Commentary on Acts 8:1-2

By Bob Myhan

1Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

Luke here informs us that Saul was not an innocent bystander at Stephen’s death. He had condoned the stoning. The “witnesses,” whose coats were laid at his feet, were the ones who threw the stones.

The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put away the evil from among you. (Deut. 17:7)

This made the crime all the more heinous; they were false witnesses. It is one thing to violate the Law by bearing false witness but quite another to carry out the execution of a man one knows to be innocent of the charges for which he is being put to death.

This was not the last time the Jews used “morally challenged” people to persecute Christians. It happened later to Saul at Lystra and to the house of Jason in Thessalonica.

Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. (Acts 14:9)

But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. (Acts 17:5)

“At that time,” the members of the church numbered in the thousands (2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7), maybe ten thousand or more. The twelve were a big enough threat to the influence of the council but thousands of Jews potentially preaching the resurrection of one whose crucifixion the council had pressured Pilate to authorize could hardly be tolerated. All of a sudden, the twelve did not seem like such a great threat.

Notice, the “great persecution” was not “against the church” corporately but distributively. That is, it was against those who made up the membership of the church. The plural third person pronoun, “they,” has “the church which was at Jerusalem” as antecedent. Thus, the members were persecuted and scattered.

Luke is preparing the reader for the eventual transition from Peter to Paul as the primary character in the narrative. Acts is an inspired commentary on the following verse.

And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen. (Mark 16:20) 

Many conservative scholars recognize the priority of Mark. That is, they are convinced that, of those gospels that were providentially preserved, Mark’s was written first. A good prima facie case can be made that both Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark’s gospel, and were inspired separately to supplement it with their own recollections (in the case of Matthew) and investigations (in the case of Luke). John’s gospel, on the other hand, was independent of the other three.

Probably, the closest thing to a thesis sentence in the book of Acts is the following.

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (1:8) 

The early spread of the gospel was a  kind of ”ripple effect,” beginning in Jerusalem, then spreading through Judea to Samaria and Syria, then to Asia and Europe. Luke follows the activities of Peter, Stephen, Philip, Barnabas and Saul, in pretty much that order.

2And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

Stephen has the distinction of being the first martyr for the cause of Christ. The English word, “martyr,” is actually an Anglicization of the Greek word, marturos, meaning “witness.”

“Lamentation” is an expression of grief. It is the name of the second book of Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet,” who lamented the state of Judah just prior to the beginning of its seventy-year captivity.

(To be continued)

The Lord’s People Part #4

By Bob Myhan

Jesus taught “many things by parables” (Mark 4:2). A parable is an illustration from the material realm that is used to communicate something about the spiritual realm. Jesus used many of these to explain various features of the Kingdom of God .

It is like a man sowing seed (Matt. 13:24-30; 36-43). This illustrates the fact that kingdom citizens are to share God’s word (Luke 8:11) with others so they, too, would have an opportunity to obey it.

It was also like a grain of mustard seed (Matt. 13:31, 32). Just as a tiny seed can grow into a gigantic plant, a small band of “Christian soldiers” grew into a mighty “army” [another figure for the Lord’s people, implied by Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3-4)].

The kingdom was also like leaven (Matt. 13:33). “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” in the material realm. Just so, a few people who have been converted to Christ (having become citizens in His kingdom) can have enormous influence in a community.

The kingdom of God is like hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44), like a merchant who finds a costly pearl (Matt. 13:45, 46), and like a dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50). The first and second of these three parables illustrate the value of citizenship in the kingdom, which we will discuss shortly. The third demonstrates the fact that not all who enter the kingdom in its earthly, militant state will necessarily enter the kingdom in its eternal, triumphant state. This is because some who obey the gospel initially are not “faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10). This point is also emphasized in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:5-7, 20-22; Luke 8:6, 7, 13, and 14).

Concerning the coming of the kingdom, John the Baptist said, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Jesus also said, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). If “the kingdom of God ” (Mark 1:14-15) was “at hand” during the ministries of John and Jesus, it cannot be future now. Jesus further said that “the kingdom of God [would] come with power" (Mark 9:1).

After His resurrection, and just prior to His ascension, Jesus told His apostles, “Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence,” and “ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you” (Acts 1:4-8). What has this to do with the kingdom? They had just asked Him, “Wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel ?” (v. 6) He seems to be reminding them of the statement recorded in Mark 9:1, so that, when they received power, they would know the kingdom had come.

A few days later, on the first day of the Feast of Weeks [called “Pentecost,” because it always fell on the fiftieth day after the Passover Sabbath (Lev. 23:15, 16; Dt. 16:9, 10)], the apostles were baptized in the Holy Spirit and received power (Acts 2:1-4, 43; 4:33). It is implied, therefore, that the kingdom came on that Pentecost, which was always the first day of the week.

Citizenship in the kingdom of God does not come via natural birth (as it did in the Old Testament). Rather, it is bestowed conditionally. The condition is that one must be “born of water and of the Spirit” (John 3:3-5). But how is one “born of water and of the Spirit"?

First, one who is born again becomes a new creature, but "if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature" (2 Cor. 5:17). Therefore, whatever puts one into Christ makes him a new creature and is necessary to being born again. But water baptism puts one into Christ (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 3:27). Therefore, one becomes a new creature when he is baptized in water; thus, baptism in water is necessary to being born again. This explains why, in the book of Acts (often called the book of conversions), every time the word "water" appears, it is used in connection with baptism (Acts 1:5; 8:35-39; 10:44-48; 11:16).

Second, since the Holy Spirit revealed the word of God, and the word of God commands the alien sinner to be baptized, the alien sinner who has been baptized according to the word of God has been "born of water and of the Spirit" and is no longer an alien sinner, but a citizen in the kingdom of God. One who has not been baptized in water for the remission of sins has not been born again and remains outside the kingdom of God and in a lost condition.

Kingdom citizenship conveys exclusive entitlements. Among these are the honor of addressing God as “Father” (Gal. 4:6), the right to commune with Jesus in the Lord’s Supper (Heb. 13:10; Matt. 26:26-29), and the privilege of praying with the expectation that God will both hear and answer (1 Peter 3:12).

Citizenship in the kingdom is equivalent to citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:20) because the kingdom of God is also the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:14, 15). Kingdom citizenship also prepares us for heaven (2 Peter 1:4-11) because only the ones who have entered the kingdom in its earthly stage—“having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust”—may enter the kingdom in its heavenly stage.

Further, citizenship in the kingdom of God confers considerable responsibilities (Matt. 25:32-40). Failure to meet these responsibilities will not be tolerated (Matt. 25:41-46). Thus, “it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them” (2 Peter 2:21).

Churches of Christ are not democratic bodies but local bodies of kingdom citizens. They do not have the power to make laws but they do have the responsibility to see that Christ’s laws are both respected and obeyed.

(To be continued)