Acts 6-9 The Voice (VOICE)
These emissaries of Jesus inspire us with their passion to serve Jesus and advance the gospel in the face of torture and abuse. After a night in prison and a public flogging, they moved forward with smiles on their faces. Believers in the Western church often enjoy the benefits of social and political power and are unwilling to suffer persecution for their faith as these men did. At the same time, many believers throughout the world face daily pressure to renounce their faith but choose boldly to remain faithful despite social, economic, and even physical persecution. These believers follow closely the path trodden by the Anointed One and His early followers.
6 Things were going well, and the number of disciples was growing. But a problem arose. The Greek-speaking believers became frustrated with the Hebrew-speaking believers. The Greeks complained that the Greek-speaking widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food. 2 The twelve convened the entire community of disciples.
The Twelve: We could solve this problem ourselves, but that wouldn’t be right. We need to focus on proclaiming God’s message, not on distributing food. 3 So, friends, find seven respected men from the community of faith. These men should be full of the Holy Spirit and full of wisdom. Whomever you select we will commission to resolve this matter 4 so we can maintain our focus on praying and serving—not meals—but the message.
Life in the new community isn’t perfect. However, the believers don’t allow their linguistic and social barriers to divide the church; instead, the emissaries seize this opportunity to create greater unity between disparate groups. They appoint seven leaders, mostly Greek-speaking (based on their names), to oversee the distribution of food. This movement toward unity will be a challenge to the future church that will so easily be divided by any problem, real or perceived.
5 The whole community—Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking—was very pleased with this plan, so they chose seven men: Stephen (a man full of faith and full of the Holy Spirit), Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas (a Greek-speaking convert from Antioch). 6 These men were presented to the apostles, who then prayed for them and commissioned them by laying their hands on them. 7 The message of God continued to spread, and the number of disciples continued to increase significantly there in Jerusalem. Even priests in large numbers became obedient to the faith.
8 Stephen continually overflowed with extraordinary grace and power, and he was able to perform a number of miraculous signs and wonders in public view. 9 But eventually a group arose to oppose Stephen and the message to which his signs and wonders pointed. (These men were from a group called the Free Synagogue and included Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicians, and Asians.) 10 The Holy Spirit gave Stephen such wisdom in responding to their arguments that they were humiliated; 11 in retaliation, they spread a vicious rumor: “We heard Stephen speak blasphemies against Moses and God.”
12 Their rumor prompted an uprising that included common people, religious officials, and scholars. They surprised Stephen, grabbed him, and hauled him before the council. 13 They convinced some witnesses to give false testimony.
False Witnesses: This fellow constantly degrades the holy temple and mocks our holy law. 14 With our own ears, we’ve heard him say this Jesus fellow, this Nazarene he’s always talking about, will actually destroy the holy temple and will try to change the sacred customs we received from Moses.
15 The entire council turned its gaze on Stephen to see how he would respond. They were shocked to see his face radiant with peace—as if he were a heavenly messenger.
7 High Priest: What do you have to say for yourself? Are these accusations accurate?
Stephen: 2 Brothers, fathers, please listen to me. Our glorious God revealed Himself to our common ancestor Abraham, when he lived far away in Mesopotamia before he immigrated to Haran. 3 God gave him this command: “Leave your country. Leave your family and your inheritance. Move into unknown territory, where I will show you a new homeland.”[a] 4 First, he left Chaldea in southern Mesopotamia and settled in Haran until his father died. Then God led him still farther from his original home—until he settled here, in our land. 5 But at that point, God still hadn’t given him any of this land as his permanent possession—not even the footprint under his sandal actually belonged to him yet. But God did give Abraham a promise—a promise that yes, someday, the entire land would indeed belong to him and his descendants. Of course, this promise was all the more amazing because at that moment, Abraham had no descendants at all.
6 God said that Abraham’s descendants would first live in a foreign country as resident aliens, as refugees, for 400 years. During this time, they would be enslaved and treated horribly. But that would not be the end of the story. 7 God promised, “I will judge the nation that enslaves them,”[b] and “I will bring them to this mountain to serve Me.”[c] 8 God gave him the covenant ritual of circumcision as a sign of His sacred promise. When Abraham fathered his son, Isaac, he performed this ritual of circumcision on the eighth day. Then Isaac fathered Jacob, and Jacob fathered the twelve patriarchs.
9 The patriarchs were jealous of their brother Joseph, so they sold him as a slave into Egypt. Even so, God was with him; 10 and time after time, God rescued Joseph from whatever trials befell him. God gave Joseph the favor and wisdom to overcome each adversity and eventually to win the confidence and respect of his captors, including Pharaoh, the king of Egypt himself. So Pharaoh entrusted his whole nation and his whole household to Joseph’s stewardship. 11 Some time later, a terrible famine spread through the entire region—from Canaan down to Egypt—and everyone suffered greatly. Our ancestors, living here in the region of Canaan, could find nothing to eat. 12 Jacob heard that Egypt had stores of grain; so he sent our forefathers, his sons, to procure food there. 13 Later, when they returned to Egypt a second time, Joseph revealed his true identity to them. He also told Pharaoh his family story.
14-16 Joseph then invited his father Jacob and all his clan to come and live with him in Egypt. So Jacob came, along with 75 extended family members. After their deaths, their remains were brought back to this land so they could be buried in the same tomb where Abraham had buried Sarah (he had purchased the tomb for a certain amount of silver from the family of Hamor in the town of Shechem).
17 Still God’s promise to Abraham had not yet been fulfilled, but the time for that fulfillment was drawing very near. In the meantime, our ancestors living in Egypt rapidly multiplied. 18 Eventually a new king came to power—one who had not known Joseph when he was the most powerful man in Egypt. 19 This new leader feared the growing population of our ancestors and manipulated them for his own benefit, eventually seeking to control their population by forcing them to abandon their infants so they would die. 20 Into this horrible situation our ancestor Moses was born, and he was a beautiful child in God’s eyes. He was raised for three months in his father’s home, 21 and then he was abandoned as the brutal regime required. However, Pharaoh’s daughter found, adopted, and raised him as her own son. 22 So Moses learned the culture and wisdom of the Egyptians and became a powerful man—both as an intellectual and as a leader. 23 When he reached the age of 40, his heart drew him to visit his kinfolk, our ancestors, the Israelites. 24 During his visit, he saw one of our people being wronged, and he took sides with our people by killing an Egyptian. 25 He thought his kinfolk would recognize him as their God-given liberator, but they didn’t realize who he was and what he represented.
26 The next day Moses was walking among the Israelites again when he observed a fight—but this time, it was between two Israelites. He intervened and tried to reconcile the men. “You two are brothers,” he said. “Why do you attack each other?” 27 But the aggressor pushed Moses away and responded with contempt: “Who made you our prince and judge? 28 Are you going to slay me and hide my body as you did with the Egyptian yesterday?”[d] 29 Realizing this murder had not gone unnoticed, he quickly escaped Egypt and lived as a refugee in the land of Midian. He married there and had two sons.
30 Forty more years passed. One day while Moses was in the desert near Mount Sinai, a heavenly messenger appeared to him in the flames of a burning bush. 31 The phenomenon intrigued Moses; and as he approached for a closer look, he heard a voice—the voice of the Lord: 32 “I am the God of your own fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”[e] This terrified Moses—he began to tremble and looked away in fear. 33 The voice continued: “Take off your sandals and stand barefoot on the ground in My presence, for this ground is holy ground. 34 I have avidly watched how My people are being mistreated by the Egyptians. I have heard their groaning at the treatment of their oppressors. I am descending personally to rescue them. So get up. I’m sending you to Egypt.”[f]
35 Now remember: this was the same Moses who had been rejected by his kinfolk when they said, “Who made you our prince and judge?” This man, rejected by his own people, was the one God had truly sent and commissioned by the heavenly messenger who appeared in the bush, to be their leader and deliverer.
36 Moses indeed led our ancestors to freedom, and he performed miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness over a period of 40 years. 37 This Moses promised our ancestors, “The Eternal One your God will raise up from among your people a Prophet who will be like me.”[g] 38 This is the same one who led the people to Mount Sinai, where a heavenly messenger spoke to him and our ancestors, and who received the living message of God to give to us.
39 But our ancestors still resisted. They again pushed Moses away and refused to follow him. In their hearts, they were ready to return to their former slavery in Egypt. 40 While Moses was on the mountain communing with God, they begged Aaron to make idols to lead them. “We have no idea what happened to this fellow, Moses, who brought us from Egypt,”[h] they said. 41 So they made a calf as their new god, and they even sacrificed to it and celebrated an object they had fabricated as if it was their God.
42 And you remember what God did next: He let them go. He turned from them and let them follow their idolatrous path—worshiping sun, moon, and stars just as their unenlightened neighbors did. The prophet Amos spoke for God about this horrible betrayal:
Did you offer Me sacrifices or give Me offerings
44 Now recall that our ancestors had a sacred tent in the wilderness, the tent God directed Moses to build according to the pattern revealed to him. 45 When Joshua led our ancestors to dispossess the nations God drove out before them, our ancestors carried this sacred tent. It remained here in the land until the time of David. 46 David found favor with God and asked Him for permission to build a permanent structure (rather than a portable tent) to honor Him. 47 It was, of course, Solomon who actually built God’s house. 48 Yet we all know the Most High God doesn’t actually dwell in structures made by human hands, as the prophet Isaiah said,
49 “Since My throne is heaven
As Stephen recounts how God has worked with the Jews in spite of their faltering fidelity, his speech up to this point sounds like any good synagogue sermon. In the stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, he narrates the history of God’s work of salvation among the Jewish people in the midst of their repeated struggle with unfaithfulness and idolatry. However, it is one thing for his audience to agree that idolatry was a problem in the past and another when they are charged with the accusation of the same idolatry in the present. According to Stephen, those who reject Jesus are following the same path as the people who rejected Moses to follow idols. Such a strong message strikes a nerve, and Stephen becomes the first martyr of the church because of it.
Stephen: 51 You stubborn, stiff-necked people! Sure, you are physically Jews, but you are no different from outsiders in your hearts and ears! You are just like your ancestors, constantly fighting against the Holy Spirit. 52 Didn’t your ancestors persecute the prophets? First, they killed those prophets who predicted the coming of the Just One; and now, you have betrayed and murdered the Just One Himself! 53 Yes, you received the law as given by heavenly messengers, but you haven’t kept the law which you received.
54 Upon hearing this, his audience could contain themselves no longer. They boiled in fury at Stephen; they clenched their jaws and ground their teeth. 55 But Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit. Gazing upward into heaven, he saw something they couldn’t see: the glory of God, and Jesus standing at His right hand.
Stephen: 56 Look, I see the heavens opening! I see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!
57 At this, they covered their ears and started shouting. The whole crowd rushed at Stephen, converged on him, 58 dragged him out of the city, and stoned him.
They laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, 59 while they were pelting Stephen with rocks.
Stephen (as rocks fell upon him): Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
60 Then he knelt in prayer, shouting at the top of his lungs,
Stephen: Lord, do not hold this evil against them!
Those were his final words; then he fell asleep in death.
Stephen’s sermon weaves together the story of the Jews and the life of Jesus. The point of the message is that God pursues His children despite their constant failure. The crucifixion of Jesus is the greatest of all of these failures.
Stephen affirms that through circumcision they have made themselves look like Jews, but their hearts and ears need circumcising as well. Of course, telling the Jewish leaders to get their hearts and ears circumcised elicits a rather violent response. Stephen speaks the truth so that all might hear, including a man named Saul.
8 1-2 Some devout men buried Stephen and mourned his passing with loud cries of grief. But Saul, this young man who seemed to be supervising the whole violent event, was pleased by Stephen’s death. That very day, the whole church in Jerusalem began experiencing severe persecution. All of the followers of Jesus—except for the emissaries[k] themselves—fled to the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 3 Young Saul went on a rampage—hunting the church, house after house, dragging both men and women to prison.
They flee to the very places where Jesus said His disciples would be His witnesses at the beginning of this book. As a result, the persecution spreads the message of Christ rather than hinders it. Commenting about similar events a century later, church father Tertullian will write, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
4 All those who had been scattered by the persecution moved from place to place; and wherever they went, they weren’t afraid or silent. Instead, they spread the message of Jesus.
5 Philip, for example, headed north to the city of Samaria, and he told them the news of the Anointed One. 6 The crowds were united in their desire to understand Philip’s message. They not only listened with their ears, but they witnessed miraculous signs with their eyes. 7 Unclean spirits cried out with loud screams as they were exorcised from people. Paralyzed people and lame people moved and walked in plain view. 8 So the city was swept with joy.
9-11 There was a fellow named Simon who had a widespread and long-standing reputation as a sorcerer in Samaria. Everyone—not just poor or uneducated people, but also the city’s elite—paid him great respect. Because he had amazed them with his magic, they thought, “This is a truly great man, full of the power of the God of Greatness.” 12 But they were even more impressed with Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus the Anointed. Both men and women received ceremonial washing through baptism[l]— 13 and even Simon himself became a believer. After his baptism, he shadowed Philip constantly, and he was as amazed as everyone else when he saw great and miraculous signs taking place.
14 Meanwhile word had reached the Lord’s emissaries[m] in Jerusalem that the message of God was welcomed in Samaria—a land of half-breeds and heretics in the minds of many Judeans. They sent Peter and John 15 to pray for the Samaritans. They were especially eager to see if the new believers would receive the Holy Spirit 16 because until this point they had been baptized[n] in the name of the Lord Jesus but had not experienced the Holy Spirit. 17 When Peter and John laid hands on the people, the Holy Spirit did indeed come upon them all.
18 Simon watched all this closely. He saw the Holy Spirit coming to the people when the apostles laid hands on them. So he came to Peter and John and offered them money.
Simon: 19 I want to purchase this ability to confer the Holy Spirit on people through the laying on of my hands.
Peter: 20 May your silver rot right along with you, Simon! To think the Holy Spirit is some kind of magic that can be procured with money! 21 You aren’t even close to being ready for this kind of ministry; your heart is not right with God. 22 You need to turn from your past, and you need to pray that the Lord will forgive the evil intent of your heart. 23 I can see deep bitterness has poisoned you, and wickedness has locked you in chains.
Simon: 24 Please—you must pray to the Lord for me. I don’t want these terrible things to be true of me.
25 Peter and John preached to and talked with the Samaritans about the message of the Lord; and then they returned to Jerusalem, stopping in many other Samaritan villages along the way to proclaim the good news.
26 A heavenly messenger brought this short message from the Lord to Philip during his time preaching in Samaria:
Messenger of the Lord: Leave Samaria. Go south to the Jerusalem-Gaza road.
The message was especially unusual because this road runs through the middle of uninhabited desert. 27 But Philip got up, left the excitement of Samaria, and did as he was told to do. Along this road, Philip saw a chariot in the distance. In the chariot was a dignitary from Ethiopia (the treasurer for Queen Candace), an African man who had been castrated. He had gone north to Jerusalem to worship at the Jewish temple, 28 and he was now heading southwest on his way home. He was seated in the chariot and was reading aloud from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
29 Philip received another prompting from the Holy Spirit:
Holy Spirit: Go over to the chariot and climb on board.
30 So he started running until he was even with the chariot. Philip heard the Ethiopian reading aloud and recognized the words from the prophet Isaiah.
Philip: Do you understand the meaning of what you’re reading?
The Ethiopian: 31 How can I understand it unless I have a mentor?
Then he invited Philip to sit in the chariot. 32 Here’s the passage he was reading from the Hebrew Scriptures:
Like a sheep, He was led to be slaughtered.
The Ethiopian: 34 Here’s my first question. Is the prophet describing his own situation, or is he describing someone else’s calamity?
35 That began a conversation in which Philip used the passage to explain the good news of Jesus. 36 Eventually the chariot passed a body of water beside the road.
The Ethiopian: Since there is water here, is there anything that might prevent me from being ceremonially washed through baptism[p] and identified as a disciple of Jesus?
Philip: [37 If you believe in your heart that Jesus the Anointed is God’s Son, then nothing can stop you.
The Ethiopian said that he believed.][q]
Possibly a reference to the Jewish prohibition of full participation in temple worship by men who have been castrated—a prohibition he likely encounters in this very visit to Jerusalem.
38 He commanded the charioteer to stop the horses. Then Philip and the Ethiopian official walked together into the water. There Philip baptized[r] him, initiating him as a fellow disciple. 39 When they came out of the water, Philip was immediately caught up by the Holy Spirit and taken from the sight of the Ethiopian, who climbed back into his chariot and continued on his journey, overflowing with joy. 40 Philip found himself at a town called Azotus (formerly the Philistine capital city of Ashdod, on the Mediterranean); and from there he traveled north again, proclaiming the good news in town after town until he came to Caesarea.
9 Back to Saul—this fuming, raging, hateful man who wanted to kill every last one of the Lord’s disciples: he went to the high priest in Jerusalem 2 for authorization to purge all the synagogues in Damascus of followers of the way of Jesus.[s] His plan was to arrest and chain any of Jesus’ followers—women as well as men—and transport them back to Jerusalem. 3 He traveled north toward Damascus with a group of companions.
Imagine this: Suddenly a light flashes from the sky around Saul, 4 and he falls to the ground at the sound of a voice.
The Lord: Saul, Saul, why are you attacking Me?
Saul: 5 Lord, who are You?
Then he hears these words:
The Lord: I am Jesus. I am the One you are attacking. 6 Get up. Enter the city. You will learn there what you are to do.
These are shocking, unexpected words that will change his life forever.
7 His other traveling companions just stand there, paralyzed, speechless because they, too, heard the voice; but there is nobody in sight. 8 Saul rises to his feet, his eyes wide open, but he can’t see a thing. So his companions lead their blind friend by the hand and take him into Damascus. 9 He waits for three days—completely blind—and does not eat a bite or drink a drop of anything.
10 Meanwhile, in Damascus a disciple named Ananias had a vision in which the Lord Jesus spoke to him.
The Lord: Ananias.
Ananias: Here I am, Lord.
The Lord: 11 Get up and go to Straight Boulevard. Go to the house of Judas, and inquire about a man from Tarsus, Saul by name. He is praying to Me at this very instant. 12 He has had a vision—a vision of a man by your name who will come, lay hands on him, and heal his eyesight.
Ananias: 13 Lord, I know whom You’re talking about. I’ve heard rumors about this fellow. He’s an evil man and has caused great harm for Your special people in Jerusalem. 14 I’ve heard that he has been authorized by the religious authorities to come here and chain everyone who associates with Your name.
The Lord: 15 Yes, but you must go! I have chosen him to be My instrument to bring My name far and wide—to outsiders, to kings, and to the people of Israel as well. 16 I have much to show him, including how much he must suffer for My name.
17 So Ananias went and entered the house where Saul was staying. He laid his hands on Saul and called to him.
Ananias: Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, sent me so you can regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
18 At that instant, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see. So he got up, received the ceremonial washing of baptism[t] identifying him as a disciple, 19 ate some food (remember, he had not eaten for three days), and regained his strength. He spent a lot of time with the disciples in Damascus over the next several days. 20 Then he went into the very synagogues he had intended to purge, proclaiming,
Saul: Jesus is God’s Son!
21 Obviously this amazed everybody, and the buzz spread.
The People: Isn’t he the man who caused so much trouble in Jerusalem for everyone identified with Jesus? Didn’t he come here to arrest followers of Jesus and bring them in chains to the religious authorities? Now he’s switched sides and is preaching Jesus?
22 As time passed, Saul’s confidence grew stronger and stronger, so much so that he debated with the Jews of Damascus and made an irrefutable case that Jesus is, in fact, God’s Anointed, the Liberating King.
23 They didn’t like being confounded like this; so after several days, the Jews plotted to assassinate Saul. 24 But he learned of the plot. He knew they were keeping the city gates under constant surveillance, so they could follow and kill him when he left. 25 To save Saul, the disciples came up with a plan of their own. During the night, they put Saul in a basket and lowered him by ropes from an opening in the wall of the city rather than passing through the gates. Their plan worked, 26 and he returned to Jerusalem.
He tried to join the disciples there, but they didn’t think he was sincere.
27 Only one person accepted Saul as a genuine disciple, Barnabas, who became Saul’s advocate to the apostles. He told the whole story of what happened in Damascus, from Saul’s vision and message from the Lord to his transformation into a confident proclaimer of the name of Jesus. 28 Finally they accepted Saul and gave him access to their community, and he continued to speak confidently in the name of the Lord. 29 He dialogued—and argued—with a group of Greek-speaking Jews. That didn’t go well either, because soon they were plotting to kill him also. 30 His fellow believers helped him escape by bringing him to Caesarea and sending him to his hometown, Tarsus.
31 And so the church enjoyed a period of peace and growth throughout the regions of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. The disciples lived in deep reverence for the Lord, they experienced the strong comfort of the Holy Spirit, and their numbers increased.
32 Peter hadn’t been idle during all this time. He was having a number of amazing experiences of his own, traveling from group to group and visiting the various communities of believers. Once he came to a town called Lydda, a border town between Samaria and Judea, and met with God’s special people there. 33 He visited a man named Aeneas. This poor fellow had been paralyzed for eight years, unable to leave his bed.
Peter: 34 Aeneas, Jesus the Anointed heals you. Get up! Now you can make your own bed!
And immediately—he got up! 35 All the local residents—both of Lydda and nearby Sharon—saw Aeneas healthy and strong again, so they turned to the Lord.
36 In a nearby coastal city, Joppa, there lived a disciple whose Aramaic name was Tabitha, or Dorcas in Greek. She was a good woman—devotedly doing good and giving to the poor. 37 While Peter was in Lydda, she fell sick and died. Her fellow disciples washed her body and laid her in an upstairs room. 38 They had heard Peter was nearby, so two of them went with an urgent message, “Please come to Joppa as soon as possible.”
39 Peter went with them and immediately entered the room where the corpse had been placed. It was quite a scene—the widows of the community were crowded in the room, weeping, showing the various items of clothing that Dorcas had made for them.
40 Peter asked them to leave the room; then he got on his knees. He prayed for a while and then turned to her body.
Peter: Tabitha, get up!
She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. 41 Giving her his hand, Peter lifted her up. Then he called in the other disciples—including the widows—and reintroduced them to their beloved friend. 42 The news of this miracle spread throughout the city, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time as the guest of Simon, a tanner by profession.