I love reading Acts, but it can be tough because it seems like everything is happening in succession, but the timeline for these 4 chapters is likely 5-6 years long. Knowing the timing is important so we know that many of the developments in the early church were difficult and slow to come forward even though in the narrative it all seems to happen at the same time.
I think people in our day can get frustrated that changes do not happen faster in the modern restored church, but I think when you are dealing with people’s lives and so many different influences, things will always move slower than some may hope.
We are introduced this week to Saul who becomes nearly as influential to early Christianity as Jesus, and arguably more influential than Peter. We also get our first martyr for the cause, outside of Jesus, and so we get a sense of just how dangerous and ambitious the development and spreading of the early church will be.
CHAPTERS FOR STUDY WEEK 27 – Acts 6-9
– All different callings within the church are important, and are for the purpose of serving one another.
– Persecution will always accompany discipleship.
– Being converted is the first step and can be instantaneous, learning to become a disciple is the most important part and can take our whole lives.
Context and Timeline:
– Timeline – Acts 6-9 likely was spread out over 5-6 years of time.
– Grecians or Hellenists were another name for non-Jerusalem Jews who likely had incorporated Greek culture into their Judaism. It was likely a pejorative description at the time, although many Christian converts were Hellenistic Jews.
– Hebrews would have described very orthodox Jews who descended from established families.
– Deacons were important in providing the temporal affairs of the church at this time when the apostles realized they couldn’t do everything. They were ordained and chosen in the same way as Bishops would be in subsequent years. In fact, they were likely the predecessors to Bishops.
– Welfare distributions seemed to be an important function of the leaders of the church in ancient times.
– There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding the names Saul and Paul. Many people believe Saul’s name was changed to Paul after his conversion, but that is not the case. His formal name was always likely Paul and his casual name would have been Saul.
– Gall of Bitterness can be translated as extremely envious.
– Ethiopian anciently would have been used to describe anyone who was black. An eunuch was typically someone who had been castrated and they were typically unable to convert to Israel because of their lack of circumcision. However, they were allowed to convert to Christianity.
– Acts 8:37 is in no early manuscripts and was probably added later.
– Damascus was the prominent city in the region north of Galilee and would become the home base for Christianity during the apostle’s ministry. Most people think it was Jerusalem.
– Like last week it is important to note the similarities between the early Christian church and the restored church. In this case Paul and Joseph Smith have multiple versions recorded of their visions of Jesus Christ.
– “The Way” was the nickname of the Christian church before the term Christian.
– Tarsus, where Paul was from, is now in southern Turkey.
Our narrative begins with the apostles realizing they are unable to provide for the church spiritually and temporally and so they make the decision to call 7 deacons who can handle the temporal affairs of the church. These main were called, and set apart by the laying on of hands by the apostles.
At some point Stephen, one of the recently-called deacons was preaching the gospel and was confronted by a sect of Jews. They began to argue, but Stephen’s testimony and knowledge confounded them. They turned to the Sanhedrin and claimed that Stephen had said Jesus was returning to destroy the temple. This was a similar charge levied against Jesus before, and this gave some of the priests room to arrest Stephen.
While the priests are questioning him, Stephen begins to cite multiple examples of how the ancestors of the Jews had rejected the Holy Spirit and the prophets. After citing the examples, he calls them all stiffnecked and uncircumcised of heart because they reject the Holy Spirit now and would have killed the prophets of old, did kill the Messiah, and are betrayers and murderers.
This pushes the priests too far and they are ready to kill Stephen, but before they can Stephen is filled with the spirit and declares that he has seen Jesus Christ and God the Father in a vision. Stephen is then dragged out of the city and stoned to death. Luke also informs us that Saul is not only an influential member of this priestly group, but that he was in agreement with the decision, and may have even sanctioned the stoning of Stephen.
This moment serves as an important moment in Christianity for many reasons. Stephen becomes the first martyr after Jesus, Saul feels empowered to persecute Christians and pushes even harder against them, and this persecution leads the early saints to flee Jerusalem to establish a home base in Damascus.
Meanwhile, the apostles and some of the deacons are still traveling around preaching the gospel. One of them, Philip, begins to establish the church in Samaria. While he was preaching a famous magician named Simon, who had caused many people to believe in his miracles, is converted and baptized. This conversion gives Philip credibility and the church there explodes with new converts. Peter and John hear of this miracle and they head to Samaria to help Philip and the growing church there. When they lay their hands upon some new converts to bestow the Holy Spirit, Simon asks if he can pay for that power. Peter and John then rebuke Simon for this mentality and Simon repents.
Later, Philip is inspired by an angel to journey toward Jerusalem where he finds an Ethiopian eunuch and while preaching to him while they traveled, the eunuch sees some water and decides to be baptized. These stories of Philip’s missionary success are awesome and remind me so much of the early restored church’s missionary stories as well.
While Philip is baptizing the whole region, the narrative returns to Saul, who has been imprisoning as many Christians as he can. He is traveling toward Damascus, where the church had regrouped, so he can eliminate them for good. While on his journey Saul is stopped by a light from heaven that strikes him down causing Saul to become blind. The Lord confronts him and reveals himself. He then instructs Saul to travel to Damascus and there he will meet someone who will give him further instructions. Ananias, who the Lord had also given a vision to, is there to meet Saul. Despite Saul’s reputation, Ananias is able to talk to and baptize Saul.
Saul’s testimony is powerful and converts many and his former allies are ready to murder him, and so Saul escapes back to Jerusalem despite a plan by the priests to murder him on the way. When Saul arrives with disciples in Jerusalem, many are afraid of him and do not trust him. However, a disciple named Barnabas takes Saul to the apostles where he related his conversion story. They encourage him to continue preaching, but his life is in too much danger in Jerusalem and so they send Paul away to preach in all the regions north of Jerusalem.
Peter then performs another miracle that will further cement the movement of the church. He raises a devoted Christian from the dead in Joppa and many more people joined the church. At this moment there is so much momentum for the growth of the church. Miracles are being performed, the church is growing, their most aggressive critic was converted and is now preaching. The church seems to be in a great place.
Why does the Lord let very bad things happen to those who are faithful like Stephen? What does Stephen’s vision tell us about faith and miracles?
Why do you think people were so ready to believe Philip’s word in Samaria when they rejected Jesus only a few years earlier? What does this tell us about those who reject the Lord right now and their hope for conversion later?
Why does the Lord send an angel to Saul when so many others were faithful? What does Saul’s witness in the face of his former peers tell us about discipleship?
Key Moment or Scripture: Acts 9:1-6
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest
2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.
6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
My favorite part of Saul’s conversion story is after Jesus says Saul’s name and he replies, “Who are you, Lord?”
Discipleship is a difficult journey and one of the things that helps us the most is finding out who Jesus really is. Many of us have spiritual experiences, or wonderful miracles, or small tender mercies and yet when they happen we mostly focus on the events. When in reality they are moments that are meant to spur us into action and that action is getting closer to Jesus Christ. Remembering and thinking about how much He loves us, thinking about how we can use our experiences to help others, and maybe even just pondering, praying, and fasting in thanks for the spiritual experience we had.
I believe that if we spend more time thinking, seeking, and thanking Jesus for the experiences and mercies that we are given then our relationship with Jesus will deepen and being a disciple like Saul became can happen for all of us.
We end this week’s study with the church in a better place than it began, but as we go into the upcoming chapters we will see the persecution increase at home, and the church begin to spread the word to the further regions of the world. These things will bring new challenges and new miracles.