The Spirit is not magic 

Acts 8:9-2

There are some who want to force things by their own will and manipulate things and people for their own benefit. This is the kind of magic (occult arts) Simon was doing. He was able to amaze people by his actions. We are not told just what he did because that is not the point of the story. He was entertaining demons and deceiving people which made him a great sinner.

So even if he did profess belief in Jesus as Messiah, it did not go very deep. He was so steeped in his magic thinking, he believed he could buy what the Holy Spirit gave freely to those who believed in Jesus. He only saw amazing things, not the power and relationship with God. His mistake was trying to make God as low, as manipulable as the demons he was used to.

Giving up the delusion that he was amazing and powerful was hard for Simon to do. He could not see that Jesus had a different kind of power and was much more for loving people. God does not manipulate but God does have commandments for people to follow to stay in his presence. God did have conditions and reasons for what he did. And now it was Simon who was amazed.

These people in Samaria did believe in Jesus as their Savior. They did want to be part of God’s kingdom. But even though they saw what Philip could do while working in the Spirit, they did not receive the power of God in the Holy Spirit. They were baptized into Jesus only.

The Apostles in Jerusalem heard what happened in Samaria and sent Peter and John to check it out. Both Peter and John were full of the Spirit of God. They had been doing signs and wonders for a while. They were sent to see how the preaching was working among non Jewish people.

One thing the two Apostles wanted to see was that these new believers had received the Holy Spirit. Being baptized in the Holy Spirit would be the difference between nice ideas and powerful faith. The Apostle knew that if the kingdom of God was to spread, the power of God to do miracles would need to be for all believers. So now these new believers were baptized into the Holy Spirit as well as the baptism of Jesus they already had. As the two Apostles laid hands inn prayer on these new believers they received the Holy Spirit.

This transfer and blessing of the Holy Spirit impressed Simon. This would be a new way to use his own power to gain money. He asked for this blessing as if it were a business transaction. He showed his lack of understanding of God’s kingdom of grace and compassion.

So Simon was scolded instead. He was again trying to manipulate things which was the opposite of the kingdom of God. He was told to repent and see if his heart could be cleansed. Peter told him he was in bitterness and wickedness. Here was an opportunity to look at his heart to see how his magic manipulations were different from the flow of God’s Spirit.

Bitterness against God means no trust in God. It means disregarding God’s way of doing things. It means trying to use human means to force things to go the way you want. It is opposing God. So Simon was stuck in his limited understanding of what salvation was. The only way out of his bitterness and wickedness would be to repent to God for refusing to follow God’s plan. Simon would have to unlearn his focus on his way and learn how to focus on God.

For us today, leaving behind magic involves repentance and study and prayer and worship of the one true God. Trying to force things the way we want them removes us from the power and grace of God. Jesus is our example of love and grace so we can see how awesome God is. Through Jesus we find that the rules and laws of God lead to more peace in mind and heart. God is trustworthy and full of goodness and it is ours if we follow the way of Jesus.

Saul’s persecution of Jesus followers 

Acts 8:1-8 

Among the followers of Jesus there were some men who took the broken and mangled body of Stephen and buried him with honor. This took some courage because of the indignation of the Temple rulers. Apparently he was greatly loved because they cried out and wept in their grief.

The anger of the Pharisees and other leaders against the Jesus followers only got more hot. The followers would not submit to the opinion that Jesus was a blasphemer and trouble maker. So Saul began to treat them like they were traitors to the God of Israel and thus the nation. He was ruthless and persistent to root out all these Jesus followers.

Saul was even dragging people out of their homes. He was not honoring believers as true people of the Israelite God. Saul was so full of zeal for the traditions of the Jews that he did not care about trials or witnesses. He had permission of the Sanhedrin to do this.

This persecution pushed the believers out of Jerusalem and sent them out like Jesus had said they would go. Fear was part of what pushed them out of Jerusalem. On the other hand they preached Jesus as Messiah to people who did not know about Jesus’ teaching. They began to go to other towns and areas to preach the Good News of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Another leader in the church, Philip, went to Samaria, to the cultural enemy, to preach Jesus as Messiah. They would have understood what Messiah meant since some of them knew some of the scriptures. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews because they were imported by an enemy and were not pure blooded Israelites. But they had learned some of the Law (Torah.)

Philip was full of the Holy Spirit and they saw wonders of healing. Philip got their attention through preaching that was full of the Spirit. And demons were being cast out of people. Those who were paralyzed were healed in the name of Jesus. They were seeing the kinds of things Jesus did and heard the kinds of things Jesus preached. It is possible that the signs and wonders made God’s love and power real. They could believe the teaching was true as they saw the Holy Spirit work in power.

Because of these amazing feats of God there was much rejoicing in Samaria. They were not tied up in the rules and obligations of the ceremonial Law of the Jews. They could see the power of God and believe in the message of faith in Jesus. It is not said whether or not the Samaritans had the same kind of rulers as those in Jerusalem.

The challenge to us today is whether or not we will believe in Jesus or dismiss him as unreasonable or fake. Do each of us have an openness to the Holy Spirit and let go of our obsession with things to believe in Jesus? There is power for good if we believe and do not waver. Jesus is alive now and able to heal and lead us now. Jesus is resurrected and active if we will just allow ourselves to change focus on “me” to focus on Jesus.

We may have to let go of denominational doctrines and get back to the simple message of Jesus when he was preaching. We may have to let go of some family obligations and our drive for worldly success. As Jesus asked, will we give up the world for the sake of being in the kingdom of God.

Persecution of Stephen

Acts 7:1-60  

When Stephen was defending himself, he reminded the leaders of the history of the Jews. He mentioned Abraham, Joseph, Jacob, and Moses. He then reminded them that Moses had prophesied that God would send another like him from one of them. Moses was the recipient of a revelation of God in the burning bush. He also met God on the mountain and brought down Torah for the people to follow for holiness.

But the people did not obey Torah so God let them have their way to destruction. Then Moses built the Tabernacle and the people took it to the Promised Land. Joshua took the people into the land. It was there with them until the time of David. God told David that he did not dwell in a building.

Then Stephan reminded them that the prophets had all been persecuted or killed. He told them that this one prophesied by Moses has come in Jesus whom they killed. Jesus wanted to lead people into a new freedom of Spirit. The Holy Spirit was trying to lead them again into a new life. But they did not have ears to hear. They were too full of worldly ways.

Instead of listening, they became furious and shouted Stephen down. Even when Stephen saw heaven open with Jesus and God there, they were so hardened in their mind they could not see. These men and the leaders could not stand to see their treasured rituals and beliefs in the letter of the law be changed.

They could do nothing to stop Stephen speaking of Jesus because he was filled with the Holy Spirit, so they used force instead of the usual argument. They could not debate him so they decided to physically stop him. So they dragged him outside the city and began to stone him. No trial, not even any pretense to make a claim against him. It was illegal for them to kill Stephen but that was the solution they could see.

Persecution that comes to someone who is telling of Jesus comes from our enemy Satan or the Devil. So when there is not enough believers to keep cover over someone preaching Jesus as Messiah, the preacher can be attacked by those who listen to the Evil One. The Church is supposed to be ready to defend the truth of Jesus. But they can’t if they are full of the world. Spiritual weapons are worship, prayer and fasting. So different from violence.

Facing Hostility

Acts 6:8-15

Just like with Jesus, as Stephan told the good news about Jesus who came to release the captives and bring healing to the people, some took offense and wanted to silence him. He was known to be strong in faith, that is why he was chosen to be a deacon. But here he is busy preaching, adding to his deacon’s work for the kingdom of God.

Stephen showed his true value in this situation. He is a deacon serving the poor. But he knows Jesus and the Holy Spirit and relies on the Spirit as Jesus said would be good. As he speaks to people from the Freedmen synagogue, he makes so much sense and the power of his words is so strong they get angrier and angrier. They could not find a mistake in what Stephen said, because the Holy Spirit was telling him what to say.

These who were so upset were from other places than Jerusalem. They may have been proselytes and having decided they believed in Moses , rather than their pagan religion, were all strong to keep their faith. They could have been Jews from the diaspora because Alexandria was in Egypt and the others named here were not from Israel proper, but from places the Assyrians and Romans had moved them. The synagogue name suggests some of the members had been slaves at one time, but now are free. They could have been Greek or Roman slaves outside of Israel. These who were in a “liberty” synagogue would not tolerate Stephens preaching.

Those who convert often are more emphatic than those who were raised in the faith. To hear preaching of something different would be too unsettling. It would bring up fear of doing the wrong thing. Those who had lived in a foreign nation would have been trained in how to stay free from the local religion. This attitude would carry over to new teaching too.

Because they could not defend themselves from scripture or logic, they decided to set up false witnesses and use force to shut him up. They were willing to break the Law (Torah) to defend their point of view. Evidently they did not know the Prophets well enough to know that if God is trying to tell them something, they can’t stop it. They did not mind breaking the Law to stop this new teaching.

So in a rage they rushed him and grabbed him and hauled him to the leaders of the Temple. They knew that the Temple leaders tried to get rid of Jesus because of this new teaching. They expected those leaders to condemn Stephen in the same way.

They could not defend their ideas by words so they resorted to force. There was some demonic influences behind this rage. Demons hate Jesus and his word. They were all glaring at Stephan but because of that, they saw his face change. He had the face of an angel from the power of the Holy Spirit. Instead of realizing they were making a mistake, they kept on doing what they intended.

If we find ourselves trying to force something, maybe we need to stop and pray and see if we are against the Holy Spirit. Jesus does not work by force of arms or Law, but by love and Spirit.

 

Organizing the growing church 

Acts 6:1-7 

The time had come that there were so many new believers that an organization had to be formed. There were complaints from the Greek speaking disciples against the Apostles that the Greek widows were not getting their fair share of the daily food distribution. It is not clear if this was part of the Jewish discrimination against the Greeks in general.

The Twelve knew they had a particular calling, job, and they also knew this was important for the church to be united. So they called everyone together and told them that they would keep the commission Jesus gave them to preach the gospel. The Apostles were continuing the custom of the Jews that to study Torah was of great honor and importance.

Now there needed to be a new group of leaders to take care of the Greek widows. This was a new service to accommodate the reality of the congregation. Growing numbers needed more attention than they were getting. Of course the poor were part of the church and someone had to be sure they got their daily bread.

The widows were important to take care of because they had no protection or income and needed the church to help them. Being wise the Apostles told the Greek disciples to choose among themselves seven (the number of completion) to make sure these widows were taken care of. These were to be men of honor, integrity and great compassion, wise and full of the Spirit so they could hear from God how to serve these women.

The names of these deacons are all Greek and Stephen and Philip are mentioned later also. Then there was a sort of ordination of these seven men. The Apostles prayed over them and laid hands on them to confirm their appointment to this job. They must have done a good job because we do not hear about this controversy again.

The work of the Holy Spirit to bring people to Jesus continued and grew. The church in Jerusalem was growing rapidly so the work of the Apostles was fruitful. What is amazing that some of the priests began to follow Jesus. Those of the Temple had been party to the rejection of Jesus when he was still alive, but now some saw that faith in Jesus was a real thing. They probably had to go against the High Priest and others to follow Jesus.

The question to us is, do we have the qualifications for service that these Greek had? We all are supposed to be servants as Jesus demonstrated. Are we ready to welcome people strange to us into our church? Will we lay down our secular pride to help newcomers with humility.

Apostles versus the Temple leaders

Acts 5:18-32

The leaders did not know what to do with these upstart Galileans who were presuming to teach doctrine so they put them in jail hoping they would lose heart and stop preaching. But jail would not stop them. In fact God sent an angel to free them. God was so with them, they were given a miracle to set them free from the jail to continue God’s work.

The Apostles went back to teaching and the guards with the leaders were astonished that they were again preaching instead of in the jail. When they were taken in front of the council they were asked why they kept on defying the legal authorities. The high priest accused them of trying to bring the blood of Jesus on the leaders.

But the Apostles were following a higher authority than that of the council. They said that they had to obey God over the leaders or other men. Then they gave a quick summary of the gospel and what had happened to Jesus.

It was the Lord who raised Jesus from the dead. Also Jesus died to bring repentance and forgiveness of sins to anyone who sincerely looked to God. Instead of the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple for forgiveness, a person could gain forgiveness through belief in Jesus as the Son of God. A whole new relationship with God was now available.

These unschooled, backwoods men were presuming to tell the highly educated leaders what God, the Lord was doing. They were undercutting the authority and the teaching of the Temple priests, as well as the Pharisees. They were changing the way Jews were to think about God. How could they be sure they were doing what God wanted with new teaching going on?

But the power of God was at work and no one could deny the miracles. To the leaders who only saw the rules, these new things were unthinkable. This escape from jail is only one of the times God sends angels to get Apostles out of jail. When believers are in the middle of God’s work they have this kind of help. It depends on focus and determination in prayer to keep going.

In the late 1800’s and later, there were those who were leading people to Jesus in crowds. Revivals were in several countries. They had to deal with a strong push back from leaders and media. They had the same kind of resistance from the established churches as the Temple at the that time. But like soldiers they were on a mission and nothing would stop them.

There is no substitute for a personal relationship with God. Then the Holy Spirit can teach believers what God would have them do and how to live in joy everyday. The power of God is still available to those who obey the Holy Spirit.

Power of the Apostles

Acts 5;12-24 

Great fear, deep awe, was on the church because of Ananias and Sapphira, and on others who heard the story. The amazing power of God was still at work. Who knew what God would do next? Yet the Apostles were still healing the sick so God was not punishing people for nothing. It was the deception that was so bad. God was not capricious but very firm about keeping to the truth.

Solomon’s Colonnade was a usual place for the Apostles to teach the people. They kept on teaching and preaching Life in Jesus who was resurrected. These uneducated Galileans were doing amazing things in the name of Jesus. They were receiving new believers every day. What a threat to the established leadership of the Temple. Even today some of the least educated show the power of God more than the highly educated. It all depends on the strength of the believers faith: is it in their own interpretation of scripture, or the power of the Holy Spirit.

None of the leaders dared to join them for fear of losing their position. However the ordinary people were soaking up the life in Christ Jesus. So many believed in the Gospel of Jesus that they brought sick friends to where the mere shadow of the Apostles would pass over them. People from the villages around heard about the Apostles and the wonders and healing done by them. So they too brought their sick and crippled to be healed. And they were healed and whole.

All this made the leaders of the Temple hostile. They were jealous of the Apostles. Why should these uncouth, uneducated men be able to do these great things? And their teaching of resurrected Jesus was impossible. Why should they be tolerated. So they arrested the Apostles and put them in jail.

This same kind of dismay and anger comes against many Christians in China, Russia, N. Korea and Muslim countries. God’s work and desire to heal challenges the assumptions of those who think they can make people do what they want. It also challenges the rules and sayings of the religion they follow. The god of many is not the Lord God almighty maker of heaven and earth, but their own party or demons.

The challenge to the people in Jerusalem was whether or not all this strange preaching and strange healing was of God or not. Many decided it was of God and they wanted to know God in this new way. Yet some also decided all this strangeness was dangerous and they wanted it stopped. Perseverance and experience of God made the difference in how people decided. The power of the Holy Spirit helped people decide that Jesus was more important than their previous loyalties to their group. God was on the move making heaven come to earth.

Fear of the Lord 

Acts 5:1-10

Deception is always dangerous. Trying to manipulate things to make them come out the way you want separates you from the truth that sets you free. Then sooner or later the truth will come out and either you repent and make it right or you lie some more. It seems to me that even though the way of truth is sometimes hard, it still has fewer harsh consequences.

This story of Ananias and Sapphira, of their deception shines light on our feeble attempts to manipulate God. The Disciples were meeting together for support, prayer and worship. Because they were so close they would sometimes give money to the Apostles to manage. Apparently this was received with honor and thanks.

But among the followers there were some who were tempted to manipulate things for their own glory . Ananias and Sapphira had a scheme to gain both money and honor. But it was illegitimate. They were going to sell something of value and pretend to give it all to the Apostles. They could have given a portion of their money if they had been truthful. It was the deception that was so bad.

The problem was that by doing so they offended God. Jesus had taught them to be truthful. And so here was a test case. Would God expose them? Satan had tempted this couple severely and they gave in. So now they both had to face the truth that they were not faithful followers of Jesus, but they pretended to follow, probably because they wanted the honor. This is the fate of hypocrites, to be exposed as pretenders.

Some commentaries liken this to the way God was so strict in the Exodus. When God was forming the Hebrews into a nation for himself, he was very strict and people who defied him were often killed. At the beginning of something new, the rules, the focus is strong to set it in place. New habits have to be put in place which takes time.

The Apostles showed the discernment of spirits and saw immediately that Satan had gotten hold of these two. God wanted to keep the teaching of Jesus pure. They wanted to keep the power of the Holy Spirit alive in them. So they had to expose this lie, this deception. It may seem harsh to us, but God has a strong sense of righteousness and purity. God wanted to keep his church as pure as humanly possible.

There are times that we are tempted to make things look better than they are. But all deception causes us to lose a close, intimate relationship with God. Ananias and Sapphira may have been false for a long time time following the religious “rules” of the Law(Torah) without true honor to God and people may not have known. But this incident exposed their worldly heart.

True repentance comes from being willing to let God show us our faults and sins. Repentance clears the air of the relationship with God. Treating sin quickly and thoroughly keeps us close to God. Every time we are deluded and sin, we have a chance to back up and confess our wrong doing. By confession(admitting sin) and turning our back on the sin, and turning towards God we cleanse our relationship with God and gain forgiveness.

This is an ongoing process as we mature into the image of Christ. Truth is our way forward. It is worth the pain and shame to confess our sin specifically, turn to Christ Jesus and be cleansed.

 

 

 

Unity of heart and soul 

Acts 4 32-37 

These believers, having given up their previous belief of following the traditions of the Jews, were now focused on Jesus; his life, death and resurrection. They had in common a new life and a new ideal. They knew of the Holy Spirit and the power thereof. Their love had been expanded by the Spirit and they could enjoy the differences among them. Their unity was in Christ and the Spirit.

Because their love was so expanded, they did not need to keep their property to themselves. Not only that but according to some scholars, it was usual in Jerusalem during Passover for the residents to open their homes to visitors. So the idea of having all in common for the use of those who had needs was not new. But it must have been more evident with these new Christians.

Testifying to the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was their primary task. At this point they did not have a full understanding of what the death meant. Paul had not yet been converted to explain that it was like a sin offering. However they could preach the kingdom of God and Jesus resurrected.

They all belonged to the kingdom of God, to Jesus and so with that one focus they cared for each other without judgment about who was worthy of help. Because of this unity in the Spirit, they could lovingly give what was needed to those who needed it.

Because of their unity in the Spirit, they could preach with power and watch the Holy Spirit bring in more people who believed in Jesus as Messiah. They were being obedient to Jesus, preaching the kingdom of God to whoever would listen.

As an example of how they would honor everyone in the assembly of believers, (The Church) Barnabas sold a field and laid the money at the feet of the Apostles. This action showed respect of the Apostles and gave them the right to give some of the money to whomever they decided needed it. It was a love offering to the assembly.

Acts 4:23-31 Fearless servants

Peter and John left the temple grounds and went to the assembly of believers. They wanted to both share what had happened and be filled again to go out and do the work of the Messiah.

It was important that they share what had happened so all the rest would know what was going on and what to expect from the rulers. They could rejoice that they were able to preach the gospel directly to the leaders. Jesus had told them they would be taken before leaders and here it had happened. Now they had started the mission Jesus gave them.

They first praised God for his sovereignty and his plan. They remembered how God had been with them all a long. They praised God for his power and majesty and how they expected God to help them since it was his plan.

Instead of being afraid because of the threats of powerful men, they wanted God to prepare them to continue. They had been afraid before Pentecost, but now with the Holy Spirit filling and guiding them, they had the boldness and courage to be plain and forceful in preaching. They were so focused on their mission given by Jesus, they did not worry about what would happen to them. They wanted more power to continue rather than protection.

The reference to Psalm 2 showed that they expected there to be blow back. But they did not want to shirk their duty so they asked for boldness not security. They asked for what to say and that signs and wonders would be there. They knew that proclaiming God’s kingdom would need a display for people to really get it.

Jesus was the Son of God and they intended to follow where Jesus said to go. They asked for healing which was a large part of what Jesus did. They had regrouped and encouraged each other. Now they all could go out and keep on preaching, and casting out demons.