II. Kingdom Witness in Jerusalem (Acts 3:1–7:60)

3:1-6 Peter and John encountered a man who was lame from birth (he was over forty years old; see 4:22). He regularly begged outside the temple gate (3:1-2) and was without help and without hope. Simply hanging out at the temple had not made a difference. When he asked them for money, Peter told him to look at them (3:3-4). The beggar obviously expected to get something from them (3:5), but he had no idea what was coming! Peter had no silver or gold to give; instead, he had something much better. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Peter said, get up and walk! (3:6).

5:12-14 The apostles were performing many signs and wonders. Because of this and the judgment on Ananias and Sapphira, unbelievers kept their distance but spoke well of them (5:12-13). They respected the apostles and realized that they were engaged in serious business. Yet those who genuinely believed the gospel—both men and women—continued to be added to the Lord in increasing numbers (5:14). The Holy-Spirit-empowered witness of the church was causing all people to hold them in high esteem and drawing many to faith in Christ.

5:15-16 Luke gives examples of the supernatural activity that surrounded the apostles’ ministry. People were laying the sick on cots in the streets so that Peter’s shadow might fall on them and heal them (5:15). Residents from the towns surrounding Jerusalem brought the sick and demon-possessed into the city so that they might be healed (5:16). Jesus had promised his disciples that they would do miraculous works like him (see John 14:12), and they were doing so with gusto.

5:17-21 Unfortunately, when God starts working, the devil does too. The high priest and the Sadducees began to oppose the apostles. Were the Jewish leaders concerned that the apostles were teaching bad theology? No. They were filled with jealousy (5:17). They cared nothing for God’s glory, only for their own. So they threw the apostles in jail (5:18). But a locked cell was hardly capable of stopping the supernatural. In the middle of the night, an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and sent the apostles to stand in the temple and preach (5:19-20)—not to go hide from their enemies, but to stand in public and preach!

5:22-24 The next morning, the high priest and others convened the Sanhedrin so that they could deal with the apostles. But the servants reported that the jail was securely locked, the guards were on duty, and the apostles were gone (5:22-23). The Jewish leaders were baffled and wondered what would come of this (5:24). One can imagine the comical picture of all of them staring at one another with puzzled looks.

5:25-26 Then someone announced that the men who had been locked up were in the temple . . . teaching the people (5:25). They were doing the very thing they had been locked up for in the first place! So the commander of the temple police and his servants rounded up the apostles without force, because they were afraid the people might stone them (5:26). Don’t miss the fact that the captors, instead of the captives, were cowering.

5:27-28 Notice that they weren’t even willing to say Jesus’s name nor act under his authority: Didn’t we strictly order you not to teach in this name? Not only had the apostles continued teaching, but they were holding the Jewish leadership guilty of Jesus’s blood (5:28)! These powerful men who had condemned Jesus to death (and who could do the same to the apostles) wanted to know why they weren’t being obeyed.

5:29-32 Let the church take note of Peter’s answer: We must obey God rather than people (5:29). Then, consistent with his preaching to this point in Acts, Peter emphasized the apostles’ role as Holy-Spirit-empowered witnesses to the resurrected Jesus (5:30, 32; see 2:32; 3:15). Our chief authority is not merely a king. He is the King. Therefore, human beings must never have the last word in our lives. When a human command contradicts a divine one, our obligation to God is supreme.

5:33-40 The high priest and those with him were enraged and wanted to kill the apostles (5:33). But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, who was respected by everyone, had the apostles taken outside so that he could speak privately to the Sanhedrin (5:34). He reminded them of two other would-be leaders who had gathered supporters around them: Theudas and Judas the Galilean. These men were eventually killed, their followers were scattered, and their movements came to nothing (5:36-37). Therefore, he advised the men to leave the apostles alone. If their activity was of human origin, it would fizzle out just like the others (5:38). But if it was of divine origin, they could be found fighting against God (5:39). Thus, Gamaliel persuaded them. So they flogged the apostles, threatened them, and set them free (5:39-40).

5:41-42 When the apostles left the Sanhedrin, they went out rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be treated shamefully on behalf of the Name (5:41). Then they went right back to proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah (5:42). Consider their response. They didn’t depart in fear or grief. They departed with joy! And not only did they walk away from their beating rejoicing, but they rejoiced that they were deemed worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. As Peter would later write to Christians experiencing persecution, “Rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet 4:13; see also 2:18-21; 3:17). Suffering for Jesus is far better than living at ease without him. He won’t forget what you do for his name.

6:1-4 The disciples were increasing in number (6:1; see 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14). A kingdom disciple is a believer in Christ who takes part in the spiritual developmental process of progressively learning to live all of life in submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ. The goal of the church is not merely for people to become Christians, but for them to develop into fully committed disciples.

But this growth in number led to a problem. The Hellenistic Jews (those who spoke Greek) and the Hebraic Jews (those who spoke Aramaic) began to argue, the former complaining that their widows were being overlooked in charitable distributions (6:1). While they were racially the same, they were culturally different. This clash of cultures and accusations of unfair treatment led the Twelve to gather the disciples to address the concerns (6:2). Since their primary responsibilities were preaching the word of God and prayer, the apostles had the community of believers choose seven men of good reputation to deal with the issue (6:2-4)

Many interpreters understand this passage to describe the selection of the first deacons, who would serve the physical needs of God’s people, while the apostles (and, eventually, the elders / overseers) addressed the spiritual needs.

6:5-7 The whole company of disciples agreed with this proposal. They chose seven spiritual men, all of whom had Greek names (6:5). That’s an important point because they wanted men who could relate to the Hellenistic Jews so that they could address their specific needs and concerns. So the apostles laid their hands on them and prayed for them, commissioning them for their work (6:6). Then the word of God spread, and the disciples grew in number (6:7). A legitimate need was not ignored but addressed with wisdom—and God blessed their faithfulness.

6:8-10 One of these men, Stephen, receives high praise from Luke. He was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5), full of grace and power, and was performing great wonders and signs among the people (6:8). That’s quite a resume. Clearly, then, Stephen was no spiritual slouch. When opposition arose from various unbelieving Jews, they were no match for his wisdom or for the Spirit who empowered his speaking (6:9-10).

6:11-14 Since they couldn’t best Stephen in legitimate argument, they sought to destroy him by deception. They persuaded some men to lie about him, claiming that he had spoken blasphemous words against Moses and God (6:11). Those accusations were enough to get the Sanhedrin to take notice (6:12). When Stephen was taken before the Jewish leaders, more false witnesses alleged that he was preaching against the temple and the law, and that he was claiming Jesus was going to destroy the temple and change their customs (6:13-14). They considered Stephen a threat to Judaism.

6:15 –7:1 The Jewish leaders hated Stephen and lied about him. But when they looked at him, his face was like the face of an angel (6:15). The man whom they wanted to kill had the appearance of one who had been in the holy presence of God. When the high priest asked whether the accusations made were true, he opened the door for Stephen to launch into a history lesson (7:1-53) that they’d never forget. His words demonstrate that the Jewish leaders had misunderstood the Old Testament Scriptures and, thus, misunderstood Jesus.

7:2-5 Stephen began with God’s call of Abraham to leave his country and family in order to journey to an unknown land God would show him (7:2-3). So Abraham traveled and eventually arrived in the land in which Stephen and the Jewish leaders were living (7:4). But Abraham never inherited the land himself; God promised to give it . . . to his descendants (7:5).

The Jewish leaders of Stephen’s day had become so focused on their religion—encapsulated in the law, the land, and the temple—that they had forgotten the fact that God wanted relationship. While the land was a benefit received by Abraham’s descendants, the main idea here is that Abraham’s relationship with God was key.

7:6-7 God predicted that Abraham’s descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country for four hundred years (7:6). Yet he would deliver them so that they could worship him in this place—that is, in the land of Israel (7:7). The land was to be the geographical context for knowing and worshiping God. Being God’s people, however, was about more than living in the land.

7:8-16 From Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob descended the twelve patriarchs, eleven of whom sold their brother Joseph into Egyptian slavery out of jealousy (7:8-9). Nevertheless, God was with Joseph (7:9)—even though he was no longer living in the promised land. Then God rescued Joseph, gave him favor with Pharaoh, and used him to deliver his relatives from a famine (7:10-15). This highlights another theme from Stephen’s sermon. Unbelieving Israelites often rejected those whom God chose. God exalted Joseph and used him, even though his brothers rejected and persecuted him. In a similar way, the Jewish leaders rejected and persecuted Jesus.

7:17-28 In fulfillment of what God told Abraham (see 7:6-7), the people multiplied and eventually a new Pharaoh oppressed and enslaved them (7:17-19). Though the Egyptians sought to kill the infant sons of the Israelites, Moses was preserved and raised by Pharaoh’s own daughter so that he became wise and powerful (7:19-22). Later, when Moses tried to help his brother Israelites, his attempts at leadership were rejected (7:23-28).

7:29-33 Fleeing to Midian, Moses encountered God, who appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai (7:29-32). Again, then, the Lord initiated a relationship outside the promised land. Moreover, the land where God appeared to Moses was holy ground because of God’s presence (7:33). Land is only holy if God is present; a church is only holy if Jesus is in its midst.

7:34-36 God sent Moses to return to Egypt and deliver his people from bondage (7:34). This man whom the Israelites had rejected was God’s chosen deliverer to lead them out of Egypt and in the wilderness for forty years (7:35-36). Thus, when the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus whom God had sent, they were following in the footsteps of their ancestors.

7:37-43 Moses told the Israelites that God would raise up another prophet like him from among the people (7:37)—a prophecy that was fulfilled in Jesus (see Deut 18:15-18; John 1:21; 6:14; Acts 3:22). The Jewish ancestors were unwilling to obey Moses and turned to idolatry, scorning God (7:39-43). In the same way, their descendants in Stephen’s day were unwilling to obey Jesus. And by scorning Jesus, their Messiah, they too had scorned God.

7:44-50 Their ancestors had the tabernacle that God commanded Moses to make (7:44). Then Joshua brought it into the promised land when God drove out their enemies before them (7:45). Then Solomon constructed God’s temple in Jerusalem (7:47). But, ultimately, God doesn’t dwell in a manmade structure because heaven is [his] throne and the earth [his] footstool (7:48-49). The Jewish leaders of Stephen’s day were devoted to the temple (see 6:13-14), but they had lost sight of the God to whom the temple pointed.

7:51 With the history lesson complete, Stephen brought his message home: You stiff-necked people! . . . You are always resisting the Holy Spirit. As your ancestors did, you do also. It wasn’t that the Holy Spirit had not spoken to them. The problem was that, just like their ancestors, they had uncircumcised hearts and ears that refused to listen.

Don’t miss that the Holy Spirit can be resisted. Though the Spirit brings the truth to bear on a heart and mind, a person can be stubborn and unwilling to respond. Don’t be obstinate to what God says through his Word and by his Spirit. The consequences can be disastrous.

7:52-53 The ancestors of those to whom Stephen was speaking had persecuted the prophets, even killing those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, the Messiah. And Stephen’s listeners had followed in their footsteps, betraying and murdering Jesus Christ when he came (7:52)! Though they professed to treasure God’s law as law keepers, they demonstrated by their actions that their hearts were actually lawless (7:53).

7:54-56 Stephen was a man full of the Holy Spirit and spoke by means of the Spirit’s power (7:55; see also 6:5, 10). So when his listeners were enraged at him (7:54), they actually were enraged at God himself and the truth that was spoken about them.

As their animosity reached a fever pitch, Stephen looked into heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God (7:55-56). His Lord and Savior, about whom he had faithfully testified, was ready to receive him into glory with a standing ovation! This is the way our Lord wants to receive all of his faithful servants. He received a glimpse of heaven before he died, one of the glorious privileges God gives to faithful believers as they transition from earth to heaven.

7:57-58 The Jewish leaders couldn’t stand to listen to him any longer. They covered their ears and dragged him out of the city, and stoned Stephen to death (7:57-58). And it’s at this point in the narrative that Luke introduces us to the man who would become one of the most significant persons in the book of Acts and who would write more New Testament Letters than any other: Saul (eventually known as Paul) (7:58). At this moment, however, Saul was united with those putting Stephen to death. Stephen became the first martyr of the church.

7:59-60 Before he died, Stephen followed in Jesus’s footsteps, commending his spirit to the Lord and praying that God would forgive his attackers (see Luke 23:34, 46). That kind of response is impossible without supernatural enabling.

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