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THE FIRST OF THE MARTYRS ( Acts 7:54-60 ; Acts 8:1 )
8:1 As they listened to this their very hearts were torn with vexation and they gnashed their teeth at him. But he was full of the Holy Spirit and he gazed steadfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at God's right hand. So he said, "Look now, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at God's right hand." They shouted with a great shout and held their ears and launched themselves at him in a body. They flung him outside the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses placed their garments at the feet of a young man called Saul. So they stoned Stephen as he called upon God and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Kneeling down he cried with a loud voice, "Lord, set not this sin to their charge." And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul fully agreed with his death.
A speech like this could only have one end; Stephen had courted death and death came. But Stephen did not see the faces distorted with rage. His gaze had gone beyond time and he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. When he said this it seemed to them only the greatest of blasphemies; and the penalty for blasphemy was stoning to death ( Deuteronomy 13:6 ff.). It is to be noted that this was no judicial trial. It was a lynching, because the Sanhedrin had no right to put anyone to death.
The method of stoning was as follows. The criminal was taken to a height and thrown down. The witnesses had to do the actual throwing down. If the fall killed the man good and well; if not, great boulders were hurled down upon him until he died.
There are in this scene certain notable things about Stephen. (i) We see the secret of his courage. Beyond all that men could do to him he saw awaiting him the welcome of his Lord. (ii) We see Stephen following his Lord's example. As Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of his executioners ( Luke 23:34) so did Stephen. When George Wishart was to be executed, the executioner hesitated. Wishart came to him and kissed him. "Lo," he said, "here is a token that I forgive thee." The man who follows Christ the whole way will find strength to do things which it seems humanly impossible to do. (iii) The dreadful turmoil finished in a strange peace. To Stephen came the peace which comes to the man who has done the right thing even if the right thing kills him.
The first half of the first verse of chapter 8 goes with this section. Saul has entered on the scene. The man who was to become the apostle to the Gentiles thoroughly agreed with the execution of Stephen. But as Augustine said, "The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen." However hard he tried Saul could never forget the way in which Stephen had died. The blood of the martyrs even thus early had begun to be the seed of the Church.
THE CHURCH REACHES OUT ( Acts 8:1-4 )
Acts 8:1-40 is an important chapter in the history of the Church. The Church began by being a purely Jewish institution. Acts 6:1-15 shows the first murmurings of the great debate about the acceptance of the Gentiles. Stephen had had a mind far above national delimitations. Acts 8:1-40 shows the Church reaching out. Persecution scattered the Church abroad and where they went they took their gospel. Into Acts 8:1-40 comes Philip who, like Stephen, was one of the Seven and who is to be distinguished from the Philip who was one of the Twelve. First, Philip preached to the Samaritans. The Samaritans formed a natural bridge between Jew and Gentile for they were half Jew and half Gentile in their racial descent. Then comes the incident of the Ethiopian eunuch in which the gospel takes a step out to a still wider circle. As yet the Church had no conception of a world mission; but when we read this chapter in the light of what was soon to happen, we see her unconsciously but irresistibly being moved towards her destiny.
HAVOC OF THE CHURCH ( Acts 8:1-4 continued)
8:1-4 At that time a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem. They were all scattered abroad throughout the districts of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. Pious men carried Stephen away to bury him, and they mourned greatly over him. As for Saul, he ravaged the church. He went into house after house and dragged out both men and women and put them under arrest.
The death of Stephen was the signal for an outbreak of persecution which compelled the Christians to scatter and to seek safety in the remoter districts of the country. There are two specially interesting points in this short section.
(i) The apostles stood fast. Others might flee but they braved whatever perils might come; and this for two reasons. (a) They were men of courage. Conrad tells that, when he was a young sailor learning to steer a sailing-ship, a gale blew up. The older man who was teaching him gave him but one piece of advice. "Keep her facing it," he said. "Always keep her facing it." The apostles were determined to face whatever dangers threatened. (b) They were good men. Christians they might be, but there was something about them that won the respect of all. It is told that once a slanderous accusation was leveled against Plato. His answer was, "I will live in such a way that all men will know that it is a lie." The beauty and the power of the lies of the apostles were so impressive that even in a day of persecution men hesitated to lay their hands upon them.
(ii) Saul, as the King James Version says, "made havoc" of the church. The word used in the Greek denotes a brutal cruelty. It is used of a wild boar ravaging a vineyard and of a wild animal savaging a body. The contrast between the man who was savaging the church in this chapter and the man who surrendered to Christ in the next is intensely dramatic.
IN SAMARIA ( Acts 8:5-13 )
8:5-13 Those who were scattered abroad went throughout the country telling the message of the good news. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. The crowds listened attentively to what Philip had to say, as they heard his story and saw the signs which he performed. Many of them had unclean spirits, and the spirits, shouting loudly, came out of them; and many who were paralysed and lame were cured; and there was much rejoicing in that city.
A man called Simon was in the habit of practising magic in the city and of bewildering the people of Samaria. He alleged that he was someone great. Everyone, small and great alike, was greatly impressed by him, for they said, "This man is the power of God called Great." They were impressed by him because they had been bewildered by his magical deeds for some considerable time. Both men and women were baptized when they believed Philip, as he told them the good news of the kingdom of God and of the name of Jesus Christ. Even Simon himself believed, and, after he had been baptized, he was constantly in Philip's company; and he was amazed when he saw the signs and great deeds of power which were happening.
When the Christians were scattered abroad, Philip, who had emerged into prominence as one of the Seven, arrived in Samaria; and there he preached. This incident of the work in Samaria is an astonishing thing because it was proverbial that the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans ( John 4:9).
The quarrel between the Jews and the Samaritans was centuries old. Back in the eighth century B.C. the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom whose capital was Samaria. As conquerors did in those days, they transported the greater part of the population and settled strangers in the land. In the sixth century the Babylonians conquered the Southern Kingdom with its capital at Jerusalem and its inhabitants were carried away to Babylon; but they completely refused to lose their identity and remained stubbornly Jews. In the fifth century B.C. they were allowed to return and to rebuild their shattered city under Ezra and Nehemiah. In the meantime, those of the Northern Kingdom who had been left in Palestine had intermarried with the stranger races who had been brought in. When the people of the Southern Kingdom returned and set to build their city, these people round Samaria offered their help. It was contemptuously refused because they were no longer pure Jews. From that day onwards there was an unhealed breach and a bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans.
The fact that Philip preached there and that the message of Jesus was given to these people shows the Church all unconsciously taking one of the most important steps in history and discovering that Christ is for all the world. We know very little about Philip but he was one of the architects of the Christian Church.
We must note what Christianity brought to these people. (i) It brought the story of Jesus, the message of the love of God in Jesus Christ. (ii) It brought healing. Christianity has never been a thing of words only. (iii) It brought, as a natural consequence, a joy that the Samaritans had never known before. It is a counterfeit Christianity which brings an atmosphere of gloom; the real thing radiates joy.
THINGS WHICH CANNOT BE BOUGHT AND SOLD ( Acts 8:14-25 )
8:14-25 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they despatched Peter and John to them. They came down and prayed for them, so that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for as yet the Holy Spirit had fallen on no one. It was in the name of the Lord Jesus that they had been baptized. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. When Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he brought money to them and said, "Give me too this power so that he on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you because you thought to obtain the gift of God for money; you have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness of yours and pray God if it may be that the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of wickedness." Simon answered, "Do you pray to the Lord for me, so that none of the things you spoke of may come upon me."
So after they had borne their witness and spoken the word of God, they returned to Jerusalem, telling the good news to many villages of the Samaritans on the way.
Simon was by no means an unusual type in the ancient world. There were many astrologers and soothsayers and magicians, and in a credulous age they had a great influence and made a comfortable living. There is little to be surprised at in that when even the twentieth century has not risen above fortune-telling and astrology, as almost any popular newspaper or magazine can witness. It is not to be thought that Simon and his fellow-practitioners were all conscious frauds. Many of them had deluded themselves before they deluded others and believed in their own powers.
To understand what Simon was getting at we have to understand something of the atmosphere and practice of the early Church. The coming of the Spirit upon a man was connected with certain visible phenomena, in particular with the gift of speaking with tongues (compare Acts 10:44-46). He experienced an ecstasy which manifested itself in this strange phenomenon of uttering meaningless sounds. In Jewish practice the laying on of hands was very common. With it there was held to be a transference of certain qualities from one person to another. It is not to be thought that this represents an entirely materialistic view of the transference of the Spirit, the dominating factor was the character of the man who laid on the hands. The apostles were men held in such respect and even veneration that simply to feel the touch of their hands was a deeply spiritual experience. If a personal reminiscence may be allowed, I myself remember being taken to see a man who had been one of the Church's great scholars and saints. I was very young and he was very old. I was left with him for a moment or two and in that time he laid his hands upon my head and blessed me. And to this day, more than fifty years afterwards, I can still feel the thrill of that moment. In the early Church the laying on of hands was like that.
Simon was impressed with the visible effects of the laying on of hands and he tried to buy the ability to do what the apostles could do. Simon has left his name on the language for simony still means the unworthy buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices. Simon had two faults.
(i) He was not interested in bringing the Holy Spirit to others so much as in the power and prestige it would bring to himself. This exaltation of self is ever the danger of the preacher and the teacher. It is true that they must kindle at the sight of men; but it is also true as Denney said--that we cannot at one and the same time show that we are clever and that Christ is wonderful.
(ii) Simon forgot that certain gifts are dependent on character; money cannot buy them. Again, the preacher and the teacher must take warning. "Preaching is truth through personality." To bring the Spirit to others a man must be not a man of wealth but one who himself possesses the Spirit.
CHRIST COMES TO AN ETHIOPIAN ( Acts 8:26-40 )
8:26-40 The angel of the Lord spoke to Philip and said, "Rise and go to the south by the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza; that is Gaza in the desert." So he arose and went. Now, look you, an Ethiopian eunuch, an influential official of Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasury and who had gone to worship in Jerusalem, was on his way home. As he sat in his chariot he was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit said to Philip, "Go and join yourself to this chariot." So Philip ran up and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He said, "How could I do that unless someone were to guide me?" He invited Philip to get up and to sit with him. The passage of scripture which he was reading was this--He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before his shearer is dumb, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he received no justice. Who will recount his lineage because his life is taken from the earth? The eunuch said to Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet speaking about? Is it about himself? Or about someone else?" Philip opened his mouth, and, taking his start from this passage of scripture, told him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road they came to some water, "Look," said the eunuch, "here is water. What is to stop me being baptized?" And he ordered the chariot to stand still. So both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. When they came up out of the water the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away and the eunuch no longer saw him, but he travelled along his road rejoicing. Philip was found at Azotus. He went through all the cities and preached the good news to them until he came to Caesarea.
There was a road from Jerusalem which led via Bethlehem and Hebron and joined the main road to Egypt just south of Gaza. There were two Gazas. Gaza had been destroyed in war in 93 B.C. and a new Gaza had been built to the south in 57 B.C. The first was called Old or Desert Gaza to distinguish it from the other. This road which led by Gaza would be one where the traffic of half the world went by. Along in his chariot came the Ethiopian eunuch. He was the chancellor of the exchequer of Candace. Candace is not so much a proper name as a title, the title which all the queens of Ethiopia bore. This eunuch had been to Jerusalem to worship. In those days the world was full of people who were weary of the many gods and the loose morals of the nations. They came to Judaism and there found the one God and the austere moral standards which gave life meaning. If they accepted Judaism and were circumcised they were called proselytes; if they did not go that length but continued to attend the Jewish synagogues and to read the Jewish scriptures they were called God-fearers. This Ethiopian must have been one of these searchers who came to rest in Judaism either as a proselyte or a God-fearer. He was reading Isaiah 53:1-12; and beginning from it Philip showed him who Jesus was.
When he became a believer he was baptized. It was by baptism and circumcision that the Gentile entered the Jewish faith. In New Testament times baptism was largely adult baptism. It was not that there was anything against infant baptism, but in those early days men and women were coming in from other faiths and the Christian family had not had time to develop. To the early Christians baptism was, whenever possible, by immersion and in running water. It symbolized three things. (i) It symbolized cleansing. As a man's body was cleansed by the water, so his soul was bathed in the grace of Christ. (ii) It marked a clean break. We are told how one missionary when he baptized his converts made them enter the river by one bank and sent them out on the other, as if at the moment of baptism a line was drawn in their lives which sent them out to a new world. (iii) Baptism was a real union with Christ. As the waters closed over a man's head he seemed to die with Christ and as he emerged he rose with Christ (compare Romans 6:1-4).
Tradition has it that this eunuch went home and evangelized Ethiopia. We can at least be sure that he who went on his way rejoicing would not be able to keep his newfound joy to himself.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 8". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany