The new direction that the Lord was leading the church was hard for the church to accept at first. Peter had to account for his actions to the other apostles and the rest of the church at Jerusalem. They accepted what he had to say and what God was doing because of the overwhelming testimony of 6 other witnesses.
Though we may wonder why the church would criticize such an outstanding leader as Peter, the incident teaches us a lesson about church government. That is, any new direction or ministry any church or group of churches proposes to undertake should be discussed and examined thoroughly by the members before being approved. This may seem like a tedious process but it does reduce the likelihood of deception by Satan as well as minimize the possibility that any one person or group of members would sinfully dominate the whole church through political power plays. Personal agendas and politics have no place in the church which must be dominated by the Holy Spirit and God’s will.
The church also took note of a burgeoning church in Antioch of Syria. This church was located in what was perhaps the 3rd largest city in the Roman Empire on the crossroads of many major trade routes. It was quite a cosmopolitan city filled with peoples of different religions and cultures, not just Syrians and Romans, but Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, and Africans as well as merchants from the orient, Persia, India and even China. This was the perfect place to set up a multicultural gospel outreach as well as to train up men such as Barnabas and Saul for a broad-based ministry to the Gentiles. Today the Church must still train up ministers of the gospel to share the gospel cross-culturally.
This chapter is one of the most thrilling in the Bible as it depicts for us one of the most monumental events in the history of the church: the salvation of the Gentiles. This event was to have an extremely profound effect on the growth of the church. Up to this point Christianity was little more than a sect of the Jews. All those who had believed in Jesus had been Jews or proselytes, converts to Judaism, all under the Mosaic covenant and all still conforming to the Jewish religious traditions, feasts, rituals and laws of what was clean and unclean. The Jews and the Christians thus considered uncircumcised Gentiles as unclean and tried to avoid all association with them, this despite the fact that the Lord had called Abram and his descendants to be a blessing to them (Gen. 12:1-3).
Yet the Lord wanted to extend the gift of salvation to all men and he used Peter as His instrument to begin the process. He prepared the apostle by sending him to stay in a house on the coast owned by Simon, a tanner. Tanners were unclean as they worked with carcasses of dead animals, yet Peter apparently did not think this an issue. Then the Lord showed him a vision that ripped to shreds all the dietary and ceremonial laws of clean and unclean and did away with the separation between Jew and Gentile, sacred and common. This all became clear to Peter when he went to Cornelius, for, in response to the message of the gospel that he preached, all those gathered there believed and were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Now it became apparent to the early Church that all men can become one in Jesus and all can be made righteous through the love and mercy of God. It is not up to us to decide who is worthy of the gospel message for clearly no one is as all humans are sinners. We have been granted grace so we may extend it to all people no matter their race, color, creed or sin. All must hear the gospel in order that they may be believe in Jesus as the only source of salvation and eternal life.
Saul was a man who was quite vigorous and zealous for the Lord, though his initial efforts were quite misguided. He had heard but ignored the warning of Gamaliel (Acts 5:33-39) and began to violently persecute those who believed in Jesus, thinking that he was doing God’s work. He must have recalled the warning of Gamaliel as he lay on the road outside Damascus listening to the Lord’s words of rebuke and chastisement. He, like so many others who would follow after him, had reached the bottom, the lowest point of his life. He realized that all that he had done in his life up to that point had been worthless. He must have felt totally disheartened as well as terrified for now he was blind and helpless at the mercy of Almighty God whom he had offended.
Yet the Lord showed mercy and kindness to Saul, healed him, forgave his sins and empowered him to preach the gospel. He used two obedient men, Ananias and Barnabas, to reach out to him when most Christians would not trust him. When Saul left Jerusalem he was actively persecuting the Christians. When he returned he was the one being persecuted. He went back to his home town for some years. The church was then at peace and began to grow and expand as we can see in the work of Peter. It is remarkable to note that the two miracles he performed allowed him to preach the gospel and convert a large majority of the populations of those 3 towns.
The history of Paul should teach us to reach out to all people of all backgrounds even those with sordid and questionable pasts. The fact is individuals often have to sink to their lowest state before they will cry out to the Lord. They have to come to a point where they detest and loathe their lives and fall into despair. Many will sadly opt for suicide. Therefore we Christians have to be there to help such despairing folks by giving them grace and hope in Jesus. The vilest of sinners should be able to find forgiveness and grace from the Lord in the fellowship of the Church and we should be eager to accept them with His mercy.
Persecution became the impetus for the spread of the gospel to Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth. Philip the deacon went to Samaria and preached the gospel to a people who respected the Law of Moses but who were also superstitious and idolatrous, as the popularity of Simon Magus indicates. Nevertheless many of the Samaritans recognized the reality of God through the words of Philip and the signs he performed and they believed in Jesus. Yet they did not receive the Holy Spirit until the apostles went to investigate because this was not the norm. This happened not because Philip did something wrong or the Samaritans were insincere. Apparently the Holy Spirit though it best to avoid any bias or distrust that Jewish Christians might still have retained toward the Samaritans. The apostles had to bless the new direction the church was taking and confirm the equality of the diverse groups whom God would save so that all would welcome the newcomers.
The diversity of the Church would also include a black African, an Ethiopian official who seems to have been a Jew or Jewish convert. He was baptized and received the Holy Spirit and presumably was the first to bring the gospel to Africa. Note how flexible Philip was in his methods of evangelism. He was comfortable preaching to crowds but also one on one. He could vary his approach when confronting people of different cultures who possessed different views of the world and of God. Yet he did not vary the gospel because he focused only on Jesus and what He had done. And he was humble. He relied on the Holy Spirit for direction and obeyed without question. The Holy Spirit cannot be manipulated or used to further one’s own ends as we learn from observing Simon Magus. We must therefore avoid and rebuke those who claim His power as a means of self-promotion or of accumulating wealth. Such people need to repent and get right with God for He desires service and humility not selfishness and greed.
Stephen showed that just because he was a deacon or administrator he was not incapable of preaching the word of God. This demonstrates that the Lord uses each of his people as He sees fit. He may call us to preach the gospel and give our testimony of faith in a particular time or place and for certain audience. He will also give us the words to speak that are appropriate though often these are drawn from our individual and unique experience of life.
Stephen was accused of speaking against the Temple and against the Law of Moses. His sermon showed that in both cases he was more biblical than those Jews who accused him. He did this by drawing a parallel between the Sanhedrin and their ancestors. One of the mistakes that the Jews always made was to overvalue the Temple. They treated it as if its presence was a guarantee of God’s favor because this was where He dwelled. Stephen pointed out from Scripture that God did not dwell in one place. He is everywhere and can be worshipped anywhere. He does not dwell in a building but in His people, not merely those who are called by His Name but by those who submit to His will and partake of His mercy and grace.
Stephen also reminded the Jews that their ancestors consistently rejected the Law of God starting at Sinai. The Law had just been given and they displayed unfaithfulness by engaging in idolatry and immorality. Then down through the centuries they behaved in the same manner even to the point of persecuting and putting to death the Lord’s true prophets. Their wickedness culminated with their murder of Jesus who was the promised Messiah. This was too much for the Sanhedrin and they killed Stephen. His forgiveness of those who killed him echoed the words of Jesus on the cross and serve as a reminder to us that we are called to forgive those who despitefully use us.
The early Christians were noted for their charity. They apparently gave money and assistance to the poor both in their fellowship and without. In those days the poor were mostly widows, women who could not take care of themselves and had no family to support them. This generosity was one of the things which must have attracted them to the church in large numbers for the situation that arose here about distribution was no minor matter. The poor would be attracted not because they wanted to sponge off others or did not want to work, but because they were in desperate straits. In addition, they were touched by the love of God for they had never before experienced such open handed kindness and acceptance. The church today should be as welcoming and kind so that the lost would experience the love Of Jesus in the works of charity.
The situation that arose about the uneven distribution of funds called for immediate action. The apostles could not be taken up with the daily administration of funds or as it says here “wait tables.” This was not because they felt it was beneath them but because they had another important task to perform, to preach the good news to the people as well as train up disciples. Thus in the early church we see a need for distribution of labor according to the calling and gifts of each person. This is reflected in the church today as well. The pastors and teachers teach. The deacons serve as administrators of the church property and funds. If the entire burden were placed on the pastor then the whole church would suffer.
At the end of the last chapter we noted that some of the new believers sold property or goods to bless their new brethren. This was not a commanded but a voluntary act performed by some as the Spirit led them. The desire was to exalt God. Yet here we see something different. Ananias and Sapphira apparently thought they could gain status and honor by appearing to make a great donation. They sinned not because they held back some of the money but because they were hypocrites. They lied to the Holy Spirit about the size of the gift and did not desire to exalt the name of the Lord. This is the reason God judged them so harshly.
Because of this miraculous judgment many people were afraid to associate with the apostles and the new Christians but many more joined with them because they were attracted by the realization that the Lord was truly with them. And the miracles were also part of the witness that authenticated their power and authority. Persecution increased and got more violent. The apostles again boldly proclaimed to the religious leaders their responsibility for Jesus’death, an accusation that infuriated them. One well-respected Pharisee, Gamaliel prevailed upon his colleagues to let them go for if the apostles are truly anointed by God, they are fighting against Him and not man. The Sanhedrin agreed but they flogged them first showing that they were really quite self-righteous and thought they had nothing to fear from God. They were wrong. Despite the persecution or perhaps because of it the church continued to grow.