As Acts 15 begins, Luke reports that the Gentile Christian converts were pressured by some men from Judea to be circumcised according to the custom of Moses. The gentiles, along with Paul and Barnabas, “had no small dissension and debate with them” (15:1) Therefore, they sent a delegation to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles and elders of the Church. The balance of chapter tells the story of that meeting.
A Passionate Discussion
Luke tells us that there was much heated debate over this matter of gentile circumcision. There were men who spoke passionately on both sides of the issue; some believed the gentiles should be required to undergo the rite and others disagreed.
During this discussion, Peter stood and addressed the assembly. He told of the work of God among the Gentiles as the gospel was proclaimed. He told of how God had graciously given his Holy Spirit to the Gentiles just as he had Jewish converts. He asked them, “why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (15:10)?
The assembly fell silent as Paul and Barnabas followed Peter by telling of the wonders and the signs that God had done among the Gentiles. Then, James spoke. He had the solution to the problem.
Four Things From Which to Abstain
At James suggestion, the elders and apostles agreed that the only things from which they would ask the gentile converts to abstain were:
Following their agreement on these things, the apostles and elders sent a letter to the Gentile Christians in Antioch and elsewhere. And, the believers “rejoiced because of its [the letter’s] encouragement” (15:31).
It Was About Personal, Gospel Freedom
The gospel brings personal freedom into the lives of believers. It calls men and women out of a life of slavery to religious customs and rites and out of a life of slavery to oneself and the demands of cultural customs. It frees men and women to worship God in Spirit and truth. The men from Judea sought to place the Gentile Christians under religion’s yoke by requiring them to be circumcised. But, that’s not the gospel, and that’s not the result the gospel brings to the lives of those who have given themselves to it. It brings freedom. The apostles and elders rightly understood this freedom and communicated it beautifully to the Gentiles.
Every time I read this story I have to examine myself before the Lord in two ways. First, I have to think through what “religious requirements” I have placed upon myself to better justify myself before God. If I’m not careful, I can easily fall into the trap of “trying” to help my cause before God. Second, I have to ask, “Are there things and behaviors that I require of others to determine whether or not they are ‘good’ Christians?” If so, I must repent of placing undue yokes on the necks of others that neither they nor I are able to bear. I encourage you to examine yourself in the same way today. We are saved by grace through faith.
Paul and Barnabas were selected by the Holy Spirit and the congregation at Antioch to be set aside for missionary service. And, they accepted the call. They went from Antioch to Cyprus, Barnabas’ home island (4:36), to Antioch in Pisidia. In each place they preached good news to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles.
The majority of chapter 13 is concerned with reporting the sermon Paul preached in the Synagogue on the first Sabbath that the men were in Antioch of Pisidia. Initially, the sermon was well received. However, by the next Sabbath, as word of the new gospel had spread throughout the town and a large crowd (of Jews and Gentiles) gathered to hear Paul preach, the Jewish leaders became jealous of Paul and Barnabas’ fame and concerned with their growing influence in the city. So, the leaders incited a revolt against Paul and Barnabas by disputing, contradicting, and reviling them. Paul and Barnabas left the city and set out for Iconium.
There is much to say about this incident and the people’s rejection of the gospel. It’s been a common experience throughout Christian history. People have rejected and will continue to reject the gospel of Christ when it is preached boldly and clearly. In some cases the rejection is as dramatic as it was in Antioch, and in other cases to so much. But, we should not lose heart when people reject Christ and his gospel.
We are told in verse 48, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” And then in verse 52, “…the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” The gospel does not go out and return void. When it is proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit, men, women, and children are convicted of their sins and led to place their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The presence of human opposition does not prohibit the divine work of the Holy Spirit in bringing men and women to faith. The disciples were encouraged, and so should we be. The Lord is at work!
Everyone Needs a Barnabas
We can’t leave chapter 13 without saying a word about Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement. When we first meet Barnabas in 4:36, we are told that he “sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” for distribution among the poor and for assistance to those in need. The next time we hear of Barnabas, he is speaking on Paul’s (Saul) behalf before the other apostles testifying to the change in Paul’s life. He’s not afraid of Paul (9:27). Then, we see Barnabas traveling with Paul and others throughout the region proclaiming the good news and ministering to people (chapters 11 and 13).
Barnabas was gift from God to the church and to those with whom he traveled. He was a gracious encouragement to them. He understood how grace is to be lived out in the lives of those who follow Christ.
I recently heard a friend of mine described as one who “drips leadership.” To use that analogy with Barnabas, I think we can easily say that he was one who “dripped” encouragement.
You need a Barnabas in your life. You need to be a Barnabas in someone’s life. Thank the Barnabas in your life today, and strive to be a Barnabas for someone else. Be encouraged in the grace of God and its advancement through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and be an encouragement to others.
Our scheduled reading today is Acts 12, which is a fairly short chapter (25 verses) containing the story of Peter’s miraculous rescue from prison. He was imprisoned as a result of King Herod’s angry and violent campaign against some of the members of the church, a campaign which also included the murder of James (John’s brother). But, God miraculously freed him from his chains. Luke helps us to understand that God took this action out of his grace and providence and in response to the prayers of the people.
An Illustration of Prayer’s Power
“So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (12:5).
After Peter was arrested, the church had a prayer meeting. They joined their hearts together at Mary’s (John Mark’s mother) house and offered themselves to God in prayer on Peter’s behalf. They earnestly sought God and begged him to do something miraculous and great. And, he did.
I want to mention four things about this type of prayer. Though they are not specifically stated in the text, they are implied nonetheless.
Modeling This Type of Prayer
Do you model this type of prayer in your life? Do you really believe that God can do the impossible? Do you pray out of your understanding of God’s personal grace? Do you pray earnestly? Do you pray in desperation?
Take a moment today and think through your beliefs regarding prayer. Think about how you can reshape your prayer life to be similar to that of the early Christians. Our prayer lives often lack power because we lack faith in the great and awesome power of God to accomplish the impossible.
Acts 11 is a great “little” chapter. It only consists of two stories — Peter’s report to the Jerusalem church about the work of the Holy Spirit among Gentiles and Barnabas and Saul’s (Paul) ministry to the church in Antioch. With these two stories, Luke begins to transition his focus from the story of the church in Jerusalem and its leaders (Peter, John, and others) to the expansion of the church among the Gentiles, which centers on the ministry of Paul.
Excitement (vv. 1-18)
In the first half of the chapter, Peter gives a report to the church in Jerusalem about the work of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles. At first, the congregation did not respond favorably. They criticized Peter for going “to uncircumcised men and [eating] with them” (vs. 3). But, as Peter began to explain to them the vision he had seen and the ministry of the Spirit that he had experienced, their hearts were softened. They became excited about the Gentiles coming to faith. Verse 18 reads, “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.'”
This has been my experience. When true Christians hear of the work of God in bringing people to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, they get excited. They want to celebrate the work of the Savior. They want to sing for joy because people have received new life. They want to praise God for he is greatly to be praised for rescuing men, women, and children from their sins. A miracle of grace has happened, and it is greater than any earthly or ethnical distinction we make between men and women. The grace of God extends beyond all boundaries and brings men and women together in Christ. That is reason to celebrate!
The First “Christians”
In verses 19-30, Luke tells us about the congregation in Antioch. It is a mixed congregation, comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, and developed out of two missionary endeavors.Stephen, first, traveled through Phonecia, Cyprus, and Antioch proclaiming the gospel only to Jews. He spoke of the truth of Christ, and many Jews responded to the call to faith. Then, other “men of Cyprus and Cyrene” traveled in the same region speaking the truth to Gentiles. The had of the Lord was on them as well and many Gentiles heard the message of Christ and responded in faith. These men and women assembled in Antioch and were called “Christians”.
(The term “Christian” was most likely a label placed on the congregation by the unbelieving public. It is an indication that the church was beginning to have an identity of its own, one not associated with the Jews. As the movement grew, it became recognized socially.)
Characterized by Graciousness
Finally, I would note that the Antioch congregation was characterized by graciousness. They “determined every one according to his ability, to send relief to the bothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.” They responded to Judean Christians’ needs by sending famine relief. Isn’t that a beautiful and gracious thing?
Wouldn’t it be awesome if Christians everywhere responded to the expanse of the gospel with excitement and graciousness like the believers in Antioch?
Jesus said, “…But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” ( Acts 1:8).
The promise has come true. We are a testament. The gospel has come to the Gentiles. God was faithful to keep his promise. His disciples were faithful to fulfill their responsibility. They spread the gospel to the Gentiles and to “the ends of the earth.” Acts 10 marks the beginning of this kingdom expansion (at least figuratively).
Cornelius Had a Vision
A God-fearning Gentile had a vision from God in which God told him to send for Peter who was to explain the mystery of Christ to him. Cornelius was a “sort of” Jewish convert — he believed in the God of Jews and served him, but he hadn’t fully submitted to the religious rites, especially circumcision. However, he did follow the two other “expressions” of Jewish piety — prayers and almsgiving. Further, he led his whole household in seeking after the God of Israel.
Peter Had a Vision
While on his journey to the city (Joppa), Peter went onto a housetop to pray. There he had a vision from God in which God revealed two things to him. First, God declared all animals clean and acceptable to eat. (Eating BBQ is now pleasing to the Lord. PRAISE THE LORD!) Peter was hesitant to believe the promise, but God affirmed and reaffirmed it three times. Second, God told Peter about Cornelius. God had a plan for Cornelius, and Peter was part of that plan.
Peter Preached Good News to the Gentiles
Peter boldly stood and proclaimed the good news of Christ before the Cornelius and those he had gathered around him. Peter’s messages was simple (as it has been throughout Acts), and it centered on Jesus. Jesus lived perfectly; he worked graciously; he died unjustly; and he rose mightily from the grave. He reconciled men and women to God through his life death and resurrection. That is the gospel. Nothing else compares. Don’t be fooled.
The Holy Spirit Descended Upon the Gentiles
Before Peter finished preaching, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Gentiles. The people were filled with faith and the Holy Spirit to the amazement of those with Peter. Peter commanded that they be baptized in the name of Jesus. The Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised; they needed to be baptized. They weren’t becoming Jews; they became Christians. They received the blessings of the New Covenant in Christ, and its sign is baptism, not circumcision.
Walls of Hostility are Destroyed By God in Christ
Jesus destroyed the wall of hostility that existed between Jew and Gentile. He destroyed any and all ethnic or religious walls of divisions between men and women. He brings all those who would come to him in faith together in his new life — Jew, Gentile, white, black, male, female, slave, free. “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…” (Eph. 2:13-14).
How does this truth reshape the way you think about other people, especially those with whom you’ve previously erected or had erected a wall of hostility?
Praise God today for bringing you into his covenant people through Christ. You were once far off, but you’ve been brought near in Christ.
Are there any Corneilus’s in your life to whom God is calling you to go and proclaim the good news? If so, will you be like Peter and go?
Throughout history Christians have used the refrain, “The Holy Spirit is at work!” to describe their excitement about what God is doing in their lives and those of their churches. This was certainly the case for the first Christians. Luke (in Acts — he’s the author) tells us of all the miraculous works of God in and around the lives of that small band of believers. God is advancing His kingdom through the proclamation of His gospel and the miraculous transformation of men’s and women’s lives for His glory.
Acts 9 contains several stories of these miraculous transformations. The first is perhaps the most familiar. Even if you have a cursory knowledge of the Bible and Christian history, you are somewhat familiar with the conversion of Saul on the way to Damascus. Two less known, but no less dramatic stories conclude the chapter in Peter’s healing of Aeneas and Dorcus in the name and power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Between these two miraculous transformation stories, we find Barnabas (perhaps as equally dramatic) bringing and standing with Paul (Saul) before the other apostles in Jerusalem. They were afraid of this man, but Barnabas wasn’t (or, at least overcame his fear).
I only want to focus on the first of these stories today.
God Takes Initaitive: Jesus approached Saul on his journey to Damascus with a blinding light and confronted him about his plans to persecute and kill Christians (Jesus literally says, “me.”). It was Jesus (the risen Lord) who initiated the interaction with Saul. It was Jesus who called to Saul. It was Jesus who said, “Follow me.” Saul action was to respond after Jesus came to him.
God is Sovereign: Jesus sent Saul into the city with a change of orders. Instead of persecuting Christians, he would be preaching the gospel of our resurrected Lord. Jesus had chosen to use Saul for this divine purpose. He was to be transformed for that purpose.
God’s Call is Irresistible: When Saul received the call from Jesus, he couldn’t refuse it. He couldn’t reject it. He couldn’t walk away from it. Jesus took hold of Saul’s heart and transformed it. Saul could not resist the dramatic call of God on his life.
God Takes the Initiative: Ananias was a faithful man. He was a disciple in Damascus when he had a vision from the Lord that told him to go and help Saul. Ananias wasn’t looking for this call, but God sought him out.
God is Sovereign: Ananias had a divine appointment. He had been selected by the sovereign and gracious hand of God to go to Saul, to minister grace to Saul. He didn’t want to go at first, but God sent him anyway.
God’s Call is Irresistible: Ananias couldn’t say no. He had received call from God. He had to answer the call. He didn’t have an option to walk away. His heart wouldn’t let him. He didn’t want to resist the call after he had an encounter with Jesus. He was chosen by God. He was sent by God. And, he went.
The Same is True for Us.
This story is normative in the Bible and in Christian experience. God is the one who initiates His interactions with us. It is God who comes to us in our need. It is God who seeks us out when we wander from his fold. It is God who rescues us with his own blood. It is God’s Spirit who arrests our hearts. It is God who comes to us in our times of need and rebellion from him. He does it because he loves us and has sovereignly chosen us to be his. And, the advances of his sovereign and electing grace in our lives is irresistible. When he transforms our hearts for his glory and purpose, we cannot resist him. Resistance is simply impossible.
Christian history is stained with the blood of martyrs. Stephen was the first, and many men and women have followed suit. Acts 6 and 7 tell his story.
Stephen Was Full of Faith and of The Holy Spirit
We first meet Stephen in 6:5 where he is described as a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” He believe in Jesus. He held on to Jesus with his life. He believed God and took him at his word. He was a man full of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit led him. The Spirit guided him. The Spirit empowered him.
Because of the work of the Spirit in his life and because of his faith in Christ, he was able to do many wonders and signs among the people. He was a living testimony to the greatness of God’s power attained and expressed through faith. And, God was pleased to use him in a drastic way in the advancement of the church.
I will take a moment to challenge us here. I believe that Stephen received a unique gift of God’s Spirit that allowed him to do the astonishing wonders and the signs among the people. But, I also believe that we can learn much from him by way of his willingness to be used by God. He allowed himself to be used by God for great things. He gave himself totally to Christ in faith. He willingly submitted to the Holy Spirit. If we will do the same, we will be surprised at just how much God can and will use us.
Stephen Was Seized
Some men of the Synagogue tried to dispute him, but they were unsuccessful. So, they decided to trump up charges against him.
“[T]hey secretly instigated men who said, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us'” (6:11-14).
Then, Stephen preached, and it was quite a sermon. The Holy Spirit spoke through him, and he challenged the men of Israel with clarity and boldness.
Stephen was Stoned
After he preached this powerful sermon, the people were enraged. They bitterly ground their teeth at him and resolved to kill him. But, Stephen saw the glory of the God by the power and witness of the Holy Spirit.
A Forgotten God and A Forgiving Heart
As I read Stephen’s story, I’m reminded of a book I leafed through a few months ago — Forgotten God by Francis Chan. Chan’s desire is for Christians to reverse our tragic neglect of the Holy Spirit. This challenges me. It hits close to home. I struggle to be “in-tune with” and rely upon the Holy Spirit in my life of faith. I often find that I have practically neglected the Holy Spirit. Stephen didn’t. I want to be more like Stephen. I pray you do as well. May the Lord help us to do so.
Verse 7:60 amazes me. Look at it again. “And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'” As he was dying an unjust death, Stephen prayed for mercy on his accusers and murderers (including Saul). That blows my mind. That’s evidence of a heart given to the Holy Spirit.
In the first part of Acts 6, we find the selection and commissioning of the first Deacons. These seven men were “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (6:3) and were given a specific task — to care for the widows in the daily distribution of food (6:1-2). Several things quickly become apparent when we read about these men.
There’s a Need (6:1)
The congregation had a need — the widows were being neglected as the congregation grew. There was no one to prepare and distribute food to them. And, the Apostles were busy caring for the congregation in spiritual terms by devoting themselves to discipling the congregants in the word of God, preaching the word of God, and praying for the church and world. They didn’t have time to care for the physical needs of the widows and others. So, they appointed deacons to do this important work.
There’s No Building or Budget
I can’t help but notice that the the congregation didn’t have a building, and the congregation didn’t have a budget. There is no reference to these most frequently assigned deacon duties. The point is not that the management of property and finances isn’t important. Quite the contrary. It is. But, it is not the deacons’ main responsibility. The deacons were, first, to participate in the ministry of the church by meeting the physical needs of the congregants and those in their surrounding community. Everything else that they did was to enable them to accomplish this responsibility.
There are Resources to Distribute
The congregation had resources to distribute for the glory of God. The congregants had willingly and generously given their possessions so that the needs of men, women, and children could be met (4:32-37). It was the deacons’ job to distribute these resources in order to minister to the people. They were to lead the congregation in meeting physical needs. They were lead the congregants in being good stewards of their personal resources and those of the congregations. They were to facilitate gospel ministry with the distribution of resources.
There Was Church Growth
“The word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7). The church grew because of the deacons’ ministry. Can you believe that? The deacons led the church in meeting the needs of those within and without the congregation, and the church grew. God used this deacon ministry, this servant ministry to bring people, even priests, to himself. Wow.
Deacons are part of God’s plan to redeem the world. They are to make this vision of meeting physical needs through service and the management and distribution of the congregation’s resources a reality. That’s a privilege.
Acts 4 and 5 continue the story of the beginning of the New Testament Church. What began as a small group in an upper room in Jerusalem has quickly spread to a large group of people who are dedicated to the Way of Christ.
In their story, these early Christians modeled the three dimensions of the Christian life. Those dimensions are:
Any attempt to live the Christian life without one of these three dimensions falls short and leaves us lacking. We are saved by Christ for Christ to be a part of his people and to work to accomplish his purposes. The New Testament Christians knew nothing of an individualized Christian faith that is to be lived in isolation. They lived, worked, worshipped, and ministered Christ’s grace together.
Further, I would note one other theme that is written all over Acts 2-5.
Luke wrote the theme of spiritual awakening throughout his narrative from the time of Peter’s sermon on. The formula for this awakening is: the gospel is proclaimed (either with or without a miraculous sign) + gathered people listening intently + conviction of sin = spiritual awakening in the soul. It’s that simple. Or, is it? Is there more to it? Yes!
Luke tells us that there is more to spiritual awakening than following a formula. There is yet only one active ingredient in the spiritual awakening process. It is the Holy Spirit, not any of those things mentioned above. The earliest Christians couldn’t ensure spiritual awakening any more than we can. They had to rely upon the Holy Spirit. We do too. We can prepare for awakening. We can fulfill our responsibility for spiritual awakening by proclaiming the gospel and gathering people. But, only he can convict people of their sin. Only he can bring about awakening.
These early Christians witnessed a special display of the Holy Spirit. The sought him out. They were faithful to proclaim the truth. They lived their faith. He decided to grace them with his presence. The call for us today is to imitate the early believers our faithfulness to proclaim the truth, to gather people, to live our faith, to pray for the Spirit to bring about conviction of sin and boldness (4:23-31). But, we are to wait on the Holy Spirit. We are to trust him to accomplish his purposes. Let us not be discouraged. Rather, let us be encouraged. Let us wait on him expectantly. Let us seek spiritual awakening by seeking Christ and his kingdom (Mathew 6:33).
The first Christians experienced some unique and powerful things. They saw the Spirit of God moving in a fresh and special way. He was doing many wonders and signs through the apostles. Miracles were regular occurrences. This was an exiting and worshipful time.
The purpose of these miracles was to demonstrate the Spirit’s power and the presence of God’s kingdom on earth. That makes sense, doesn’t it? But, they had a further purpose too. They were to give the apostles an opportunity to explain the gospel of the kingdom of God. The miracle took place, and the apostles explained it. Wonder and awe then came upon the people.
This sign/explanation process is exactly what we find in chapter 3. Peter and John healed a lame beggar at the temple gate. Then Peter preached a sermon (and it was a bold one) in which he explained the gospel and the healing that had just taken place.
This is a straight-forward story of God’s healing grace. The man asked the two apostles for alms at the temple gate. They responded by telling him that they had no money. Then, Peter said, “…what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk” (3:6)! The man did! He got up and walked. He leapt for joy and praised God. Many recognized him as the man at the gate, “and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him” (3:10b).
Naturally, the people ran to Peter and John. They needed to know what had happened. They needed to see these two men who had wrought such a change in this man’s life. They wanted to get the skinny on what had taken place. You can imagine the excitement, the chaos. And, Peter was ready to give them what they thought they wanted.
He preached a powerful sermon that emphasized two things: the greatness of Jesus and the necessity of faith and repentance. Take a moment to note the references to each of these points in the sermon. Verses 13, 14, 15, and 17 refer to Jesus’ greatness in six qualities.
He is the divine servant of a covenant keeping God. He is Holy. He is Righteous. He is the Author of Life. He is raised from the dead. And, he is the suffering servant about whom the prophets prophesied.
Notice also verses 16, 19, and 26 where Peter emphasizes the necessity of faith in the “name of Christ” (16) and repentance from sins. True conversion to Christianity is only possible where there is faith in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ coupled with repentance, a turn from “wickedness” (3:26) and a “turn back” (19) to God through Christ. Both are essential.
Paul wrote to Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” Acts 3 profits me in all four of these aspects. But, I think it is most helpful in teaching and correcting me. It teaches me that the main purpose of miracles is to demonstrate God’s power so as to draw me and others to himself (Jesus taught the same). And, it teaches and corrects me when I fail to keep faith and repentance in the proper tension and relationship when it comes to my understanding, communication, and living of true biblical Christianity.