Book 5 of 27 - ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
Writer: Luke, a Gentile and the "beloved physician" (Colossians 4:14), a friend and travelling companion of Paul;
Date: c AD63, towards the end of Paul's Roman captivity;
Where written: Rome, but possibly drafted in part, or material collected in Caesarea;
Reader: The unknown Theophilus, either a senior Roman official who was also a Christian, or symbolically the entire Gentile Church;
Why: To record that part of the history of the early Church from the resurrection of Jesus to the imprisonment of Paul in Rome 30 years later; the area concerned is in Map below. It bridges much of the period between the Gospel story of Jesus and the Letters to the Church. One interesting theory is that it was written as part of the preparation for Paul's legal defence in Rome some years after his arrest in Jerusalem.
According to Some Modern Scholarship: Still probably written by Luke, but perhaps c AD80 as a continuation of his Gospel. It probably used material collected from Paul during his imprisonment at Caesarea in c AD58-60
Map - The Travel Areas of the Acts of the Apostles and Where Paul Sent his Letters
Provinces, islands and cities playing an important recorded part in the Early Church according to the Acts of the Apostles
Locations in boxes - The six cities and one province receiving Letters from the Apostle Paul
1.1 INTRODUCTION TO ACTS; THE ASCENSION OF JESUS
Acts 1:1-11 - My Dear Theophilus, In my first book (Luke's Gospel) I gave you some account of all that Jesus began to do and teach until the time of his ascension. Before he ascended he gave his instructions, through the Holy Spirit, to the special messengers of his choice. For after his suffering he showed himself alive to them in many convincing ways, and appeared to them repeatedly over a period of forty days talking with them about the affairs of the kingdom of God.
Jesus' parting words before his ascension
On one occasion, while he was eating a meal with them, he emphasised that they were not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father's promise.
"You have already heard me speak about this," he said, "for John (the Baptist) used to baptise with water, but before many days are passed you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit."
This naturally brought them all together, and they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
To this he replied, "You cannot know times and dates which have been fixed by the Father's sole authority. But you are to be given power when the Holy Spirit has come to you. You will be witnesses to me, not only in Jerusalem, not only throughout Judea, not only in Samaria, but to the very ends of the earth!"
When he had said these words he was lifted up before their eyes till a cloud hid him from their sight. While they were still gazing up into the sky as he went, suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them and said, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking up into the sky? This very Jesus who has been taken up from you into Heaven will come back in just the same way as you have seen him go."
1.2 THE CHURCH MEETS; MATTHIAS APPOINTED AN APOSTLE
Acts 1:12-26 - At this (the ascension of Jesus) they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives which is near the city, only a sabbath day's journey away (three-quarters of a mile). On entering Jerusalem they went straight to the upstairs room where they had been staying (where the Last Supper was possibly held). There were Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Patriot, and Judas the son of James (the eleven remaining apostles). By common consent all these men together with the women who had followed Jesus, Mary his mother as well as his brothers devoted themselves to prayer.
Judas' place is filled
It was during this period that Peter stood among the brothers - there were about a hundred and twenty present at the time - and said, "My brothers, the prophecy of scripture given through the Holy Spirit by the lips of David (in his psalms) concerning Judas (Iscariot) was bound to come true. He was the man who acted as guide to those who arrested Jesus, though he was one of our number and he had a share in this ministry of ours."
(This man had bought a piece of land with the proceeds of his infamy, but his body swelled up and his intestines burst. This fact became well known to all the residents of Jerusalem so that the piece of land came to be called in their Aramaic language Akeldama, which means "the field of blood".)
"Now it is written in the book of psalms of such a man:
'Let his habitation be desolate, and let no one live in it' (Psalm 69:25), and
'Let another take his office' (Psalm 109:8).
"It becomes necessary then that whoever joins us must be someone who has been in our company during the whole time the Lord Jesus lived his life with us, from the beginning when John baptised him until the day when he was taken up from us. This man must be an eye-witness with us to the resurrection of Jesus."
Two men were put forward, Joseph called Barsabbas who was also called Justus and Matthias. Then they prayed, "You, O Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two you have chosen to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place." Then they drew lots for these men, and the lot fell to Matthias, and thereafter he was considered equally an apostle with the eleven.
1.3 PENTECOST and THE COMING OF THE HOLY SPIRIT; PETER PREACHES, MANY ARE CONVERTED
Acts 2:1-13 - Then when the actual day of Pentecost came they were all assembled together. Suddenly there was a sound from heaven like the rushing of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were seated. Before their eyes appeared tongues like flames which separated off and settled above the head of each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages as the Spirit gave them power to proclaim his message.
The Church's first impact on devout Jews
Now there were staying in Jerusalem (for the Festival of Weeks) Jews of deep faith from every nation of the world. When they heard this sound a crowd quickly collected and were completely bewildered because each one of them heard these men speaking in his own language. They were absolutely amazed and said in their astonishment, "Listen, surely all these speakers are Galileans? Then how does it happen that every single one of us can hear the particular language he has known from a child? There are Parthians, Medes and Elamites; there are men whose homes are in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Africa near Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome! There are Jews and proselytes, men from Crete and men from Arabia, yet we can all hear these men speaking of the magnificence of God in our native language."
Map - Some of the Many Centres of Jewish Population Outside Israel - the 'Dispersion' or 'Diaspora'
Everyone was utterly amazed and did not know what to make of it, Indeed they kept saying to each other, "What on earth can this mean?"
But there were others who laughed mockingly and said, "These fellows have drunk too much new wine!"
- Peter explains in Acts 2:14-36 (Part 32.1) how the followers of the crucified Jesus are able to speak to the onlookers in their own languages. The Old Testament prophet Joel foretold that such men would be filled with the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus after his death and resurrection -
Acts 2:37-47 - When they heard this they were cut to the quick, and they cried to Peter and the other apostles, "Men and fellow-Jews, what shall we do now?"
Peter told them, "You must repent and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ, so that you may have your sins forgiven and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this great promise is for you and your children - yes, and for all who are far away, for as many as the Lord our God shall call to himself!"
Peter said much more than this as he gave his testimony and implored them, saying, "Save yourselves from this perverted generation!"
The first large-scale conversion
Then those who welcomed his message were baptised, and on that day alone about three thousand souls were added to the number of disciples. They continued steadily learning the teaching of the apostles, and joined in their fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer.
Everyone felt a deep sense of awe, while many miracles and signs took place through the apostles. All the believers shared everything in common; they sold their possessions and goods and divided the proceeds among the fellowship according to individual need. Day after day they met by common consent in the Temple (the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, as the early converts were Jewish Christians); they broke bread together in their homes, sharing meals with simple joy. They praised God continually and all the people respected them. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were finding salvation.
1.4 PETER and JOHN HEAL A CRIPPLED MAN AND EXPLAIN HOW; THEY ARE TAKEN BEFORE THE SANHEDRIN
Acts 3:1-11 - One afternoon Peter and John were on their way to the Temple for the three o'clock hour of prayer. A man who had been lame from birth was being carried along in the crowd, for it was the daily practice to put him down at what was known as the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, so that he could beg from the people as they went in. As this man saw Peter and John just about to enter he asked them to give him something. Peter looked intently at the man and so did John. Then Peter said, "Look straight at us!"
The man looked at them expectantly, hoping that they would give him something.
"If you are expecting silver or gold," Peter said to him, "I have neither, but what I have I will certainly give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!"
Then he took him by the right hand and helped him up. At once his feet and ankle bones were strengthened, and he positively jumped to his feet, stood, and then walked. Then he went with them into the Temple, where he walked about, leaping and thanking God. Everyone noticed him as he walked and praised God and recognised him as the same beggar who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate, and they were all overcome with wonder and sheer astonishment at what had happened to him. Then while the man himself still clung to Peter and John all the people in their excitement ran together and crowded round them in Solomon's Porch.
- Peter, in his second recorded sermon, explains to the crowd in Acts 3:12-26 (Part 32.2) how the crippled man was healed in the name of the risen Jesus - the Christ foretold by the prophets, and through whom God wants all people to repent of their sins -
Acts 4:1-22 - While they were still talking to the people the priests, the captain of the Temple guard and the Sadducees (who do not believe in resurrection) moved towards them, thoroughly incensed that they should be teaching the people and should assure them that the resurrection of the dead had been proved through the rising of Jesus. So they arrested them and, since it was now evening, kept them in custody until the next day. Nevertheless, many of those who had heard what they said believed, and the number of men alone rose to about five thousand.
Peter's boldness at formal questioning
Next day the leading members of the council, the elders and scribes, met in Jerusalem with Annas the High Priest, Caiaphas (both of whom took part in the arrest and trial of Jesus), John, Alexander and the whole of the High Priest's family. They had the apostles brought in to stand before them and they asked them formally, "By what power and in whose name have you done this thing?"
- Peter explains to the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8-12 following, repeated in Part 32.3), how the crippled man was healed in the name of the risen Jesus Christ, the only name by which men and women can be saved -
(Verse 8 starts ...) At this Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke to them, "Leaders of the people and elders, if we are being called in question today over the matter of a kindness done to a helpless man and as to how he was healed, it is high time that all of you and the whole people of Israel knew that it was done in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth! He is the one whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, and it is by his power that this man at our side stands in your presence perfectly well. He is the
'stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone' (Psalm 118:22).
In no once else can salvation be found. For in all the world no other name has been given to men but this, and it is by this name that we must be saved!"
The embarrassment of the authorities
(Verse 13 continues....) When they saw the complete assurance of Peter and John, who were obviously uneducated and untrained men, they were staggered. They recognised them as men who had been with Jesus, yet since they could see the man who had been cured standing beside them, they could find no effective reply. All they could do was to order them out of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish council) and hold a conference among themselves.
"What are we going to do with these men?" they said to each other. "It is evident to everyone living in Jerusalem that an extraordinary miracle has taken place through them and that is something we cannot deny. Nevertheless, to prevent such a thing spreading further among the people, let us warn them that if they say anything more to anyone in this name (of Jesus) it will be at their peril."
So they called them in and ordered them bluntly not to speak or teach a single further word about the name of Jesus. But Peter and John gave them this reply: "Whether it is right in the eyes of God for us to listen to what you say rather than to what he says, you must decide; for we cannot help speaking about what we have actually seen and heard!"
After further threats they let them go. They could not think of any way of punishing them because of the attitude of the people. Everybody was thanking God for what had happened - that this miracle of healing had taken place in a man who was more then forty years old.
1.5 THE DISCIPLES PRAY AND ALL ARE FILLED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT
Acts 4:23-31 - After their release the apostles went back to their friends and reported to them what the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard it they raised their voices to God in united prayer and said,
"Lord, you are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of your servant David have said:
'Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his Christ' (Psalm 2:1-2) -
(the prayer continues ....) For truly against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed, both Herod (Antipas) and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel were gathered together to do whatever your hand and your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your word, by stretching out your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.'
When they had prayed their meeting-place was shaken; they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God fearlessly.
1.6 BELIEVERS SHARE ALL; BARNABAS JOINS THEM; ANANIAS and SAPPHIRA TRY TO CHEAT
Acts 4:32-5:11 - Among the large number who had become believers there was complete agreement of heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own but everything was common property. The apostles continued to give their witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great force, and a wonderful spirit of generosity pervaded the whole fellowship. Indeed, there was not a single person in need among them. For those who owned land or property would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and place them at the apostles' feet. They would distribute to each one according to his need.
Generosity and covetousness
It was at this time that Barnabas (the name, meaning son of comfort, given by the apostles to Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus) sold his farm and put the proceeds at the apostles' disposal.
(Chapter 5 - The early Church experiences its first dissension from within - by individuals .....) But there was a man named Ananias who, with this wife Sapphira had sold a piece of property, but with her full knowledge, reserved part of the price for himself. He brought the remainder to put at the apostles' disposal. But Peter said to him, "Ananias, why has Satan so filled your mind that you could cheat the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the price of the land? Before the land was sold it was yours, and after the sale the disposal of the price you received was entirely in your hands, wasn't it? Then whatever made you think of such a thing as this? You have not lied to men, but to God!"
As soon as Ananias heard these words he collapsed and died. All who were within earshot were appalled at this incident. The young men got to their feet and after wrapping up his body carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later it happened that his wife came in not knowing what had taken place, Peter spoke directly to her, "Tell me, did you sell your land for so much?"
"Yes," she replied, "that was it."
Then Peter said to her, "How could you two have agreed to put the Spirit of the Lord to such a test? Listen, you can hear the footsteps of the men who have just buried your husband coming back through the door, and they will carry you out as well!"
Immediately she collapsed at Peter's feet and died. When the young men came into the room they found her a dead woman, and they carried her out and buried her by the side of her husband. At this happening a deep sense of awe swept over the whole Church and indeed all those who heard about it.
1.7 MANY ARE HEALED; THE APOSTLES ARE ARRESTED AND MIRACULOUSLY FREED;
THEY ARE RE-ARRESTED, QUESTIONED AND RELEASED
Acts 5:12-42 - By common consent they all used to meet now in Solomon's Porch (in the Jerusalem Temple). But as far as the others were concerned no one dared to associate with them, even though their general popularity was very great. Yet more and more believers in the Lord joined them, both men and women in really large numbers.
- and miraculous power radiates from it
Many signs and wonders were now happening among the people through the apostles' ministry. In consequence people would bring out their sick into the streets and lay them down on stretchers or bed, so that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall upon some of them. In addition a large crowd collected from the cities around Jerusalem, bringing with them their sick and those who were suffering from evil spirits. And they were all cured.
Furious opposition reduced to impotence
All this roused the High Priest and his allies the Sadducean party, and in a fury of jealousy they had the apostles arrested and put into the common jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and led them out, saying, "Go and stand and speak in the Temple. Tell the people all about this new life!"
After receiving these instructions they entered the Temple about daybreak, and began to teach. When the High Priest arrived he and his supporters summoned the Sanhedrin and indeed the whole senate of the people of Israel. Then he sent to the jail to have the apostles brought in. But when the officers arrived at the prison they could not find them there. They came back and reported, "We found the prison securely locked and the guard standing on duty at the doors, but when we opened up we found no one inside."
When the captain of the Temple guard and the chief priests heard this report they were completely mystified at the apostles' disappearance and wondered what further developments there would be. However, someone arrived and reported to them, "Why, the men you put in jail are standing in the Temple teaching the people!"
Then the captain went out with his men and fetched them. They dared not use any violence however, for the people might have stoned them. So they brought them in and made them stand before the Sanhedrin. The High Priest called for an explanation.
"We gave you the strictest possible orders," he said to them, "not to give any teaching in this name (of Jesus). And look what has happened - you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and what is more you are determined to fasten the guilt of that man's death upon us!"
- The apostles explain (Acts 5:29-32 following, repeated in Part 32.4) that they must obey God and not men -
(Verse 29 starts ....) Then Peter and the apostles answered him, "It is our duty to obey the orders of God rather than the orders of men. It was the God of our fathers who raised up Jesus, whom you murdered by hanging him on a cross of wood. God has raised this man to his own right hand as prince and saviour, to bring repentance and the forgiveness of sins to Israel. What is more, we are witnesses to these matters, and so is the Holy spirit which God gives to those who obey his commands."
Calm counsel temporarily prevails
(Verse 33 continues ....) When the members of the council heard these words they were so furious that they wanted to kill them. But one man stood up in the assembly, a Pharisee by the name of Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law who was held in great respect by the people and gave orders for the apostles to be taken outside for a few minutes. Then he addressed the assembly: "Men of Israel, be very careful of what action you intend to take against these men! Remember that some time a go a man called Theudas (a Jewish leader proclaiming the coming of the messiah) made himself conspicuous by claiming to be someone or other, and he had a following of four hundred men. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and the movement came to nothing. Then later, in the days of the census, that man Judas from Galilee (according to the Jewish historian Josephus, he led a rebellion against the Roman census of AD6) appeared and enticed many of the people to follow him. But he too died and his whole following melted away. My advice to you now therefore is to let these men alone; leave them to themselves. For if this teaching or movement is merely human it will collapse of its own accord. But if it should be from God you cannot defeat them, and you might actually find yourselves to be fighting against God!"
They accepted his advice and called in the apostles. They had them beaten and after commanding them not to speak in the name of Jesus they let them go. So the apostles went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin full of joy that they had been considered worthy to bear humiliation for the sake of the name (of Jesus). Then day after day in the Temple and in people's houses they continued to teach unceasingly and to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
1.8 THE FIRST "DEACONS" ARE CHOSEN; STEPHEN IS ACCUSED OF BLASPHEMY; HE DEFENDS HIMSELF, BUT IS STONED TO DEATH
Acts 6:1-15 - (The Church experiences its second dissension from within, but now by a group .....) About this time, when the number of disciples was continually increasing, the Greeks (Greek-speaking Jews from outside Palestine) complained that in the daily distribution of food the Hebrew widows (traditional Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Jews) were being given preferential treatment. The twelve (apostles) summoned the whole body of the disciples together and said, "It is not right that we should have to neglect preaching the Word of God in order to look after the accounts. You, our brothers, must look round and pick out from your number seven men of good reputation who are both practical and spiritually-minded and we will put them in charge of this matter. Then we shall devote ourselves whole-heartedly to prayer and the ministry of the Word."
This brief speech met with unanimous approval and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochurus (or Procorus), Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch who had previously been a convert to the Jewish faith (all were of Greek background). They brought these men (later called deacons to distinguish them from the apostles and other disciples) before the apostles, and they, after prayer, laid their hands upon them.
So the Word of God gained more and more ground. The number of disciples in Jerusalem very greatly increased, while a considerable proportion of the (Jewish) priesthood (some of whom no doubt had rejected Jesus as the Messiah during his life on earth) accepted the faith.
The attack on the new deacon, Stephen
Stephen, full of grace and spiritual power, continued to perform miracles and remarkable signs among the people. However, members of a Jewish synagogue known as the Libertines (or Freedmen - most likely the descendants of Jews taken to Rome as slaves and later freed), together with some from the synagogues of Cyrene (present-day Libya) and Alexandria (Egypt), as well as some men from Cilicia (possibly including Saul of Tarsus) and Asia (Turkey), tried debating with Stephen, but found themselves quite unable to stand up against either his practical wisdom or the spiritual force with which he spoke. In desperation they bribed men to allege, "We have heard this man making blasphemous statements against Moses and against God." At the same time they worked upon the feelings of the people, the elders and the scribes. Then they suddenly confronted Stephen, seized him and marched him off before the Sanhedrin. There they brought forward false witnesses to say, "This man's speeches are one long attack against this holy place and the Law. We have heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place (the Temple) and change the customs which Moses handed down to us." All who sat there in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and as they looked his face appeared to them like the face of an angel.
- Stephen defends himself in Acts 7:1-53 (Part 32.5) against the charges of blasphemy. In describing the history of Israel, he shows how the Jewish people have always rejected the prophets and disobeyed God's Law -
The truth arouses murderous fury
Acts 7:54-8:1a - These words (Stephen's defence) stung them to fury and they ground their teeth at him in rage. Stephen, filled through all his being with the Holy Spirit, looked steadily up into Heaven. He saw the glory of God, and Jesus himself standing at his right hand.
"Look!" he exclaimed, "the heavens are opened and I can see the Son of Man standing at God's right hand!"
At this they put their fingers in their ears. Yelling with fury, as one man they made a rush at him and hustled him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses of the execution flung their clothes at the feet of a young man by the name of Saul (of Tarsus, later the apostle Paul).
So they stoned Stephen while he called upon God, and said, "Jesus, Lord, receive my spirit!"
Then, on his knees, he cried in ringing tones, "Lord, forgive them for this sin."
And with these words he fell into the sleep of death, (verse 8:1a ....) while Saul gave silent assent to his execution.
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