The Seine River running through Paris

The Seine River running through Paris

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Canonical Reading Plan for Nov 15, Act 7-8

Today's readings are Act 7-8.

Stephen is put on trial in Act 7. His defense strategy is an incredible sermon, one of the finest in the Bible. And, it comes from a deacon in the church. He rails against the Jews and their conduct before God in three areas that are sacred to them.

He starts with a description of them being the chosen people of God (Act 7:2-19), having received God's blessing even though they consistently prove themselves unworthy.

In relating the birth of Moses, Stephen begins to reveal the raw truth of the Hebrew people by challenging the first of the three areas they hold dear, their perception of the relationship they had with Moses. While the Jews revere Moses and take extraordinary pride in him, the truth is they never really obeyed him (Act 7:39-43).

The Jews also took immense pride in the tabernacle, their second point of reverence. The tabernacle eventually became the temple. The Jews prided both, believing them to be the sign of God's presence among them. This was true enough, but it evolved into the Jews feeling superior to others because of these structures (Act 7:44-47). Stephen tells them God doesn't live in earthly dwellings (Act 7:48-50), that God is actually the one who builds things, not them.

Finally, Stephen tells them they have always resisted the Holy Spirit. They were given the Law, which is their third point of pride, the Jews felt the Law set them apart from everyone around them. But when they were blessed with it, they killed the prophets and disobeyed what the Law instructed them to do (Act 7:51-53). This was their rebellion against the Spirit, incessant violation of the Law they so dearly cherished.

Stephen has revealed the truth about the foundational elements of their faith, Moses, the tabernacle and the Law. They were three blessings from God that set them apart. But being set apart means being singled out for holiness, being messengers of God. Instead, they became unappreciative and fickle, disrespecting all three, not respecting them as they pretended to. Ultimately, their disrespect was directed toward God. They had perverted the gifts they were given, perverted the grace they received.

Yet again, we see the results of preaching the undiluted truth. Stephen is stoned to death. Some like to make much of "Jesus standing up" as Stephen dies (Act 7:55), supposedly to welcome him into heaven. The text does not say Jesus stood up, only that, as Stephen saw him, He was standing. Stephen goes to the Lord with forgiveness on his lips.
There is much we can learn from Stephen’s sermon and the reactions it engendered. The Jews perceptions of themselves far exceeded those of God. They thought themselves to be holy and righteous. When accusation to the contrary arose, rather than exhibiting contrite repentance, they got angry and lashed out. Stephen’s sermon was an opportunity to repent and turn toward God. Instead, their hard hearts and foolish pride prevented them from being blessed.

The net result of Stephen's martyrdom is found in Act 8 where we see wholesale persecution of the new church. Saul rises up against the church. Remember the prophecy when the apostles were sent out? They would be witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and in Samaria and to the end of the earth (Act 1:8).

Saul's persecutions send the church away from Jerusalem, fleeing for safety into the surrounding countryside (Judea). Philip goes to...where? He goes to Samaria where he preaches the gospel, performing signs and wonders. Peter and John follow after Phillip, laying hands on the Samaritans who had not yet received the Holy Spirit.

Note that the Samaritans receive the Spirit as a people group. This filling of the Spirit is one of those unique events that are descriptive of the formation of the church and not necessarily prescriptive of the Christian walk for all believers. In Acts, the Spirit pours out on the three major people groups in the Scriptures, the Jews first (at Pentecost), then the Samaritans (here in Act 8:15-16) and finally on the Gentiles (Acts 10, particularly 10:45). This is an explicit representation of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:17). To the Jews hearing this, it would not have meant that all human beings would receive the Spirit. However, it would indicate that the Spirit would be given to more people groups than just the Jews.

The pattern is clear. When the Spirit is poured out, it starts in Jerusalem, with the Jews. Then Spirit is given to the Samaritans. This is significant for the Jews. To the Jews, they are the chosen people, the only ones deserving of the presence of God. The Samaritans are mongrel hybrids, part Jew part Gentile, in the eyes of the Jews. Before these events, to become part of the kingdom of God one had to convert to Judaism. It now becomes clear that belief in Christ is the requirement, not conversion to Judaism. The Spirit comes to the Samaritans after the gospel is received. This is the pattern we will see throughout Acts. The same thing happens to the Gentiles in Acts 10.

Meanwhile, Philip shares the gospel with an Ethiopian! This is a hint that the gospel is progressing beyond Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria headed for the ends of the earth. The Spirit will follow!

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