Yesterday’s story (about how the church solved the tension between Hebraists and Hellenists over the distribution of food to widows) also introduced the next important figure in Acts: Stephen. He was one of the seven Hellenists chosen to oversee the care of widows. Today, we find out he’s also a passionate evangelist.6:8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
In any romantic relationship, you remember the “firsts.” First date, first kiss, and – inevitably – first fight. Here in Acts 6, after the almost idealistic start (Pentecost, and the almost-too-perfect community described in Acts 2) we get the first hint of significant conflict within the fledgling church. And, as is sadly so often the case, the issue flares up along cultural lines.6:1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
We need a bit of background to get exactly what’s going on here (and to appreciate the boldness of the solution they came up with).
Today, we wrap up our week-long look at the showdown in Acts 4 and 5, and draw some lessons from it.
The truth will shine
Because the way Luke’s told this story, he’s trying to say something to his reader, Theophilus. Probably a wealthy, educated man. Someone who knows his history of Greek philosophy. Someone who knows the story of Socrates – how he was accused of leading the people astray; how he was opposed by jealous rulers more worried about their own power than the truth; how he, famously, refused to give in to intimidation – he must obey the gods rather than humans; and how ultimately, history vindicated him. The truth prevailed. A generation later, Socrates’ rational style of teaching had become the foundation of Greek philosophy.
After Acts 4, you’d think the issue would have been settled, right? The apostles were being witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit (with great signs and wonders) and the Temple establishment was incapable of stopping them, right? But But the Jerusalem leaders aren’t going down without a fight. Luke reminds us of their self-centred motives:5:17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.
So what do they do?
This week, we’re continuing to look at the showdown between the Temple elite and the apostles, recorded in Acts 4. (You’d best start with part one on Thursday if you’re just joining us.) They were arrested and warned not to keep speaking about Jesus, but because the crowd had seen the miraculous healing, the authorities were effectively powerless to stop them. We pick the story up where they’ve just been released.
The apostles pray
As soon as they’re released, Peter and John go back to the rest of the believers and tell them what happened. Their first response? To high-five each other over their impressive rhetoric and bravery? No.4:24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.”
Yesterday, we looked at the background to the looming showdown in Acts 4 between the Temple rulers and the apostles. (You’d best start there if you’re just joining us.) Today, we look at the showdown itself.
The leaders are threatened
Because the ruling elite in Jerusalem are threatened by all that had happened, particularly after the healing of the lame man in chapter 3. You can see it in their reaction, immediately after Peter’s speech, which begins today’s chapter.Acts 4:1-2 The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.
Teaching the people? Hang on… That’s our job! Arrest these men!
We arrive today at Acts chapter 4 – a pivotal one in the whole power dynamic between the old guard (the Temple rulers) and the new (the apostles). But first, we need a little background.
The truth will shine
How confident are you in the truth of the gospel? That it makes rational sense? Are you confident that despite all of the other enticing belief systems on display in the great smorgasbord of faith – that the Christian gospel will stand out as the truth?
Today’s passage from Acts is, in terms of form, very similar to the previous chapter. It contains the story of a miraculous occurrence (this time not speaking in other languages, but a healing) followed by an evangelistic speech given in response. Let’s read the miracle story first:Acts 3:1 One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. 2 Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” 5 So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. 6 Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, <clap clap> but what I do have I give you <clap clap>. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” 7 Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. 8 He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. 9 When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
(If you got the <clap clap> reference, you’re showing your age. If you didn’t, be thankful you’re too young to have lived through it.)
A shorter post today, but a very important one. And one you’re going to have to do the bulk of the work for! Yesterday, we read Peter’s great speech at Pentecost, and the response – three thousand people added to their number in the one day. This led to the formation of a small community, of which Luke now gives a brief description:Acts 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Note this isn’t a prescription for how communities of believers should function; it’s a description. But having said that, it’s a pretty powerful and inspiring one. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community like that? Although in our own context – different culture, different time, different social structures – the details might look a bit different. But the principles seem to be ones to which we would do well to aspire.
To think about
Now it’s your turn. I’m going to mention briefly the principles we see at work here in the earliest “church” grouping. For each, think about two things: (1) How are you in your church living this out? (2) How could you and your church be living this out better?
- Devotion to the apostles’ teaching (which we now have in written form, in Scripture)
- Devotion to fellowship (meeting together to share life and encourage one another to live for God)
- Devotion to the breaking of bread (this could mean the Lord’s Supper but probably just means shared meals in one another’s homes)
- Devotion to prayer
- Accompanied by God’s powerful actions
- Sharing of possessions, by which those in need can be cared for
- Joyful praise of God
- An upright reputation in the community
- Numerical growth
In our journey through Acts, we arrive today at Peter’s speech in chapter 2. It’s Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit has come upon each believer, giving them the ability to speak the gospel in the language of all those visiting Jerusalem from around the empire. This amazes everyone (although some think they’re just drunk). Peter then gets up to explain to the crowd the significance of this miraculous sign – it’s not spirits, it’s the Spirit: