is still “breathing threats and murder”, going to the extent of extraditing any of these blasphemous Christians who had escaped from Jerusalem to friends and relatives in Damascus (Syria) back to stand trial. It is interesting that Luke again specifies that women were also a target in Saul’s crosshairs (cf 8:3); not because it indicates that Saul was a misogynist, but rather that he saw no distinction, and that women who followed the Way of Jesus were quite as dangerous as men.

It was a six-day journey by foot, and as Saul got close to Damascus, it happened. The heavenly light flashed, knocking Saul to the ground, and a voice spoke. Saul hears his own name repeated, just as God called to Abraham (Gen 22:11), Moses (Ex 3:4), and Samuel (1 Sam 3:10). He asks who is speaking, but surely he must have had an inkling that this was God. The terrible truth in Saul’s ears was that this was God whom he was persecuting: Jesus. It could mean only one thing: that the Way was the true way, that the church indeed was the body of Jesus (cf 1 Cor 12:27). Jesus’ command was to get up and go into the city for further instructions, and Saul obeyed.

The men traveling with Saul heard the voice, probably as like thunder (cf Acts 22:9 and John 12:29), and must have seen the flashing light, as they were speechless. They led the temporarily blinded Saul by the hand into Damascus, where he didn’t eat or drink for three days. We have no clue here (or later when Saul retells the story) what they were thinking.

What pierces my heart in this story is that Saul genuinely believed that he was serving God as he persecuted the church. He was not an evil man who delighted in violence, but a zealot in the mold of Phinehas (Num 25:7-13) and Elijah (1 Kgs 18:40). In his mind, he was protecting the honor of God and the Mosaic law. How crushed must he have been when he realized his error, as he fasted both food and water three days while waiting in a literally blind stupor? What mental and spiritual revolutions might have been taking place in his heart and mind?

If I am similarly mistaken in my service of God, would it take such a supernatural event to set me right? Not that I would ever be persecuting the church, of course! But what wrong actions and attitudes might I have toward the people of God? What happened to Saul was obviously a one-off historical event that is not going to be repeated. Nevertheless, it is a good reminder that sometimes we need to listen to the Lord, quietly and in the dark, to reassess who we are and how we should be serving him. Such a revolution in us may not change the whole world, but it may change me and my corner of it.

Prayer: Lord, help me to be still and listen to you. I desire to serve you with zeal. Show me any area in which I am in error. Call me again, Lord, and if I need an internal revolution, please do your work in me by the power of your Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:26-40

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This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. In fact, Luke could have finished the Book of Acts right here, as we have reached a climax and the conclusion of the program as found in Acts 1:8. With this story, the gospel has in fact been preached to the ends of the earth, as Luke’s original readers would have understood it; they thought of Ethiopia as the edge of the world, and in the Odyssey Homer called the Ethiopians the “last of men”.

It is merely a coincidence that the word ‘Gaza’, on the road to which the Ethiopian is traveling, means ‘treasure’, of which the Ethiopian has charge. He is returning from Jerusalem, where he had made pilgrimage, perhaps for the Feast of Pentecost/Weeks, as a Gentile follower of the Jewish faith. As he sits in his chariot, he is reading Isaiah aloud. Philip has been sent to him by the Spirit and he asks the Ethiopian whether he understands what he is reading. Many have difficulty understanding Isaiah, right?

One Easter in my home city, some Christians dropped into letter-boxes in a predominantly Jewish area a tract simply with the text of Isaiah 53. The people complained to the council about receiving Christian literature!

The Ethiopian is reading exactly that passage and he asks Philip to explain it to him – literally to ‘guide him on the way’ to understanding it. Surely Philip started there, talked about the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, and how he is fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the Son of God, the King who was promised to bring salvation and comfort to those who trust in him. Isaiah is a book rich in the explanation of the gospel, and you will find that word itself in Isaiah (if you look in the Greek Septuagint version) 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1.

As Philip evangelizes him, the Ethiopian believes in Jesus and decides to be baptized by Philip, presumably in the presence of his entourage. When he comes up out of the water, Philip has vanished, but the Ethiopian continues on his way back home rejoicing. The second century church father Irenaeus believed that this man brought the gospel to Ethiopia, where the church is still strong (although there is no evidence of a church there before the fourth century, when Christianity became the state religion).

This particular Ethiopian, if he really was a literal eunuch and it wasn’t just the title of a man in royal employ, was as far away from being a part of the people of God as could be imagined. The Mosaic law forbade eunuchs from worshiping (Deut 23:1). However, a few chapters on from where the Ethiopian was reading, in Isaiah 56, there is a grand promise to any eunuch who chooses to honor God and follow his plan. Instead of barrenness, they will have an enduring name that lasts forever, and joy in prayer. The rejoicing eunuch in Acts 8 is not named, but his story lives on whenever we retell it.

From the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we learn that no one is too far away for God to reach them. His love and mercy extends to all. This is an encouragement to us whether we feel ourselves in the place of the evangelist, Philip, or in the place of the Ethiopian. Like Philip, we must respond to the prompting of the Spirit, go to wherever he tells us to go, and preach Jesus to whoever wants to know. The Ethiopians among us must know that God desires everyone to be saved, no matter how far away or unworthy we might feel.

Prayer: Thank you Lord Jesus, that you came to seek and to save the lost. Thank you for sending your servants to proclaim your gospel to the ends of the earth. Let me be like Philip, aware of the movement of your Spirit, willing and able to teach and preach, and quick to respond to your call. And let me rejoice in the power of your word!

Acts 8:5-25

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There are many things in this passage that are interesting to think about, such as the gospel of Jesus being preached in Samaria along with signs and wonders, and the receiving of the Holy Spirit after being ‘only’ baptized in the name of Jesus. But today I want to reflect on the story of Simon.

Much was written in the early centuries about Simon, mostly relating him to various heresies. But let’s just focus on what this passage says. Simon was a self-proclaimed great man in Samaria, who received a lot of attention because of his magic. This is unlikely to be the kind of magic we usually think of, like card tricks and vanishing doves, although there are stories he could levitate and perform healing miracles. Whatever it was he could do, clearly it was enough to amaze the local people. But when their attention was drawn to Philip with his evangelistic preaching and signs, even Simon himself became a believer. Now was Simon’s turn to be amazed, and he stayed on in Philip’s company.

Later, Peter and John came to verify the Jesus-movement that was happening in Samaria and lay their hands on the new believers so they could receive the Spirit. Presumably receiving the Holy Spirit led to signs like what were seen earlier in the Book of Acts – fire, wind, and the gift of ecstatic tongues. Simon wanted to be able to grant that too, and offered money to be a part of the apostolic leadership. Peter could see into Simon’s heart and was horrified, calling on him to repent and ask for forgiveness. Simon asked Peter to pray for him, suggesting he possibly didn’t have his own relationship with the Lord.

What can we learn from the story of Simon? Cross-cultural workers can easily fall into a similar trap. Although many of us prefer to work behind the scenes, there is definitely the issue of being put on a pedestal, especially in our sending country. My son once asked if we were famous, because our photo appears on many people’s fridges and so many people seem to know us. At churches and conferences we stand up in front of people and talk about our work and ourselves. People know us and pay attention to us, amazed at the things we do. Like Simon, we are not doing it for the money, but rather we sometimes invest our own money to be able to give to others. Do we want to have a great name and be seen as operating in God’s great power? If someone looked into our hearts would they see mixed motives there? The solution is simple: repent, and pray for forgiveness.

A further application would be to be wary of new believers who want to join our team. Like Peter, we need to look into their hearts and check their motives. Do they truly want to serve the Lord, or do they want to gain fame and standing within their community?

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for your word which cuts between joints and marrow and perceives the depths of my thoughts. Lord, you know my motives are mixed. Turn my heart towards yours and away from my own. Forgive me for any wrong thoughts and intents. Give me wisdom to look into my own heart and also the hearts of others. May I live and serve for your glory alone.

Acts 8:1-4

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This short passage is a linking section between the preaching and death of Stephen, the first martyr, and the story of Philip, the first traveling evangelist after Jesus and the apostles.

Verse 1a mentions Saul once more; he also had a tiny cameo in 7:58 while he was minding the coats of those who were stoning Stephen. The impression Luke gives here is that Saul is watching with a smile lurking on his lips. In verse 3 that quiet satisfaction gets put into violent action, as he goes from house to house to ravage the church by dragging both men and women to prison. There is a developing terror surrounding the character Luke portrays here. We will meet him again in the next chapter and beyond.

The day of Stephen’s death a great persecution of the church erupted and all were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Where have we heard that geographical phrase before? Acts 1:8, of course, when Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses (martyres). The good news is beginning to go out from Jerusalem. Verse 4 is confirmation: those who were scattered went out proclaiming the gospel (euangelizomai). This is only the second time in Acts that the word ‘evangelise’ has been used. The first was in Acts 5:42, when the apostles were proclaiming the gospel that the Christ is Jesus from house to house and in the temple in Jerusalem. Now we have the other disciples (the apostles remain in Jerusalem according to verse 1b) taking the good news that Jesus is the King coming to bring salvation beyond Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, in line with Jesus’ command.

This small section is another example in the Book of Acts where what seems to be something going wrong (the death of Stephen, persecution of the church) is revealed to be a part of God’s plan (scattering the disciples to bring the gospel beyond Jerusalem). The men who mourned Stephen would have been grieved, angry and confused that such a great and wonderful servant of the Lord died in such a tragic way. The men and women being literally dragged from their homes into the prison did not know why this was happening to them. Those who had to leave their hometown faced fear and insecurity. And yet, in their suffering – not despite it but though it – God was working out his purposes. What suffering are you enduring at this time? How might it be that, through your suffering, God is working out his purpose not just for your life, but for his kingdom?

Prayer: God, life hurts sometimes. Things are not as I wish they would be. But I know that I can trust you with this. Help me to continue trusting you in my grief.

Acts 7:54-60

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The scene just after the defense of Stephen is terrifying. The hearts of those who heard him were enraged and they gnashed their teeth. They are shouting and blocking their ears and rushing, then expelling him from the city and stoning him. It is all loud and violent, like one of those parts of the movie or television news, when we tell young kids to get out of the room or at least cover their eyes. If you are reading this the day it is posted, 5 June 2020, you may be over-familiar with rioting images just like these.

Stephen is a foil to the crowd, reflecting a completely different image. As they go wild, he is staring into heaven and seeing the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. The references back to Luke’s gospel are unmistakeable: the opened heavens (Lk 3:22), the request of forgiveness for the executioners (Lk 23:34), the calling out to commit his spirit into God’s hands (Lk 23:46). Luke is portraying Stephen as a literal follower of Jesus, trusting God even as he is being put to death at the hands of a baying mob. His death by stoning is described as ‘falling asleep’, an act of peace rather than violence.

In the context of Acts and the rest of history, we see with hindsight that Stephen was merely the first in a long, long line of martyrs. As we learn from Tertullian (Apologeticus, c.197), “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” – or more accurately, “We increase when you mow us down; the blood of Christians is seed”.

I usually live in a country buttressed by two countries where martyrdom for following Jesus is not uncommon. The church in the countries with persecution is growing. In my country, by contrast, there is no persecution and almost no church growth. Of course, we do not seek after literal martyrdom, as if it is a formula for church growth. But let us not be afraid of it, and let us continue, no matter where we serve, to die to ourselves and our own desires day by day (Gal 2:20; Rom 6:11). In this way perhaps the church will grow, as it did in the following chapters of Acts after the disciples were scattered.

But like Stephen, it is important that we keep our eyes fixed on heaven, and see Jesus there, reigning as the King, despite what goes on on the earth. In the face of all the anger and rushing and violence which besets us these days, let us experience the peace that comes from the fullness of the Holy Spirit and the glory of God.

Prayer: Father, in a world of violence and rushing, please help me to experience the peace that comes from knowing that you are on the throne. Fill me with your Spirit, and give me a vision of your glory. Lord I lift up to you those whose daily life includes persecution, and ask that you would provide peace to them also. I do not ask that you remove persecution, but that you use it to make your church grow as you have in the past.

Acts 7:1-53

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Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin is the longest in the Book of Acts. Many have wondered why Stephen covered so much ground about the history of Israel, and also why Luke recorded so much of the speech, when others’ sermons are obviously summarised or cut down. We certainly won’t look at all the details here, but think about some of the themes and how they might speak to us today.

Firstly, Stephen was clearly interested in geography. Likely himself not from Palestine, he notes how Abraham was called in Mesopotamia, then lived in Haran, and never owned land in Canaan/Israel/Palestine. Joseph’s location is also ‘foreign’, in Egypt from the first mention, and he calls his brothers and fathers to live in Egypt with him. Moses too was born in Egypt, and fled to Midian before returning there via Mount Sinai. Stephen also mentions Babylon and the wilderness before talking about the conquest of the land by driving out other nations. The point seems to be that God’s blessing is not limited to the land we presently call Israel, nor indeed the temple, which Stephen’s opponents were so vigorously defending (6:13-14). God does not dwell in a house. His presence moves with his people, as was suggested by the movable tabernacle which was God’s original design given to Moses.

Cross-cultural workers are usually interested in geography too. We love to travel. We also often have a sense of call to a particular place, and sometimes a longing for a different place. Are we in danger of being like Stephen’s opponents? Do we have a mistaken sense that God is in a particular place – either the country we are in right now, or where we wish we were? The message here is that God travels with us, wherever we go, and that his blessing is not limited to a particular set of coordinates. The holy ground on which Moses stood was an unnamed place in the wilderness.

Secondly, Stephen notes that those who are called by God are frequently rejected by the people. Joseph was rejected by his brothers. Moses was also rejected by his brothers when he tried to resolve their quarrel, and they refused to obey him even though he had rescued them from Egypt, mightily performing great signs and wonders, and given them God’s word. Stephen accuses the forefathers of rejecting and persecuting the prophets, and the current audience of betraying and murdering Jesus. Of course, the irony is that they will fulfill Stephen’s prophetic word by rejecting and killing him too, in the following verses.

This aspect of Stephen’s speech is perhaps less encouraging for us cross-cultural workers. God’s people get rejected. We didn’t need Stephen to tell us that. If you are facing rejection, whether from within the Christian community you are working with, or from the non-believing community, you stand in a long line of rejected servants of God. Rejection is not necessarily a sign you are doing it wrong or communicating poorly. It might simply mean you are a servant of God.

Finally (although there may be more points we could dwell on), Stephen argues that the people of Israel habitually rejected the pattern of worship God gave them. Instead of worshiping the LORD only, according to the first and second commandments of the Law, they made their own idol, a golden calf. They had a tent of Moloch and a star of Rephan for their sacrifices. They did not in the end follow the plan clearly given to and by Moses, but built a temple to worship in, which God never asked for. And this is the place that Stephen’s opponents are defending. They say they are keeping the law, but actually they are not.

Do we, like Stephen’s opponents, get caught up in making idols for ourselves? They thought they were following the law and were doing their best to be holy and worship God. But somewhere along the way, they had got caught up with tradition and been distracted from the truth of God’s word. Can we be sure that is not happening to us? Have we turned church, or our own acts of service, into an idol that we worship? Have the rules of our own religious lives become more important than the God they are supposed to guide us to? Let us not resist the Holy Spirit or be stiff-necked, but truly open our hearts to listen to what God would tell us about the idols in our lives, and how to worship him in spirit and in truth.

Prayer: God, there is a lot to digest here! First of all, please soften my heart to be able to receive instruction from your Holy Spirit. Show me if there is anything that obstructs my true worship of you. I thank you, God, that I can worship you wherever I am and that you are everywhere. Let me know your acceptance of me for who I am in Christ and help me not to be discouraged by the rejection of others.

Acts 6:8-15

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Having introduced him in the first section of this chapter, Luke moves his spotlight to Stephen. We already learned that he was full of faith and the Holy Spirit (6:5); now we read that he was full of grace and power, doing great wonders and signs among the people (6:8). The effect on the people is not on view here, but the response of opposition from Hellenistic Jews who don’t follow Jesus. They are not able to win directly any arguments with Stephen, because of his wisdom and the power of the Spirit. It is worth noting here that Stephen was not one of the apostles, whose main job was preaching, and yet his ministry of the word was incredibly powerful. I am reminded of some people on my team who are involved in social work (as Stephen was), and yet may be quite as good preachers and evangelists as those on my team who are pastors and church planters.

In frustration, Stephen’s opponents go for a less direct attack; they stir the people up with charges of blasphemy against Moses, God, the law, and the temple. Stephen is seized and brought before the Jewish council – the Sanhedrin – just as Peter and John were in Acts 4. We don’t actually know what Stephen had been preaching, but we can guess it was similar to Jesus, who faced similar accusations (eg Mt 26:61; Mk 7:5; Jn 19:7). It seems that the greatest fear the opponents have is change.

When we bring the gospel of Jesus to a new people group, many are resistant because of changes they fear will happen within their culture. Asians do not want to become westerners. Of course, sometimes there must be change, especially if people within that culture worship or fear idols or spirits. But all the traditions of a people don’t necessarily have to change because they follow Jesus as Lord. We just saw in verse 7 that many of the temple priests became obedient to the Christian faith. There was no need for them to stop washing their hands or start eating non-kosher foods, even though Jesus said these things were no longer important. There was not even a need for them to stop worshipping in the temple, even though Jesus relocated the centre of worship away from there. They could continue to obey the laws of Moses; in fact Jesus made Moses’ laws more strict. We need to be very careful that we don’t impose our earthly culture on people who accept Jesus. Any change must come from the Spirit of God working within the hearts of the new believers. Our role would be to walk alongside them and gently help them to understand, by asking questions rather than by informing, what the scripture says to them within their own culture.

And of course, like Stephen, may we be full of grace and the Holy Spirit’s power! What would be the result if, when looking at our faces, our opponents see the face of an angel? Perhaps that is why they were willing to listen to him for so long, as we shall see in the following chapter.

Prayer: Lord God, please fill me with your grace and with the power of your Holy Spirit. Let me so reflect you to the world that even my fiercest opponents would be drawn to you through me. Give me wisdom to know how to speak your word so that people would come to you, and new believers would understand what you require of them. Forbid it, Lord, that I should seek to change people into my image, but let them be remade by your Spirit in the image of Christ.