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ANANIAS & SAPPHIRA
Israel has two new miracle men in her midst: Peter and John. As the popularity of these two men soars, a Jewish man named Ananias [ann-nuh-NYE-us] and his wife Sapphira [suh-FI-rah] start brainstorming a way that they can try to win the favor of the leaders of the new Jesus movement. Right now it sounds like donations are what’s scoring big points among the community of Christ followers. Well, Ananias and Sapphira have some property they can sell. It’s a sacrifice, but it seems like a smart one if it will get them in solid with the powerful miracle workers. So the couple sell their land, pinch off some of the profit for themselves, and then Ananias takes the rest over to where Peter is. But Ananias doesn’t want to admit that he’s only giving some of the money to Team Jesus. That would make him sound like a tightwad. So instead, he boasts that he’s handing over every dime as he dramatically lays a sack of money down at the feet of the highly revered Peter. Then he waits for the applause to begin. But the applause doesn’t begin. Instead, much to Ananias’ shock, Peter gets mad.
Then Peter said, “Ananias, why have you let Satan fill your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself. The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to Yahweh!”
As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died. Everyone who heard about it was terrified. Then some young men got up, wrapped him in a sheet, and took him out and buried him. (Acts 5:3-6)
Yikes! Talk about a plan backfiring. Sapphira isn’t around to see her husband get struck down by God, and He makes sure that no one warns her when she comes strolling onto the scene three hours later.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Was this the price you and your husband received for your land?”
“Yes,” she replied, “that was the price.”
And Peter said, “How could the two of you even think of conspiring to test the Spirit of Yahweh like this? The young men who buried your husband are just outside the door, and they will carry you out, too!”
Instantly, she fell to the floor and died. When the young men came in and saw that she was dead, they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear gripped the entire church and everyone else who heard what had happened. (Acts 5:7-11)
Notice how Peter uses the term “the Spirit of Yahweh” or “the Spirit of the Lord,” thus demonstrating how he is not differentiating between the magnificent Holy Spirit and the magnificent Yahweh. But Peter does understand that Yahweh doesn’t like boldfaced lying, especially for the sake of promoting oneself. Peter prophetically predicts the death of Sapphira and a moment later, she keels over. This is a strategic move on God’s part, because He sees how carnal things are getting with this donation business. These two shocking deaths will motivate people to think twice before trying to impress Peter with their offerings. Notice also how this first negative miracle also scares others away from officially joining the group:
The apostles were performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers were meeting regularly at the Temple in the area known as Solomon’s Colonnade. But no one else dared to join them, even though all the people had high regard for them. Yet more and more people believed and were brought to the Lord—crowds of both men and women. (Acts 5:12-14)
Negative miracles are very effective in keeping some flesh worshipers at bay. By associating Peter with both healing and death, the Holy Spirit is causing people to feel afraid to get too close to the miracle men. But this kind of deterrent will only work on the more reverent folks. The less reverent will greedily push forward and try to get their turn at being blessed. We saw this same pattern with Jesus in the Gospel books. The folks who were always pressing in on Him were mainly there just to see the show of miraculous power. Look at the few accounts when Jesus actually praises individuals for having strong faith, and you’ll find that those people are usually not members of the main herd. Instead, they are folks who Jesus runs into between His main miracle shows.
When we’re serious about honoring God, we don’t follow Him around looking for some opportunity to take advantage of Him. We don’t sneak up behind Him and try to steal His power from Him like the bleeding woman did (see Lessons Learned from a Bleeding Woman). Instead, we keep a respectful distance like the Roman centurion who said he wasn’t worthy to have Jesus under his roof (see Lesson 51). Here in Acts, we see two different reactions to Peter doing miracles. Some folks are listening to the spiritual messages and embracing God on a soul level while they keep a respectful distance. But others are stalking the miracle men and trying to find ways to force Peter to bless them.
As a result of the apostles’ work, sick people were brought out into the streets on beds and mats so that Peter’s shadow might fall across some of them as he went by. Crowds came from the villages around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those possessed by evil spirits, and they were all healed. (Acts 5:15-16)
This is how it always works once the miracles start happening: people come from miles around just to get quick fixes to current problems. Most of these folks aren’t interested in spiritual insights—they just want less trials in life.
Now because you’re taught to view the Bible as an extension of God that magically fell down from the sky one day, you’re used to treating every statement in it as a literal truth. The reason why we spend so much time showing you how many statements in the Bible are flat out wrong is to help you gain a more balanced perspective of the book. It’s not perfect, it’s a product of humans, and as such it is filled with human bias. To thrive in your own walk with God, you need to learn how to differentiate between Divine truths and human assumptions. For example, at the end of our last lesson, after Peter made that long prayer in front of thousands of very excited Jews, there was a brief earthquake. For the ancient Jews, violent shaking was strongly associated with Yahweh’s Divine Presence. Why? Because way back in Moses’ day, when Yahweh said His Presence was descending on Mt. Sinai, He created quite the ruckus, and one of the things He did was shake the place.
Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because Yahweh came down on it in fire. The smoke rose from the mountain like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain shook wildly. (Ex. 19:18)
Now Luke is Jewish. He’s standing there with thousands of other Jews who are already riding high on adrenaline and everyone’s listening to Peter cry out to Yahweh. No sooner does Peter end his prayer than the whole place starts shaking. Well, if you’re an Old Covenant Jew, then the obvious theological interpretation is that Yahweh’s own Presence is filling the place. Yahweh’s Presence is manifested by the Spirit of Yahweh, aka the Holy Spirit. So Peter prays, the whole place starts shaking, Luke looks around and sees everyone going spastic, and he naturally concludes that everyone has just been filled with the Holy Spirit. The problem is that when Christians read this language today, they interpret it to mean that thousands of Jews just received permanent salvation under the New Covenant. But is that really what happened? Did the Holy Spirit really come into all of these people and did our Gods really decide to mass save the whole lot of them or did the walls just shake because the Holy Spirit was encouraging Peter and emphasizing the fact that God was physically with them? Can human Luke see into the souls of other humans? No, so Luke can’t possibly say with any certainty that the Holy Spirit entered anyone. All Luke can go by is external signs, and it doesn’t take much for a Jew to be convinced that the Spirit of Yahweh just entered someone.
To put these mass salvation events in perspective, let’s leave the Jewish bias for a moment and look around at our modern day churches. You can find plenty of churches in Christendom today which will declare someone to be inhabited by the Holy Spirit solely based on that someone muttering a bunch of gibberish. How hard is it to fake speaking in tongues? It’s not hard at all, and in many Christian circles, blurting out a bunch of nonsensical noise is all you have to do to get stamped with the “saved” label. In other Christian circles, we find demons throwing people into physical fits and emotional hysteria which we then call “getting drunk in the Spirit.” What we mean by this is that the Holy Spirit has actually entered the person. But think about how ridiculous we’re being. In all of these cases, we’re simply using abnormal behavior as “proof” that the Holy Spirit has come into someone. Well, the Jews in the Bible did the same thing. And just as we frequently misapply the “saved” label today, you’ll find scores of folks being referred to as believers in the New Testament who were not at all accepted by our Gods. When we just let Luke be our guide and blindly accept his biased assessment of things without questioning the validity of the tests he’s using, we end up deluded.
When Jesus was touring around Israel, He had thousands of followers, creating the illusion that thousands of Jews were sincerely accepting His teachings. But when Jesus started making noise that He wasn’t going to save Israel from Roman oppression, we find many of His followers suddenly cutting ties with Him. In the 1970s, there was a massive “Jesus Movement” that began in the western United States and eventually spread to Europe and Central America before dying out in the 1980s. During that time, it appeared as though there were mass amounts of people getting legitimately saved. And yet once the fad ended and it was no longer considered exciting to be a “Jesus freak,” we saw many supposed believers totally abandon all interest in God. This resulted in serious disillusionment for real believers who were left feeling totally confused about how true believers could so totally fall away from the faith. But the answer is simple: most of the people who we declared to be “saved” at that time never really submitted to God. They were just partaking in an exciting new fad that appeared to offer them a lot of personal perks.
As you read through the New Testament epistles, you will find the early apostles struggling to understand why so many Jewish converts to Christianity start turning away from Christ. You’ll read about churches that are running amuck with carnality and showing no regard for respecting God. Why were things such a mess? Because like our world traveling evangelists today, the early apostles were totally deluding themselves about how many sincere converts they were raking in. Once people are getting healed from illnesses simply by having your shadow fall on them, it’s a given that you’re going to attract thousands of fans. But are your fans attracted to God? No, they’re attracted to the miracle cures. There is no salvation without submission, and submission doesn’t even come up until there is a disagreement of wills. Well, God driving the demons out of your wife or God restoring your ability to walk is hardly going to give you cause to want to submit to Him. Fawn over Him? Yes. Praise Him? Certainly. But submit to Him? On what grounds? What is God doing that you don’t like? What is He saying that you disagree with? If you never think beyond the miracle, you never get to the point of submission.
JESUS VS. PETER
As we followed Jesus through the Gospel books, we saw Him using a clever strategy of attracting huge numbers of souls with miracles, and then giving those souls a hard whack with upsetting truths. This was how Jesus created opportunities for submission. Everyone loved it when Jesus miraculously multiplied food. But no one loved it when He started saying they were all on their way to Hell. Pride smashing speeches like the Sermon on the Mount were how Jesus kept challenging His fickle fans to think beyond the miracles. And the more offensive Jesus became between shows, the quicker people lost interest in Him. When it came time to crucify Jesus, we didn’t see a huge public outcry that His life should be spared. Why not? Why weren’t the commoners more devoted to Jesus after all He’d done for them? Because miracles by themselves don’t secure loyalty. Free gifts don’t result in the formation of deep core bonds. It is only through submission to God that we end up with a meaningful soul bond, and for submission to be possible, we need to be confronted with aspects of God that we really don’t like.
In the Gospels we find Jesus firing off parable after parable which depicted Yahweh chucking Jews into Hell and saying that their genetic association with Abraham wasn’t good enough to get them into Heaven. We found Him ripping all over the highly revered Sadducees and Pharisees and constantly calling the human value system worthless while He promoted a totally different value system. Because Jesus was such a prickly pear, any souls who were really listening to Him would have been constantly challenged to deepen their personal submission to God. But what do we find in Acts? Peter is going around giving Jews a slap on the wrist for crucifying Jesus. He’s saying that they all need to admit that killing Jesus was wrong and start revering Jesus as one of Yahweh’s personal favorites before Yahweh will accept them. Well, what’s hard about this? After all, Jesus performed a ton of miracles, and with Him out of everyone’s faces, they can choose to focus on His miracles and forget all of those offensive things He said.
When Peter tells the Jews that Jesus really is Israel’s Messiah, and that Yahweh’s still got big plans for Israel, how is he preaching submission? So far all of Peter’s speeches have been focused on the crime of killing Jesus and on the fact that Jesus ranks high with Yahweh. Well, this just really isn’t the kind of message that’s going to inspire the kind of soul submission that our Gods require of us. The Jews know that Jesus didn’t really do any crime. They know His death was just about politics and turf wars. Saying, “Whoops, yeah, we weren’t right to murder an innocent man,” is hardly enough to gain salvation under the New Covenant. And labeling Jesus as a hero instead of a blasphemer isn’t enough, either—especially when you’re choosing to forget just how blasphemous Jesus was with His claim to be I AM. So here in Acts, we see a bad pattern starting of miracles attracting mass droves of folks who have never been serious about pleasing Yahweh under the Old Covenant, while no one is being challenged with true submission. Then we have Luke slapping the “saved” label on everyone once the ground shakes and saying that they’ve all got the Holy Spirit. No, they really don’t. There were probably some sincere converts in these mob scenes, but thousands? That’s a big exaggeration.
So wait a second—if Peter is sidestepping the tough issues, how can anyone get saved? Well, since when do people get saved by listening to humans? Truth doesn’t come from people, it comes from our Gods. It doesn’t matter what Peter says with his mouth—Peter does not control the process of spiritual illumination. The Holy Spirit is talking to the individual souls in these mob scenes, and He is working with individual minds to raise the questions that people need to be asking in order to drive them towards God. The Holy Spirit is not some incompetent halfwit who can’t possibly work without our invaluable help, yet so often this is how we promote Him in the Church today.
Consider all of these books we crank out about how to be relevant and effective when we teach and how to reach our target audiences. Do you know what such books are good for? Starting a nice bonfire on a beach. When we create formulas for how to illuminate souls as if such power lies within our mortal frames, we are talking like arrogant fools. It is only our three glorious Creators who can impart truth to humans, and They certainly will not take any instruction from us. Asking “How can I be an effective preacher?” is the wrong question. You can’t be an effective anything, and when you strive for such a goal, you’re trying to play the part of God’s assistant. The only question a preacher should be asking is, “How do I honor God with this calling He has placed on my life?” And the answer is simple: “Wait for Him to instruct you, and then do exactly what He tells you to do.” There are no formulas, because God is wild, and He delights in being unpredictable. He starts patterns and then He breaks them. He will suddenly call an end to ministries that seem to be peaking, and He’ll choose to start new ones at moments that feel totally wrong to us. He sometimes commands the talented to do nothing while He brings in unskilled bumblers to lead the masses. Our Gods are not humans, and They do not operate like we do. They will accomplish Their purposes with or without us, so serving Them to help Them is the wrong motivation. We serve Them to please Them because we understand that Their opinions are the only ones that matter.
BACK TO ACTS
Carnality abounds here in Acts 5, and as people are lining up in the streets trying to suck miracle cures out of Peter’s shadow, the Jewish preachers are getting riled. It’s like Jesus all over again: all of their followers are ditching them to go stalk the new miracle men. Having already been embarrassed once by Peter and John, the Sadducees decide to strike again.
The high priest and his officials, who were Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But an angel of Yahweh came at night, opened the gates of the jail, and brought them out. Then he told them, “Go to the Temple and give the people this message of life!”
So at daybreak the apostles entered the Temple, as they were told, and immediately began teaching.
When the high priest and his officials arrived, they convened the Sanhedrin—the full Senate of the elders of Israel. Then they sent for the apostles to be brought from the jail for trial. But when the Temple guards went to the jail, the men were gone. So they returned to the council and reported, “The jail was securely locked, with the guards standing outside, but when we opened the gates, no one was there!”
When the captain of the Temple guard and the leading priests heard this, they were perplexed, wondering where it would all end. Then someone arrived with startling news: “The men you put in jail are standing in the Temple, teaching the people!” (Acts 5:17-25)
As we learned in Lesson 42, the Pharisees had major clout in Israel outside of Jerusalem, but Jerusalem and the Temple were Sadducee turf. Here we see our Gods intentionally making the Sadducees look like idiots by having their prisoners not only escape, but go right back out to preach inside the Temple complex. This is like a king’s enemy escaping a dungeon only to go gather a huge crowd of fans for himself right inside the royal palace. It’s beyond embarrassing and the Sadducees are super ticked.
The captain went with his Temple guards and arrested the apostles, but without violence, for they were afraid the people would stone them. Then they brought the apostles before the Sanhedrin, where the high priest confronted them. “We gave you strict orders never again to teach in this Man’s Name!” he said. “Instead, you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about Him, and you want to make us responsible for His death!”
But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey Yahweh rather than any human authority. Yahweh, the God of our ancestors, raised Jesus from the dead after you killed Him by hanging Him on a cross. Then Yahweh put Jesus in the place of honor at His right hand as Prince and Savior. He did this so the people of Israel would repent of their sins and be forgiven. We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by Yahweh to those who obey Him.” (Acts 5:26-32)
Notice how Peter’s language makes it very clear that he views Yahweh as outranking Jesus. Jesus is now being viewed as a kind of ruling authority. This was quite typical for the right hand men of human kings: they were often assigned manager-type responsibilities over the kingdom. Joseph and Daniel were examples of this: they both ended up as high ranking officials that were highly trusted by the kings they served under. But of course being the king’s assistant was a far cry from being the king’s equal.
Now Peter’s theology here is a bit off. He says that Yahweh’s whole point in working through Jesus was to motivate the Jews to repent of their sins. Well, not quite. Yahweh has been calling the Jews to repent for centuries: we have plenty of evidence of this in the Old Testament. Seven hundred years before anyone had even heard of Jesus, we find Yahweh saying:
“I have stretched out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, according to their own thoughts; a people who provoke Me to anger continually to My face.” (Isa. 65:2-3)
Centuries later in Zechariah, we find Him saying:
“‘Return to Me, and I will return to you, says Yahweh of Heaven’s Armies.’ Don’t be like your ancestors who would not listen or pay attention when the earlier prophets said to them, ‘This is what Yahweh of Heaven’s Armies says: Turn from your evil ways, and stop all your evil practices.’” (Zech. 1:3-4)
If you view Jesus as just one more in a long line of human prophets, then you’d say, “Yep, this was just another attempt by Yahweh to get Israel to repent.” This is how Peter sees it, and he keeps talking like Jesus is suddenly making salvation available to the Jews. But no, salvation has always been available and Yahweh has been urging rebellious Jews to return to Him since the birth of Israel. Even before Israel, we find Yahweh urging people to repent. Way back in Genesis, after snarky Cain gets in a snit because Yahweh rejects his garbage offering, Yahweh urges Cain to turn away from rebellion and embrace obedience. So to suggest that the whole Jesus event was just about repentance or salvation is not correct.
The revelation of Jesus drastically changed our view of our Creators. We used to think there was only Yahweh—now we know about Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well. Before we knew about Jesus, salvation was obtained through reverential submission to our Creator. Jesus didn’t change the soul attitudes that are required for salvation, He changed the number of Targets that we need to be submitting to. Whenever some human is trying to explain God to you inside or outside of the Bible, you need to be asking your Gods directly to show you how accurately They are being described. Remember that truth doesn’t come from Peter or us or any other human. Truth only comes from Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
When they heard this, the Sanhedrin was furious and decided to kill them. But one member, a Pharisee named Gamaliel [guh-MAY-lee-el], who was an expert in religious law and respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be sent outside the council chamber for a while. Then he said to his colleagues, “Men of Israel, take care what you are planning to do to these men! Some time ago there was that fellow Theudas [THEE-uh-duss], who pretended to be someone great. About 400 others joined him, but he was killed, and all his followers went their various ways. The whole movement came to nothing. After him, at the time of the census, there was Judas of Galilee. He got people to follow him, but he was killed, too, and all his followers were scattered.
So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from Yahweh, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against Yahweh!” (Acts 5:33-39)
Sadducees and Pharisees are like two rival gangs competing over the same turf, so as a general rule, they get on each other’s nerves. But now and then we’ll see them joining forces against a common enemy, and here we have a Pharisee named Gamaliel trying to help the Sadducees out by suggesting that they let this Jesus movement die out on its own. He cites two recent commoners who had brief moments of fame, only to end up dead and forgotten. He sees Peter and John trying to gather attention by wowing people with signs and wonders and knows that they won’t be able to keep that show up on their own for very long. Then he wisely points out that if Yahweh really is the One behind this new movement, it would be foolish to side against Him. The fact that Gamaliel is showing a reverential fear of Yahweh suggests that there’s at least some spark of real submission in his soul. And since the Sadducees don’t know what else to do and they’re nervous about starting a riot, they decide to take Gamaliel’s advice. But this time they can’t just let the apostles go peacefully. They want to at least dish back some of the humiliation they’ve suffered, so they enjoy the sick show of having the apostles flogged. Then they let them go. So ha.
The others accepted Gamaliel’s advice. They called in the apostles and had them flogged. Then they ordered them never again to speak in the Name of Jesus, and they let them go.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin rejoicing that Yahweh had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name of Jesus. And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: “Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 5:40-42)
It’s too bad these guys are only teaching that Jesus is the Messiah instead of teaching that Jesus is God, but there it is. And you have to remember that the whole “Messiah” thing means a lot more to the Jews than it does to us today. Today when we call Jesus the Messiah, we’re thinking about Him being a doorway to eternal salvation. But for the Jews, the Messiah was primarily the human instrument through which Yahweh would do great things for the nation of Israel. So telling Jews, “Hey, the Messiah has come,” is like saying, “Hey, Israel is entering into a new era in which all those prophecies we’ve been waiting on are much closer to being fulfilled.” Believing the Messiah has come has enormous carnal appeal for Jews who are sick to death of being oppressed by those icky Roman pagans. The Jews have spent many centuries longing for a political and national Savior, so it’s definitely worth hearing more of what the apostles have to say on the subject.
GRUMBLING AMONG THE FOLLOWERS
But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:1)
A Greek speaking believer suggests a convert to Judaism who is not an ethnic Jew. Remember that there are two ways to use the term “Jew.” An ethnic Jew is a genetic descendant of Abraham’s grandson Jacob. Such a person may or may not believe in God, or they may worship a false god. Then there are religious Jews, and these are folks of any ethnicity who adhere to Judaism.
The Roman centurion who Jesus spoke so highly of in the Gospel books was a religious Jew. He was a non-ethnic Jew or Gentiles who had converted to Judaism. As we start Acts 6, we have a bunch of religious Jews who are of different ethnicities. Naturally the ethnic Jews in this crowd think they are better than religious Jews of other ethnicities, so the snubbing begins. By now the apostles are running a large scale charity program with daily handouts of food. The Gentile believers complain that they’re being snubbed by the Jewish believers, and the main apostles just don’t want to get bogged down in such petty affairs.
So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of Yahweh, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”
Everyone liked this idea, and they chose the following: Stephen (a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit), Philip, Procorus [pro-COR-us], Nicanor [nick-CON-or], Timon [TIM-on], Parmenas [par-ME-nuss], and Nicolas of Antioch (an earlier convert to the Jewish faith). These seven were presented to the apostles, who prayed for them as they laid their hands on them.
So Yahweh’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too. (Acts 6:2-7)
When Jews talk about preaching “the word” of Yahweh, they mean His spoken words. They don’t mean just giving Torah lessons. Remember that these apostles had never heard of a New Testament, the Gospel books, or Acts. These are poor folks, and in these times, no one walked around with a pocket sized copy of the Old Testament stuffed in their tunic. Familiarity with Scriptures was gained through regularly attending Pharisee led synagogues, which were like small church gatherings which only Jewish men could attend. Quotations of Scripture were mostly from memory, and we can just imagine what a butcher job the apostles are doing on the Old Testament as they try to tie a bunch of irrelevant passages to Christ.
As they remain based in Jerusalem, the apostles are trying to convince ethnic Jews that Israel’s promised Messiah has finally been identified, and while many Jews are receptive to this message, others find it very offensive. After all, Jesus was a very blasphemous Guy, and Jews who remembered His preaching more accurately felt they had very good grounds for opposing these Jewish apostles who were having the gall to say that Yahweh would actually be pleased with such an irreverent Character who had the audacity to call Himself I AM. Jesus talked as if He, not Yahweh, would decide who would get to go into Heaven or Hell. He said that He and Yahweh were one. The Man was out of control, and here these irritating Jews are going around singing His praises.
Stephen, a man full of Yahweh’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. But one day some men from the Synagogue of Freed Slaves, as it was called, started to debate with him. They were Jews from Cyrene [sigh-REEN], Alexandria, Cilicia [sill-IH-see-yuh], and the province of Asia. None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.
So they persuaded some men to lie about Stephen, saying, “We heard him blaspheme Moses, and even Yahweh.” This roused the people, the elders, and the teachers of religious law. So they arrested Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
The lying witnesses said, “This man is always speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses. We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” (Acts 6:8-14)
Making threats against the Temple is a great way to rile up the Sadducees, and now Stephen finds himself in hot soup as he’s being falsely accused of blaspheming. Maybe he really was. True Christianity is totally blasphemous compared to Judaism, because true Christianity says that there are three Gods, whereas Judaism says there is only one God. The Sadducees don’t really care about Judaism, but the strong language of the Torah makes for some great ammo when you’re trying to get rid of a troublemaker. While the Pharisees embraced the entire Old Testament as Divinely inspired, the Sadducees only approved of the first five books, which is why these lying witnesses are accusing Stephen of preaching against the law of Moses. Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy, which is called the Torah, and if you dare to contradict the Torah in front of a Sadducee, then he will have a grand time going into a righteous fit of rage.
But just when this council of priests wants to go into their act, everyone is distracted by a really strange sight.
At this point everyone in the Sanhedrin stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angel’s. (Acts 6:15)
In the Jewish experience, Yahweh and His angels are blindingly bright figures—especially around the facial zone. So this is why Luke says Stephen’s face was “as bright as an angel.” Luke is showing just how Jewish he is in the language he uses throughout Acts.
Well, glowing or not, the high priest wants to get rid of Stephen, and these accusations of blaspheming are just too good to pass up. Yahweh ordered instant execution for blasphemy in the Torah and this feels like great time to apply good old Leviticus 24:16:
Anyone who blasphemes the Name of Yahweh must be stoned to death by the whole community of Israel. Any native-born Israelite or foreigner among you who blasphemes the Name of Yahweh must be put to death.
It’s not every day that you can find a way to murder someone who threatens you while looking super holy at the same time. But to look “fair,” the high priest has to ask Stephen for his side of the story. So he does, and Stephen launches into a very long speech in which he summarizes Israel’s history with Yahweh, beginning with the great patriarch Abraham. Acts 7:2-50 is Stephen’s long recap of Israel’s history, with two quotes from the Old Testament which are actually properly applied (what a refreshing change). Then we come to verse 51, when Stephen stops with the history lesson and lashes out at the panel of Jewish leaders.
“You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth! Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed Yahweh’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels!”
The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of Yahweh, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at Yahweh’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at Yahweh’s right hand!”
Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:51-57)
This Saul is a Pharisee who is going to end up being the apostle Paul. He’s put in charge of coats. You don’t want someone stealing your coat when you’re trying to bludgeon someone to death with rocks.
As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” Having said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59)
That last Lord is most likely a reference to Yahweh. While Stephen really has no place to tell God who He should and shouldn’t forgive, his merciful attitude is a good thing. Killing Stephen feels like a real score for the Jewish preachers, and he’s the perfect candidate. He’s not one of the twelve official leaders, but he’s definitely got rank because he performed miracles. So hopefully his death will put a damper on this growing movement of Jesus promoters.
Why does Luke say Stephen “fell asleep” when what he really means is that Stephen died? Because Luke believes in the concept of a future resurrection: a time when all the dead will be raised back to life (both soul and body) and the righteous will experience a glorious life in a Messianic kingdom, while the wicked will wake to eternal shame and misery.
Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. (Acts 8:1)
Not only is our coat watcher a fan of Stephen getting killed, but he suddenly sees a golden opportunity to make a name for himself. Now that the religious leaders have started the ball rolling on executing blasphemers, why stop with Stephen? If Saul acts fast and aggressively, perhaps he can end up being credited for stomping out the entire pro-Jesus movement. That would really get him in solid with the political heavyweights of Israel, so Saul gets some men with him and he launches a massive assault on the fledgling Church. How do the apostles react? We’ll find out in our next lesson.
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 76: The God Dispensers
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