If you are a first-time guest here, I am reading the New Testament in the 90 days of this summer, and blogging every day about that particular reading. It’s been one of the most exhausting and exhilarating summers of my life.
Today’s reading is Acts 7 through Acts 9. Thanks for joining me.
The pace quickens here in Acts. The gospel is on the move. And the presence, and absence, of the spirit of God becomes obvious and undeniable, and it makes us ask what may be the biggest question of our life.
Stephen is now on trial, like Peter and John before him. His reception of the spirit of God has given him a powerful testimony which angered many influential people.
Standing before the Sanhedrin, he gave a powerful speech, and then accused them of idolatry. There should be no doubt that Saul was listening.
Peter, John, and now Stephen, just refused to play around. Trial or no trial, their life was lived to defend the cause of Christ. And they would say whatever was necessary in that defense.
Stephen began this accusation of idolatry by nestling it in a pretty swift history of Moses, and Moses’ own rejection by his own people.
That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration to honor what their hands had made. (7:41)
Their ancestors worshiped what their hands had made, which, in this case, was a golden cow. Stephen probably poured the sarcasm in his voice when he spoke these words. To celebrate and worship what your hands make is a strange, strange thing.
Yet worship binds us that way. We celebrate our own effort. The Hebrews did, too.
But Stephen then spoke the phrase that probably got him killed. Referring to what is made by hands, this is what he then said to his accusers.
… the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. (7:48)
Unfortunately, the NIV84 misses that. Because it’s incredibly explosive.
Stephen told the Sanhedrin that their precious temple was nothing more than an idol, just like the golden calf. Both were made by hands, and then worshiped. It was their new sacred cow.
Anything else Stephen said after that probably wasn’t even heard. Their minds were bent on killing him right then. And Saul, a young man, approved of the killing, and probably even initiated it. He stood with the coats of the killers at his feet.
And with this crushing death, the gospel now leaves Jerusalem, only to return in part of larger narratives of Paul. Jesus prophesied that his followers would be witnesses in both Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the world. That prophecy takes a turn here.
Stephen’s death produced a persecution, which scattered the believers, allowing God to attach his gospel to the scattered. Leaving Jerusalem was not the end of the story, but the beginning.
Philip left for Samaria. The pioneer of evangelism was one of the seven men chosen to administer aid, not one of the Twelve apostles. Which is awesome. It reminds us of what the apostles undoubtedly learned — that you should lead people to God’s spirit, and not God’s work. God’s work is always done by those led to do it, not those recruited to do it.
Because God’s spirit moved Philip to Samaria, and then to a conversation with an Ethiopian. And then to Azotus. God had traveling plans for Philip.
Philip brought the news of the risen Messiah to Samaria. He was then followed by the arrival of Peter and John, who brought the spirit of God with them. What is interesting here is that the people of Samaria probably needed validation from the twelve apostles, and the spirit was received by them once they understood Philip’s message was, indeed, truth. I don’t think we should make this more difficult than it has to be.
But it is kinda cool what Luke is saying about baptism.
It seems the Samaritans were baptized into the name of Jesus, only to later receive the spirit of God. And, there is no mention of being baptized into water, only baptized into the name of Jesus. (8:16).
It is assumed, though not written, that the Ethiopian eunuch, who was taught by Philip, received the spirit of God at the moment of his water baptism — because no one came to validate the spirit’s presence in him, as Peter and John did with the Samaritans (8:38, 39).
Later, with Cornelius, the spirit of God was received well before there was a baptism into water (10:44-48).
Saul himself is baptized in Acts 9, but not necessarily to be changed. Why? Because his conversation with Jesus changed him! He immediately identified the voice as “Lord.” The persecutor had no doubts that day.
It’s pretty safe to say that receiving water baptism doesn’t necessarily mean you have received the spirit of God. We’ve already learned, in Acts, that God works and operates his spirit in our world in ways that aren’t normal. Why should we try to tie it down, here?
Luke wasn’t afraid to speak of the variety of ways people are changed by the spirit, with or without water. Perhaps we shouldn’t be afraid to speak of that variety, either.
So here is the obvious narrative through these three chapters: the spirit of God in someone’s life is instantly and undeniably recognizable. There are no doubts about this.
- Stephen’s martyrdom he received with peace, because the spirit of God in his life led him to this moment. Ever how cruel it seems to us, cruelty isn’t at the top of God’s agenda. He wants us to work on behalf of his name.
- Philip’s movement to Samaria, and then to the Eunuch, and then to Azotus, are the result of God’s spirit in his life. He goes, because God wills it. And he is the one that goes to Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. (Ethiopia, or Cush, is one of the nations to be redeemed in Isaiah 11:11).
- The people in Samaria had not received God’s spirit. Peter and John instantly knew it.
- Simon the Sorcerer, in Samaria, never had it.
- The Eunuch received God’s spirit, because no one came to make certain of its reception.
- Saul began preaching “at once” that Jesus was the true Messiah. There was such a change in his life that people couldn’t believe he was the same man who earlier had persecuted believers.
And so, dear reader, the obvious questions today are these:
Is it obvious to others that God’s spirit has completely overwhelmed you?
And if it has, where is it leading you?
To suffer? To move? To teach? To defend?