Acts 9 gives us an up-close look at a character we have only briefly met so far. Saul, a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, is a strict Pharisee who is completely convinced that Jesus was a false Messiah. He is extremely zealous for what he believes to be right and is determined to wipe out any traces of faith in Jesus. What he doesn’t realize yet is that Jesus really is the Christ, the Son of the living God, but he is soon to find out.
Saul decides that he needs to extend his persecution against Christians beyond the walls of Jerusalem. So he receives authority (“letters” from the high priest) to go to Damascus and arrest those who are of the Way to return them to Jerusalem for trial.
We haven’t read of any Christians in Damascus yet. There are at least three possibilities for where they might have come from. First, they might have been in Jerusalem on Pentecost in Acts 2 and converted as part of the original 3000 or shortly after that. Second, they might have been some of the Christians who were scattered from Jerusalem in Acts 8:1. Or, thirdly, those scattered disciples might have preached in Damascus and converted some.
Saul must have had reason to believe there were several Christians there, enough to justify his going there to persecute them.
And then the miracles come. As Saul approaches Damascus, a bright light shines around him and he sees and hears the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ. The Savior instructs him to go into the city and wait. A disciple named Ananias (the only Christian there whose name we know) comes to Saul, preaches the gospel to him and baptizes him into Christ for the remission of his sins.
Saul immediately begins preaching in the synagogue that Jesus is the Son of God. When he is opposed by the Jews, he escapes and ultimately makes his way back to Jerusalem where Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, convinces the others that Saul’s conversion was legitimate and that he should be welcomed into the church. “Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied” (Acts 9:31).
In Chapter 8, the persecution intensifies. With the opposition led by a young man named Saul (first mentioned in Acts 7:58), the whole church, except the apostles, is scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Everywhere the disciples go, they preach the gospel.
We are next introduced to another of the seven, Philip. He has two major events in the rest of this chapter. First, he preaches to the city of Samaria and then to an individual, a government official from Ethiopia.
When he is forced out of Jerusalem, Philip initially goes to Samaria. The Samaritans were a despised group of people, half Jew and half Gentile, never fully accepted by either side.
Philip has one message for these lost souls, salvation in Jesus Christ. Again, the miracles that he is able to perform convince many that Philip’s message is the truth. Those who believe are baptized, and as Jesus promised Mark 16:15-16, they are saved by the grace of Almighty God.
One of the Samaritan converts was a sorcerer named Simon, who immediately recognized the difference between his magical tricks and the genuine miracles of Philip. After he becomes a Christian, he wants to buy some of this miraculous power from the apostles and is told to repent and pray to God for forgiveness.
Right in the middle of this city-wide revival, God calls Philip away to a deserted place for a providential meeting with the treasurer of the nation of Ethiopia. Returning to his home from a spiritual journey to Jerusalem, the official is reading from the book of Isaiah, but does not understand what he is reading. Philip preaches Jesus to him, he is baptized and the officer goes on his way rejoicing. Philip moves on to Caesarea.
Stephen was one of the seven servants chosen in Chapter Six to care for the Hellenistic (Grecian) widows.
The qualifications listed in Acts 6:3 describe Stephen as a man “of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” He was trustworthy, dependable and always faithful.
In addition, the apostles had laid hands on the seven, imparting to them miraculous, spiritual gifts which enabled Stephen and the others to confirm their words with signs and wonders.
The false charges against Stephen (6:11-14) were that he spoke “blasphemous words” against Moses, God, this holy place (the temple?) and the law (of Moses). When evil people have no legitimate criticisms of the godly, they will simply make something up. It is up to the righteous, not to retaliate, but to seek to overcome evil with good by living a holy life that cannot be faulted. Chapter Seven is Stephen’s response to these untrue charges.
Stephen’s defense is basically a historical review of Israel’s past. By mentioning some of the highlights of Hebrew history, Stephen emphasizes God’s faithfulness to His people throughout the centuries. He draws the sermon to a conclusion in verse 52, by comparing their forefathers’ persecution of the prophets and their own betrayal and murder of Christ.
Filled with anger, the Jews rush at Stephen and stone him to death. Before he draws his final breath, Stephen asks Jesus not to charge them with this sin. Can you imagine the agony of having the life crushed out of you with the intense pain of having your body hit repeatedly with large stones (or even small ones)? Do you think perhaps that Stephen’s last thought was of His crucified Savior, who, in His own anguish on the cross, asked of God, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do?”
Do you remember in chapter 4 (verses 32-37) that there were many needy Christians among the saints in Jerusalem? Have you thought about the reason for that?
First, there were no government programs designed to take care of the poor. If Christians didn’t provide for each other, no one else would either.
Second, there were so many needs because of the situation they found themselves in. Think again about the circumstances surrounding the beginning of the church. The Jews had come to Jerusalem for Passover (about the time of the crucifixion) and had remained there for the next fifty days until Pentecost (Acts 2). When many of them were converted to Christ (3000 on the first day alone and then daily additions after that), they wanted to stay even longer in Jerusalem than they had originally planned. No doubt, some of them went home sooner than others, but many of these new Christians didn’t want to leave so quickly.
Naturally, they had brought enough provisions for almost two months, but have now been there for a much longer period of time. Their food was long gone. Many of them needed help. As a matter of fact, some of them needed daily help (“the daily distribution”).
For the most part, everyone’s needs seemed to be met. But there was a group that was being overlooked. This neglect was probably unintentional. But unintentional or not, these Hellenistic widows were not being helped and it caused a serious problem that had the potential to derail the early church from its mission.
The apostles propose (by inspiration?) that the church members look among themselves, choose seven men, who met certain qualifications and who could be trusted to do the job faithfully. This solves the potentially divisive problem.
As important as that need was, there was one thing even more important. The apostles had to continue preaching the word, accompanied by prayer. While the seven cared for the physical needs of the widows, the apostles continued to meet the spiritual needs of both the disciples and the lost.
At the end of the chapter, Stephen is arrested, setting up the events of Chapter Seven.
Acts 4 ended with the positive example of disciples who sold property and gave the money to the apostles to help their needy brothers and sisters. Not to be confused with forced, godless communism, this is a living model of willing, selfless sacrifice to benefit the less fortunate in the church.
Chapter 5 begins by showing us that there have always been those whose primary desire is to impress others. Ananias and Sapphira (husband and wife) also sold some land, gave part of the proceeds, but claimed to have given it all. God’s discipline was swift and severe, reminding us that lying is a serious sin.
Interestingly, although others hear of this event and are frightened by it, the church continues to grow (verses 11-14).
In response to the growth of the church, the apostles are arrested by the very Sanhedrin Council that had crucified Christ. An angel frees them from prison and tells them to continue speaking “all the words of this life.” The Council brings them in again and acknowledges that they have filled all of Jerusalem with the message of salvation.
When Peter again points out that they were guilty of murdering Jesus, the Council becomes so enraged that they determine to put the apostles to death.
We are then introduced to Gamaliel, a Jewish rabbi of great influence, who convinces them that other men had arisen, gained a following, and then quickly fallen. He then tells them to allow the apostles to continue their work so that it will either fail on its own or else the Council “even be found to fight against God.” (Remember that Gamaliel was the teacher of a young Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus – Acts 22:3 – who will later figure prominently in the gospel story.)
Finally, they decide to release the apostles with a severe beating and a threat to stop speaking of Jesus. The apostles leave rejoicing in the honor of suffering for Christ and continue their work of sharing the gospel with the lost. Nothing was going to stop them.
The year 2017 marks 55 years that our church has existed as "Eastland church of Christ" at our current location.
Looking back, there is a certain appreciation due to many who have led the efforts to live the Gospel, share the Gospel, and participate in the Gospel since that time. Many of the founding members of the church have passed away since 1962, but some of our current members have been part of Eastland from the very beginning. We are thankful for all—both those who are gone and those who remain—whose faith and diligence gave us what we enjoy today.
And looking forward, we have a tremendous opportunity to continue carrying the banners of truth and grace in our community. Every one of us can contribute in some way to make Eastland even better than it has ever been! And with the past's valuable legacy of faith as our foundation, we are in a great spot to continue to glorify God better and better in the future!
Our shepherds plan to talk about plans for that growth in the coming weeks. I hope that in the meantime, you will make it a part of your prayer life to thank God for the faith of those who have led us (cf. Heb. 13:7) and to pray for God's best blessings in the future of our church family!
- Dan Lankford, minister
Acts chapter 4 finds the apostles in trouble for their miracle in chapter 3. All of them are taken into custody.
Notice, from verse 4, that the church continues to grow, in spite of the opposition of the Jews. The number of men has grown to about 5000. (I always think it is amusing when some people today say that a church of 200-250 is just “too big.”)
When the Jews ask them “by what power” they had healed the lame man, Peter, once again the spokesman, makes it clear that this miracle was performed in the name of (by the authority of) Jesus Christ. He continues by identifying Jesus as the rejected cornerstone of Old Testament prophecy. And he makes the powerful statement that the name of Jesus is the only name in which anyone will be saved.
Four things stand out in the remainder of chapter 4.
1. What empowered the apostles and filled them with courage was the time “they had been with Jesus” (verse 13). This changed them from “uneducated and untrained men” (they were uneducated, but Jesus had trained them) into courageous and unstoppable defenders of truth. Only if we spend much time with Jesus will we have such courage today.
2. The enemies could not deny the reality of their miracle (verse 16). Everyone knew this man to have been lame for his entire life. This points up an important difference between Bible miracles and the so-called miracles of faith healing imposters today.
3. Their response to persecution was group prayer (verses 24-31). This emphasizes their dependence on God and teaches us the same lesson. Jesus said, “…without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
4. The early Christians took care of each other (verses 32-37). Even when it required selling of possessions, they shared what they had with their fellow disciples. They were motivated by love and devotion for one another. We should be also.
As chapter 3 opens, two apostles, Peter and John, are headed to the temple to pray and to preach about Jesus Christ.
First, they meet a man lame from his mother’s womb and perform their first miracle of healing in the name of Jesus. This miracle draws a multitude to Solomon’s porch where Peter preaches the second gospel sermon.
Like the first sermon in Acts 2, this sermon is centered on the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. The gospel is good news because of its message about the death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Because of the death of Jesus on the cross, we can have the forgiveness of our sins. And because of the resurrection, we can have hope of eternal life in heaven with God.
In a similar way as in the first sermon, Peter tells his listeners that they are guilty of crucifying God’s Son, whom he calls “the Prince of life.” There must always be conviction of sin in the process of conversion.
Peter’s charge to them is to “repent and be converted.” This is a parallel thought to Acts 2:28 – “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.” Baptism is the point at which one’s relationship to God is changed from unsaved to saved.
Finally, Peter reminds them of an Old Testament prophecy by Moses, originally found in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. In that prophecy, Moses, one of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament, predicted the coming forth of another Lawgiver. He spoke, of course, of Jesus the Messiah, but when He came into the world, His own people, the Jews, did not accept Him as their Savior.
Those who reject Him will be “utterly destroyed.” Those who listen, trust and obey Him will be blessed.
Acts 2 has been referred to as “the birthday” of the church.
It was the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the grave. The apostle John would later call the first day of the week, “the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10). It was to be a special day in the New Testament system as it became the day that God’s people around the world would assemble to remember their Savior’s death on the cross of Calvary.
It was also Pentecost, the Jewish celebration of the harvest. Pentecost was one of three annual feasts of the Old Testament which required all Jewish males to travel to Jerusalem for its observance. Due to the difficult travel conditions of the day, many, perhaps most, of them would simply remain in Jerusalem for the fifty day interval between Passover and Pentecost.
The first few verses describe the fulfillment of the prophecy of the apostles’ baptism in the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16). This is what Jesus meant when He told the apostles that they would receive power from God (Acts 1:8) that would confirm them as spokesmen for the Father (Hebrews 2:4).
In verses 14-36, Peter preaches the first gospel sermon and includes the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. After quoting three Old Testament passages (Joel 2:28-32; Psalm 16:6-11; Psalm 110:1), he shows Jesus to be the fulfillment of all the Messianic prophecies. Declaring Jesus to be both Lord and Christ, he then accuses them of the sin of having crucified the Son of God. Cut to the heart, they ask what to do to be forgiven and he tells them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus. Three thousand souls respond in obedience and are added to the new church by the Lord.
Acts 2 has also been called “the hub of the Bible.” Everything prior to Acts 2 points to the establishment of the church/kingdom. Everything after Acts 2 points back to this chapter as “the beginning.”
The final assignment Jesus gave His eleven apostles was the command we have called “The Great Commission.” He told them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
The book of Acts is the inspired record of the early church fulfilling that mission.
After the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, He spent forty days with the apostles, “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). These have been referred to as the “forty days that changed the world.”
It was during this period of time that the disciples were transformed from fearful sheep into powerful shepherds. No longer were they reluctant followers, but fearless servants. They had seen the resurrected Lord and received their final, personal instructions from the Master.
And then, Jesus ascended to heaven to sit at God’s right hand with a promise from the angels that He would return some day.
During the next ten days, the apostles and other disciples spent time together, encouraging and helping one another to prepare for the work that was ahead. They prayed, they studied and they built each other up.
Then they took one more important step. In order that they might fulfill Old Testament prophecy (Psalm 109:8), they chose a replacement for their fallen companion, Judas Iscariot. Two men were proposed, Joseph and Matthias. Matthias was selected in God’s providence and the apostolic group was complete once more and ready to reach their lost world for Christ.