This month, we continue our Bible readings in the Acts of the Apostles, learning lessons from the first Christians, as they shared their faith and as the church grew in numbers and in conviction. We also see the beginnings of the ministry of Paul, following his dramatic conversion.
Saturday 1st November
As we saw yesterday, when we looked at Acts 4:32-37, the Christians were of one heart and mind, and nobody said that anything belonged to themselves. Instead, everything was held in common and no-one in the church was in need. In such a community, however, there were bound to be a few black sheep, a few hypocrites. It should not surprise us, when we come to Acts 5:1-11, to find examples of this. The theme of this passage is the judgement of God upon sin. It is a fearful experience to fall under God’s judgement and it is clear that God will not be mocked or cheated or treated with contempt. Ananias and Sapphira were ambitious for praise. Perhaps having seen Barnabas praised for his gift, they wanted the same. The problem was that they were seeking praise from men instead of God. We must beware of treating God lightly.
Sunday 2nd November
Ananias and Sapphira sold a house and kept some of the money, while trying to pretend that they had given all of it. Their sin was not that they only gave a certain proportion of the proceeds. As Peter told them, while they still had the house, it was theirs. Even when they sold it, the money was theirs. If they had chosen only to give a certain proportion of the money, that would have been fine. Their sin was that they wanted to earn the reputation of giving everything, while keeping some for themselves. They were covetous for money and distrustful of God’s providence. They weren’t prepared to accept the words of Christ when he said in Matthew 6:33, ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and all the other things will be added later.’ They wanted the praise of others but they wanted the money too! Are we guilty of hypocrisy, living one kind of life in public and a very different one in private?
Monday 3rd November
When Peter told Ananias that he had been trying to cheat God, he fell down and died. Was it recognising the enormity of his sin that caused a shock which killed him? Whatever caused the actual physical death, however, we know that it was God who administered judgement. As was the custom of the Jews, Ananias was buried immediately and then, about three hours later, his wife came in. Peter confronted her with her sin and gave her the chance to confess. Instead she followed the same pattern of lies offered by her husband and then Peter says those terrible words ‘How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.’ Can you imagine her terror for that split second when she was faced with her sin and sentence was passed? This has a great deal to teach us. We must realise the gravity of our sin and forsake it immediately. Imagine standing before God on the Day of Judgement…
Tuesday 4th November
Here we find the apostles preaching the Word of God and healing the sick. These men had been endowed by God with power and authority. Even those who were not Christians were aware of this and they kept their distance. We’re told that no-one else (apart from a believer) dared to join them. The number of Christians grew as they were joined by those who ‘believed in the Lord.’ This is the way into the Christian Church! Such was God’s blessing on the apostles, that even Peter’s shadow was believed to heal people. All in all, they made a wonderful impression for the Gospel on those around. As we read in verse 13, ‘They were highly regarded.’ As Christians, we are expected to have an impact for the Gospel on our communities. We are to be respected for the quality of our lives and for the integrity of our message.
Wednesday 5th November
The Sadducees were not only jealous of the Apostles’ success, they were furious. The Sadducees had their religion, but such excitement, activity and miracles were foreign to their experience and so they arrested the Apostles and had them put in prison. Peter and John had been arrested before and told not to speak about Jesus but they just carried on regardless. No doubt the Sadducees intended a more severe penalty this time. The next morning, however, when the Sanhedrin was convened and the Apostles sent for, they weren’t there! The prison doors were locked and the guards were at their posts but God had sent an angel to release them (verse 19). God still had work for them to do and they could not do it while they were in prison. Through the angel, God commissioned them to preach. Notice verse 20, where the Apostles are told to ‘tell the people the full message of this new life. That is also our calling, to tell people about new life in Christ. Most people would like a new life and we have been given the one message which can provide that.
Thursday 6th November
Now, once again, the apostles are before the Sanhedrin. The High Priest reminds them of what they had been told before. He says, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’ Then we read of the courage of these disciples. ‘Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!’ This was precisely what Peter and John had said on the previous occasion when they were before the Sanhedrin. As we saw when we looked at that earlier passage, a valuable principle is taught here: We are obliged to be subject to the governing authorities but if the governing authorities order us to do something which the Bible forbids, or prevent us from doing something which the Bible commands, then we are no longer under obligation to obey. We are subject to a higher authority, the authority of God himself.
Friday 7th November
The Sanhedrin wanted to put them to death (verse 33) but one of them offered a different point of view. Gamaliel, a Pharisee, was the leading rabbi of the day. He outlined what we might call the ‘Gamaliel Principle’. His advice was: ‘Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’ He was right, you can’t stop something if God is behind it! When the Reformation began, under the leadership of Martin Luther, God was clearly at work and nothing could stop the spread of the movement. The same was true of John Calvin and John Knox and the other Reformers. Those who resisted them were fighting against God. We are living in difficult days for the church but we have the same God and he is able to do great things. We must recover confidence in him.
Saturday 8th November
In these verses, we find a problem in the young Christian church. Some of the Christians felt that their widows (the widows in their community) were being neglected in the daily distribution of food to the needy. Notice it was the ‘Grecian Jews’ who were complaining about the behaviour of the ‘Hebraic Jews’. Among the Jews, there were two distinct communities. On the one hand there were Jews who lived in Palestine and spoke Aramaic. On the other hand, there were Jews who had grown up outside Palestine and largely spoke Greek. Sometimes the Aramaic speaking Jews looked down on these Grecian Jews. Even although the two different Jewish communities were now ‘in Christ’ there was still tension between them. This is a warning to us, since this kind of dispute can easily arise and can damage the church. There must be no divisions among us in Christ.
Sunday 9th November
The apostles were very concerned about this the dispute over food distribution but didn’t feel that they themselves should be involved in the task of giving out food each day. They said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’ The word ‘deacon’ is not used in this passage but we can reasonably identify this passage as the establishment of the office of deacon. The seven deacons then took over the distribution of the food, to ensure that everything was done fairly and properly. The apostles (elders) must give attention to the Word of God and prayer, whereas the deacons are to be engaged in practical matters.
Monday 10th November
Having given his report on the progress of the Gospel in 6:7, Luke now returns to the seven deacons and concentrates our attention in particular upon one of them, Stephen. The story of this man and his martyrdom takes up the rest of chapter 6 and the whole of chapter 7. Stephen was a truly remarkable man of God. We’re told that he was full of faith and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom (verse 3), full of God’s grace and full of power (verse 8). His enemies among the Jews did not regard him in this way and so he met opposition as he tried to share the Gospel. First, there was opposition by argument (verses 9-10) but that failed. Second, there was opposition by lies and deception (verses 11-14). This involved false charges and false witnesses. Do you see the lengths to which these people were prepared to go to destroy Stephen? There was a spiritual battle going on. At the same time, his true character was revealed to them. As we read in Acts 6:15: ‘All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.’ Despite this, they murdered him.
Tuesday 11th November
Stephen then is brought to trial on the basis of false charges and lying witnesses. He clearly has no hope of justice from these people but why were they so violently opposed to him and so determined to kill him? We might put it like this: Stephen was a man of God but they were men of the devil. They might have been outwardly respectable Jews but in their opposition to Christ and his gospel they were agents of the devil himself. When Peter was writing to Christians who were being persecuted, he recognised that the devil was behind the persecution. In 1 Peter 5:7-10, we read this: ‘Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.’ The apostle John, in 1 John 3:8, puts it even more strongly: ‘He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.’ We must recognise that as Christians we have an enemy.
Wednesday 12th November
This is a long passage to read today but it is Stephen’s great speech before the Sanhedrin and it is best to read the whole thing at one sitting. Stephen had been asked to reply to a specific charge but instead he launches into this history of Israel! He tells the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. He speaks about Moses and how God revealed himself in the burning bush and commissioned Moses to bring Israel out of Egypt. Stephen’s main point is that Israel had always been a stubborn and rebellious people. He reminds these Jewish leaders that, even when Moses came down the mountain from God, he found that the people had made a golden calf and were worshipping it. Then he tells of how later in their history they again worshipped other gods and so God sent them into exile in Babylon. This brief history of Israel is very important because Stephen was being judged by these Jewish leaders who called themselves the ‘children of Abraham’. Stephen is telling them that they are the children of those Jews who worshipped false gods, committed idolatry, and killed the prophets sent by God. They had the name but they were not ‘true’ Jews. Are we true Christians?
Thursday 13th November
By giving a history of God’s dealings with human beings, Stephen puts the Gospel in perspective and demonstrates the continuity of God’s purposes from the beginning. It also provides us with a commentary on the Old Testament. We might easily read the stories of Abraham and the patriarchs without realising their importance. Stephen makes it clear that these stories are really about God: ‘God said… God sent… God gave… God promised… God spoke.’ Our God is a God who is working out his purpose in history, through active engagement with his people. The other thing Stephen does in this speech is to remind us that God speaks. God spoke directly to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and the others. There is no need for anyone to walk through life aimlessly. Life has purpose and significance if we listen to the voice of God leading and guiding us. In verse 38, Stephen says that Moses ‘received living words to pass on to us.’ Notice that, ‘living words’. What a wonderful way of describing the first five books of the Bible, which came to us from Moses. In the words of the old Redemption hymn, the Gospel is: ‘wonderful words of life’.
Friday 14th November
Today we come to the passage which marks the end of Stephen’s story and tells of his martyrdom. Stephen had delivered his great speech and now his enemies were in full flight to kill him. Then something wonderful happened, God gave him a vision. This is what the Scripture says, ‘But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”‘ Stephen saw God in all his glory. He saw Jesus. This was a vision of God himself in heaven. We might say that God was showing Stephen all the glory of heaven, to reassure him that very soon he would be there himself, in the presence of God forever. He told them what he saw but they regarded his vision as blasphemy, covered their ears, yelled and rushed at him. They dragged him out of the city and stoned him. We must fix our eyes on Jesus, whatever people may say of us or do to us.
Saturday 15th November
Acts 7:54 – 8:3
One of those present at the stoning of Stephen is given special mention. We are told in verse 58 that, ‘the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.’ Now just in case anyone should imagine that this young man was an innocent bystander who had simply been persuaded to watch over the clothes, later on in the passage we find him mentioned again. In Acts 8:1, when Stephen died, we read that, ‘Saul was there, giving approval to his death.’ Then a few verses later, in 8:3, we read that, ‘Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.’ Why was Saul singled out? Well simply because most of the rest of the Book of Acts tells his story. His first introduction is as an enemy of the church but he was changed! One of the wonderful things about God is that he can take someone like Saul and change him into someone like Paul.
Sunday 16th November
The first verse of our passage tells us that, following the martyrdom of Stephen, ‘a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.’ Imagine the trauma and suffering of this young Christian church. They have come to know Christ and so their lives have been changed. They are at peace with God and their sins have been forgiven. They have found new direction, new purpose and new meaning in their lives but now they are forced to flee from their homes and families and become refugees, knowing that there are men like Saul of Tarsus who want to see them thrown in prison or even killed. Perhaps the death of Stephen brought home to the authorities the seriousness and dedication of these Christians, but whatever the reason, persecution began. Even today, there are places where Christians are tortured and killed for their faith. What began with Stephen has never finished and will only finish on that day when Christ returns.
Monday 17th November
What we must recognise, however, is that those who became refugees after the martyrdom of Stephen used their terrible circumstances to advance the gospel! We are told in verse 4 that, ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’ In the sovereign purposes of God there is always victory for good over evil, and there is always victory for light over darkness, even if at the time we cannot see it. So it was with the death of Stephen. The Christians were scattered to the corners of the known world and they took the Gospel with them. Thus what could have been a disaster became a great Gospel opportunity. The death of Stephen was not in vain. In the year 197 AD, Tertullian said that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. This has been proved true on many occasions but it happened first with Stephen.
Tuesday 18th November
In verses 5-8 of our passage, we read of how Philip, one of the seven deacons whom we read about in Acts 6, went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed Christ there. Clearly the word he preached was to great effect and the cause of the gospel was advanced. One interesting point is when it says in verse 8 that ‘there was great joy in that city.’ Why was there joy in that city? Surely these people who had become Christians under Philip’s preaching had little to be joyful about? After all, they would now be subject to the same persecution which brought Philip to them in the first place! The point is, however, that salvation itself brings joy, whatever the circumstances of the believer. In 1 Peter 1:8, 9 we read this, ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.’ Notice what Peter is saying here. Because these people have found salvation in Jesus Christ, they are ‘filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’. The joy of the Lord is a deep inner joy which has nothing to do with outward physical circumstances.
Wednesday 19th November
Our passage opens by telling us about Simon. He was either claiming to be a god, or at the very least claiming to be the human representative of a god. In this he was successful, as many people believed him, not least because of his magic arts, which amazed them. We are told that when he heard Philip preach the Gospel: ‘Simon himself believed and was baptised.’ The reality of his conversion must surely be doubted, since he later tried to buy from the apostles the ability to lay on hands and give people the Holy Spirit! Perhaps he recognized a power much stronger than his own. Certainly, he wanted the power to do miracles and was prepared to pay for it. This led to a new word coming into the English language, ‘simony’, meaning the buying or selling of ecclesiastical preferment. Peter rebuked him and called him to repentance. I think we must conclude that his profession of faith was not genuine and that even his apparent remorse, on hearing Peter’s condemnation, was really only fear concerning the judgement of God, rather than a real repentance. The lesson for us is to be sure our repentance for sin is real and not just fear of being found out.
Thursday 20th November
One key problem in this passage concerns the Holy Spirit. There are two questions. First, why were Peter and John sent to this place when they were not sent to other places where the Gospel had been preached? Second, why was the experience of these Samaritans different from the experience of other believers who heard and responded to the Gospel? Most commentators on this passage of Scripture point to the fact that this was the first time the Gospel had penetrated into Samaritan territory. We can imagine how concerned the apostles were when the Gospel first came to these Samaritans under the preaching of Philip. There would have been a real fear that the divisions between Jews and Samaritans would have carried over into the Church. The unity of the Church was vital. This was probably why Peter and John were sent to Samaria, and this was why the experience of the Samaritans was different from other converts. They had been converted under Philip’s ministry but God, through the apostles, delays the giving of the Holy Spirit, in order to assure them that the Jewish Christians fully accepted them into the fellowship. We might say, as some commentators have done, that this was the ‘Samaritan Pentecost’. No wonder then that the passage ends with the words, ‘When they had testified and proclaimed the word of the Lord, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.’ The Gospel had entered new territory and the apostles were keen that as many as possible would believe.
Friday 21st November
Our passage from the Acts of the Apostles today tells the well-known story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, due to the preaching of Philip. The first point to note is that Philip was a man who acted, not on his own initiative but under the direction of God. The story begins with Philip obeying the instruction of an angel of the Lord to go to a particular place. As far as we know he was given no explanation but yet he obeyed. The second point is that Philip knew the Scriptures. When he heard the Ethiopian reading from Isaiah 53 it was no trouble to him to get up onto the chariot and explain the meaning of the passage. The third point is that Philip used the opportunities given to him to preach the Gospel. We read, ‘Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.’ He was given his text and he preached the good news about Jesus Christ. Are we led by God? Do we know the Scriptures? Do we take every opportunity to share Christ?
Saturday 22nd November
We thought yesterday about Philip, today we think about the Ethiopian. First, we learn that he was a devout man, a Jewish proselyte, a Gentile who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He had just been to Jerusalem to worship God. This man was an important official in the Ethiopian government and not a Jew, yet he had come to see that the God of the Jews was the one living God. Second, he was a man who searched the Scriptures for the truth. There he was, on his way home from Jerusalem, trying to make sense of the prophet Isaiah. He really wanted to know the truth and was quite happy to have Philip teach him. Third, he was a man who responded in faith to the Gospel when it was preached to him. As soon as the Lord opened his eyes he committed himself and immediately wanted to be baptised a Christian. Just as Philip is a good model for the evangelist, so the Ethiopian is a good model for anyone who is seeking Christ. Someone who wants to know the truth must search the Scriptures because eternal life is to be found there.
Sunday 23rd November
The most famous conversion story of all time must surely be the story of Saul on the road to Damascus. Indeed, the story has come into the English language and is used even by those who are not Christians. Quite often you will hear people speak about a ‘Damascus Road Experience’, meaning a sudden change of opinion, or a change of direction. The original Damascus Road experience was a dramatic, life-transforming experience. Saul, the persecutor of the Christian church becomes Paul, the great Christian evangelist and missionary, the apostle to the Gentiles. This story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is so important that it is found three times in the Acts of the Apostles. The actual event is described in Acts 9 but later Paul tells the story twice, as he explains to others how he became a Christian. We shall think about this story over the next few days, giving thanks for the astonishing power of God to convert even the worst enemy of the Christian church.
Monday 24th November
To understand these verses we must consider what we know of this man, Saul the persecutor. As we have seen, a campaign of persecution against Christians had begun with the martyrdom of Stephen, and this man Saul was at the heart of it. He was born as a Roman citizen in the Greek city of Tarsus but was brought up by his Jewish parents according to the traditions of Israel (see Philippians 3:4-6). Saul of Tarsus was educated under Gamaliel the great leader of the Pharisees whom we read about in Acts 5, but Saul lacked the moderation of his teacher. He was determined to stamp out what he regarded as this heretical Christian movement. He pursued the Christians everywhere. He even asked the high priest for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so he could continue his persecution in that city. This gives us a taste of his hatred and bitterness. Soon all that would change! Many people in our churches once hated the Gospel, hated Christians and denied the truth about Jesus. God changed them and continues to change people.
Tuesday 25th November
Saul’s conversion is a model for Christian conversion. He was confronted by Christ, he was charged with sin (why do you persecute me?); he enquired about Christ (who are you, Lord?); he received a revelation; and his (spiritual) eyes were opened. Then he surrendered himself to Christ and obeyed. Have we been confronted by Christ? Have we recognised our sin? Have our spiritual eyes been opened so that we recognise the Saviour? Have we surrendered our lives to Christ? This last point is the most vital of all. We must surrender our lives completely to Christ. It is important to stress that not everyone has such a dramatic experience as Saul of Tarsus. We must not demand that everyone has such a conversion experience. The apostle Peter, for example, did not come to Christ in this dramatic way. The important point is to trust in Christ for our salvation and to submit our lives to his Lordship. How God gets us to that place may be different from person to person.
Wednesday 26th November
Saul, then, has been struck blind and led into Damascus. At this point another character is introduced into the story, Ananias. He was a Christian disciple and the Lord called him in a vision and instructed him to go to a particular street where he would meet Saul. Now Ananias was most unhappy about this because he knew of Paul’s reputation and didn’t trust him at all. In verses 15-16, God tells Ananias to go and makes the astonishing statement that Saul was to be his ‘chosen instrument’ to take the Gospel to the Gentiles and to the people of Israel. Ananias saw Saul as an enemy of the Gospel but God had set him apart, from the time he was born, to be the greatest Christian missionary of all time. How many people have we ‘given up’ as far as the Christian Faith is concerned, but who might yet become disciples of Jesus? How do we know who might be God’s ‘instruments’ for the furtherance of his Gospel? God does choose the most unlikely people!
Thursday 27th November
Another aspect of this passage is the trouble that lay ahead for newly-converted Saul. God tells Ananias in verse 16 that Saul is going to suffer for the name of Jesus. What a paradox! Here was the great persecutor of the Christian Church and yet he himself was to suffer for Christ. Indeed, he did suffer. Much later in his life, he described this suffering in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27. Our passage ends with Saul being restored. He had been struck blind when Christ appeared to him on the road, but now, through Ananias, God restored his sight and his strength and empowered him with the Holy Spirit for the work he was to do. From this time forward, he gave himself faithfully to the work of the Gospel, no matter what the personal cost. He recognised that his sufferings were as nothing compared to what Christ had suffered. We may suffer but our Lord suffered more.
Friday 28th November
Our passage begins with this remarkable statement: ‘At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.’ I don’t know if you can remember the days immediately after you became a Christian but I’m pretty sure that you were not going round the churches preaching in those first few days. Yet that is what Saul did! He immediately became a preacher! Most new Christians take time to find their feet, read the Bible, sit in a church and learn the Gospel. Not Saul. Within days he was in the synagogues preaching the truth about Jesus. In verse 22 we’re told that, ‘Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.’ He was preaching to Jews and he was persuasive. Today, people study for many years to become Ministers, so how was this possible? The answer is that Saul was already an educated rabbi. He was already well trained in the Scriptures of the Old Testament, only now he could see in those Scriptures something he had never seen before – he could see Jesus.
Saturday 29th November
Soon, however, we find Saul in trouble. Since he had been one of the leading Pharisees the Jews were really angry and they ‘conspired to kill him’. Thankfully he escaped and went to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, however, he had a major problem. He couldn’t join his old friends and acquaintances because he had become a Christian and he couldn’t join the Christians because they didn’t trust him. Another great man of God came to the rescue. Barnabas knew that Saul had become a Christian and he introduced Saul to the Christians in Jerusalem. Saul was now accepted and he went on to preach boldly until yet again the Jews tried to kill him. This time, the Christians sent him home to Tarsus. This was not an easy decision because Tarsus was Saul’s home city and it is far harder to speak to people you know about Jesus than people you don’t know. We must share the Gospel with family and friends if they are to come to Christ.
Sunday 30th November
Our passage tells two stories, the story of Aeneas the paralytic who was healed by Peter in the name of Jesus, and the story of Tabitha (Dorcas) who was raised from the dead after Peter prayed for her. What do these stories say to us today in the face of sickness and death? I want to suggest that these stories are of tremendous significance to us, even if we never see a miraculous healing or a resurrection from the dead. At creation, everything was as God intended. In the end, everything will be restored to that perfection. In between, there is sickness and death. These two stories represent not just a healing miracle and a resurrection from the dead, but part of Christ’s battle against the forces of darkness and death. There is a cosmic battle going on between the forces of evil and God. But Christ has won that battle. In these healing miracles, we are given a foretaste of what is to come. One day there will be no sickness, or suffering, or death.