Acts 12

Chapter twelve closes the first half of the book focusing on the Jews, Peter, and Jerusalem. Although the story comes back to Jerusalem periodically, the rest of Acts emphasizes the Gentiles, Paul, and “THE FARTHEST PARTS OF THE EARTH” (Acts 1:8). Sadly, but somewhat appropriately, this part of the story begins with the first martyr from among the apostles, James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John. Verse three is interesting: “WHEN [HEROD] SAW THAT THIS PLEASED THE JEWS, HE PROCEEDED TO ARREST PETER TOO.” Even under the persecution that had started in chapter eight, Luke noted in Acts 9:31 that the Church had mostly “EXPERIENCED PEACE.” Apparently, that was no longer the case.

The story of Peter’s imprisonment is a Sunday School favorite. God sent an angel to release him (similar to Acts 5:17-21), but he had to wake Peter up first (Acts 12:4-11). Luke humorously noted that Peter obeyed the angel, even though he thought it was just another vision. He was standing outside before he realized the truth.

The rest of the story is just as ironic. Peter’s friends had gathered to pray, presumably for Peter and the future of the church (Acts 12:12-17). When he showed up outside the gathering, none of the adults believed that it was actually him at the gate; only the servant girl did. When they finally let him in, he told them what had happened then went somewhere else so they would not get into trouble as well. One of his instructions was particularly significant. He said, “TELL JAMES AND THE BROTHERS THESE THINGS” (Acts 12:17). Since “JAMES, THE BROTHER OF JOHN” had been executed (Acts 12:2), this was obviously a different James. However, since the first James (Acts 12:2) had to be identified, whereas the second did not (Acts 12:17), it is clear that the second James had already become highly influential in the Jerusalem church. He must have been “JAMES THE LORD’S BROTHER,” who Paul wrote about in Galatians 1:19, who led the council in Acts 15, and who wrote the letter that carries his name.

The chapter concludes with two notes. First, God killed Herod. The backstory has to do with a quarrel between Herod and the people of Tyre and Sidon (Acts 12:20-23). Herod was an arrogant man, and when his supporters began to worship him as a god, the true God finally executed him. Second, Luke brought the story back to where he left off in Acts 11:30. In fact, Acts 11:30 and Acts 12:25 could originally have been together if Luke added chapter twelve later.

Acts 11

Chapter eleven records Peter’s account of the events of chapter ten as he told them to the Jews back in Jerusalem, so Acts 11:1-18 is essentially a repeat of the previous chapter. One specific point to note is Peter’s choice of words in Acts 11:15-16. Charismatics and non-charismatics often debate whether the events of chapter two count as “Spirit baptism,” because those words are not there. However, here Peter identified the Spirit’s coming on Cornelius the same “AS HE DID ON US AT THE BEGINNING.” “THE BEGINNING” has to refer to Pentecost in chapter two, making that the apostles’ “Spirit baptism” The group concluded that this truly was the work of God, even among the Gentiles (similar to what Peter concluded in Acts 10:34).

Luke took this opportunity to introduce the foundational Gentile church in Antioch, so he could transition to that story in chapter thirteen. Referencing the persecution he already mentioned in Acts 8:1, Luke said that the scattered Jews preached only to other Jews (Acts 11:19-26). However, some proselytes began to expand that message to the Gentiles as well, with the result that “THE HAND OF THE LORD WAS WITH THEM, AND A GREAT NUMBER WHO BELIEVED TURNED TO THE LORD” (Acts 11:21). This caught the attention of the Jerusalem church, which responded by sending Barnabas to investigate. Recognizing the ministry possibilities there, Barnabas tracked down Saul to help him teach the people. 1 In reality, Antioch became the first Gentile church and Christian seminary. There was such a faithful response to the teaching that the name “Christian” was applied to them there. 2 Acts 11:27-30 record the prophecy of a severe famine that would hit the world. Thus began Saul’s ongoing ministry of collecting funds from Gentile churches to support the believers in Israel.

Notes:

  1. After leaving Damascus and some other events, Saul/Paul spent about ten years preaching in and around his home city of Tarsus (see Galatians 1:13-17). This probably formed the foundation of his work in southern Galatia.
  2. Interestingly, the term “Christian” is very rare in Scripture, occurring only here, Acts 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16.

Acts 10

Chapter ten records a major turning point in the history of the Church. To this point, the Church was still primarily Jewish, even after about ten years. When Luke gave his second progress report, he mentioned only the areas of “JUDEA, GALILEE, AND SAMARIA” (Acts 9:31). In this chapter, we find the first intentional gospel presentation to Gentiles. (The Ethiopian in chapter eight was probably a Jewish proselyte, someone who had converted to Judaism.)

God took two steps of preparation that made this transition from Jew to Gentile work smoothly. First, he chose a specific Gentile. Cornelius was “A DEVOUT, GOD-FEARING MAN,” a Gentile who had come to faith in the true God but did not fully convert to Judaism (Acts 10:2). God told Cornelius to send for the apostle Peter, who would come and preach to him (Acts 10:3-8, 30-33).

The second requirement was to prepare Peter for his new audience. Because he certainly would not violate God’s laws of cleanliness except at God’s command (Acts 10:28), God had to show Peter that the Mosaic Law was no longer in force. He did this using a vision (Acts 10:9-16). God told Peter to kill and eat from both clean and unclean animals. He refused, based on his strict obedience to the Law. God’s response was that when he called something clean, it was. 1 After seeing and hearing this three times, Peter was approached by Cornelius’ men, who had come to call for him.

Putting the pieces together, Peter told Cornelius, “I NOW TRULY UNDERSTAND THAT GOD DOES NOT SHOW FAVORITISM IN DEALING WITH PEOPLE” (Acts 10:34-48), and he shared the gospel of Christ. Cornelius and his household responded in faith and were filled with the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, these Gentiles spoke in tongues though the Samaritans did not (Acts 8:17). Finally, they were baptized in water, but only after receiving the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:38).

Notes:

  1. This was foremost in Peter’s mind when he argued that they should not expect Gentiles to even attempt to obey the Law that the Jews could never obey (Acts 15:7-11). Slowly, he began to understand that the Mosaic Law had hold or power over Christians of any ethnicity.

Acts 9

Chapter nine begins with “MEANWHILE,” an ominous segue pitting God’s great work through Philip with Satan’s work through Saul. That was about to change. Securing warrants for all Jewish believers found in and around synagogues (their jurisdiction), Saul traveled to Damascus, more than 150 miles north of Jerusalem, to arrest these Jews who had turned to worship Jesus (Acts 9:1-9). On the way, Jesus himself stopped Saul, and Saul was converted as well. However, the encounter blinded him, so he spent three days fasting and praying in darkness.

One of the disciples in Damascus Paul certainly would have arrested was Ananias. In a vision, God told him to go to Saul and lay hands on him so he could see again (Acts 9:10-12). Naturally, Ananias was reluctant, but God told him that Saul was God’s man now, the one who would present the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:13-16). Ananias obeyed. Saul regained his sight and immediately began preaching Christ, which caused him to have to run for his life (Acts 9:17-25). Paul included more detail in Galatians 1-2 than Luke does here, but eventually Saul made it back to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles, with Barnabas vouching for him (Acts 9:26-30).

During this time Peter also did some itinerant preaching, performing miracles as Jesus did, including healing a paralyzed man and raising a woman from the dead (Acts 9:32-43). This solidified the focus of the two men – Peter to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-9).

Acts 8

Chapter eight introduces the key antagonist of the story. Luke mentioned that Saul was a co-conspirator at Stephen’s murder, albeit not a full participant. The most zealous of his peers (Galatians 1:14), Saul used Stephen’s “blasphemy” as the perfect catalyst to begin an outright war with these Jewish traitors, who blatantly worshiped a criminal instead of God. He made it his personal mission to “DESTROY THE CHURCH” by any means necessary (Acts 8:1-3).

Like the Tower of Babel, however, God used this as the catalyst to scatter the early Christians and spread the gospel. For the first time, Samaritans were presented with the truth, and they accepted it in multitudes (Acts 8:4-8). The miracles Philip performed convinced even a local magician, Simon, that this message was truly from God (Acts 8:9-13). Peter and John arrived from Jerusalem to confirm what was happening, which they saw when the Holy Spirit came on the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17). This impressed the magician who wanted that power as well, offering money to learn their “spell” (Acts 8:18-25). Some have questioned Simon’s salvation because of this, but Peter’s command that he should “REPENT OF THIS WICKEDNESS” and pray for forgiveness seems to indicate that his infant faith was genuine.

Luke recorded one more scenario of the gospel spreading beyond the Jewish people (Acts 8:26-40). Philip received a direct order through an angel to meet with a man on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza, whom he discovered to be an Ethiopian official. Philip caught up with him and got into his chariot, realizing that the man was reading from the prophet Isaiah without understanding it. Philip was able to start from that passage (Isaiah 53:7-8) and point him to Jesus. The Ethiopian believed, and Philip baptized him immediately. The Holy Spirit then “SNATCHED PHILIP AWAY” (the same verb used for the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17) and dropped him in Azotus, where he continued to preach the gospel.

There is a textual note to consider regarding Acts 8:37. Only a handful of Greek manuscripts include this verse, and most of them were copied during the tenth to twelfth centuries (AD 900-1100). Because of their late date and scarcity, it is best to see this verse as a later addition to Acts.

Acts 7

Chapter seven is primarily the record of Stephen’s defense statement to the Sanhedrin. The charge against him was speaking against the Temple and changing what Moses had given Israel (Acts 6:13-14), essentially going against God and his revelation. In his statement, Stephen recounted the history of God’s dealings with Israel, reminding them of three key truths.

First, he reminded them that the Mosaic Law was not the totality of God’s revelation (Acts 7:2-16). In fact, God spoke to Abraham long before he gave the Law, while Abraham was still a pagan serving idols. God made several promises to Abraham about his descendants, even though he did not yet have even one child. As he began to fulfill those promises, God protected the family for multiple generations, even in Egypt.

Second, he reminded them that Moses was not the flawless hero they made him out to be (Acts 7:17-29). Although God certainly used him, it was in spite of Moses’ early actions and attitude, not because of them. He required some time in the desert to grow his humility.

Third, he reminded them that when God finally did give the Law through Moses, the people rejected and disobeyed it (Acts 7:30-50). They immediately built an altar with Aaron and turned toward other gods throughout their history. When Solomon finally built that beautiful Temple they were so proud of, God himself reminded them that he “DOES NOT LIVE IN HOUSES MADE BY HUMAN HANDS.”

Finally, after reminding them of all of these things, Stephen turned their accusation back on them (Acts 7:51-53). “YOU ARE ALWAYS RESISTING THE HOLY SPIRIT, LIKE YOUR ANCESTORS DID!” At this, they immediately and unanimously moved to kill him (Acts 7:54-60). Seeing Jesus himself looking on, Stephen died with forgiveness on his lips, just as the Savior did.

Acts 6

Chapter six points out the second of the two major internal issues. Not only did personal pride and scandal attack the Church; they also had to deal with “church politics” and racial struggles. After some time had passed, the apostles were bombarded with complaints from the Greek-speaking Jews. Their widows were being overlooked while the Hebrew-speaking widows were carefully cared for. The apostles knew this could greatly damage the Church, so they began to add structure, specifically a group of seven men who served under the apostles’ direction to make sure all the widows were served. As the church grew, the apostles needed to stay focused on the Word and prayer (Acts 6:1-6).

Verse seven contains the first of six “progress reports” Luke provided in Acts. Thus, we arrive at the first break, the church still growing yet unknowingly headed for her first major tragic blow.

One of the chosen seven men was Stephen, who is described as “A MAN FULL OF FAITH AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT…FULL OF GRACE AND POWER” (Acts 6:5, 8). He was apparently a powerful preacher, and the Holy Spirit used him to perform many miracles alongside his preaching (Acts 6:9-14). This resulted in opposition against him personally. Even though he was not one of the Twelve, some foreign Jews (Asian, Egyptian, and Greek) had him arrested and produced false witnesses against him, much like they did against Jesus, accusing him of treason against God’s Law. Luke included a wonderful little note that, as he stood before them, Stephen’s face appeared angelic (Acts 6:15). What that means exactly is unclear, but they somehow knew that a messenger of God was standing before them.