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by L.M. Grant
The Gospels present the blessed person of the Lord Jesus Christ and His great work of redemption, His resurrection and ascension to glory as the solid foundation upon which Christianity is built. The Acts is a continuation of the work of the Lord Jesus, but in His servants, by the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. It is a history of the establishing of Christianity in the world, and is therefore transitional in character, emphasizing the means by which God gradually yet positively introduced the dispensation of grace to replace that of the law once communicated to Israel.
The book begins with the ministry of the twelve apostles, all of them still connected with their beloved nation Israel; then a strikingly independent work of the Spirit of God is seen in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who is commissioned to declare the Gospel to Gentiles, yet with the full concurrence of the other apostles. His name being changed to Paul, he is given special revelations from God as to the heavenly character of Christianity, and these take the foremost place before the book of Acts closes.
This book, immediately following the four Gospels, with their varied, yet united testimony to the wonderful person and history of the Lord Jesus Christ, His unique sacrifice of Calvary, His resurrection and ascension back to heaven, necessarily involves tremendous changes in God's dispensational ways. Therefore Acts is a book of transition, showing the dispensation of law to be gradually and decisively replaced by the marvellous "dispensation of the grace of God" (Ephesians 3:2). We may well expect then climactic occasions to arise that have vital significance as regards the times in which we live. May we consider some of these that are outstanding.
(1) The Coming Of The Spirit Of God (Acts 2:1-47 )
It was impossible that the Spirit of God could come to dwell complacently in any people who were under the law, "for as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse" (Galatians 3:10). The Spirit could not come until Christ had died, been raised and glorified, asJohn 7:39; John 7:39 makes clear. But on the Day of Pentecost, the disciples being together in one place, the sound as of a rushing mighty wind filled the house, accompanied by divided tongues, as of fire, sitting on each of them (vv. 3). At the same time another miracle took place. Being filled with the Spirit of God, the disciples began to speak in various languages. They were given by God the ability to speak their own thoughts in a language previously unknown to them, of "the wonderful works of God" (v. 11). Of course they knew what they were saying, for they were bearing witness to the resurrection of Christ. Many present were from foreign nations, and at least 16 different languages were spoken by the various disciples (vv. 8)
The significance of this wonderful sign gift was to impress on people that now God was working to bring about an understanding between those previously foreign to each other. Jews were to be no longer the one nation with whom God was working, but the grace of God was now to go out to every nation under heaven, and to bring people from every nation together in a vital, living unity.
(2) Hypocrisy Among Disciples Judged (Acts 5:1-11 )
Large numbers were brought in by grace at this time to trust the Lord Jesus and their faith and love was beautifully seen. Spontaneously they brought their own wealth to share it together, some selling land for this purpose, so that there was great joy among the disciples. However, one couple agreed together to sell land and give part of the price while saying they were giving all (v. 2). This action was challenged immediately, when Peter exposed their hypocrisy, and both of them died by the chastening hand of God. So at the very outset of Christianity grace is seen to be a principle of serious holiness: grace will not tolerate falsehood. This is seen to be therefore a crucial matter.
(3) Selfishness Among Believers Met (Acts 6:1-7 )
This was not so serious a matter as that of Chapter 5, yet it was a small beginning that might develop most dangerously, and the Spirit of God deals with it as an issue that could not be ignored. Hellenists (Grecian Jews) complained that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration which was evidently supervised by local Jewish believers. How easily may factions arise among believers by such complaints that may or may not have a clear basis of fact.
Yet this matter is beautifully settled. The apostles asked the disciples to select seven men of good reputation to take care of this distribution. How good it is to see that the Jews in Jerusalem were willing to have Grecian Jews appointed for this service! For their names evidently indicate that all were Hellenists. Those of Jerusalem were virtually saying, "If you don't think you can trust us, we shall be glad to trust you." This is a beautiful effect of grace known and enjoyed. Results are seen immediately too: "the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly" (v. 7).
(4) Israel's Rejection Of The Spirit's Witness (Acts 7:1-60 )
Stephen, one of the seven deacons chosen to serve tables, was moved by the Spirit of God in clearest testimony to the Lord Jesus. The Jewish leaders were bitterly antagonistic to him, and finally arrested him, bringing him before their court. When he was accused, he responded by a marvelous address that they were powerless to stop, for God was in it. He showed the Jews that in all their history they had always consistently refused the many overtures of God toward them, and now had culminated this in their rejection of the Messiah of Israel, the Lord Jesus. But his faithful testimony had only the effect of embittering them more greatly against him, taking him out and stoning him to death. Yet no shadow of fear is seen in his death: rather a faith and love that must have impressed itself on everyone who saw it, when he prayed, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin" (v. 60).
This was another crucial turning point in the book of Acts. Christ had been rejected while on earth: now He is rejected by Israel when speaking from heaven by the Spirit of God. The witness of the Spirit of God to Him is thus also rejected. From this time Israel is seen as definitely set aside by God, and the Church takes Israel's place as the vessel of testimony publicly. But Christ being rejected thus, the Church is identified with Him in this same rejection. Still, this is no reason for discouragement, for we may have the same exultant joy as did Stephen even in his martyrdom for the name of the Lord Jesus.
(5) Samaritans Received In The Church (Acts 8:5-17 )
Philip, another of the seven deacons, went to Samaria to preach Christ, with great blessing resulting. Generally the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans (John 4:9), but the Lord Jesus gave a Samaritan woman the gift of the water of life, and Philip was following His kind example. When the apostles heard of this work of grace, both Peter and John went down to Samaria, and through the laying on of their hands, the Spirit of God was given to the disciples there. This was another crucial change in God's dealings, and Samaritans were welcomed into the same fellowship as Jewish believers in Jerusalem.
(6) A Special Jewish Witness To The Gentiles (Acts 9:1-19 )
Saul of Tarsus was an enemy of the Lord Jesus, determined to blot out Christianity from the earth by the persecution and death of believers. But God had purposed that this man was to be the most zealous of all men in proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus stopped him as he was on his way to Damascus to take Christians captive, and he was brought down, "trembling and astonished" to realize that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. What a transformation took place in that man's soul!
But God did not send him to his own people, Israel, rather he was sent to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:2; Galatians 2:8-9). This was another matter of crucial importance in God's present dealings. We may think it better that one preaches to his own nation; but it is not always so. It was true for Peter, but not for Paul. For Paul was given a special ministry to the Church of God, in which it is insisted that "there is one body" consisting of all believers, Jewish and Gentile, and it was important that a Jewish apostle should press this truth upon Gentiles believers, so as to bring both together in the unity of the Spirit, to bear witness to God's love toward all.
(7) Gentiles Received Into The Church Of God (Acts 10:1-48 )
Paul was not however the first apostle sent to Gentiles. Rather Peter was given this honor, though he was specially the apostle to Jews. But God wanted him to realize that believing Gentiles were to be fully considered on the same level as Jewish believers in God's Church. Both Cornelius and Peter were given visions indicating that they were to be brought together, and Peter was to give Cornelius the message of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. He did so, and while he was speaking the Spirit of God fell on the listeners in the home of Cornelius (v. 44). How clear a proof this was to Peter that God accepted Gentiles also into the fellowship of the Church of God.
(8) The Threat Of Legal Bondage Faced (Acts 15:1-41 )
Another crucial situation now faced the newly established Church of God. Where God had wrought at Antioch to bring many Gentiles to the Lord Jesus, and where Paul had been a great help to them there, there came from Judea some Jewish men who taught the Gentile disciples that they must be circumcised as Jews were in order to be saved. Paul and others with him therefore went up to Jerusalem to face this most serious issue. There they came together with other apostles and elders, and found there in Jerusalem some who declared that Gentile converts must be circumcised and commanded to keep the law of Moses (v. 5).
Paul speaks of some of these men as "false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage) (Galatians 2:4). Paul then required a clear pronouncement from the apostles and elders of Jerusalem to settle this matter. The Lord answered it clearly by the ministry of Peter, then of Barnabas and Paul, and finally by the pronouncement of James to the effect that God had Himself settled the matter that the Gentiles should not be brought under such bondage. They should not be asked to be circumcised nor told to keep the law, but only reminded to "abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality" (v. 29). Thus the grace of God was left in all its pure reality and its blessing. When the Gentile believers heard this, they rejoiced over its encouragement.
Thus God, in His unfailing grace, has established the truth of the Church of God in purity and faithfulness. Today we are to value every one of these cases of special significance, and maintain them in godly integrity and faith.
the Third Week after Epiphany