Acts of the Apostles

Acts of the Apostles - Lesson 8A

Chapter 8:1-17

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  • At the beginning of our study, I explained that the book of Acts has many features that provide structure and divide the book into clearly identifiable parts or sections

    • Without reviewing all those divisions again, let me point out one such division taking place here as we leave Chapter 7 and enter Chapter 8

      • To this point in the story of Acts, the message of the Gospel has been preached exclusively to the Jews in Jerusalem

        • Peter has led this charge together with John

        • And now these early believers are experiencing the beginning of persecution from the very same Jews who were offered the message of hope

      • God always intended that the message of the Gospel would be delivered to Jews first, since “salvation is of the Jews” as Jesus says in John 4

        • Paul reiterates this priority in Romans 1:16

Rom. 1:16 For I am not  ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
  • The events of Chapter 7 become the justification and the means by which God moves the Gospel outwardly to the next intended audience, the Samaritans
  • After the death of Stephen, persecution of Christians in Jerusalem began a new phase

    • The trial and stoning of Stephen was a turning point, and the event itself was somewhat unusual

      • The Jews lacked the power of the sword under Roman authority, so stoning Stephen could have resulted in the participants being charged with murder under Roman law

      • The fact that so many were willing to engage in the stoning indicates that they were operating under different rules at the time

        • One explanation is that the Roman Senate had removed the right for Jewish execution under all circumstances except one

          • Offenses against the Temple could be punished by death in Israel

          • This was the charge against Stephen

        • Another explanation is that this event occurred during a short window in AD 36 between the departure of Pilate and the arrival of his replacement, when Roman rule wasn’t present in the city

  • But as the city saw and heard of the stoning of a Christian, the attitude of the city toward the new movement changed dramatically

    • Jews within the city turned on the believing Jews, particularly the Hellenistic Jews, the group to which Stephen belonged

    • Essentially, the Jewish population had heard the testimony of Stephen at his public trial and had rejected it soundly

      • And for the most part, the rest of the city followed suit in that rejection

      • Where before the people of Jerusalem were flocking to the church in great number, now they turned away out of fear or disapproval

    • So naturally, this changed the nature of ministry in the early church

      • First, it moved the disciples outward from the city to safer areas of Palestine and the diaspora

      • Secondly, it caused the disciples to direct their message to non-Jewish audiences who were not already opposed to the message

  • God was justified in moving the Gospel away from the Jews and toward a Gentile audience on the basis of the sign of Jonah

    • When Jesus declared that the Jewish nation had rejected Him and lost their opportunity to receive him (in Luke 13:34-35), he told the Pharisees that the nation would only receive the “sign of Jonah” henceforth (see Matthew 12)

      • The sign of Jonah is the sign of a resurrection

      • Jesus’ own resurrection was the fulfillment of that sign, and here we see that sign repeated through Stephen’s testimony of that resurrection

        • As Stephen testified in the trial concerning Jesus and His resurrection, the crowd rejected that testimony

        • Rather than receiving the sign of resurrection, they stoned the messenger

      • The Lord will again give Israel the sign of resurrection in the last days during Tribulation

        • The two witnesses will undergo a visible resurrection following their deaths

          • And this resurrection will be a sign to that future generation of Israel of the truth of the two witnesses’ testimony concerning Jesus

          • Of course, that future generation of Israel will also reject the sign in the moment it will be given

    • Now since the nation of Israel has rejected the sign of resurrection given in Stephen’s testimony, the gospel will move away from them and to a new people group: the Samaritans

      • But first, we begin Chapter 8 with three verses to bridge us into the rest of the chapter

Acts 8:1 Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death.
And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
Acts 8:2 Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him.
Acts 8:3 But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.
  • Saul approved of what he saw happening to Stephen

    • The Greek word for hearty agreement means that Paul didn’t instigate the action against Stephen, but he liked it and decided to make it his own cause

      • So Saul becomes a self-appointed vigilante to find and eliminate the Jewish Christians

      • Many disciples leave the city and go into Samaria

        • But the apostles, we’re told, remain behind in the city

        • This fact becomes important later in Chapter 8

    • Stephen we’re told is buried by devout Jewish men who mourn his death

      • The Jewish customs and rabbinical law forbid public lamentations for anyone who was put to death by stoning

      • So Luke’s mention of these lamentations seemed intended to reflect that not all Jews within the city were in agreement with the verdict and execution of Stephen

        • This statement stands in contrast with Saul’s hearty agreement

  • We can’t help but notice that Saul has become the catalyst God is using to move the Gospel outward from Jerusalem

    • It’s likely that had persecution never come to the early church, the leaders may have never ventured far from the city in preaching the Gospel

      • They certainly wouldn’t have considered going outside Judea

      • And the fact that the Apostles aren’t willing to leave even now that persecution has begun indicates their reluctance to move outward

    • Consider this interesting fact: Saul later becomes Paul, the man credited to be the single greatest evangelist in the history of church

      • God used Paul’s ministry to preach the gospel to Gentiles in many new places and explain the full doctrines of the church

      • And yet here we see Saul – who has not yet come to faith himself – being used by God in exactly the same way!

        • Saul is responsible for moving the Gospel outwardly from Jerusalem

    • Perhaps Paul was thinking of this very irony when he wrote Romans 8:28:

Rom. 8:28 And we know that God causes  all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
    • Whether as Saul persecuting or as Paul preaching, this man was used by God to move His word to the nations
  • Now we move forward looking at a second one of the early deacons

    • First we had Stephen, now we have Philip, and notice Luke’s connecting verse:

Acts 8:4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.
  • Do you remember on the first night of the class I mentioned that the main thrust of Luke’s account is not the work of the apostles
    • Rather, Luke emphasizes the work of the Spirit and power and importance of God’s word in building the Church

      • Here’s one of those moments when Luke pauses to make clear that the instrument God uses to move His church outward from Jerusalem is the preaching of His word

    • Had the disciples merely scattered without preaching the word, perhaps instead trying to persuade men with human wisdom

      • The scattering would have accomplished nothing

    • The Greek word for scattered is diaspeiro, which is the same word used for the scattering of seed on a field

      • It may cause you to remember the parable of the sower and the seed, where the spread of the Gospel is compared to the scattering of seed

  • This scattering led to many important changes in the early church

    • For example, the Gospels were written because of this movement away from Jerusalem

      • While the church was largely centered in Jerusalem with the apostles nearby, no one had need of a written Gospel account

        • And questions regarding Jesus’ teaching or the events of His ministry were handled in person during church services or in one-on-one questioning

      • Once the saints began to spread out into Judea and beyond, the need for a written record became obvious

        • Since the early church was mostly Jewish, the first Gospel account was written by the Apostle Matthew so that a Jewish audience could understand how Jesus was the Messiah

        • Later, other apostles write their Gospel accounts to serve different, non-Jewish audiences

    • Secondly, the apostles began to write letters to newly founded churches to encourage and instruct new believers in the absence of personal visits

      • As with the Gospel, the earliest epistles were the Jewish epistles (James, I & II Peter, Hebrews, and Jude) written to the dispersed Jewish believers

    • Third, church leadership was decentralized as local, non-apostolic leaders were established in each city to steward their congregations

    • Finally, formal doctrines and creeds of the Christian faith belief emerged from out of the apostles’ writings

      • These doctrines bound the dispersed congregations together in spirit, and to contend with false teaching whenever it emerged

  • Against that backdrop, we begin the story of Philip now

Acts 8:5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them.
Acts 8:6 The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing.
Acts 8:7 For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed.
Acts 8:8 So there was much rejoicing in that city.
  • Philip goes down to the city of Samaria

    • Samaria was not actually a city in Philip's day, but rather a region directly north of Jerusalem

      • Luke says Philip went “down” because any direction away from the Temple mount is considered “down” to a Jew

        • This reference is one reason some believe Luke may have been Jewish rather than Gentile

      • Secondly, Luke says the “city” of Samaria to indicate some population center within the region, not to mean a specific city called Samaria

    • In the Greek, Luke says that Philip was continuously preaching or proclaiming Christ to the people in Samaria

      • In other words, Philip was preaching to Samaritans

  • Samaritans were an interesting group historically

    • In a sense we could say they were neither entirely Jewish nor entirely Gentile

      • They were a people who descended from Jews who escaped the Assyrian captivity of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and remained in the land

      • While living in the land, they began to inter-marry with the surrounding Gentile peoples

      • When the Jews were led back into the land by Zerubbabel after the Babylonian captivity, they encountered these halfbreed Jews still living in Samaria

    • The returning Jews no longer regarded these descendants of the Northern Kingdom to be true Jews

      • And they were correct: Samaritans aren’t Jews any longer

        • In defiance to the returning Jews, the Samaritans tried to recreate their Jewish heritage in a counterfeit manner

        • They created a distorted version of the Mosaic Law and built their own temple and established their own priesthood and worship

      • Meanwhile, they became bitter enemies with the Jews

    • Jews hated Samaritans even more than other Gentiles because they were impostors pretending to be Jewish

      • You can see this rivalry throughout the Gospel accounts

      • The woman at the well in John 4 is a classic example

  • As the Gospel moves outward from Jerusalem, we said earlier in the study that it will move through three distinct phases

    • First it goes to the Jews in Jerusalem

      • Secondly, it moves out of Judea and into Samaria and to Samaritans

      • Lastly, it reaches Greek Gentiles across the entire world

    • Since Samaritans are simply a unique group of Gentiles, why are they given a unique status in the progression of the Gospel?

      • The reason is connected to their historic role as impostors of the Jewish faith

        • The Samaritans had made a practice of counterfeiting everything of significance within Jewish religious practice

        • With each counterfeit, the Samaritans reinforced the notion that they were the true practitioners of the Jewish faith and the rightful heirs to the promise given to Abraham

      • Now that the long-awaited Jewish Messiah had come in fulfillment of that promise, it was likely that the Samaritans might concoct another counterfeit

        • They might propose the arrival of their own ”messiah” and complicate the spread of the Gospel among the citizens of Judea and Samaria

        • At this early vulnerable stage of growth, the Lord saw fit to bring Samaritans into the church rather than compete with their false message

    • With each new movement of the church, we are going to see a repeating of the pattern that was established in the beginning

      • When the church first arrived to Jews, the message of the Gospel was accompanied by:

        • Signs & miracles

        • Power over the demonic realm

        • The delayed indwelling of the Holy Spirit

        • Large numbers of converts in a brief time

      • Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that pattern repeat when the Gospel first arrives for this new group in Samaria

        • Interestingly, the signs are performed by a delegate of the Apostles rather than by an Apostle personally

        • Because the Apostles had not yet understood the necessity of moving beyond a Jewish audience in spreading the Gospel

          • This issue comes to a head in Acts 10–11

  • Looking at the text, Philip preaches and the crowds respond

    • Specifically, the crowds were of “one accord” or one mind in their response

      • In contrast to the resistance seen in Jerusalem, here the crowds were uniformly receiving the Gospel message

        • This is similar to the way the crowd in Jerusalem received the Gospel at Pentecost and immediately following

      • Naturally, their attention was directed on Philip because he was performing miraculous signs accomplished by the Spirit in confirmation of the truth of his message

        • So the signs were used to attract attention for Philip’s message

        • And the message was received in part out of a recognition that it came by the power of God

    • At this point we’re introduced to a new character, Simon

Acts 8:9  Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing  magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great;
Acts 8:10 and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.”
Acts 8:11 And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts.
Acts 8:12 But when they believed Philip  preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.
Acts 8:13 Even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.
  • Simon the magician is a curious and often debated fellow

    • His may be the first religious charlatan to infiltrate the Christian church

      • If there had been cable TV, “prayer cloths,” and toll-free donation phone lines in this day,  Simon probably would have been the first to employ them

    • Luke says he was performing magic, astonishing the people, and claiming to be someone great

      • In fact the people were calling Simon, the Great Power of God

    • It’s interesting to see right from the beginning how Luke juxtaposes Simon and Phillip

      • Phillip is astonishing the people, as is Simon

        • But Phillip’s work is the result of God’s power

        • While Simon’s work is the result of magic, dark arts

          • Real power, but demonic

      • Simon’s work is intended to make himself look powerful and important before the people – and it was working

        • While Phillip’s work causes the people to rejoice and give God glory

    • Based on Philip’s preaching, the church has been established in this place and is starting to grow

      • And the re-emergence of miracles for the sake of the Samaritans was intended to affirm the truth of Philip’s teaching in the same way that it did in Jerusalem

        • The Holy Spirit is not yet seen to indwell the new believers though

      • Why does the arrival of the Spirit wait under these circumstances?

        • In the case of Jerusalem, the Spirit’s arrival was delayed until a certain day in order to fulfill the Feast of Pentecost

        • Here the delay is different

      • The primary purpose for a delay here was to make an impression on a different audience – the apostles themselves

        • Keep in mind that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the mark of faith

        • So it served as a powerful sign to anyone of where true faith was present

  • Now speaking of powerful signs, Simon has a pretty good thing going here

    • Within his community he is the leading spiritual attraction

      • And like the Pharisees in Jerusalem, anything that contends with his prominence is a threat

      • So the arrival of a competitor wielding even greater power bothers Simon greatly

    • Simon, we’re told, is so impressed by Philip that he “believes” and submits to water baptism

      • Even after the baptism, he continues to follow Philip around “observing” the miracles

        • The word for observing is theoreo, which carries the sense of studying or examining something

        • Simon was following Philip out of professional curiosity

      • It causes us to wonder about what Luke means when he says “believes”

        • Could Simon have made a confession without actually accepting the Gospel truly?

  • The news of Philip’s ministry soon reached the apostles in Jerusalem, and of course they were surprised to hear of it

Acts 8:14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John,
Acts 8:15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.
Acts 8:16 For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Acts 8:17 Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.
  • Peter and John are not assigned the duty of going to Samaria and investigating this news

    • The fact that they go at all tells us how concerned they were by this news

      • Don’t read v.14 and v.15 together too quickly

      • If you do, it will sound as if the purpose of their travel to Samaria was to lay on hands, as if that was the expected function of the Apostles

    • This isn’t the proper reading

      • They came to investigate and validate that the Samaritans were actually being called into the truth faith

        • Rather than simply mimicking the Jews once again

      • Once they arrived, then they performed these activities in response to the faith they found

    • The apostles were an important part of this event, because their presence validated their experience

      • It also confirmed again that Peter had the keys to the Kingdom

      • And he was now enlisted to recognize the expansion of the church beyond Jews and the entry of Samaritans into the Kingdom by faith

        • This is why the baptism of the Holy Spirit had not yet occurred

        • Peter is always involved in the first faith experience for every new group (Jew, Samaritan, Gentile) because he held the “keys” according to Jesus direction

        • This also ensured that Peter was able to personally witness God’s work through the Spirit and understand himself that these new groups were joining the church

  • Finally, John is included here as well, perhaps because of his early desire to destroy the Samaritans when they rejected Jesus during the Gospel account

    • After this moment, John is never mentioned again in the book of Acts