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.