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Third Quarter 2018 • July, August, September
COMMENTARY—THE BOOK OF ACTS
Week 4: July 21–27
COMMENTARY ON "The First Church Leaders"
Following is a combined commentary on the material included in the Bible Study Guide with references as necessary to the supplemental passages included in the E. G. White Notes for the Sabbath School Lessons.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotes are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
This week’s lesson mostly covers the appointment of the six “deacons” to take charge of distributing food for the widows and orphans of the Hellenistic Jews. The Hellenistic Jews were from Roman territories, to Jerusalem, and although they were Jewish in ethnicity and religion, they were shaped by a Greek culture and spoke Greek as their primary language.
In the total scheme of Judaism, the Hellenistic Jews were subtly considered “less than” the Jerusalem/Judean Jews. They were outraged when the widows were served their allotments of food, and it seemed that the Judean Jews received more food than did the Hellenistic widows. The apostles agreed then that people needed to be appointed to take care of the food distribution so it was done fairly, and so the apostles could devote themselves to the Word and to prayer.
Interestingly, in Acts 6:5, the list of the seven men appointed to the ministry of the tables all had Greek names. They were Hellenistic Jews! One, Nicolas, was not even a Jew; he was a prostyle from Antioch. (Proselytes were gentiles who had been circumcised and had become Jewish. Apparently Nicolas had been a converted Jew who then believed in Jesus.)
Stephen is the most famous of these seven men. He was “full of grace and power,” and he “was performing great wonders and signs among the people.”
Some Hellenistic Jews came to him and argued with Stephen, but “they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10). Then these Jews arranged for false witnesses to speak against Stephen.
Interestingly, what they said might have sounded accurate from a Jewish perspective: they accused Stephen of blaspheming Moses and God, the holy place, and the law.
Now Stephen WAS teaching Jesus and the new covenant. This teaching would sound blasphemous to a Jew, because Jesus fulfilled the law and all the shadows and promises in carried. Jesus would, indeed, render the temple useless. Indeed, in only a few short years the temple would be destroyed by Titus the Roman. Yet Stephen was not blaspheming.
Acts 7 records Stephen’s response when the high priest finally said, “Are these things so?”
Stephen the deacon launched into the third recorded expository sermon in the book of Acts. Stephen followed the usual pattern of recounting the history of Israel. In fact, he spent quite a bit of time recounting the stories of Abraham and the patriarchs and also of Moses. He told of Moses leading Israel out of Egypt and of Mt. Sinai and the golden calf. He talked through David and Solomon and finally said, “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised inherit and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:51–53).
Acts7:54–60 describes Stephen’s vision of Jesus and of his death by stoning. The lesson’s coverage of this passage in Wednesday’s lesson (p. 48) is perhaps the worst interpretation of the week.
Stephen saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. When he said he saw heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God, the Jews became furious, and as if of one mind, they drove him from the city and stoned him.
The lesson says that Jesus stood “in the heavenly sanctuary, next to the Father, an indication that the judgment on earth was but an expression of the real judgment that would take place in heaven. God would judge the false teachers and leaders in Israel. This explains why the call to repentance, a common feature in the previous speeches in Acts( 2:38; 3:19; 5:31) is missing here. Israel’s theocracy was coming to an end, meaning that the world’s salvation would no longer remediated through national Israel as promised to Abraham but through the followers of Jesus, Jew and Gentile, who were now expected to leave Jerusalem and witness to the world (Acts 1:8).”
This explanation of this passage is entirely imposed on the text. Adventism cannot accept the contextual fact: Jesus, the seated high priest (Hebrews 10:12), stood to receive His first martyred new covenant Christian home to Himself! Just before Stephen died, he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” and fell on his knees. Then “he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (v. 60).
The fact is that the Lord Jesus had already opened the new and living way to the Father through His blood and sat down at the right hand of God. Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr, was given a view of Jesus opening heaven and welcoming him to Himself as he died. He demonstrated what each believer experiences when he or she dies: Jesus welcomes believers to Himself upon their deaths.
His standing had nothing to do with transitions from salvation coming from Israel to salvation coming from the church. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Salvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22). Jesus is the source of salvation. The new covenant had been inaugurated, and the mystery of the church had been revealed. Jesus’ standing in heaven had nothing to do with signifying a change of administration and salvation! The passage needs to be read in context without imposing Adventist beliefs on a beautiful revelation of new covenant truth.
Jews who resisted the gospel turned on one of their own who loved his Messiah, and they killed the believer.
Yet God is faithful. He redeemed a horrifying tragedy into a story of new covenant triumph, and Stephen holds a significant place in God’s eternal word, demonstrating that those whom God love and transforms, He also equips “in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight” (Heb. 13:21).
Stephen did God’s will, and the Lord Jesus used his servant’s death to reveal His personal welcome of His own into His presence when they die.