Acts 6:5-9:43: Men, Martyrdom and Miracle

In this portion of Acts, we have the first lapping of the “water of life” beyond the shore of Jewry.  If one takes Acts 1:8 as the “outline” of the book, then chapter 8 gives us preaching “in Samaria,” and then the first convert from “the uttermost part of the earth,” i.e., the Ethiopian eunuch.  In this portion, we note the beginning of changes from a narrow and limited view of evangelism to a wider world-view, all in accord with the revealed will of God all along, Genesis 12:1-3; Matthew 28:19.  God’s purpose in grace has never been as narrow as some would make it, although, to be fair, neither has it been as wide as others tend to make it.

This section focuses of four men of martyrdom or miracle:  Stephen, Philip, Saul and Peter.

1. Stephen, 6:5-8:4.

His Ministry, 6:5-8.  Chosen as one merely to help in the distribution to the poor, Stephen evidently soon excelled.  SInce the early Christians seem greatly to have been filled with the Spirit, he was probably one of many such men, but he is noteworthy because his life in particular impinged on and greatly influenced a young man named Saul of Tarsus, 7:58.  Also, Saul may have been one of “them of Cilicia” who were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke, Acts 6:9-10, although that isn’t certain.

What an encouragement this young man is to us – and what a rebuke to our expectations!  We want huge crowds and wonderful “ministries,” but even in the ministries of men like Spurgeon – may God raise up some men like him! – the working of God’s Spirit is always “one-on-one.”  As an encouragement to us – here was a young man apparently cut off very early in his life, yet his testimony was part of the means of the conversion of one who forever influenced the church.  We have such a narrow, sometimes fatalistic, sometime ineffective, view of the sovereignty and purpose of God.

His martrydom, 6:9-8:4.  Stephen’s witness before the Sanhedrin is a masterpiece.  It isn’t simply a collection of facts, or a mere historical recitation, but a careful account of God’s dealing in grace throughout Israel’s history, not leaving out their rebellion and sin, which ultimately consisted in their murder of the Messiah, 7:51-53.  He probably never got to finish.  His mention of God in v. 56 would have been intolerable blasphemy to the Sanhedrin, v. 57, and for that they killed him.

2. Philip, 8:5-40

Philip was another of “the seven,” and like Stephen was greatly used of God.  He is interesting for several reasons.  He was used in a great city-wide “revival,” for lack of a better term, and yet was caught away in the midst of it all to go way south to talk to a single individual.  What we said about Stephen is also applicable here.

One result of his ministry was the “conversion” of a man named Simon.  A lot of discussion centers around the question of whether he was actually saved or not.  I don’t think he was, but then I don’t really know.  We can’t see the heart of people.  According to our Lord in Matthew 7, there will be a great number of people who can say, “Lord, Lord,” who will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  It is not without reason that another of these four men – Peter – warned his readers to make your calling and election sure or certain, 2 Peter 1:10.

3. Saul of Tarsus, 9:1-31.

In the audience listening to a heretic named Stephen was a young, zealous Jew named Saul of Tarsus.  This same Saul later preached a sermon which echoes the sermon of Stephen, Acts 13:16-41.  We doubt he ever forgot that episode or that preaching, for we believe it was the means of his eventual conversion.

But even though the seed had been sown, it was not yet God’s time for the harvest.  In the meantime, we believe that Saul fought tooth and nail against what he had heard.  In some circles, there is a great and often heated discussion about whether God’s grace is effectual or whether it can be resisted no matter what God might try to do.  I think Saul indeed had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the border of the kingdom of God, 8:1-3; 9:1-2, 5, but when he found out who Jesus really was, he “willingly” walked into it.

4. Peter, 9:32-43.

Just because the Gospel emphasis is beginning to shift from Jew to Gentile does not mean that things were not happening with the Jews.  Peter was still being mightily used  of God.  This section shows him being moved into place for what was not his final ministry, but it is the one we Gentiles are the most concerned in, for it shows the door of faith being opened wide to us.

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A Girl Named Rhoda.

In our reading Sunday, my wife and I were in Acts 11 and 12.  When we read Acts 12, I had to chuckle at what happened, and yet also reflected how often what happened then happens now.

In ch. 12, Herod had decided to persecute the church at Jerusalem.  He put to death James, the brother of John.  Because this greatly pleased the Jews, with whom the Herods pretty much always had uneasy relationships, he also imprisoned Peter.  V. 5 tells us that constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.  What happens next always impresses me:  on the night before Peter was to be brought out, probably to be executed, that night Peter was sleeping…. (!)

“Sleeping”….

I wonder what you and I would do under similar circumstances.

Well, Peter is miraculously released, which ultimately cost the lives of 16 Roman soldiers and went to where many was gathered together for prayer.  This is where Rhoda comes in.

So excited was she to hear Peter’s voice on the other side of the door that she didn’t open it, but ran and told the others, “Peter’s outside the door!  Peter’s outside the door!”

Their response? –

In the vernacular of our day, “You’re out of your mind!”

“No!  He’s outside, he’s outside!”

“No way!”

“Way!”

“It must be his angel.”  This from one of the more spiritual brothers.

Well – finally – they opened the door, and the Word says that they were…

…”astonished”(!)

Oh, my!

(Looking in the mirror) – how often we are “astonished” when the Lord answers prayer unexpectedly, as He did here.  I don’t know exactly what the believers were praying for when they prayed for him, but it evidently wasn’t that he would just show up at the door!

How often – too often – we’re like the man in Mark 9, who came to the Lord about his son and said, “…if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”  I think the Lord was very emphatic in the first part of His reply when He said, “If you can believe – all things are possible to him who believes.” 

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:17-24.

Aye, there’s a prayer for us poor believers!

“Lord, we believe.  Help our unbelief!”