Our reading today picks up where we left off yesterday. All in the church willingly shared what they had so that nobody in the church had any need (see 4:32-37). The “but” that begins chapter 5 sets us up for the story (5:1). A couple sells a piece of property, kept some of the money, and gave some to the church (vv. 1-3). Why is this a problem? Well, it wouldn’t be (v. 4) if the couple had not lied about keeping part of it for themselves (v. 3-4, 8-9). It isn’t that they kept some of the money, it’s that they claimed to have given it all to the church. And worse, they wanted to be honored for giving their “all” to the church. Their deaths show us the seriousness not of deceit, but of outwardly honoring God for the praise of men while inwardly being deceitful. Christ declared woe on the religious elite for doing this (see Matthew 23), and taught His disciples not to do this (see Matthew 6).
Luke again remarks on the miracles being done by the Apostles as the Word is spread throughout Jerusalem (v. 12). These and the preaching of the Word done publicly, and we see that there were some Jews afraid to publicly affirm their faith (v. 13). Yet the church grew (v. 14). That people from just outside Jerusalem gathered for the works (which prove the words) shows that the mission is beginning to extend beyond Jerusalem (v. 16).
And just as Jesus promised (John 15:20), the Apostles are persecuted as He was for His words and works (vv. 17-18). Peter also holds true to his word to Jesus (see Luke 22:33). Note that it is not their disagreement with the doctrine of the Apostles, but jealousy that incites the Sadducees against them. God miraculously provides salvation (v. 19) so that the Word may continue to be preached (v. 20). Note that the angel calls the proclamation of the Gospel “the words of this life.” And the Apostles are obedient; they know they were saved for a purpose (v. 21).
When the Apostles are found and brought back before the High Priest (v. 27), it is once again not necessarily a disagreement over the doctrine that’s the issue, but what the doctrine means for him and the religious elite of Israel (v. 28). Very often, the message of the Gospel is rejected because of what it would mean for people in this life (as opposed to the “this life” of verse 20). Peter answers his implied question from 4:19 (v. 29). They Apostles then preach (to the High Priest!) of the death and resurrection (v. 30) as well as the ascension and exaltation of Christ (v. 31). And they preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins (see Luke 24:47) and acknowledge Jesus as the Leader of the church. The Apostles are witnesses of all Christ did (v. 32 – see Luke 24:48) as is the Holy Spirit Who Christ gave them (see 1:8). Note that the message is “to Israel” in verses 31. The Apostles are obeying exactly what Christ told them to do.
Once again, the reaction to the Apostles is the same as the reaction to Christ (v. 33). But then the famous Gamaliel (Paul’s teacher – see 22:3) urges the council to do nothing. There have been false Messiah’s before (vv. 36-37) and they came to nothing. If Jesus is another false Messiah, leaving them alone is the best thing, because this will not come to anything (v. 38). However (says the great teacher of the Scriptures!), if this is of God – if Jesus is the Messiah – then not only can they do nothing about it, but they’d be against God (v. 39). So they have the Apostles beaten and release them (v. 40). And the Apostles rejoice in their suffering (v. 41) and continue their mission (v. 42).
In chapter 6, we have what is known to be the forming of the office of deacon. However, please note that the title “deacon” is not used here. The word “serve” in verse 2 is where we get the word; the word “deacon” is just a transliteration of the Greek word for “minister” or “servant.” In Paul’s requirements for deacons (1 Tim 3-13), he does not discuss their duties. It is church tradition that combines the duties of the seven men here and the teaching of Paul into the modern idea of the office of deacon.
There are a few other things important to notice here. First, the Apostles role is boiled down to two things: prayer, and the ministry (derivative of the word “deacon”) of the Word. Theses seven men are to handle the practical matters of the daily life of the church. This is usually the modern day distinction between elders and deacons. And here, with the extra burden off of the Apostles, the preaching increased and the church grew, even including Jewish priests. Second, note that of the seven men, one of them, Nicolaus, is a Syrian proselyte. He was not a physical Jew. Already, we are seeing the physical distinctions going by the wayside even here in Jerusalem.
Luke now records the martyrdom of Stephen, one of the seven just chosen. While the “deacons” freed the Apostles up to preach the Word, we see here that deacons were not excluded from preaching, and here, even performing confirmatory miracles (v. 8). Those who opposed him “could not withstand the wisdom of the Spirit with which he was speaking” (v. 10 – see 5:39, Mark 13:11, Luke 21:15). So they deceitfully have Stephen accused of blasphemy, just like Christ (vv. 11-14). That Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel (v. 15) is a reference to the shining face of Moses from Exodus 34:29-35 (often, angels were referred to as “shining ones” in the Ancient Near East). While Stephen was being accused of speaking contrary to Moses, he actually spoke of the fulfillment of what Moses taught.
Stephen then gives an epic sermon about the whole history of redemption in chapter 7. Stephen focuses on God’s role in it all. God removed Abraham from Haran to the Promised Land (v. 4). God gave him the great promises (v. 5). God gave him the sign of circumcision (v. 8). God prospered Joseph in Egypt (vv. 9-10) to preserve Jacob and the promise (vv. 11-14). He appeared to Moses (v. 30). But note what Israel did. They rejected the one God raised up as a redeemer (v. 35)! Then, God promised another like Moses would come (v. 37). Yet Israel refused to listen to Moses (v. 39) and worshiped false gods (vv. 40-41). So God turned them over to their false worship (v. 42) and said He would send them away (vv. 42-43).
Stephen then tells of the dwelling place of God among men. There was the tabernacle (v. 44). There was the Temple (vv. 46-47). But that was not where God lived (vv. 48-50). God lives among His true people by the Holy Spirit (v. 51). The Jews of Stephen’s day were denying the Spirit just like their fathers did by ignoring Moses and the prophets (v. 52 – see Neh 9:30). They killed the prophets who predicted the Prophet like Moses, and now they’ve killed that Prophet (v. 52). They denied Christ like they denied the Law (v. 53). Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole history of salvation, and the whole history of Israel.
Then Stephen is given a vision of the exalted Christ (vv. 55-56). And the unbelieving Jews cast him out of the city (like Christ) and execute him (like Christ) (v. 58). The laying of the garments at the feet of Saul indicate his approval of the stoning (v. 58). Stephen calls to Jesus to receive his spirit (v. 59) just as Jesus called to the Father to receive His (Luke 23:46). He prays that Christ would not hold the sin of murdering him against them (v. 60) just as Jesus asked the same of the Father (Luke 23:34). And Stephen “fell asleep,” a term for dying in Christ.
Note that Stephen was martyred for imitating Christ: he worked miracles and preached the Gospel. Even in death, he was like Christ: his heart was for his people even though they executed him, and his earnest desire was for their salvation. This is the utter rejection of Christ and His Spirit in Judea (which we will see in chapter 8). The mission would have to move on (which we will also see in chapter 8).