In our last post, Acts 4:32-5:16 | Into The Fire (part 1), we looked at the way the power of God was manifested in the early church, bringing both healing and care for the needy and sick, but also destruction to the manipulative and evil. The Temple presence of God had moved from the physical building on the Jerusalem temple mount, to a mobile, living community spread throughout the city. The power of God was now flowing through ordinary people, working together to declare and demonstrate the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
In the second half of Acts 5 and the entirety of Acts 6, we get a glimpse into the lived reality and lifestyle of the church in its earliest stages. The Apostles run into conflict with the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees, and the overall Temple establishment. The earliest followers of Jesus take after their teacher by willingly enduring suffering, even considering it a reason to celebrate (5:41). We also see the importance of service and care for the needy in the early Christian movement, as the selection of the first Deacons makes clear (6).
Acts 5:17-32 | Worthy of Suffering Disgrace
- Note again, in verse 17, that the Sadducees are a significant source of opposition for the church. The Pharisees often get the most hate in modern Christian dialogue, but there is a significant role that the Sadducees play as well. And it's worth remembering that in many ways, Phariseeism has always been theologically closer to Christianity than Sadduceeism ever was.
- It's interesting that the High Priest and other Temple staff are "filled with jealousy." The Apostles are healing people and demonstrating the power (read: presence) of God on the outer edges of the Temple precincts (Acts 5:12-16). In essence, the power that was supposed to be inside the Temple, within the purview of the Sadducees, is now within someone else's reach.
- An angel directly subverts the imprisonment of some of the Apostles (5:17-20). This is only the first angel-led jailbreak we will see in the book of Acts.
- The discussion between Peter and the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:27-32 continues the blame game that has already showed up in some of Peter's previous sermons. I think that there is some merit to the Sanhedrin's objection, in a narrow sense. When they say "Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood" (5:28), Peter replies in the accusatory, "The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross" (5:30). These are bold words from a group of men (the disciples) who ran away during Jesus' arrest, and particularly from a man (Peter) who denied even knowing Jesus during his trial. There is a real sense in the rest of scripture that Christ's death was meant for the sins of all people, including his own disciples. And so, it would be fair to point out that their own sins also killed Jesus. This isn't the Sanhedrin's objection, of course, but it is a worthwhile point to consider from our perspective today.
- Verses 31 and 32 are a very interesting Trinitarian passage. Read Peter's words: "31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Here we have the Father - spoken of generically with the title "God" - Jesus presented as Prince and Savior, and the Holy Spirit as a personal witness to these things. There are a couple of things to notice here. First, the Holy Spirit takes on the personal role of a witness. This is not a supernatural force, but a someone. This Holy Spirit is given by God "to those who obey him." I think that the particular act of obedience that Peter has in mind here is, in fact, belief in Jesus. This is something we have already seen him say in Acts 3:19-23. There is a direct connection between the ideas of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Believing in Jesus, and all of these themes are rooted in Jesus' teaching (see Mark 1:15). Particularly within Luke's work, the concept of Repentance --> Forgiveness is established in the closing section of his Gospel, even before the book of Acts starts (Luke 24:47). So we know that this message that the Apostles are preaching is rooted in what Jesus told them to say.
Acts 5:33-42 | Gamaliel Intervenes
- The sudden appearance of Gamaliel in the scene is interesting for a number of reasons. First, verse 34 specifically highlights that he is a Pharisee, which is an interesting turn since the majority of the conflict so far in the book has been driven by the Sadducees. The only other time this particular individual will be mentioned in the New Testament is later in Acts 22, when Paul claims to have been one of Gamaliel's students while defending himself and his ministry to a crowd in Jerusalem. While we don't get any backstory about Paul's time studying with Gamaliel, it is possible and even likely that Paul's claim is true - since we see also in Acts 23:16 that Paul had a sister who lived in Jerusalem, and so probably had other family in the area that he might have lived with while studying there.
- As verse 34 points out Gamaliel's presence would have been a big deal for the gather Sanhedrin council. Gamaliel was the son of a rabbi named Shimon/Simeon, and the grandson of a Rabbi named Hillel. This is a significant family in the history of Judaism. In the first century (and in the century leading up to it), the Pharisees were generally split into two distinct schools of thought: the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai, named for their respective founders and thought-leaders. In general, Hillel was known for a more lenient and tolerant approach to applying the Torah, while Shammai was known for taking a much stricter approach. This characterization seems to be reflected in chapter 5 of Acts. Gamaliel, the heir to Hillel and Shimon's legacy, advises a cautious and lenient approach in dealing with the growing Christian movement. While some people have contested whether or not this story is true, it can at least be said that it is in character for their family.
- It's important to note the ethos that the Apostles demonstrate while being persecuted. They are excited about it. Because they know that Jesus had to suffer for his mission, they are eager and happy to follow in his footsteps. This is, once again, and example of them being filled with the fire, the tangible and powerful presence of God, which motivated them to do what might otherwise seem unthinkable.
Acts 6 | The First Deacons
- Chapter 6 brings into focus one of the most important facets of the early Christian movement: they cared for the poor and the hungry in tangible, consistent, practical ways. It is also an early example of the Church having to resolve an ethnic conflict within their ranks.
- To clarify that is happening in verse 1, the Hellenistic Jews would be Jewish people who had been living out in the broader, culturally Greek world, who likely spoke Greek as their first language. This group was complaining against the Hebraic Jews - also Jewish people, but who had been living within the borders of Judea and thus were closer to Jerusalem, the Temple, and the center of Jewish life and thought. The Hebraic group also probably had stronger ties to the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, and were likely more well-established in the region.
- The conflict involves what we might today consider unconscious bias. Because this church is based in Jerusalem, the culturally dominant group is the Hebraic Jews, while the Hellenistic Jews might be considered more like foreigners, even though they are part of the same ethnic group in some regards. While the Church is distributing food and resources to it's poor members on a daily basis, some of the more foreign members of the community complain that they are being overlooked in these distributions.
- The solution proposed is to assign the first Deacons, men who will act as servant leaders within the church, who will make sure that everyone gets fed. This not only solves the problem itself, but prevents the responsibility from falling to the Apostles and thus taking away from their time preaching and healing. It's important to note that neither ministry is more important than the other, but the Apostles are better suited to the preaching ministry since they were directly students of Jesus and eyewitnesses to the Christ event. The feeding and caring-for-the-poor ministry was still important enough to need it's own staff.
- This section introduces us to Stephen, who will become the central and pivotal character in the next few chapters.
- Verse 7 concludes this section with the statement that even some priests (who up until this point have been oppositional to the church) begin to join the church.
This chapter sees the church seemingly catch a break from the opposition is has been facing. And in the meantime, they are continuing to resolve their problems in ways that reflect the values of their King and Kingdom. But next week we will see how this church community in Jerusalem begins to face opposition on a level they have not had to deal with yet - the first martyrdom.