A Church on the Move

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

A Church on the Move

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 8

Think back to your personal conversion experience. What was the setting? Who was involved? Were your parents engaged? A Sunday school teacher, perhaps? Your pastor? A spiritual friend? Who then would have predicted that you would be teaching your class this weekend? Would you?

I became a Christian while sitting on a metal folding chair in the living room of a house down Beechnut Street from College Park Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. At the time, I would have been voted least likely to write this Sunday school lesson. My parents’ patience was tested daily by my childhood. Conduct slips sent home were a daily occurrence. Five of my six elementary school teachers quit the year they had me—perhaps that’s a trend. Every time I open the word of God to speak or write, I am reminded that the Lord has a wonderful sense of humor. And the ability to hit straight licks with crooked sticks.

This week, imagine all God might do with your faithfulness. We so often limit God by our limited faith. We struggle to believe that he could actually use us to do something eternal, spiritual, or miraculous. We’ll learn this week that he will use any who will be used. And that he can do far more with us than we imagine.

When Bill Parcells became the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, his first speech to his new players included this statement: “Raise your expectations.” They expected to lose. He expected to win, to do more than they thought possible. Eventually, so did they.

So can we.

Bloom where you’re planted (vs. 1-8)

Have you ever been frustrated by your spiritual circumstances? Maybe you’re at such a place today. You want to serve your Lord, but it seems that your opportunities are limited. People don’t seem receptive. Your gifts and abilities go unrecognized. Life is preventing your ministry. We’ve all been there, and we’ll all have days when we return to that place of self-doubt and discouragement.

Such was the scene as our text opens. Stephen has been martyred, the first but not the last. A “great” (mega) persecution “broke out” (a word often used for a disease or plague which “breaks out” in the population) against the church at Jerusalem (v. 1a). “Against” means “in opposition to, as an adversary.” The church has assaulted the gates of hell (cf. Matthew 16:18), and now they’re fighting back. The enemy has tried to decapitate the Christian movement by threatening its leaders; he has sought to sow seeds of discord and division; he has achieved the execution of one of the church’s godliest leaders. Now a full-scale war begins.

As a result, “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (v. 1b). “Scattered” means “to be thrown about,” a word used to describe a sower who “scatters” his seed. We picture them thrown into the winds and landing wherever they are taken. The church buried Stephen and mourned his death (v. 2), while Saul began his murderous rampage against their members (v. 3).

Luke says that Saul “began to destroy” the church, words used for tearing down a building. At this time in history, of course, the church had no buildings. The church was and is its people. And so Saul went “from house to house,” where the first believers lived and worshiped. He “dragged off men and women,” persecuting both with equal severity. He “put them in prison,” not so they would be punished by incarceration (such was not the purpose of first-century Roman prisons), but so they could be tried and executed as blaspheming criminals and rebels.

Later Paul recounted his rampage against the church this way: “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (Acts 22:4). It appears that the future of the Christian movement is bleak at best. No one is safe. All are at risk. Who will want to join such a faith? What optimism could these believers hold for their future? How many were certain that their church would achieve global or eternal significance now?

Step into their lives. You’ve been a Christian for only a few months; no one has been for more than three years. You have no New Testament, and no church except at Jerusalem. Now the Empire is after you; Saul is trying to find you; you don’t have your apostles, your pastors, any more. They’re back in Jerusalem, but you’re gone. You have no home, no job, no church and no leaders. Is this new movement dead?

As it turns out, what the enemy meant for evil, God used for good. He always does.

The “scattered” Christians “preached the word wherever they went” (v. 4). Running for their lives, fleeing the mighty Empire, they were still faithful to their call and God. Note that none were “apostles”; the leaders of the church stayed in Jerusalem to face persecution and continue their ministries there (v. 1). But all “preached” (the Greek word means simply “to proclaim”). Ordination and license are not required. Every time you teach the Scriptures, you are “preaching” God’s word. Every time you share your faith, or speak a spiritual word, you are preaching. And God is pleased.

These preached “wherever they went.” They assumed their new circumstances to be no surprise to God. They seized the moment, the opportunity presented to them. Philip in particular “went down” to a city in Samaria; the words mean that he traveled downward in elevation from the hills of Jerusalem to the valley of Samaria, not that he traveled south. No self-respecting Jew would do this before Pentecost. The Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the Jews, their faith and culture despised and avoided. But now the universal love of God lives in Philip’s heart. And soon in the hearts of those he served.

The people of this Samaritan city “heard” his message and “saw” the miraculous signs performed by God through his ministry (v. 6a). And so they “paid close attention” (v. 6b; the phrase means to examine with utmost interest and detail) to the gospel he shared. With this result: “With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed” (v. 7). When we attack the gates of hell, they cannot withstand our assault. Imprisoned spirits and bodies were released and healed. And “there was great joy in that city” (v. 8). From “mega” persecution (v. 1) came “mega” joy.

My first year in seminary, I was frustrated. I wasn’t preaching, or working in a church, or doing much of what I called ministry. Then I heard someone say, “Bloom where you’re planted.” Look around. And I did. I was working part-time at the time as a graphic artist and typesetter. In our office I found a colleague whose husband was in a cult; another whose husband was in jail; a third who was a brilliant agnostic; an employer headed for a divorce; customers from every walk of life. A mission field as great as any I’ve ever seen. Right where I was.

Look at the opportunities which surround you. Challenge your class to do the same. Everywhere you look you’ll find people with problems for which you can pray, hurting hearts who need your love, people who need God’s truth and grace through you. Bloom where you’re planted. And you will be surprised at the beauty of the flower God grows through you.

Stay in the Spirit (vs. 9-25)

Jesus had told his followers they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It took the persecution of Acts 8:1 to begin fulfilling the commission of Acts 1:8. In this way God redeemed the suffering of his people, and used the attack of the enemy to further his Kingdom. He never wastes a hurt. But for his Spirit to use us fully, we must first be yielded fully to him, as we will discover next.

Expect light to defeat darkness

The Lord led Philip to this particular Samaritan city for a larger purpose than Philip yet knew. For in this city resided one Simon, a sorcerer who “amazed” (caused the people to wonder with emotional depth and reaction) the entire nation of Samaria (v. 9). “All the people, both high and low” (the wealthy and educated as well as those of the lower classes) considered him to possess divine power and even be the “Great Power” (v. 10, probably a description of one sent by God himself, perhaps even the Messiah). He had “amazed them for a long time” with his magical stunts (v. 11), with no end in sight.

The people were thoroughly deceived, as they will be wherever the gospel has not been preached. Paul would not have been surprised: “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

But when they encountered the truth of God in the preaching and ministry of Philip, the crowds turned from deception to transformation, and were baptized, “both men and women” (v. 12). Note Luke’s persistent interest in women as well as men, for both are equally valuable to the Father (cf. Galatians 3:26-29). Light always defeats darkness (cf. John 1:5). When you speak the word of God in the will of God, the victory of God always comes. Hearts are always turned, souls always saved.

Avoid the sin of Simon

Now comes a problematic part of our text: “Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw” (v. 13). Was this a genuine conversion?

Note that Simon soon offered money to the apostles in his attempt to purchase the divine power with which they ministered (vs. 18-19). Peter replied, “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God” (v. 20). He called the magician to repent and pray for forgiveness (vs. 22), for he was “full of bitterness and captive to sin” (v. 23). Simon asked Peter to pray on his behalf (v. 24), but there is no record that he made such confession and intercession personally.

Some believe that Simon was not genuinely saved, that his “conversion” was only a public show and part of his attempt to seek further spiritual acclaim and reputation among the people. Such is certainly possible; he would not be the last to profess Christ from false motives, to pretend a faith which was not genuine. Adolf Hitler claimed that his Third Reich would advance the cause of Christianity and the Church across Germany and the world, and many church leaders believed him.

Others, myself among them, hold out hope that Simon’s conversion, while immature and conflicted, was genuine. Peter’s reply to his sin was not to call him to salvation per se, but rather to confession and repentance for this specific sin (v. 22). He was “full of bitterness and captive to sin” (v. 23), but he would not be the last Christian to deal with such spiritual disease within a converted heart.

We don’t know enough from the text to decide either way. What we do know is that Simon did not receive Christ and then “lose” his salvation. Once we become the genuine children of God, we will always belong to him (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). We are in his hand, and nothing and no one can take us from him (John 10:28). We will never perish, but “have” eternal life (John 3:16).

Whether Simon was a genuine Christian or not, we may never know. But we do know that genuine Christians can repeat his sin. We can seek God’s power for our ends, trying to “purchase” his favor through our merit and works for our own goals and purposes. How many in your class will come to church this weekend more for what they can “get” than what they can give? How many will evaluate your lesson not so much by whether or not you presented the truth of God as by whether or not they “liked” what you said? It is perennially tempting to make God our servant, a genie in our bottle, the One to whom we turn for help with our lives. He is the Lord of the universe, and he will not be trifled with. He calls us to total surrender and obedience, nothing less.

Seek the Spirit’s work

We’re not finished with controversial texts just yet. The apostles in Jerusalem heard that the Samaritans “had accepted the word of God,” so they sent Peter and John to them (v. 14). The Jerusalem church was seen as the headquarters of the faith, and the means by which a spiritual movement was to be evaluated (cf. Ac. 11:22, 15:6ff.). The Samaritans had been baptized, but “the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them” (v. 16). So Peter and John prayed “that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 15), placed their hands on them, “and they received the Holy Spirit” (v. 17).

Later, after they “testified and proclaimed the word of the Lord,” Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching in many Samaritan villages along the way (v. 25). Clearly the Jewish bias against Samaritans was defeated by the love and Spirit of Jesus.

But what are we to make of the Samaritans’ experience with the Spirit? Does the text indicate that it is possible to accept the word of God and be baptized as believers, but not yet have the Spirit? Must others pray and lay hands on us in order for us to receive the Spirit into our lives? Many believe so. They argue for a “second blessing” by which the Spirit comes to Christians, and claim that if we have not experienced this spiritual event, we do not yet “have” the Spirit. They often look for tongues or other manifesting signs of the Spirit’s presence as indication that the Spirit has indeed come, though no such signs are described in our text. Here the order is: hearing and accepting the gospel, being baptized, and receiving the Spirit.

If the Samaritans’ experience is to be the model and pattern for us all, then what of Cornelius’s experience in Acts 10? “While Peter was still speaking” the gospel, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” and Peter’s associates “were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (vs. 44-45). Here the new converts were heard “speaking in tongues and praising God” (v. 46). Later they were baptized (v. 48). Here the order is: hearing and accepting the gospel, receiving the Spirit, being baptized.

Three options are typically suggested. One: the Samaritans’ experience is normative, and Cornelius’s model the exception. In this interpretation, I still need someone to lay hands on me and pray for me to receive the Spirit, since I have not yet sought such an event.

Two: Cornelius’s experience is normative, and the Samaritans’ experience the exception. Here I “have” the Spirit (though some would wish me to speak in tongues as certification). Those who follow this approach (as does Wiersbe in Be Dynamic) typically see the Samaritan event as part of a transition period in the work of the Spirit, a pattern made more normative with Cornelius.

Note that neither text claims the event it records to be a model for all Christians. Neither prescribes its experiences as mandatory or normative. Luke simply records what happened to these two groups; either may be an exception to God’s typical way of dealing with us today.

Three: the Samaritans were not genuinely converted until Peter and John arrived and preached the word more fully to them. We know that “there was great joy in that city” when the people saw the miracles performed by God through Philip (v. 7), and that “they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of the Jesus Christ” and were baptized (v. 12). They “had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 16). It is possible to accept the Scriptures intellectually and be baptized as a result, without experiencing a genuine conversion. I have known several across the years of my pastoral ministry who fit this precise description.

For me, Romans 8:9 settles the issue: “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” We become Christians by the agency and transforming work of the Spirit. When we “ask Jesus into our hearts,” it is actually the Spirit who takes up residence in our lives: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). The Samaritans could not have been genuinely converted until they received the Spirit, an experience which came through the preaching and intercession of Peter and John.

Whatever our approach to this text, it is important to be reminded that the Spirit of God will enter every heart open to him. When we bloom where we’re planted, using opportunities around us for the gospel, the Spirit will do the rest. He will convict of sin, change hearts, and save souls. Believe that he will do eternal work with your temporal faithfulness, and he will.

Expect God to precede you (vs. 26-40)

The rest of Acts 8 tells the remarkable story of the Ethiopian’s conversion. An angel directed Philip to the road “south” from Jerusalem to Gaza (v. 26). Note that the Greek word for “south” can also mean “noon,” the more likely translation in my opinion. Everyone knew that the road to Gaza was south. God sent him to that road at noon, during the heat of the day, a time when hardly anyone traveled it. It was a “desert” road, sparse and forbidding. We often wonder at the time why God has us where he does.

But he usually shows us: “on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship” (v. 27). This man would be our treasury secretary today, his signature on our currency. His conversion would carry the gospel to the highest reaches of Ethiopian culture and influence.

The Lord had already gone ahead of Philip, as he goes before us. The man had been reading from Isaiah 53, the best text in all of the Old Testament to use in presenting the atoning death and love of the Lord Jesus. Then the man asked Philip to explain the text, making it easy for him to share “the good news about Jesus” (v. 35). The eunuch believed, was baptized, and “went on his way rejoicing” (v. 39). Early tradition identifies him as the first Christian missionary to Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, Philip was led by the Spirit to continue preaching at Azotus, one of the five Philistine cities, close to the Mediterranean coast (v. 40a). Note that the word of the Lord went from Philip to the Samaritans, a people despised by the Jews, and now to the Philistines, their ancient and mortal enemies. From there he “traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea” (v. 40b). This was the Roman port city rebuilt by Herod and named for Caesar. I’ve seen its impressive ruins; it made an excellent base for Philip’s continued ministry (cf. Ac. 21:8-9, where he is still in Caesarea 20 years later with his “four unmarried daughters who prophesied”).

When we follow God, he always goes before us. He will prepare the heart of every person he intends you to reach with his gospel. Every person who will hear you teach this weekend has already been the subject of the Spirit’s ministry. He never leads us except where he has first prepared the way.


There is much to discuss in this week’s text; you will need to seek the Spirit’s guidance as you focus on those sections and materials which are most relevant to your class and their needs. But I would suggest this common thread through the chapter: God can use us more effectively than we believe we can be used.

Facing the severest persecution they have yet known, the first Christians nonetheless “scattered” the seed of the gospel across their part of the world. Philip, Peter and John saw the conversion of a large Samaritan population previously deceived by an entrenched pagan magician. Philip followed the Spirit’s leading and won the most significant convert yet to the gospel, a man already prepared by the Lord to receive Philip’s ministry.

What could God do with you this week, if only you believed that he would? What do you expect God to do?

God Arrests Saul

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

God Arrests Saul

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 9:1-31

On April 17, AD 29, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. The cross was not the end of the story, praise God. On Easter Sunday Jesus rose from the grave, and the rest is history. History we continue today. But so much has changed since then. A car remote is now available to start your car from a quarter-mile away, so the air conditioner will cool the car before you have to drive in the Texas heat. My first car didn’t have an air conditioner. My second car’s air conditioner worked great until it got hot outside. Much has changed.

But much has not. We’re still afraid of death, even more so with the terror alerts which are now part of our national existence. Lincoln Continental has produced a $140,000 Town Car which can stop an AK-47 and block a grenade. BMW has a car which can be hermetically sealed in a gas attack. Full-metal jackets can be put on Cadillac Escalades and Hummer H2s, for $30,000 to $350,000. Breathing masks are common in Hong Kong and Toronto.

Much has not changed. We still want our lives to have meaning, significance, and purpose. But where do we look for them?

Refuse the seduction of secondary success (v. 1)

Let’s consider the wrong answer first. Woodrow Wilson said, “Many men are seduced by secondary success.” A recent business bestseller is titled, Good to Great. Says the author: “Good is the enemy of great.” Good schools prevent great schools; good government prevents great government; good lives prevent great lives. The seduction of secondary success.

I fear that God feels the same way about our society today. Time was when we needed religion to give life meaning and significance. But in the last century, Darwinism taught Americans that we don’t need religion to explain our natural lives and world. Freud taught us that we don’t need religion to explain our emotional and psychological lives. Science and medicine have all the answers, or soon will. So what’s left for church?

Today we use religion to serve us. We use the spiritual to make us feel better about our secular lives, to give us peace, to help us get ahead. To meet our needs, to serve our agenda, to help us find success.

We’re not the first: “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (v. 1). “Breathing out” means that “murderous threats” were the air he was breathing, the atmosphere in which he was living. Why? Because of “Lord’s disciples,” to his mind a malignant tumor which must be removed from the soul of Judaism. He would be the surgeon who would save his people and their faith from this malice.

So he went to Damascus, 150 miles to the north, walking as far as the distance from here to Waco. He held in his hand “letters,” extradition warrants to bring any Christians he might find in Damascus back to Jerusalem for trial and execution.

This man desperately wanted a life of significance. He could meet with the high priest personally; can you get an appointment with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? He was a member of the Pharisees, the elite corps of Judaism, and a scholar trained by Gamaliel, their finest theologian. But it wasn’t enough. Now he would be known as the man who saved Israel from these malicious Christians. He would do this for God. He would achieve greatness in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. He was seduced by secondary success, but didn’t know it.

He’s not the last.

Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has written a fascinating exploration titled The Secular Mind. In it he quotes the poet William Carlos Williams, who knew a woman born in Italy who raised her family in America. She “told me a few weeks ago that it’s become different going to church here than it was when she was in Italy and when she first came here. She used to sit there and talk to God, and try to figure out what he wanted, and try to please him. Now, she says, she mostly thinks about what’s going on in her life, in her kids’ lives, and she asks God to make it better.

“She said to me, ‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave . . . but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours! It used to be, when I prayed to God, I was talking to him; now . . . I’m only asking him to help out with things.'”

And so our society comes to church on Easter and other Sundays to keep religious tradition, to be spiritual, to get God’s blessing, to ask God to “help out with things.”

Experience the Easter encounter (vs. 2-9)

Now comes the most famous conversion in Christian history. It was “about noon,” Paul would later say (Acts 26:13). He saw “a light from heaven.” Later he would describe it as “above the brightness of the sun” (Acts 26:13). In other words, a miracle, not a natural phenomenon. It “flashed around him.” The Greek is clear: this happened specifically to Paul. God had his spotlight on him, as he has it on each of us today.

Then Paul “heard a voice”—the Greek means that he heard with understanding. The others heard the sound but did not understand it or see anyone (Acts 9:7). This call was specifically and personally for Paul, as is God’s call for each one of us. No one else can hear God’s will for you. God speaks a “language of the heart” which you alone can understand.

He knew it was God: “Who are you, Lord?” “Lord,” kurios, God and King. Then came the shock that would change his life forever: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” “I am Jesus”—he is alive. His church is his body “whom you are persecuting.” And this “Lord” had a purpose for him: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (v. 6).

Here is the moment of decision, the crisis of life and soul.

Commentator William Barclay: “There is all of Christianity in what the Risen Christ said to Paul. . . . Up to this moment Paul had been doing what he liked, what he thought best, what his will dictated. From this time forward he would be told what to do. The Christian is a man who has ceased to do what he wants to do and who has begun to do what Christ wants him to do.” (emphasis his).

Remember what the Italian grandmother said: “‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave . . . but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours!'” Paul would do what God wanted him to do. God would no longer be a means to his end, but his life a means to God’s. And you know the results.

What will you do with the risen Christ? Religion as a means to your end? Easter worship as a tradition to make you feel good or spiritual? Christianity to help you with your problems, to help your life succeed?

Or will you “go into the city” and do as you are told? Will you make the risen Lord the Lord of your every day? Will you meet him every morning in Bible study and prayer, to get your directions for the day? Will you serve him in witness and ministry? Will you worship him each Sunday and each day?

Will it be God for you, or you for God? The good or the great?

Serve the Easter Lord (vs. 10-31)

Obedience always comes with a price tag. And often our obedience affects others who must pay that price with us.

Oswald Chambers warns: “Stagnation in spiritual life comes when we say we will bear the whole thing ourselves. We cannot. We are so involved in the universal purposes of God that immediately we obey God, others are affected. Are we going to remain loyal in our obedience to God and go through the humiliation of refusing to be independent, or are we going to take the other line and say—I will not cost other people suffering? We can disobey God if we choose, and it will bring immediate relief to the situation, but we shall be a grief to our Lord. Whereas if we obey God, He will look after those who have been pressed into the consequences of our obedience. We have simply to obey and to leave all consequences with Him. Beware of the inclination to dictate to God as to what you will allow to happen if you obey Him.”

In this case, Saul’s conversion caused a believer in Damascus named Ananias to risk his life. His name in Hebrew meant “the Lord is gracious,” and here he lived up to it. With ramifications which would echo for all time.

The Lord called him to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street (perhaps the only street worthy of such a description in the entire town, as tourists to the city today can attest). Here he was to ask for Saul of Tarsus, who had seen a vision that an Ananias would place hands on him that his sight might be restored (vs. 11-12). Ananias already knew what Saul had come to Damascus to do but had remained in the city anyway, proving himself a man of unusual courage and faith. But even his character was tested by God’s request. Nonetheless, he complied. What would have happened to Christian history if he had not?

Immediately Saul began to preach in the same synagogues he had earlier planned to enlist in his persecution of Christians. But now his message shocked all who heard it: “Jesus is the Son of God” (v. 20). He “baffled” the Jews by “proving” that Jesus is the Christ” (v. 22), the first mention of the apologetic ministry which would characterize so much of his life’s work (cf. Acts 17).

Then came the first of many persecutions to follow, as the apostle escaped the city in a basket, fulfilling the warning of his Lord: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (v. 16). At the end of the ministry begun in this city, Paul would conclude, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 4:12). With no exceptions.

One more person will pay the price of Saul’s conversion in our text. When he fled Damascus for Jerusalem, the church there was afraid of him and skeptical of his conversion (v. 26). Note that these were the same apostles and believers who had stayed in the city to brave the earlier persecution which Saul and his fellow officials had begun against their movement (Acts 8:1). As with Ananias earlier, even their stalwart faith was tested by this man.

So Barnabas (“Son of Encouragement”) arose, the second to live up to his name for the sake of the future leader of the apostolic movement. He testified personally to Saul’s radical conversion and faithful ministry in Damascus. Given his earlier standing with the community of faith (cf. Acts 4:36-37), his testimony won the day.

So Saul continued his ministry in their city, again sharing the gospel and debating its opponents. Again his brilliance, education, and Spirit-led persuasion won the day. Again the enemy of truth threatened his life. Again he was forced to flee, this time to Caesarea and on to Tarsus. Later Barnabas would find him in his hometown and bring him back to the pages of Luke’s story (Acts 11:25-26).

In the meanwhile, the Father gave peace and rest to his people. Now they have expanded the gospel from Jerusalem to gain footholds in Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and beyond. Through the man converted in this chapter, they would soon take Christ to the “ends of the earth.”

Ananias and Barnabas each faced remarkable opportunities to serve God as a means to serving themselves. Each could have stepped into Saul’s role of prominence and prevented his advancement in faith and ministry. Each could have refused God’s call for the sake of their own safety and status. Both chose the eternal great over the temporal good. All of Christendom is in their debt.


This is a good week to examine our motives. Why do you teach? Why do they listen? Why do I preach and write? Why do we pray, study, worship, give, and serve? Are we serving ourselves or our Lord? Are we willing to be used anywhere, for anything, at any time, no matter who knows or cares? Ore are there limits to our obedience? Someone observed, “If you want to learn if you’re a servant, see how you react when you’re treated like one.” Are we serving God, or do we want him to serve us?

NBC reporter David Bloom died in Iraq last April 6 from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 39. The next week, his colleagues paid tribute to his professional success. But there’s more to the story.

Two years earlier, Bloom came to a personal relationship with the risen Christ, and started a very real faith journey. In Iraq, he had been listening each day to Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost For His Highest. That day he heard the reading from April 5, which closes, “Every human being can get through into the presence of God now because of what the Son of Man went through.”

Moments later he climbed out of his tank, took a few steps, and collapsed. His last words were this e-mail he had just composed to his wife Melanie: “Here I am, supposedly at the peak of professional success, but I could, frankly, care less. It’s nothing compared to my relationship with you and the girls and Jesus. I’ll tell you Mel, I am at peace.”

He went from good to great. So can we.

Peter’s Miracle Ministry

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Peter’s Miracle Ministry

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 9:32-10:48

A study in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that talking on a cell phone while driving increases the risk of accident fourfold, the same risk as driving while intoxicated. It doesn’t seem to matter if the phone is hands-free or handheld. The study did cite one safety benefit. Nearly 40% of those surveyed used their phones to call 911 after they crashed.

Who can we call before the accident? Before we drive into an uncertain future? Before we meet the truck coming around the next bend?

We in Western culture like to visualize history as a line, a timetable with a past, present, and future. We appreciate five-year plans and strategies for the future. We are at our most disconcerted when tomorrow is clouded in the mists of uncertainty and our headlights cannot see around the turn in the road. But there’s only One who knows the road before us. Learning to let him drive is the key to traveling well.

What about the future most worries you today? Let’s learn how to give that very burden to God this week.

Trust the power of God (9:32-43)

No one in scripture faced a less certain future than the apostle Peter. Identified already by the Sanhedrin as the leader of the movement they branded criminal, he will soon face the wrath of Rome yet again (ch. 12). In the meanwhile, our study this week will put him squarely in the sights of the Jerusalem church leaders and their centuries-old, cherished customs and beliefs regarding the Gentiles. Such racial tensions were at least as deep and divisive then as racism is today.

Before we can follow God into such uncertainty, we must first believe that he will lead us well. Only when we trust his power, will we trust his providence. Now Peter will learn to do both.

The apostle has traveled from Jerusalem to Samaria and back (Acts 8:14-25). Now he is in the midst of another missionary journey, this time to Lydda, a town situated some 12 miles northwest of Jerusalem. There he met a crippled man named Aeneas. Likely a believer (“he went to visit the saints in Lydda,” v. 32), he had been bedridden eight years.

Remembering his earlier experience with the healing power of Jesus (Acts 3:1-10), Peter offered this man the same grace from God. He received it in faith, getting up and trusting God to heal him (v. 34). And the Lord answered his obedience, so that all in Lydda and Sharon (probably the region, but possibly a nearby town) saw him “and turned to the Lord” (v. 35). A changed life is the most potent means of changing other lives.

26 miles further to the northwest lay Joppa, an important sea port. A suburb of Tel Aviv today, it is still a popular tourist attraction. The last time I was in Israel, our group stopped and read the story we will now review. A disciple named Tabitha lived there. Her name is Aramaic; Luke translates her name into the Greek Dorcas, a hint that his reader(s) did not understand Aramaic and thus may have been Gentiles and/or Romans (cf. the dedication to “Theophilus,” perhaps a Roman official, Luke 1:3, Ac. 1:1).

Her mercy ministry was widely known and received, so that her untimely death was mourned by all. The disciples heard that Peter was nearby in Lydda, and summoned him to come urgently (Jewish custom gave those living outside Jerusalem only three days to bury the corpse).

Peter found the deceased girl and her mourners “upstairs” (v. 39), the typical “upper room” used by families as a kind of den. The apostle had been present each time Jesus raised the dead (Matthew 9:25, Luke 7:11-17, John 11:1-44), so he knew that his Lord possessed such power. Unlike Jesus, he knelt and prayed, making clear the fact that this miracle would come from God or it would not come at all. He then called the girl by name, an indication that he believed God intended to raise her. And he did.

The result of this physical miracle was an even more important spiritual miracle: “many people believed in the Lord” (v. 42). As in Lydda earlier (v. 35), this is always God’s ultimate purpose in healing our bodies. They will die again, but souls which turn to him in response to such grace will live forever in his paradise.

If Jesus can raise the dead, what can’t he do? Think back to all the ways the Lord has revealed his powerful grace to you. He gave you physical life, then spiritual salvation. He has given you health, the freedoms we enjoy, and a loving church family. When we remember all he has done, we will more readily trust him for all he will do. When we see his power, we can trust his providence.

Hear the voice of God (10:1-18)

So we know that our Lord can lead us into an uncertain future. But will he? Will the God of the universe actually speak with us?

He certainly spoke to Cornelius and to Simon Peter. The issue before us in Acts 10 is the most crucial turning point in Luke’s entire narrative: can Gentiles become Christians, or must they first become Jews? Is the gospel for everyone? Do you and I as Gentiles have the right to this mercy and grace?

To this point, no one had come to faith without a prior relationship to Judaism; even the Samaritans of Acts 8 espoused a kind of Jewish theology and culture. One could argue that the Ethiopian eunuch was himself related to Judaism, given his Jerusalem worship (Acts 8:27) and obvious interest in the Scriptures (v. 28). Must we all go to Jerusalem before we can go to Jesus?

Peter’s residence with Simon the Tanner in Joppa (Acts 9:43) is indication that his heart was already turning from the racial and moral prejudices of his traditions. A “tanner” was one who worked with the skins of dead animals, and thus handled things unclean to the Jew. To stay with him was a significant step out of the legalism of Peter’s heritage. Now he will be asked to take a second step, the largest of his entire life.

In Caesarea we meet Cornelius, a centurion (a Roman military official given charge of at least 100 soldiers). God had already prepared his heart for this day, so that he was a “God-fearer” (a Gentile who respected the God of Israel), praying and giving to those in need. Now the Lord sent his angel to this good man, instructing him to ask Simon Peter to come from Joppa. Not knowing Peter at all, he demonstrated his faith by sending his messengers to retrieve him.

Meanwhile, Peter was sitting in another upper room, praying. He became hungry, but received instead food for his soul—the most significant single vision in Christian history. It is familiar to you and those you teach—”unclean” animals made clean by the Lord, foreshadowing his grace to “unclean” Gentiles like us.

If the Lord could reveal such a monumental, historic truth to a hungry fisherman, will he not reveal his plans and providence to us today? Again and again, his word calls us to listen to his voice:

•”Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live” (Isaiah 55:2-3).

•”Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:2).

•”He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22).

Well over 300 times in the Bible, God calls his people to hear his word. We worship a God who speaks. The problem is not that he will not speak to us—the problem is that we so seldom take time to listen. The supposedly workaholic Germans only work 37 hours a week and take five-week vacations. When last did we? Pour water into a bowl, and it splashes and swirls. Only when you set the bowl down and let it sit, does the water become still.

Where do you most need God’s guidance for your future? Have you given that burden to him, and listened for his response? When last did you spend an hour listening to God? Even ten minutes? His will is a flashlight in the dark, showing you the next step to take. But you must stay in the light to find your way home.

Share the burden of God (10:19-33)

Peter didn’t want to obey what he heard from the Lord (vs. 14-15). Finally he did (vs. 20-21), with this result: “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (v. 28). He has moved from revelation to obedience. So must we.

He invited the Gentile messengers from a Roman official into Simon’s home as his guests (v. 23), an act unthinkable to a self-respecting Jew. Note that when the leaders of the Sanhedrin paraded Jesus to Pilate for trial and execution, “to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace” (John 18:28). Even with the crucial outcome of their plot against this supposed insurrectionist hanging in the balance, they would not make themselves “unclean” by sharing a dwelling with a Gentile. But Peter has already begun to share the heart of God for all his children.

Thus he set out the next day at their request, walking thirty miles from Joppa to Caesarea. Would you make such a trip for the sake of someone you hadn’t met from a race you grew up despising? He told Cornelius his story, and heard in turn the Roman’s story. And the rest made history.

Author Joyce Huggett says, “The secret of true prayer is to place oneself utterly and completely at the disposal of God’s Spirit.” Thomas Merton, one of the best-known monks of the twentieth century, added, “The deepest prayer at its nub is a perpetual surrender to God.”

In his small but helpful book Intimacy with the Almighty, Chuck Swindoll quotes this Puritan prayer:

When you would guide me I control myself.

When you would be sovereign I rule myself.

When you would take care of me I suffice myself.

When I should depend on your providings I supply myself.

When I should submit to your providence I follow my will.

When I should study, honor, trust you, I serve myself;

I fault and correct your laws to suit myself.

Lord, it is my chief design to bring my heart back to You.

Standing before the House of Commons in June of 1941, Winston Churchill announced, “I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby.” Your questions about the future will be much simplified if you will first surrender that future to God. What is his plan for your life? His purpose for your gifts and service? His “north” for your compass? His Great Commission is clear, and required for every believer. Make sure your plans for the future fit within his purpose, and you will have his direction and provision for each step of the way.

Speak the word of God (10:34-48)

Peter has learned again to trust the power of God, to hear the voice of God, to share the burden of God. Now he can speak the word of God. He recounts in detail the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, sharing the greatest story ever told. It is interesting that he began with John the Baptist (v. 37), as did Mark’s gospel. Early tradition indicates that Mark recorded the teachings and testimony of Peter as the basis for his gospel; perhaps what we find in Acts 10 is the way Peter always presented the faith.

Peter’s testimony centers on the most powerful element any of us can introduce into evangelism and ministry: our personal experience. Again and again he cites his own encounters with Jesus’ life and work, incontrovertible evidence for the veracity of his presentation. The man born blind did the same thing before his critics: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25).

We studied the result of Cornelius’s faith experience two weeks ago, in contrast with the Samaritans’ salvation. The results were historic beyond description: if a Roman officer could come to Christ without coming first to Judaism, the gospel is for the entire human race. With this one encounter, the whole world opened to the church and her mission. Her responsibility and privilege grew from a small race of people in a neglected area of the Empire to the entire globe. Cornelius began a call we are still attempting to fulfill today.

Wherever God intends you to be tomorrow, you may be sure that he intends you to speak his words where you go. Life is what happens while we’re making other plans. Peter had no intention of going to Joppa to raise a dead girl, or from there to Caesarea to witness to a Gentile soldier. His five-year plan would have included nothing that actually happened to him. But his obedience to God’s daily call led to the possibility of salvation for the entire human race. Our obedience is intended to do the same.


Recall again that place where the future is most troubling you today. Remember all the ways God has revealed his power to you to this point in your life, and know that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

Give him your greatest fear and uncertainty, and listen for his Spirit’s voice in response. Expect him to call you into a future which will help fulfill his Commission for the nations. Yield to his desire to use your life in spreading the good news of his love. And tomorrow will be all the God of the universe can make it to be.

When Billy Graham began his first preaching crusade in England, criticism quickly rose from skeptics who claimed, “Mr. Graham is setting the church in this country back a hundred years.” When reporters asked him about such criticism, he smiled and responded, “I don’t want to set the church back a hundred years. I want to set it back 2,000 years.”

If we will trust tomorrow to God today as did those who began the faith movement we share, our future will be as secure as our past. This is the present-tense promise of God.

Stephen, the Man God Crowned

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Stephen, the Man God Crowned

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 6:8-7:60

I recently taught a course titled, “The Faith of the Presidents.” Week three was devoted to Abraham Lincoln, the consensus choice of historians as the greatest president in our nation’s history. Many believe that his genius and courage were more responsible for the preservation of the Union than any other single factor.

Given the veneration extended to Mr. Lincoln across the generations since his tragic assassination, I was surprised to learn of the vilification he faced during his lifetime—from critics in the North. I expected to find Southern opposition to his leadership and character, but was not prepared for the degree of persecution he experienced from those on his side of the conflict.

For instance, the Baltimore Sun editorialized on his actions between his election and his inauguration: “Had we any respect for Mr. Lincoln, official or personal, as a man, or as President-elect of the United States, his career and speeches on his way to the seat of government would have cruelly impaired it. We do not believe the Presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors, than it has been by him, even before his inauguration.”

In 1864, the New York Herald called the president “joke incarnated, his election a very sorry joke, and the idea that such a man as he should be the President of such a country as this, a very ridiculous joke.” An editorial in a Northern newspaper for New Year of 1864 opined, “The people of the North owe Mr. Lincoln nothing but eternal hatred and scorn. There are 500,000 new made graves; there are 500,000 orphans; there are 200,000 widows; there is a bottomless sea of blood; there is the Constitution broken; there are liberty and law—liberty in chains and in a dungeon; thieves in the Treasury, provost marshals in the seats of justice, butchers in the pulpit—and these are the things which we owe Mr. Lincoln.” And Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most respected and popular preachers of the day, characterized the president thus: “Not a spark of genius has he; not an element of leadership. Not one particle of heroic enthusiasm.”

Being right is no guarantee that we’ll being popular. Quite often the reverse is true. When we walk through the biblical Hall of Faith we find this summary at the end of the tour: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:36-38).

By now you may have seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. If so, you have witnessed the crucifixion portrayed more accurately than by any other film in history. Remember that the crowd shouted “Crucify him!” And know that the followers of this Christ will be persecuted as well.

With Stephen we learn how to stand up to opposition, how to defend our Lord no matter what happens to us. Where might you face persecution for your faith? What real or possible issues might you address? The stones thrown against you for your faith may be geological, social, or financial. But they will all be real. Here’s how to respond.

Face opposition for the right reasons (Acts 6:8-15)

Stephen, immediately upon his selection to “the Seven” (Acts 6:5; cf. 21:8), vindicated the choice of the people. He was “full of God’s grace and power” (v. 8a); “full” means “to be controlled by” or “submitted to.” He submitted himself to the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, and became a conduit for his work. You and I are to do the same (Ephesians 5:18).

The result was “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (v. 8b). “Wonders” point perhaps to miraculous abilities, “signs” to miraculous actions. Perhaps the people witnessed wondrous power or revelatory conviction and wisdom in his preaching, teaching, and leadership; and “signs” through a healing ministry performed through him. His work was done “among the people,” providing public proof of the reality of the Spirit’s work in his life.

Such a widespread ministry would quickly lead to reaction by the Jerusalem authorities. This was precisely what they had tried to prevent with earlier arrests and warnings (Acts 4:18-21; 5:40). In their minds, the spiritual malignancy of the Christian faith was spreading and must be contained at all costs: “Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia” (v. 9a).

The “Synagogue of the Freedmen” was a popular title for Jews who had earlier been freed from slavery. They had come to Jerusalem from a wide geographic spectrum: Cyrene in northern Africa; Alexandria in Egypt, second only to Rome in power and first in academic achievement and learning; the province of Cilicia in southeast Asia Minor (Turkey today), where Tarsus was located; and the province of Asia on the western coast of modern-day Turkey. Since this synagogue included those from Saul of Tarsus’s hometown, it is possible that he met with them. And that he participated as “these men began to argue with Stephen” (v. 9b). Such disputation was a principal way those in Jewish synagogues dealt with theological issues; the losing party was expected to cease its heretical actions.

In this case, the synagogue leaders “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by which he spoke” (v. 10). So long as we work in the wisdom and Spirit of the Lord, our words will always be powerful and victorious. He will give us what to say when our faith is opposed—either through prior preparation or on-the-spot leadership (cf. Mark 13:11, “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit”).

The defeated disputants, rather than admit their error and loss, reacted with even greater malice and manipulation. They persuaded false witnesses to accuse Stephen of public blasphemy, a charge punished by execution (Acts 6:11-14). No doubt Stephen had in fact quoted Jesus’ promise that he would be raised from the dead (v. 14; cf. Matthew 26:61, John 2:19-22). Here, as in the trial of Jesus, opponents of the gospel twisted and misquoted his words and promise.

Now the Sanhedrin, gathered to prosecute the trial, had their charge. They “looked intently” at the defendant (Acts 6:15a); the words mean “to stare with intense purpose.” They were examining him closely. And what they saw was miraculous: “his face was like the face of an angel” (v. 15b). Luke likely means that the presence of the Spirit was so obvious and radiant that Stephen’s face shone with angelic glory. When Moses came down the mountain from a direct encounter with the Lord of the universe, others saw the same on his countenance (Exodus 34:29-35). When last did others see the glory of the Lord on your face and in your spirit?

Stephen would soon face persecution unto death, but for the right reasons. He was not convicted of theological heresy; in fact, his innocence was obvious to all (Acts 6:10). The Sanhedrin knew their witnesses were false (vs. 11, 13). The truth of his convictions was clear, and his face witnessed to the presence of the Spirit in his life. You and I are called to be equally biblical and Spirit-filled, no matter who opposes our Lord.

Peter’s caution is still relevant: “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). Make sure you are right with God, then allow others to respond as they will. Are you facing opposition for your faith? Why or why not?

Defend your faith biblically (Acts 7:1-53)

Now we come to one of the most remarkable discourses to be found anywhere in Scripture. Here is a man without any rabbinic training that we know of, standing on trial before the Supreme Court of his nation, facing a sentence of execution with no appeal if they choose to order it. How would you respond? Stephen answers by telling the entire story of Israel’s history and faith, calling to the stand each of her great figures of leadership and commitment. Each provides further proof that the Jewish authorities are wrong and his Lord and faith are right.

We will not attempt to study the speech itself in detail, as its narrative should be familiar to any who know the basic history of Old Testament Israel. Rather, we will focus briefly on those places within the story which Stephen used to make his case against the Sanhedrin and for his Savior.

The high priest, a kind of Chief Justice presiding over the trial, gave Stephen opportunity to make his defense with his legal and formal question, “Are these charges true?” (Acts 7:1). His response could not have been what they expected. Speaking as a prosecutor rather than a defendant, he gave no attention to the false charges brought against him. Rather, he brought true charges against those accusing him and opposing his Lord. The essence of his argument: the Jewish people through their history refused the word of the Lord, and now stand guilty of rejecting the will and Messiah of God. It is they, not Stephen, who are in need of repentance.

His first proof: the founders of the nation of Israel rejected Joseph, the heir of Abraham and savior of the nation (vs. 9-10; cf. Genesis 37:12-36). Note that Stephen called them “patriarchs” (v. 9), identifying them clearly as the founders of the people. He diagnosed their spiritual sin as jealousy, a pattern which would continue through their history.

His second proof: the Jewish people rejected Moses when he first attempted to save them from Egyptian oppression (vs. 23-29, 35). As a result, the future savior of their nation was forced to flee to Midian as a foreigner.

His third proof: “our fathers” again rejected Moses’ leadership, wishing to return to Egypt and idolatry (vs. 39-42). Moses had promised that “God will send you a prophet like me from your own people” (v. 37; Deuteronomy 18:15), but they rejected his promise and faith. Their later exile to Babylon only continued the pattern of sinful pride and its consequences (vs. 42-43).

His last proof: the people confined God to the temple they built for him, when he is the Lord of the universe (vs. 48-50). Again they limited God’s sovereignty and rule over their lives and future.

Stephen’s conclusion: “You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (v. 51). The fathers of the nation resisted Joseph and Moses, the two men more responsible for the nation’s salvation from slavery than any others in their history. Now the One who would save them from spiritual slavery has come, in answer to the prophets’ promise (v. 52). And they killed him, as they did the prophets who came before him. The people received the law through angelic revelation, but have not obeyed it (v. 53).

The defendant on trial is no longer Stephen, but the Sanhedrin. Their rejection of the Messiah is proof of their rebellion against God. Stephen’s defense of his faith is proof of his obedience to the Lord. One man has justified the Christian movement and indicted every member of the Jewish leadership who opposes his faith.

When you and I are put on trial for our faith, we must respond with the word of God as did Stephen. Jesus answered Satan’s temptations by quoting Scripture alone (Matthew 4:1-10). Peter told us to be ready to do the same: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

The Scriptures are the sword most effective in spiritual battle: “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

For this battle you will need “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian came into conflict with Apollyon, “a hideous monster to behold: he was covered with scales like a fish, of which he was very proud; he had wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and a mouth like a lion; and out of his belly came fire and smoke. He came up and stared at Christian with a most horrible look.”

In mortal conflict, Christian was beaten back and near death when finally “[his] hand touched his sword, which gave him fresh spirit. He gripped the sword with all his might and said, ‘Rejoice not against me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise again,’ giving Apollyon a deadly thrust which caused him to fall back as if mortally wounded. Summoning all his strength, Christian rose to his feet and advanced toward him, crying, ‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.’ This was too much for Apollyon; he spread his wings and flew away.”

With the word of God we are to defend our faith and our Lord. And this sword will always give the victory.

Trust God with the results (Acts 7:54—8:1)

What happened to Stephen illustrates the results we will encounter when we take a stand for our Lord and our faith.

Expect some to reject you

You cannot control how persecutors will respond to your faith. So long as you speak the words of God, their rejection is not about you. Some will come to conviction and faith; others will not—the Sanhedrin “were furious and gnashed their teeth at him” (v. 54). Actually, they were angry with the Lord whom Stephen proclaimed.

Know that God will honor your faithfulness

In the midst of their anger, Stephen was given a vision of the “glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God” (v. 55). He had chosen to be “full of the Holy Spirit,” yielded to his will and power. And now the Spirit showed him the heavenly reward which would soon be his.

Risk your life for your Lord

Stephen announced to the Sanhedrin his vision (v. 56). Convicting him of heresy, they “covered their ears”; “yelling at the top of their voices,” the entire Sanhedrin “all rushed at him” (v. 57). Without waiting for Roman permission, they “dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (v. 58a). This was the preferred Jewish method of capital punishment.

One participant in particular is mentioned: “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (v. 58b). Here we have the first reference to the man who would occupy the second half of Luke’s narrative. The “witnesses” mentioned were those who brought the false charges which led to Stephen’s execution. Their presence was required as they would be responsible for casting the first stone. Saul’s willingness to guard their coats was evidence of his agreement with their actions and Stephen’s execution.

You may pay for your faith with your life. But remember the words of Justin the Martyr when speaking to his accusers: “You can kill us, but you cannot harm us.”

Pardon those who persecute you

You cannot choose how people will respond to your witness, but you can choose how you will respond to them. In the midst of his execution, Stephen asked the Lord Jesus to “receive his spirit” (v. 59), clear indication that the first Christians saw Jesus as their risen and heavenly Lord. Then he spoke his last: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (v. 60a)—an obvious decision to follow his Master’s example (cf. Luke 23:34).

Biblical forgiveness does not mean that we pretend we have not been injured; such would have been impossible for Stephen. It is not excusing wrong behavior—he properly called their actions “sin.” It is to pardon, as when a governor pardons a criminal—he does not say there was no crime, but chooses not to punish as he might. Stephen here asked the Lord not to punish his executioners, that they might know the forgiveness of God. We are to do the same.

Know that your legacy will outlive you

And so Stephen “fell asleep,” a common New Testament metaphor for physical death. He was in that moment with the Lord in heaven (cf. Luke 23:43; Philippians 1:23). At the same time, his body would “sleep” in the grave until its final resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:42-44). He was in his reward, a mansion prepared in heaven for him (John 14:1-2).

Meanwhile, others beyond his knowledge would be affected by his life and death. Specifically, “Saul was there, giving approval to his death” (Acts 8:1). Later Paul would recount the event, “I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (Acts 22:20). “Giving my approval” may or may not indicate a formal vote with the Sanhedrin.

Later the apostle admitted, “On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them” (Acts 26:10). Many believe that this statement indicates that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin at the time; others suggest that he was a member of a fact-finding commission and voted as part of his responsibility therein.

Either way, he was a most significant and influential part of the Jewish opposition to Christianity. And of course, he later became the faith’s most important and global advocate. We wonder—without a martyred Stephen, would there have been an apostle Paul?

When you stand firmly for your Lord and faith, you can know that your legacy will outlive you. People you do not know on this side of eternity will join you there because of your unseen influence on their lives. Great people plant trees they’ll never sit under. We’re sitting under Stephen’s this week.


If you and I are willing to follow Jesus, we can expect the enemy to attack us, and the world to misunderstand us. I am writing these comments after watching a television show which centered its plot on Christian “homophobic” belief that homosexuality is a wrong lifestyle. The program expressly made all who live by biblical truth to be simpletons and dangerous—further proof that we are living in a largely post-Christian world. If the world persecuted our Lord, we should expect the same (cf. Mark 13:13).

Every time our faith is challenged, we are presented with an option. We can choose to capitulate to those who reject our faith, and so dishonor our Father. Or we can see this challenge as an opportunity to make the gospel clear through our courage and witness. Any temporary loss we experience as a result is only the price of eternal reward (cf. Romans 8:18).

The next time you have a chance to stand for Jesus but are afraid of opposition, ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that could happen here? What is the best? You’ll know what to do.

Mother Teresa was in New York City for the opening of a new orphanage sponsored by her organization. A reporter shouted the question, “How will you know if you are successful?” Mother Teresa turned to the camera’s glare, smiled, and said, “I don’t believe our Lord ever spoke of success. He spoke only of faithfulness in love.”

Will you be faithful this week?