Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Kingdom of God is Bigger Than Us part 3 - Acts 8 - The Good News to Samaritans

(Click here to read Acts 8)

Just as the Gospel of Luke recorded the exciting expansion of Jesus' ministry from his hometown of Galilee to the cultural centre of Jerusalem City, Luke's follow-up, Acts continues the story of this expansion through his followers from Jerusalem City to the heart of the Roman Empire. Acts 6-12 tells the story of the first steps of this early community toward an inclusive and universal message and practice.

(please see the introduction to Acts 6-12)

Acts 8:1b-3 (ESV)
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Increased persecution is the catalyst for further spread of the gospel in chapter 8. After Stephen's murder, the followers of Jesus are pursued from Jerusalem to the outer regions of Palestine, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank today). Jesus' prophecy and command that his followers carry the message of the Kingdom of God to "Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8) is being fulfilled.

Saul, a zealous young disciple of Rabbi Gamaliel, believes these new communities of free and equal believers are a threat, and captures them as heretics wherever he finds them. Even his own Rabbi showed restraint in persecuting the Jesus People where Saul does not. Gamaliel had reasonably suggested that these loving and generous Jesus followers may represent a new thing God is doing. He suggested the council wait and see. If it is just another resistance group, they could allow the movement to die out quietly on its own.

Acts 5:38-39 (ESV)

38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice

But Saul was not so reasonable. Against the original counsel of his own Rabbi, he takes them right out of their houses where they gathered and shared meals (Acts 2:46). There was no singular consensus on how to deal with this upstart movement, but Saul represented the worst of the persecution at the beginning.

The Gospel to Samaria

Acts 8:4-5,12 (ESV)
4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. 5  Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.
12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.

The rest of the chapter follows Philip, the second (after Stephen) of the people chosen by the Jerusalem congregation to help serve the growing needs of the community (Acts 6:1-6). The murder of his comrade Stephen and subsequent persecution of the community drives Philip to Samaria, where he boldly declares the Kingdom of God. This bold move by Philip is one more step toward the opening of the community to all people. Most of the Jesus People so far were mainstream Jewish followers. Greek-speaking Hellenist Jews had joined them, but the Samaritans, long excluded socially and religiously, had yet to hear the good news of the resurrection.

So when even Samaritans began to believe and follow in the way of the Kingdom, Peter and John were sent to confirm that it was so.

Acts 8:14-17 (ESV)
14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

These Samaritans had believed the message and been baptized. They followed Jesus in the way as Philip had taught them. But it was when Peter and John laid hands on them that they received the Holy Spirit. Though the passage does not say how this manifest, it must have been dramatic and observable, because one former magician (Simon) was so impressed that he wanted to purchase the ability to impart the Holy Spirit (vv18-19). He is soundly rebuked.

Peter and John also clearly saw that Holy Spirit had filled the Samaritan believers. Whatever their previous disagreements, the authority of the manifestation of Holy Spirit in their life spoke of God's broader purpose. This must have been some challenge for them, having grown up learning that these people were outsiders and strangers to their faith. But Peter and John receive in faith that these once strangers could now be brothers and sisters because of Jesus.

The Kingdom was big enough for Samaritans, Hellenists, and Hebrews. The apostles joyfully took this good news to the Samaritan villages as they traveled back to Jerusalem (v25).

The Ethiopian Eunuch (vv26-40)

After dramatically reaching beyond his borders to the Samaritans, Philip is led by the Holy Spirit to Gaza, another marginal region far from the religious and cultural centre of Jerusalem.

This leading of the Spirit is strongly present throughout this passage. Philip comes upon an Ethiopian eunuch, a servant of the Ethiopian Queen. The Ethiopian had traveled to Jerusalem to worship. He was a likely a convert to Judaism. Philip is given opportunity to see the Holy Spirit welcome a foreigner and a wealthy, high-ranking citizen of another nation come to faith in Jesus.

Holy Spirit has led the man to read from Isaiah, in a passage that poetically foretells the suffering of Jesus (vv32-33, Isaiah 53). As Philip explains the meaning of the scripture, the man believes. Just as he asks to receive the Good News, Holy Spirit provides them opportunity for the man to be baptized in a rare lake in the middle of the desert (vv36-38, v26b). Without hesitation he is baptized by Philip at the very outer border of the Hebrew region. Holy Spirit carries Philip away. The man rejoiced in his new freedom.

It is not for human beings to decide who may be allowed in or out of God's Kingdom. God welcomes people outside of our cultural or regional boundaries. He provides for anyone to hear and receive the message of the Kingdom, even outside of our ability to share. He transcends language, culture, class and distance. He leads people to welcome strangers as brothers and sisters. He enables diverse communities to live in unity.

He uses all circumstances, even persecution, to expand the borders of his Kingdom and set people free. There is no circumstance that will stop the Holy Spirit from moving in the world. The living Kingdom grows and moves and develops by Holy Spirit's will and according to Holy Spirit's purposes. Our agendas and plans and prejudices are forfeit to the sovereign will of our Just King.


Acts 6-12 series intro
part 1 - Acts 6
part 2 - Acts 7
part 4 - Acts 9


The beginning of the church-wide persecution
vv2-3 – the end of Stephen is the beginning of Saul (Paul)
v4 – People were scattered by the persecution, which spread the gospel.
vv15-17 – This verse should be considered when discussing the baptism of the Holy Spirit. What is the baptism of John? Were these believers that still hadn’t been baptized in the Holy Spirit, making it a separate event, or people waiting in faith for the Messiah who had not yet believed, making it an event concurrent with Salvation?
v20 – Go to hell, and take your money with you
v25 – Samaritans! The gospel really is spreading. Samaritans were seen as “lesser Jews” by the Jewish people because of their racial lineage, and they often avoided each other.
v26 – The leading of the Spirit brings Philip an opportunity to preach the gospel
v35 – The Old Testament testifies of Jesus – see Luke 24:45-47
v38 – Was this Ethiopian a Jew, or the first Gentile convert? He was probably Jewish, as the story of the Gentile convert Cornelius in Acts 10 is given so much emphasis.

(Click here to read Acts 8)

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