Week 28 – New Beginnings

Scripture Readings:  Acts 1-10, 12

Significant Events in The Story

The ascension of Jesus Christ – Acts 1

The Holy Spirit descends on the disciples at Pentecost – Acts 2

Stephen’s sermon & martyrdom – Acts 7

Saul meets Christ on the road to Damascus – Acts 9

Peter’s vision & the gospel shared with Gentiles – Acts 10

Key Themes

The Church

So what do the disciples do after Christ is no longer walking around the streets of Jerusalem every day?

The book of Acts is the story of the beginnings of the Church.  It is the story of how Jesus’ disciples carried out the commission that Christ had given to them.  We see the church not only developing practices of worship but also organizing themselves to be able to best carry out the ministry which Christ had given to them.  From the very beginning, the believers felt it extremely important to devote time to gathering together for worship, fellowship, and missions.

The missionary effort

Acts 1:8 is the perfect synopsis of the missionary effort of the church as described in Acts.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;…” – Acts 2:1-13

“… and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, …” – Acts 2:14-7:60

“… in all Judea and Samaria, …” – Acts 8:1-25

“… and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 8:26-40, Acts 10

It needs to be understood that, prior to Acts 10, the missionary effort of the early church, made up entirely of Jews,  was focused on sharing the good news with other Jews.

The Holy Spirit

“In fact, the book [of Acts] might appropriately be entitled ‘The Acts of the Holy Spirit,’ for the dominating theme is the power of the Spirit manifested in and through the members of the early church” (Sherman Johnson, “The Acts of the Apostles”, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, Oxford University Press, 1994).

Redeeming suffering

In these passages in Acts we see stories of struggle and persecution as well as the victorious moments.  The apostles struggle to keep up with the responsibilities of caring for the believers as well as preaching and teaching in the community.  Believers are arrested, flogged, and (in the case of Stephen) stoned to death.  Yet, as we will see throughout the Acts narrative, moments of struggle and suffering can bring new opportunities.  Because of the complaints of Greek-speaking Jewish believers that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of food, the church expands its leadership beyond the apostles, which produces new teachers and preachers to share the gospel (Acts 6).  The persecution that begins with Stephen causes believers to be scattered beyond Jerusalem throughout the entire region, which provides opportunities for the good news of Jesus Christ to first be shared beyond the city walls of Jerusalem (Acts 8).  The apostles “rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41).  The Acts narrative frames the sufferings and struggles of the early church in a way that we are invited to not look on these moments with regret but with hope and possibility.

Background Information

Acts

Acts is the second part of the narrative that began in the gospel of Luke.  Like Luke, Acts is addressed to a Theophilus, who we know few details about and may be a pseudonym for any and all believers in Christ.  Whereas the action in Luke’s gospel is continually moving towards Jerusalem, the action in Acts is organized so that all the action moves away from Jerusalem.

A sabbath day’s journey – Acts 1:12

There were legal restrictions for Jews about how far they could travel on the Sabbath.  Though there are some discrepancies in the sources, it seems that a sabbath’s day journey would be the equivalent of .3-.6 of a mile.

The choice of a 12th apostle, Matthias – Acts 1:15-26

Luke’s account in Acts of the death of Judas differs from Matthew’s account (Matthew 27:3-10).  Instead of hanging himself in regret, Judas takes the money he was paid for betraying Jesus and uses it to buy a field, where an accident befalls him that causes his death, perhaps as an act of divine judgment similar to Herod’s death in Acts 12:23.

We are told that the apostles “cast lots” to choose between Justus and Matthias as the 12th apostle.  This was the ancient equivalent of casting dice or flipping a coin.  It was not viewed, though, as an instrument of chance.  Instead, it was viewed as a vehicle for allowing God to make His will clear.

Peter based the need to choose a new apostle on an interpretation of Psalm 109:8.  There are some who believe that the early church understood the significance of having 12 apostles as linked to the historical identity of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Interestingly enough, Matthias is never mentioned again after his choice as the 12th apostle.  The historical records disagree as to Matthias’ ministry after his choice as an apostle and whether he was martyred or died of old age.

Pentecost – Acts 2

Pentecost was 50 days after Passover and was part of the Festival of Weeks (Leviticus 23:15-21), a harvest festival that some associated with the time when Moses received the Torah.

The appearance of the Holy Spirit is accompanied by “divided tongues, as of fire”.  A lot of us may have seen depictions of this scene showing the disciples with little candle-like flames over their heads.  It should be noted that the text in Acts does not say that literal fire fell but the reference seems to be more of  a metaphorical image.  Fire was a common symbol for representing the presence of God.

The Holy Spirit gave to the gathered disciples the ability to speak in the languages of the people who were gathered in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was a city that drew many Jewish pilgrims from other lands and regions.   Thus, God is equipping the disciples to speak to all of these peoples.

Peter’s sermon at Pentecost reveals a significant fact that we cannot overlook – the early church relied on the Old Testament as their Scripture.  They did not see Jesus’ ministry and teachings as overshadowing or replacing these texts.  Instead, they understood Christ as the fulfillment and continuation of God’s will as revealed through the Old Testament.

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple – Acts 2:46

It is significant that we see the early church continuing to gather at the temple.  They did not see Christ’s commission as a break from Judaism, whether we are talking about the Jewish faith or even the Jewish community.

Solomon’s Portico – Acts 3:11

Located on the eastern side of the Temple mount in Jerusalem.

The Hellenists and the Hebrews – Acts 6:1

The early church seems to have faced some internal strife between those Jews who spoke Greek (the Hellenists) and those who spoke Aramaic (the Hebrews).  The original disciples probably fell mostly in the grouping known as the Hebrews.  Some looked down upon Greek-speaking Jews as having compromised their faith to the predominant culture.  It is of interest that the seven chosen to “wait on tables” (to provide service to the community) all have Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, names.

The Ethiopian eunuch – Acts 8:26-40

We are not given great detail about the Ethiopian eunuch’s spiritual background and faith development.  We are told that he had come to Jerusalem to worship, indicating some type of affiliation with Judaism.  Whether he was a convert to Judaism or whether he was a Jew living in the Diaspora (the scattering of the Jewish people throughout the known world) is unclear.

That we are told he has come to Jerusalem to worship is notable because eunuchs were excluded from participation in Temple rituals and entrance into the community of Israel (Leviticus 21:20, Deuteronomy 23:1).  We are told that he is reading from the book of Isaiah, a book that contains references to Ethiopia and other nations acknowledging the God of Israel (Isaiah 45:14-15).  In addition, Isaiah 56:4-7 says,

For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.  And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

The story of the Ethiopian eunuch seems to capture an image of the church as fulfilling the work and will of God of bringing closer those who might be far off.

King Herod – Acts 12:1

This Herod is Agrippa I.  He is the grandson of Herod the Great who rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and the nephew of Herod Antipas, who was involved in the deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus.  Jewish historians remember Agrippa as a religiously observant Jewish leader.

John … Mark – Acts 12:12

Some believe that this John, whose Roman name was Mark, is the author of the gospel of Mark, identifying him with the Mark who will have a close relationship with both Peter and Paul.

Some Questions that Might Come Up

Why do Ananias and Sapphira die?

Acts 5:1-11 tells the unusual story of Ananias and Sapphira, who were members of the early church community.  There is no mention of them prior to this moment, so when exactly they joined the community is unclear.  The story takes place as part of the description of how all the believers would sell property and share the proceeds so that no one in the community had need.  In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, however, we are told that they withhold a portion of the proceeds for themselves and (as we can infer from the story) claim that what they have brought is the total proceeds from the sale.  As a result of their actions, they fall down dead.

Several interesting questions are raised by this story:  why do Ananias and Sapphira not come to bring the proceeds together?  Is their sin that they have held back some for themselves or that they misrepresented the amount that they had received from the sale?  Why is death the punishment for this sin?

We are given no indication as to why Ananias and Sapphira are not together to present their gift to the apostles.  However, the fact that they do not come together sets up a teaching moment in the story when Sapphira shows up a few hours later, not knowing what happened when Ananias brought the gift.  The apostles ask her if she and Ananias had sold their property for the deceitful amount.  This question provides an opportunity for repentance for Sapphira.  She can admit that the amount was a lie.  Instead, she chooses loyalty to her husband over honesty and unity within the community.  This sounds like an impossible choice, but we are reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew and Luke:

Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will members of one’s own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. – Matthew 10:34-39

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. – Luke 14:26-27

Jesus called his disciples to radical discipleship that put loyalty and faithfulness to Christ and his will above any other loyalty.  Both Ananias and Sapphira are unwilling to commit to this type of discipleship.

Based on the words of the apostles to Ananias (Acts 5:3-4), it seems that Ananias and Sapphira sin by trying to pass off the amount they bring as the total amount they received from the sale of their property.  They are not judged for withholding some for themselves but for lying and not fully trusting in the love and grace of the apostles and the community.

The death of Ananias and Sapphira was understood as the result of their trying to fake the unity of the Holy Spirit as displayed by the sharing of possessions.  Their decision has cut them off from the community, and their deaths quite literally cut them off from the people.  It is reasonable to wonder why this disobedience was so great that it was punishable by death.  In the case of Sapphira, she was at least given a chance to repent, which does not appear to be the case with Ananias.  While it might be tempting to try to soften the hard edges of this story, we must take into account that losing those hard edges might cost us in the message of the story.  Acts makes it clear that the unity of the church was of utmost importance to the church fulfilling its commission.  We live in a world where church affiliation is often viewed more like a gym membership – it doesn’t really make a difference to anyone else but me whether I am there or not, and I can quit whenever I want.  What we see in Acts is that belonging to the community of believers meant committing to a radical trust in the abiding presence of God and in the other members of the community.  It meant everyone sharing in the meeting of needs within the community.  It meant working for reconciliation and resolution in times of dispute or uncertainty.  And, in the case of Paul, it meant being willing to practice radical grace towards one who had sought to kill you.  Do we take the opportunities and responsibilities of membership in the body of Christ as seriously as the early church?

Additional Resources

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