Acts 8:1b-4 – Persecution Scatters the Disciples

This persecution is directly related to the death of Stephen in chapter 7. Since Stephen’s sermon was a statement of judgment against the leadership of Israel for their resistance to the Holy Spirit. There is a progression of resistance in Acts 1-8.  First the apostles are warned, then they are arrested and beaten, then Stephen is tried before the Sanhedrin, and lynched.  Now the whole church of Jerusalem is being suppressed.

Saul is the ringleader of this persecution – he begins to “ravaging the church” (ESV). This verb (λυμαίνω) is only used here in the New Testament, but in the LXX it had the sense of a violent oppression (1 Chron16:10) or even rape (Judith 9:2, 4 Mac 18:8). Keener indicates the word can be applied to torture as well (2:1484). It seems odd from a modern, western perspective to employ violence to suppress sub-group within a religion, although there are plenty of examples of violent clashes between various Christian groups over the centuries. The fact Saul will use such violent measures against the Jesus movement indicates he thought it was a dangerous belief which had to be suppressed by any means. (Saul is just as zealous as those who persecuted Peter in Acts 5, see my comments on that passage).

DandelionBut who exactly is scattered? The apostles are not “scattered,” but remain in Jerusalem. Since Saul led the group which killed Stephen, it seems as though conservative Hellenistic Jews are continuing the persecution.  Since Stephen and Philip are examples in Luke of Hellenistic Jews who have accepted the apostolic message, it also seems likely that this persecution targeted Hellenistic Jewish believers.

Keener recognizes the Hellenists were the special targets of persecution, although Luke says Saul was attaching “all the church.” Keener sees this as another example of Luke’s hyperbolic use of “all” in both the Gospel and the book of Acts (2:1468). Some Hebrew Christians may have been effected even if Saul targeted the Hellenists.

The people persecuted are scattered “throughout Judea and Samaria.”  This may indicate that those who lived relatively nearby left Jerusalem and simply returned to their homes on account of the persecution.  We will find out later that these Hellenistic Jews went as far as Antioch and Damascus as well.

Why do the apostles stay in Jerusalem? It is quite possible that the apostles took Jesus’ final commission to them seriously and stayed in Jerusalem because they were to evangelize the world starting in Jerusalem. If the persecution that Luke describes in Acts 8:1-3 targeted Hellenistic Jews, then it is possible that the Apostles were not seen as a threat.  F. F. Bruce thought the apostles felt their duty remained in Jerusalem in spite of persecution (Acts, 162-3). There is no indication that Saul was hunting down people like Peter and John, but rather those who were associated with Stephen – Philip for example.

Is there enough evidence to decide Saul was targeting only Hellenistic Christians (like Stephen and Philip)? If he was targeting Hellenists, what was his motivation?

Acts 5:29 – Obeying God Rather Than Man

After Gamaliel defends the apostles, Peter responds to the chief priests. His speech is a summary of all of his previous speeches given in Acts. First, Peter once again says he “must obey God rather than men.” Keener follows most commentators by hearing an allusion to the trial of Socrates (Keener, Acts, 2:1218). People throughout the Mediterranean world knew about the trial of Socrates and these famous words, analogous to most Americans knowing the phrase “give me liberty or give me death.” Peter boldly says he and John are obeying God rather than man, the human authority of the Sanhedrin.

Obeying God Rather Than ManThis is how Peter and the disciples responded to the original order to be silent and not “preach in that name.” Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, since they have been given the Word of God, there is no way that they could be silent (Jer 20:9, for example). While there is no way to know for certain, these words remind me of the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3:16-18. When confronted with certain death, the young men expressed faith in God to save them, but even if God did not save them, they still would not worship the idols of Babylon. So too, the brothers in 4 Maccabees who choose to die horrible deaths rather than compromise their Jewish faith and practice. There are quite a few examples in the literature of the Second Temple period where Jewish people choose death over disobeying God.

Second, Peter bluntly states that this group executed Jesus, but God has raised him from the dead. If these men killed an innocent man, then their lives would be required.  They did kill Jesus. There is no question of that.  But if God raised Jesus, then he was not just innocent. He was God’s messiah!

Third, not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he is exalted to the highest place possible. Once again, the ascension is considered an important part of the gospel story. He was not only crucified but also raised from the dead, raised to the highest place possible.

Fourth, as a result of this glorification, Jesus can give “repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” Repentance and forgiveness are offered to Israel.  While this is not to take away from the death of Jesus as forgiveness for our sins, Peter connects the death and resurrection to forgiveness of Israel’s sins. What sin? The immediate context is killing an innocent man, Jesus.  “They had indeed sinned in hanging Jesus on the cross, but there is forgiveness and salvation for Israel in him” (Polhill, Acts, 169).

Peter calls on two witnesses to his assertions: the apostles and the Holy Spirit. This is yet another example of the witness theme in the first part of the book of Acts. Peter’s final words are more important – the Holy Spirit has been given to those who obey God.  The implication is clear: The disciples are obeying God rather than man and therefore have the Holy Spirit promised to come in the “last days,” as evidenced by miracles (healing and release from prison), and the Sanhedrin does not have the Holy Spirit.

The response of the Sanhedrin is anger – they want to put Peter to death! This is the same reaction that the Sanhedrin had toward Jesus when he claimed to be the fulfillment of Daniel 7:14.  The Greek here literally means “to be sawn in two,” a metaphor for extreme rage. Therefore, the charge against Peter is blasphemy – accusing the elders of the people of not being obedient to God and killing the Messiah!

Peter and the other disciples are willing to die rather than be silent about Jesus. They boldly proclaim the truth of the Gospel and make this proclamation in a way that is almost guaranteed to get them killed. The source of this boldness is the Holy Spirit empowering them to speak in a very powerful way to the people who have the power to torture and kill them. This model of Christian suffering challenges the reader to be ready to stand firm for their faith even though it costs their life.

There is a clear application here, but I suspect it is not the one usually drawn from this verse. I usually hear “Obeying God Rather Than Man” applied to so-called Christian civil disobedience, protesting a perceived governmental intrusion into our (American) religious liberties. But Peter is not protesting government healthcare initiatives here. He says he is ready to die rather than be silent about Jesus. It seems to me most Christians, usually in the West, are silent about who Jesus is and what he really was about, especially when they misapply this verse to their favorite political issue.

Acts 5:17 – Jealousy or Zeal?

Craig Keener points out the people received the apostles’ teaching favorably, but the temple aristocracy is far more aggressive. The power of God on display in the apostles’ preaching invites more persecution (Keener, 2:1205).  In Acts 5:17 the High Priest is “filled with jealousy” and arrested the apostles. The High Priest and his associates were Sadducees, so preaching about the messiah or resurrection from the dead would have been troubling. But there is no indication they persecuted Pharisees or other groups for belief in a resurrection or the messiah, so there is more going on here than a simple doctrinal dispute.

This particular High Priest was responsible for killing Jesus in the first place. To claim a man was executed as a false teacher and revolutionary (as Jesus was) was raised form the dead by God is to declare the men behind that execution are not only wrong, but “fighting against God” as Gamaliel will say later in the passage.

jealousKeener discusses jealousy as a motivation for persecution in Acts. There are several other times in the book where enemies of the gospel become jealous and begin to persecute a preacher of the Gospel. In Acts 13:45 the synagogue reacts with jealousy after Paul’s sermon, and the Jews in Thessalonica who oppose Paul are described as jealous (Keener 2:1206). He goes on to examine envy in an honor-shame culture, where good fortune breeds jealousy. In fact, it is a Greco-Roman rhetorical strategy to claim your opponents are motivated by jealousy. Keener concludes by saying the aristocratic Sadducees may have been annoyed by the popular Pharisees, but for a group of uneducated Galileans claim divine author and grow in popularity was too much (1208).

zealousI disagree with using honor-shame as a background for the word jealousy in this context. The noun ζῆλος is often translated “zeal,” a positive characteristic. Paul himself will use the same word to describe his own advancement in Judaism prior to his encounter with the resurrected Jesus (Phil 3:4-6). Paul does not merely claim to be a Pharisee. He modifies this claim with the words “according to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” Paul as “zealous” to keep the law to the point that he was willing to persecute those that did not conform to the Law.

It is possible a Jewish reader would read “filled with jealousy” as a “a zealous keeper of the Law.” None other than Matthias the father of Judas Maccabees was described as zealous in defense of the core of Jewish faith at the beginning of the revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

1 Maccabees 2:24-29 When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal (ζηλόω) and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar.  At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.  Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous (ὁ ζηλῶν) for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”  Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town. 29 At that time many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to live there.

Along with Judas, Phineas (Num 25:1-18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) were examples of Old Testament characters that burned with a zealous commitment to the Lord that expressed itself in a willingness to challenge the evil head on, killing those that practiced idolatry themselves if need be.

The High Priest in Acts 5:17 is not jealous that the apostles are gaining followers nor is he envious of the apostles. He believes the preaching of the apostles is a dangerous idea which could destabilize the core institutions of Judaism in the first century. Even though the apostles are not telling their followers to stop keeping the Law, the High Priest strongly objects to the idea of a suffering messiah who dies and is raised from the dead. He is therefore willing to physically punish those who are preaching the resurrection.

How does this understanding of “zeal” anticipate what happens in Acts 6-7?  Does this help understand Rabbi Saul’s passion in Acts 9?

Acts 9:19 – Boldly Preaching in Damascus

After he is healed from his blindness, Paul immediately begins to do ministry in the same Damascus synagogue he intended to visit. His preaching “agitates” (συγχέω) the synagogues, a verb which has the sense of amazement and surprise. Sometimes Luke uses this verb to describe the confusion of a crowd about to riot (Acts 19:29, variant text, 21:27). What agitates the synagogues is Paul’s successful argument Jesus is the Christ. Paul teaches from Scripture and is empowered by the Holy Spirit in such a way that convinces people. This may not imply they believed, but it was hard to argue against Paul’s evidence.

Where did Paul get this evidence? On the one hand, boldness in preaching is one of Luke’s evidences that an individual is yielded to the Holy Spirit. Like Peter before the Sanhedrin, Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit and boldly speaks the message of Jesus. A second source for his preaching is likely the preaching of Peter, or better, Stephen in the Synagogue.

bible-thumping-26722Undoubtedly Paul has been arguing with Stephen and other Hellenists in the Synagogue for some time, Paul now accepts their arguments and begins to extend them to other scripture. A third source may be Paul’s own thinking about the Messiah and the Messianic age as a well-trained rabbi.

As observed in the last few posts, Paul does not go from totally ignorant of God to a faithful follower of Jesus. He was already aware of messianic texts and methods of argument in rabbinic discussions as well as how to present scripture in a synagogue context. Paul took what he already knew to be the truth and ran it through the filter of the resurrected Jesus and preached that Gospel in the synagogues in Damascus.

Once again, Luke presents powerful preaching and excellent scholarship working together to convince people of the truth of the Gospel. Paul is extremely confrontational – he goes right to the people who likely wanted the Jesus Community to be silent and announces that he is one of them! This is a boldness which is a direct result of the encounter with Jesus and the filling of the Holy Spirit.

There other elements of a “boldness” theme in Acts and clearly Luke is presenting the ministers of the Gospel as unusually bold in their confrontation with authority.  By way of application, should we use Paul’s boldness as a model for modern mission, and if so, what would that look like?  Does this sort of “boldness” work in a pluralistic society like modern America?

Quote of the Day: Calvin on Peter’s Zeal

John Calvin on Peter’s attack on the servant of the High Priest:

“It was exceedingly thoughtless in Peter to try and prove his faith by the sword, while he could not do so by his tongue. When he is called to make a confession, he denies; now unbidden by his Master he raises a riot.”

I think most Christians struggle with this since it is far easier to hack at someone than to bear witness peacefully. I usually do not even hit an ear.