Saul “Seeing”

Acts 9:3-5
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
Suddenly Saul’s world turned upside down and inside out. Terror, ruin, shame, awe, horror, glory and terror again swept over him. Years later he would write of seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah” (2 Corinthians 4.6), and though, to show that this was something he shared with all Christians, he described it as God shining “in our hearts,” elsewhere he makes it clear that his own “seeing” was unique, a seeing, like Stephen in his death, which involved the coming together of heaven and earth, earthly eyes seeing heavenly reality. “Am I not an apostle” he wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9.1). “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”

But this “seeing” went far, far beyond a mere qualification for office . . . . It confirmed everything Saul had been taught; it overturned everything he had been taught. The law and the prophets had come true; the law and the prophets had been torn to pieces and put back together in a totally new way. It was a new world; it was the old world made explicit. . . . It showed him that the God he had loved from childhood, the God for whose glory he had been so righteously indignant, the God in whose name and for whose honor he was busy rounding up those who were declaring that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah, that he was risen form the dead, that he was the Lord of the world (this Jesus who had led Israel astray with his magic tricks and false prophecy about the Temple, this Jesus who the Romans had, thankfully, crucified, to make it clear that whoever was God’s Messiah it certainly couldn’t be him!)—it showed him that the God he had been right to serve, right to study, right to seek in prayer, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had done what he always said he would, but done it in a shocking, scandalous, horrifying way. The God who had always promised to come and rescue his people had done so in person. In the person of Jesus (140-1).

As to My People, So to Me

Acts 9:1-6
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
Aaron Orendorff
Vv. 1 and 2 describe those whom Saul was persecuting as “the disciples of the Lord” and “any belonging to the Way, men or women.” Yet, when confronted by the living Christ, Jesus identifies the object of Saul’s persecution simply as “me”: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

The principle is this: What you do to the people of God—the followers of Jesus Christ—so you do to Jesus himself. While the immediate context is one of physical persecution from without, there is much to be gained by applying this principle to those on the inside, particularly to those in positions of church leadership. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the book Life Together, writes, “A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men” (29). How we regard, treat and talk about those we meet on the journey of faith is a direct reflection of how we regard, treat and talk about Christ.

Jesus and Isaiah 53

Acts 8:32-35
Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
Isaiah . . . wasn’t simply looking through a long-range prophetic telescope, seeing Jesus a few hundred years away, and describing him in cryptic poetry. Rather, he was meditating deeply on the fate of Israel in exile, and on the promises and purposes of God which remained constant despite Israel’s failure to be the light to the nations, or even to walk in the light herself. Gradually a picture took shape in his praying, meditating mind: the figure of a Servant, one who would complete Israel’s task, who would come to where Israel was, to do for Israel and for the whole world what neither could do for themselves, to bear in his own body the shame and reproach of the nations and of God’s people, and to die under the weight of the world’s wickedness.

Jesus was the one through whom the slow and winding story of God’s people had reached its destination, and with it the moment of redemption for the whole world (134-5).

The Word Spreads

Acts 8:4-5, 12, 14 & 25
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.

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.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God . . . .

Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
[P]art of the agenda which Jesus set for his followers, at the start of Acts, [was] that they should be his witnesses not only in Jerusalem and Judaea, but in Samaria—and on, to the very ends of the earth (1.8). Like many things in Acts, [the disciples] don’t seem to have had much of a plan for how to achieve this, and they don’t seem to have thought out in advance what such a plan might look like if they did; but it began to happen anyway, as we have seen, because of the persecution in Jerusalem and the scattering of people who were eager to talk about Jesus to anyone they met, whether they were proper Jews or not (128).
Aaron Orendorff
In many ways, the book of Acts is a story about “the word of the Lord.” Here in Acts 8, as the gospel first begins to spread beyond the bounds of traditional Judaism, what Luke stresses is the declarative elements—i.e., the preaching and the proclamation—of the good news of Jesus and the kingdom. The haphazardness of it all is striking. As Wright points out, “Like many things in Acts, [the disciples] don’t seem to have had much of a plan for how to achieve this.” Basically, what they have is the message—God’s word—and an inability to keep quite as they go.

Spending Time with Stephen

Acts 7:55-58 & 60
But [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. . . . And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
[W]hen it comes to [Stephen’s] own death, he shouts out a prayer at the top of his voice, as rocks are flying at him and his body is being smashed and crushed, asking God not to hold this sin against them. That is every bit as remarkable as the vision of the open heaven and the son of man standing as counsel for the defense. It is the up-ending of a great and noble tradition. If we knew nothing about Christianity except the fact that its martyrs called down blessing and forgiveness, rather than cursing and judgment, on their tortures and executioners, we would have a central, though no doubt puzzling, insight into the whole business.

There is of course only one explanation. They really had learned something from Jesus, who made loving one’s enemies a central, non-negotiable part of his teaching (123-4).
Aaron Orendorff
Because my devotions for the past week or so have been so irregular, the story of Stephen, which should have taken around four days to work through (Acts 6:8—7:60), has instead taken twelve. It’s a very odd story in which to spend nearly two weeks of quite times. Not really a natural pick-me-up. One of the most promising new leaders in the Jerusalem church—“full of grace and power” coupled with “a wisdom and a Spirit” no one was able to withstand—is railroaded by a corrupt court and murdered not as the culmination of wide-spread persecution, but as its trigger. What are we supposed to do with a story like that? Let me point out three lessons.

One, we ought to recognize God’s good sovereignty even in the worst of circumstances. At the end of Stephen’s story, we are introduced to a man named Saul and the Jerusalem church is “scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (8:2). Both the persecutor and the persecuted alike will serve as vehicles for the gospel.

Two, we ought to recognize that to bear witness to the message of Jesus often means bearing witness with much more than our words. Stephen’s speech and death are both testimonies to the power and nature of the gospel.

Three, it is in the fray and pain of life (and even in the grip of death) that communion with Christ is most keenly and powerfully experienced.

Moses and Rejection

Acts 6:8-14
And seeing one of [his brothers] being wronged, [Moses] defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, “Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?” But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?”

This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge?”—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
Stephen has been accused of going soft of Moses and his law; very well, he will go bak to the story of Moses and see what it says. He tells the story of Moses so as to highlight three things in particular.

First, Moses was raised up by God, and trained in such a way that, though a strange providence, he became exactly the right leader for God’s people.

Second, Moses become the rejected ruler. . . . [H]ere was this man, sent by God to deliver the people (albeit not yet ready to do so properly), being rejected by the very people he was supposed to be rescuing. “Who made you ruler or a judge over us?” asked the Hebrew man whom Moses had been rebuking.

But, third, Moses was the one to whom, and through whom, “the God of glory,” the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, revealed himself in a fresh way (113-4).
Aaron Orendorff
Much like Joseph in the first half of Stephen’s narrative, Moses is portrayed in very particular light. He is presented—not as Israel’s great redeemer and law-giver—but instead as a rejected ruler. Moses (to borrow from John 1) came to his own, but his own did not receive him. Of course, later in Moses’ story (after forty years in the desert and God’s personal and immediate commission), the people of Israel did respond to Moses’ redemptive invitation; but, as we know from Numbers, even after their initial response, Moses’ leadership was continually challenged and attacked.

Stephen is establishing a pattern: those whom God elects as “ruler and redeemer” share in one central trait—rejection. Stephen himself is (as the story unfolds) about to share in that same pattern. Paul will as well; as will James the just and many, many others. Such is the pattern that when we find ourselves on the receiving end of rejection, we ought not be surprised nor discouraged but rather feel ourselves in the company of very good men.

Joseph and Jesus

Acts 7:9-11
And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
Joseph was rejected by his brothers, but God used him to become the ruler of all Pharaoh’s household, and indeed of the whole land of Egypt. When his brothers needed food, the man they had to go to was the man they had been jealous of and so had rejected. Fortunately for them, he was gracious to them and gave them what they needed.

One of the great arts of Christian theology is to know how to tell the story: the story of the Old Testament, the story of Jesus as both the climax of the Old Testament and the foundation of all that was to come (not, in other words, a random collection of useful preaching material with some extraordinary and “saving” events tacked on the end), and the story of the church from the first days until now. . . . Sometimes a story is the only way of telling the truth (110).

The Results of Being Like Stephen

Acts 6:8-14
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
Now these things [various examples of controversy] are unimportant in themselves, except as a sad but predictable index of the way in which, as in several previous generations, people today find real debate about actual topics difficult, and much prefer the parody of debate which consists of giving a dog a bad name and then beating him for it, and lashing out, too, at anyone who associates with the dog you happen to be beating at the time. There is far too much of that in the church, and the only answer is more listening, more actual thinking, and more careful and humble speaking (103).
Aaron Orendorff
Initially, my response to the text was to focus on vv. 8-10. As someone who essentially gets paid to talk, the prospect of being filled—like Stephen—with such a degree of “grace and power” so that no one could withstand my wisdom and spirit sounds (on the surface) incredibly attractive. Whether this desire is self-centered—so that no one could withstand my speech—or God-centered—so that no one could withstand my speech as I speak for God—is hard to tell. I’m sure there’s more of the former than Id really like to admit.

What struck me, however (besides my own self-centeredness), was how the story ends. Stephen’s amazing communicative abilities do not flower in celebrity but are stomped out in death. To speak with wisdom and the Spirit, to be full of grace and power, does not mean people will agree with you! Rather, far to the contrary, what it actually means is that some people (maybe even most people) will despise you. This isn’t a universal truth, and we should definitely not go around looking to get stoned for the gospel, but it is certainly the dominate message of Scripture.

Preaching the Word . . . The Word Increases

Acts 6:2-4 & 7
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” . . . And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
As we saw at the end of chapters 2 and 4, those who were following Jesus had, from the beginning, shared their resources. This . . . was a sign that they knew they were called to live as a single family. They were the nucleus of God’s renewed Israel. . . . Like any family in that world, and many in today’s world, they would all own everything together (97).

In the present case, the apostles were quite clear what they should not do. They shouldn’t at once rush to do the work themselves. . . . [T]hey must delegate.

The heart of the apostles’ reasoning in all this was the priority of the word of God and prayer. Only when a crisis emerges do we see what is really important (99).

This whole way of talking about God’s word is a gentle reminder that however much work anyone puts into the task of expounding scripture, into teaching the message of Jesus which stand on the shoulders of the biblical witness, into explaining and applying the whole thing, it is still God’s work, not the preacher’s or teacher’s. Making “the word of God” as it were a kind of autonomous agent is, if you like, a way of keeping the apostles in their place. They are not “growing the church”; God is growing the church, and using their ministry of teaching and preaching as the primary way of doing so (100).

A Matter of Authority

Acts 5:29-33
But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
Peter’s answer only serves to enrage them even more (verse 33). . . . [I]s the movement from God, or from human initiative? Shall we obey God, or shall we obey human authorities? [This] is the question which Jesus still poses, both to those outside the faith (was he from God, or was he a deluded fanatic?) and to those inside the faith (shall we compromise our allegiance to him by going along with human instructions that cut against the gospel, or shall we remain loyal even at the risk of civil disobedience?).

The Words of this Life

Acts 5:19-20
But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
What the apostles were doing was quite simply to live in a wholly new way.

[I]t wasn’t just a “way of life” in the sense of “a way of conducting your personal day-to-day living,” though it was that—a way which involved living as “family” with all those who shared your belief in Jesus, a way which involved a radically new attitude to property and particularly to the sacred symbol of the holy land, a way which meant that, though you would still worship in the Timple, the center of your life before God cam when you broke bread in individual houses, in remembrance and invocation of Jesus. It was all of that, but it was much more. It was a “way of Life” in the sense that Life itself had come to life in quite a new way; a force of Life had broken through the normally absolute barrier of death, and had burst into the present world of decay and corruption as a new principle, a new possibility, a new power (88).

Part of the Mystery

Acts 5:14-16
And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
One of the peculiar things about both Jesus’ healings and those of the apostles is the way in which, at certain times and places, things seem to happen which don’t happen anywhere else. . . . There is always a strange unknown quality about God’s healing. In our “democratic” age we tend to suppose that if God is going to do anything at all it would only be fair that he would do it all the same for everybody, but things just don’t seem to work like that.

All of that is part of the mystery of living at the overlap between the present age, with its griefs and sorrows and decay and death, and the age to come, with its new life and energy and restorative power. I don’t think it has anything much to do with the devotion or holiness of those involved. In the apostolic age they seem simply to have accepted that God can do whatever he pleases and that, when people pray and trust him, he will often do much more than we dare to imagine—while accepting also that frequently things don’t work out as we would like, that people still get sick and die . . . and that many sad and tragic things continue to happen for which we have no particular explanation (85).

The Lie

Acts 5:3-5
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
The key thing was the lie.

The real, deep-level problem about lying is that it misuses, or abuses, the highest faculty we posses: the gift of expressing in clear speech the reality of who we are, what we think, and how we feel. . . . [W]hen we tell lies we not only hold heaven and earth apart; we twist earth itself, so that it serves our own interests. Lying is, ultimately, a way of declaring that we don’t like the world the way it is and we will pretend that it is somehow more the way we want it to be. At that level, it is a way of saying that we don’t trust God the creator to look after his world and sort it our in his own time and way. And it is precisely the claim of the early church that God the creator has acted in Jesus Christ to sort the world out and set it right. Those who make that claim, and live by that claim, must expect to be judged by that claim.

The Spiritual and the Practical in Community Life

Acts 4:32-35
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part One)
No wonder they were able to give such powerful testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. They were demonstrating that it was a reality in ways that many Christian today, who often sadly balk at even giving a tithe of their income to the church, can only dream of.

In particular, this paragraph shows us what is meant when . . . people talk about being of one heart and mind. No doubt there is always a call to try to think alike with one another, to reach a deep, heart-level agreement on all key matters. But the early Christians, being Jewish, did not make as sharp a distinction as we do between heart and mind on the one hand and practical life on the other. “Being of one heart and soul” in this passage seems to mean not just “agreeing on all disputed matters” but also “ready to regard each other’s needs as one’s own” (76-7).
Aaron Orendorff
One of the most challenging themes found throughout the book of Acts—especially if we take the text seriously—is how deeply interwoven the practical elements of life are with what we often regard as spiritual. It would be nice to let v. 34 stand alone: “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” Yet in context, sandwiched as it is between two of the most powerfully communal texts in Scripture, we are shown that great power, the testimony of the resurrection and great grace are not merely spiritual principles abstracted from real life. Instead they are inexorably linked to outlandishly practical things like common ownership, the selling of property and mutual trust.