Reflections on Acts – part 3
The passages covered in these reflections describe the way in which the Holy Spirit worked within the early church. They suggest how the church today could be renewed by God. Note, though – and it’s important – St Luke, when he wrote the words in the Acts of the Apostles, was not prescriptive. He was not writing a “how to” guide. Neither should these reflections be read in that way.
Acts 11: 1 – 18
The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’
Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
‘I replied, “Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure of unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
‘The voice spoke from heaven a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
‘Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, “Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.”
‘As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: “John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?’
When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’
* * *
This passage, in which Peter accounts for his actions in the house of Cornelius, marks the point at which the early church ceases to be a sect within Judaism and becomes the Christian church.
It has some important lessons for us today.
The episode started with prayer. Peter was praying. What was he praying about? Well, we don’t know, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he was asking for guidance as to what God wanted him to do next.
As a church, are we praying regularly for guidance as to our future actions? How many of our people pray regularly that our church community should receive guidance from God? Are we listening for answers?
Peter had experienced the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He knew what the experience was like, and Peter was receptive to what the Holy Spirit had to say to him and to show him. He paid attention even though at first he didn’t understand the message.
As a church, are we aware of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Do we pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is telling us?
When the Holy Spirit prompted Peter to go with the visitors, Peter was obedient. Likewise, Cornelius was obedient when he sent people to Peter.
It is essential that we act when we recognise what the Holy Spirit is saying to us. If we are not obedient, we oppose God’s plan.
The Holy Spirit validated the whole experience, firstly by the way his guidance made sense of God’s plan – all the actions were appropriate and at the right time – and secondly by the miraculous confirmation that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the Gentiles.
If we, as a church, look for the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst, his validation will teach us how to recognise when he is speaking to us.
Peter testified to the apostles and believers about his experience. This broadened the outlook of the believers, and was a vital step in the growth of the Christian church.
How often do we as a church give testimonies about the work of God in our midst?
St Luke reported this event in the Acts of the Apostles, and we’re reading it today, and being encouraged.
Do we keep a written record in our church of the work of God in our midst?
Thank you for the gift of your Holy Spirit. Please help me to listen more carefully, to act on what I hear, and to be ready to share my experience of your work in my life.
In Jesus’ name, Amen
* * *
Acts 11: 19 – 30
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
There was a prophet named Agabus from the church in Jerusalem. Through the Holy Spirit he predicted a severe famine throughout the Roman world. There was in fact a severe famine in Syria in 46/47 AD, and it was sufficiently widespread to be recorded by contemporary historians. Josephus, Suetonius and Tacitus all refer to it.
This apparent confirmation doesn’t really tell us very much, because we don’t have sufficient evidence to date Acts reliably. Its importance lies in what it teaches us about prophecy.
We have been told about a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Simon Acts 8: 9 – 24. The story about Agabus is to show us how prophecy should really be done.
The thing is, biblical prophecy is quite different from clairvoyance or second sight or any other supernatural attempts to see the future. It’s always inspired by the Holy Spirit and it always prompts actions that implement God’s plan. In this case, hearing of the predicted famine, “the disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.”
God wanted the Antioch Christians to have the opportunity to help their brothers and sisters in Judea. It was a demonstration of how Christian churches should support each other in times of hardship. It was clearly part of God’s plan.
* * *
Acts 12: 1 – 19
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. ‘Quick, get up!’ he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
Then the angel said to him, ‘Put on your clothes and sandals.’ And Peter did so. ‘Wrap your cloak round you and follow me,’ the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.’
When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to open the door. When she recognised Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, ‘Peter is at the door!’
‘You’re out of your mind,’ they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, ‘It must be his angel.’
But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. ‘Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,’ he said, and then he left for another place.
In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.
Peter had just been miraculously rescued by God from imprisonment and probable martyrdom. His confidence in God was so great that instead of going immediately to a place of safety, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. He knew that the believers would have gathered there to pray for him, and he wanted to show them that their prayers had been answered.
How did the believers receive Peter? They had been praying earnestly for him. There was a knocking on the door. Rhoda went to the door and heard Peter’s voice. Leaving the door closed, she ran into the assembly and called out the joyful news. And the brothers and sisters didn’t believe it! They didn’t believe the answer to prayer, even when one of their own number shouted it out loud! How would they ever believe the promptings of the Holy Spirit?
In this instance they were constrained by the wisdom of this world, and as a result they were in chains.
Peter trusted in God, and was familiar with the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit spoke to him, it was as real as daily life. Peter lived by the wisdom of God. Chains, iron doors and guards were no barrier to the power of God to set him free. God had much more work for Peter to do, and Peter was ready to do it!