Reflections on Acts – chapters 8 & 9
The first thing I personally have to come to terms with is that God allowed Stephen to be brutally murdered. That’s not to say God was responsible, because he wasn’t; the responsibility lies firmly with those who killed Stephen. But God, knowing what was to happen, let it happen. Stephen didn’t even seem to get the chance to decide whether he was prepared to be martyred; once he’d started preaching to the Sanhedrin his martyrdom was pretty much inevitable.
But, actually, his decision to be prepared to be martyred was made considerably earlier, right from the moment he decided to follow Jesus.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ” (Matthew 16: 24)
“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ” (Mark 8: 34)
“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ ” (Luke 9: 23)
All three of the synoptic gospels spell out Jesus’ statement of the cost of being a disciple. We need to be prepared to give up possessions, reputation, comfort and even life itself, if we are to be a disciple of Jesus. The possibility of martyrdom isn’t something covered in the small print – it’s in bold print, and worded in the strongest way possible.
Stephen had accepted that possibility, had opened himself to the Holy Spirit, who had used him powerfully.
Acts 8: 9 – 25
“When Simon (the sorcerer) saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ ”
Peter’s reply bears close study.
“ ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!’ ”
The gift of God is the forgiveness of sins. It is free; it can’t be bought, or earned, or in any way deserved. Belief in Jesus is all that you need.
“You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.”
Simon had seen that the presence of the Holy Spirit had brought power, and he desired that power. But he hadn’t realised that the real gift of God wasn’t the power, but the forgiveness of his sins. He didn’t believe in Jesus, he believed in the power he saw. Simon had not sought and received forgiveness; how, then, could he have any share in the ministry?
“Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.”
What was the sin that needed repentance? Well, it was actually a very common sin, the one that underlies most sin. Simon wanted to retain control of his life. He wanted God’s power, but not God’s direction. He had been through the ritual of baptism but had not surrendered his life to Jesus.
“For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.’ ”
Peter could see clearly that Simon wanted to retain control of his life and was therefore captive to sin.
Simon’s reply to Peter is intriguing
“ ‘Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.’ ”
He clearly trusts what Peter has told him. He fears the consequences of his sin. He’s some way short of repentance and belief, but he’s moving in the right direction, I think.
Acts 8: 26 – 40
Thank you for all those who, like Philip, witness to your love. Please help me to be more eager to share my faith in Jesus with those around me.
In Jesus’ name, Amen
Acts 9: 1 – 19
The difference between Saul’s dreadful mistakes before conversion and his powerful witness for Jesus afterwards is down to the work of the Holy Spirit. Before conversion Paul had the Mosaic law to guide his behaviour, and sacrifice in the temple to demonstrate atonement for sin. After conversion he had the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The difference between the Christian experience of God and the Jewish experience of God is down to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Our actions must be guided by the Holy Spirit. We must be obedient to what he tells us. We should expect God to work miracles today, if we listen and obey.
I will add a cautionary note. Our listening to the Holy Spirit must be done with great care. We must test revelations against Scripture. We must pray diligently. We must trust God to teach us how to listen and how to understand, and how to obey.
Acts 9: 19 – 31
Saul spent a few days with the disciples in Damascus and then began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
How could he do this? He hadn’t been a witness to the earthly ministry of Jesus. What did he know of the Way? It had taken Jesus years to train the Twelve, and even then their understanding was imperfect. Look, for example at Luke 22: 24 “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest.” This happened at the Last Supper, the last occasion when the earthly Jesus taught his disciples.
How could Saul, lacking that training, preach about Jesus in the synagogues?
There were three things in his favour. Firstly, he was very well trained in the Scriptures, and would have been completely familiar with the prophecies about the Messiah. Secondly, as he persecuted the church, he would have wrestled with what he heard of Jesus. He would have set what he learned of Jesus in the context of his understanding of the prophecies, to try and twist it against Jesus’ followers. And thirdly, he had the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Saul’s motivation and competence are important questions, because he played a pivotal role in what the early church believed. After becoming known as Paul, he travelled widely, and established churches in many places. He wrote letters to them which form a part of our bible. And, since the final versions of the gospels are known to have been written after St Paul’s epistles, the theology of the epistles, and of the man who wrote them, must have seeped into the gospels too.
Acts 9: 32 – 43
Prayer for healing shouldn’t be treated as a process for meeting human needs. It’s not what we want that matters, but what God wants. That said, I’m sure that God welcomes our prayers for the sick as expressions of our human love for the sick person.
I suggest, too, that there is one time when we can actively look for healings, and that is when the church is being renewed. Under those circumstances, a healing ministry may well be what God wants. However, it will require much prayer, and much sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, and much obedience if it is to happen. It will also require the church to proclaim the healings. Then, and only then, might we be able to say “This became known all over my home town, and many people believed in the Lord!”
Thank you that life and healing and goodness flow from you, through your Holy Spirit. Help us, please, to listen to you, and to obey you, that your will may be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
In Jesus’ name, Amen