Friday, March 30, 2018

Reading Through the Acts of the Apostles #3 (6-8)

Larkin ActsThis post continues my reading through the book of Acts accompanied by Acts, vol. 5, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, by William J. Larkin Jr..Acts 6-8 records the beginning of the transition of the church from a Jewish only movement to its extension to the Samaritans and a preview of the Gentile outreach with Philip’s ministry to the Ethiopian eunuch. I am posting from my reading in the New Testament accompanied by various commentaries on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the book are in blue.

Chapter 6 presents 2 "problems" that will lead to further growth for the church: an internal administrative problem and an external threat from persecution. With the growth of the church the Grecian Jews felt their poor were being treated unfairly by the Hebraic Jews in the distribution of resources. The disciples did not want to be distracted from their pastoral ministry and work with all sides to appoint some godly men to handle the issue. The second issue was the lynching of Stephen. A group of Hellenistic Jews accuse him of blasphemy and take him to the Jewish authorities who condemn him to death. Luke notes that Paul takes part in the execution. However, instead of slowing church growth, this persecution will incite the Samaritan and Gentile missions and bring about growth the church never could have imagined.

The proposed solution reveals the values that guided the decision: commitment to unity, to a holistic ministry and to growth by means of preaching and teaching. The decision-making process reflects equally important values for church order...If unity and growth are to be promoted, then, structures in the church must be flexible. Decision-making must be participatory, with distinctive roles for leaders and congregation. Acts 6.1-7

Should we expect more “Stephens” today? Though normally signs and wonders are the work of apostles and prophets at particular junctures of God’s salvation history, Stephen’s activity is witness to the fact that even “this restriction is not absolute.” Let us pray to be full of the Spirit and let God’s “gracing” do what it will. Acts 6.8-15,

Chapter 7 recounts Stephen's speech to the Sanhedrin after their pronouncement of death. He defends his actions and message from the story of Israel in the Old Testament. His first point is that the most important events in God's revelation, the appearances and promises to Moses and Abraham, happened outside the land and required the recipients to take bold stands of faith which required them to leave their comfortable lives and be misunderstood by those around them. The rejection of Moses and Abraham by their own people led to them missing out on God's blessings. The second point is that God and his revelation initiate worship, not human desire. Thus, a temple building is not necessary to worship God in spirit and truth. The leadership was in the same danger as the generation that missed the Promised land after Moses and that went into exile. They were about to miss God's promised salvation in the Messiah Jesus.

This encounter in the desert at Sinai should remind Stephen’s audience, Luke’s readers and us that wherever God chooses to make himself known, there is holy ground. For a second time outside the Holy Land, God had appeared to a person of his choosing and made known a portion of his covenant promises and saving will. This presents a challenge to first-century Jews, so jealous for “this holy place,” the temple, and to all others who cling to certain sacred spaces of their religious heritage. Acts 7.1-43

Today too the church may face the temptation of an “edifice complex,” assuming that unless a visible structure for the worship of God is raised and maintained, we haven’t truly worshiped or borne an effective witness. Stephen gives us perspective. Remember, it is the transcendent God we are worshiping. He does not need our buildings to receive our praise. We may need them to facilitate worship and witness. But we must make sure we need them and use them for the right reason. Acts 7.44-50

Like his Lord, Stephen dies at peace with God, himself and the world—even his enemies. He fell asleep. By showing us how to die, he also shows us how to live and models the secret of staying power of Christian witness even to death. If he can die for his Lord like that, confidently, forgiving his enemies, there must be something to this Jesus who he says reigns at God’s right hand. Acts 7.54-8.3

The aftermath of the death of Stephen is a great persecution of the church, that drives most of the church leadership, except for the disciples, away from the city. This leads to the church beginning ministry to the Samaritans and Gentiles as Jesus commanded. Philip preaches the gospel to the Samaritans with a great response. When Peter and John come down to see what has happened and place their hands on the new believers they receive the Spirit with the same signs as at Pentecost showing that God has opened new covenant blessing to these believers. When Simon the magician tries to buy this authority Peter strongly rebukes him. There can be no syncretism with the old occult and magical ways. Jesus must be the only LORD. Philip then proceeds to the wilderness road and meets a Gentile, Ethiopian court official who was a Jewish convert. He preaches the gospel from Isaiah and the Ethiopian believes and is baptized. The gospel is going out to all nations, all ethnic groups and God's plan is beginning to be accomplished.

What makes the difference is repentance from a magical mindset through an affirmation of the sovereign power of God, who grants salvation blessings when and where he will. We must affirm that it is not the power of miracle, so easily seen in our unregenerate mindset as magic, that saves us, but the power of the Word of God which by the Spirit we receive, believe and follow and so are liberated.  Acts 8.1-25

The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch graphically demonstrates the inclusiveness of the gospel. No apparent obstacle—whether physical defect, race or geographical remoteness—can place a person beyond the saving call of the good news. Acts 8.26-40

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