The Book Of Acts by William R. Cannon
Before his election to the episcopacy in 1968 United Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon served as Professor of Church History and then Dean of Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Other books by Bishop Cannon include The Gospel Of John, Jesus The Servant, and The Book Of Acts. The Book Of Acts, Copyright 1989 by W.R. Cannon, published by Upper Room Books. This material prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 3: The Church in Jerusalem
Jerusalem should be, and spiritually is, the primatial see of Christendom. In the beginning, the city was where all the action was. The church was born within its walls. Both Easter and Pentecost happened there.
The five chapters of the Acts of the Apostles that follow immediately after Pentecost are confined entirely to work in Jerusalem. And from what they say and what they leave unsaid, it is apparent that initially there was no Christian activity outside Jerusalem. Jesus had told them just before his ascension to witness to him first in that city (1:8), and they heeded our Lord's admonition.
The First Healing Miracle (3:1-11)
It is hardly correct to say that the healing of the lame man at the Temple was the very first miracle that any of the apostles performed after the ascension of Jesus. Their speaking in foreign tongues was a miracle. The conversion of three thousand people as a result of Peter's sermon displayed miraculous power on the part of the preacher. But the healing of this man is the first specific miracle performed by any of the apostles on just one person afflicted with a particular malady apparent to everyone who saw him. The man had been unable to walk since birth; he had to be carried everywhere he went.
Though Luke does record that the disciples were able to heal when Jesus sent them forth on their first mission as emissaries of his kingdom (9:6), this seems to have been a glorious exception. Most of the time during Jesus' ministry, they had been unable to perform miracles. Once, for example, while Jesus was away from them, the disciples had been embarrassed when a father had asked them to heal his epileptic son and they had failed in their attempt to do so (Matt. 17:14-21; Mark 9: 14-29; Luke 9:37-43).
When Jesus had told the disciples that those who believed in him would do works such as they had seen him do, and even greater works than he had performed, his words had sounded incredible to them (John 14:12). Yet what he had promised would happen was happening. It was as if Jesus were still with them and responding to the needs of the sick and afflicted people who called on him for help. Indeed, he was present through the activity of the Holy Spirit operating through the works of the apostles.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon when Peter and John, on their way to the Temple to observe the offering of the sacrifice, to join in the prayers of the congregation, and to receive the priestly blessing, were accosted by a lame man asking alms. The man had himself carried each morning to the main entrance to the Temple so that he could beg alms of all who passed through. It was a major expression of Jewish piety to give alms to the poor. Indeed, the Pharisees liked to display their generosity in that fashion. Practically everyone who entered that gate gave alms to as many beggars as happened to be on hand to receive them. Each beggar had his own special spot from which to beg, and such persons often had quite a good income from begging.
Probably the Beautiful Gate was the one inside the Temple connecting the Court of the Gentiles to the Court of the Women, where only Jews were permitted to enter. It was known as the Nicanor Gate and was the site of the heaviest traffic, at least of persons with the greatest motive to give. The gate was made of bronze in Corinthian style and arrested the attention of gentile tourists who could look at it but could not enter it.
Peter and John did not give any money to the lame man who asked alms of them. Re was at first very disappointed by their response. Peter addressed him, "I do not have any silver or gold to give you. What I do have, however, is yours, and you can take it right now" (3:6, AP). The poor fellow did not see the two apostles carrying any sacks of fruit or grain. Therefore, if Peter were not going to give him money, what else could he expect but advice? And that was the last thing on earth he wanted. But soon he felt strength in his ankles and legs. Peter took his hand and lifted him up. He began to leap and dance and praise God as he went with Peter and John into the Temple for the afternoon sacrifice and public prayers. He had no petitions to offer; his prayers were all thanks and praise to God.
Explanation and Exhortation (3:12-26)
Many people had seen what had happened, so when Peter, John, and the formerly lame man emerged from the service, quite a crowd had gathered in the Court of the Gentiles and the Colonnade of Solomon on its east side. Peter did not miss the opportunity to explain to the astonished audience what had happened. He began by asking the people why they were all staring at him and John. They were not magicians. It was not by their power or holiness, he said, that they had made the lame man to walk. He was made to walk through faith in the name of Jesus. It was Jesus, and he alone, who had made the man's legs healthy and strong. All Peter and John had done was to exercise on this lame man their faith in the all-powerful name of Jesus. And now the man on whom the miracle had been performed had faith, too. He had lost his business as a professional beggar, but he was glad to lose it in order to become a whole person and begin a new life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
In this miracle, Peter told the crowd, you have seen how the God of your fathers has glorified Jesus, the very person you arrested and accused before Pontius Pilate and had executed. Though Jesus was holy and just, you chose a murderer in his place when Pilate offered to release him and set him free. With those words, Peter had given a complete explanation of the event.
But Peter was too skillful an evangelist to stop with an explanation of what had happened. He wanted to make an application of what he said to the needs of the people and evoke a response from them. He perceived their interest and concern. He did not want to leave them with a sense of helplessness and desperation over the evil they had inflicted on Jesus.
In Peter's brief exhortation some theological implications should arrest our attention as evidence of what had already become the convictions of the apostles and were through their teachings to become guiding principles in the life of the primitive church. Peter called Jesus "the Holy One and the Just" (3:14), ascribing attributes to him that belong only to God. To be sure, Elisha had been called "a holy man of God" (2 Kings 4:9) and Aaron "the saint of the Lord" (Psalm 106:16), but in both instances the possessive preposition follows the adjectival phrase or noun, indicating the derivative nature of the appellation. But the title Peter gave Jesus was without modification and was synonymous with what the Jews to whom he spoke gave to God.
He likewise called Jesus "the Prince of life" (3:15), indicating that he whom God raised from the dead has God's power to confer life on all who believe. The decision of life and death to all people is in his hands, for Moses foretold that another prophet like him would arise (Deut. 18:15, 19) whom the people must hear or else be destroyed. When Samuel took the kingdom from Saul and gave it to David, he must have known that the ultimate fulfillment of that kingdom had to be through Jesus Christ.
If Luke is faithfully recording Peter's thoughts about Jesus, and there is no reason to think that he is not, then this is the oldest expression of Christology in the New Testament, and it places Jesus Christ the Son on a parity with God the Father. Peter's testimony was given while Saul of Tarsus was still an unbeliever and many years before the Apostle John composed his Gospel and Epistles.
The Action of the Sanhedrin and the Reaction of the Church (4:1-5:16)
Peter and John were arrested because Peter had evoked the name of Jesus as the cause of the miracle he had performed. The rulers of the Jews had had enough trouble with Jesus while he was alive on earth. They could not afford the continuance of his influence through the demagoguery of his disciples. The captain of the Temple, who was next in prestige and power to the high priest, accompanied by some of the priests and a group of Sadducees, put the two apostles in custody. They were offended because Peter and John taught through the power of Jesus the resurrection from the dead. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. Whereas the Pharisees instigated the opposition to Jesus, the Sadducees sought to curtail the activities of the infant church. The most powerful faction in the Sanhedrin, they composed the majority of the elders in that group.
Peter and John were kept under guard overnight near the Temple precincts, and the next day they were arraigned before the Sanhedrin. Luke lists Annas as the high priest at this time and Caiaphas, John, and Alexander along with him. In fact, Annas had been deposed as high priest by the Romans in about A.D. 14, and Caiaphas was still in office. Caiaphas was Annas's son-in-law, and John, or Jonathan, and Alexander were Annas's sons. Most of the high priests who succeeded Annas were of his family; though not high priest in name, he retained the influence and power. He continued to make the decisions as he had during the trial of Jesus. Peter pointed to the man who had been lame all his life and said to the Sanhedrin, "It is because of Jesus, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you hardy and well" (4:10, AP).
Two facts stand out in this trial. First, the members of the Sanhedrin did not dispute the miracle of the healing of the lame man. They could not, for there he was standing before them on his own two feet, which he had never been able to do before. Second, they did not deny the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. By then, the event must have been widely accepted throughout Jerusalem.
Peter accosted his judges by defiantly asserting that there is no other name but Jesus given among them whereby they can be saved. In other words, their religion is inadequate. Like everyone else, they must accept Jesus if they expect to be saved. After consultation among themselves, the members of the Sanhedrin ordered Peter and John to desist from preaching in the name of Jesus and threatened them if they continued to extol him. But the two men defiantly responded by asking them whether it was better to obey them or God, insisting that they were compelled by God to speak about the things they had seen and heard.
Despite the apostles' defiant attitude, the Sanhedrin let them go. Some scholars think that a Jewish law compelled the Sanhedrin to treat a first offense with a simple warning in case the offender was ignorant of the law he had broken. But Luke says the Sanhedrin could not afford to expose itself to the wrath of the people. Five thousand people had been converted as a result of Peter's sermon following the miracle. Those people were all in and about the Temple precincts, and they knew that Peter and John were on trial inside the hall of the Sanhedrin.
When Peter and John were released, they went immediately to the Christian congregation to give a report, and they inspired the group with their courage and boldness. The resurrection proved that Jesus could not be subdued by his enemies, and that same power through the Holy Spirit was now given to them.
The prayer the congregation prayed when Peter and John returned ended in the petition that all of them be given boldness to speak God's word and demonstrate God's power -through healing and other signs and wonders, all to be done in the precious name of Jesus. At the end of the prayer, the place where they met was shaken as by an earthquake, and they received what they prayed for. Luke tells us that they were filled with the Holy Spirit and they spoke God's word with boldness. This was a second Pentecost. New converts were given what the original disciples had received on the day of Pentecost -- the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke calls the congregation a multitude; since three thousand had been converted at Pentecost and five thousand more as a result of the healing of the lame man, the number of Christians in Jerusalem comprised a noticeable portion of the population.
Nonetheless, Luke indicates two amazing characteristics of their life together. One is that they were free of factions. Their unity in Christ was so complete that they were animated by a single purpose: "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul" (4:32). The other is that none of them considered his or her property as anything more than a material means of helping others. They pooled their resources and as a community held all things in common. Therefore, no one in the Christian community lacked anything because each person received according to individual needs. The Christians entrusted their goods to the twelve apostles, and the apostles decided the extent of each person's needs and made the necessary appropriations. When people sold their properties, they immediately brought the proceeds from the sale and in an act of worship laid them at the apostles' feet.
Luke cites Joses, nicknamed Barnabas by the apostles because of his ability to console individuals, as an example of this practice. He sold land and gave the money from the sale to the apostles. Barnabas was a Cypriot Jew who had holdings in Jerusalem. He was the uncle of Mark, being the brother of Mark's mother (Col. 4:10). Luke adds that he was a Levite, which means that he was a descendant of Moses and Aaron with traditional connections with the Temple though he belonged to the Dispersion and came only occasionally to Jerusalem.
The surrender of one's wealth to the apostles was not a requirement of the Christian community; it was entirely voluntary. A married couple named Ananias and Sapphira who were already members of the community but still held on to their possessions, decided to sell a piece of property and give some of the proceeds to the apostles. However, they pretended to give the entire amount. They wanted full credit for only a partial contribution. Ananias made the gift, but instead of receiving praise from Peter for his generosity, he was condemned for lying.
The apostle accused him of two things: first, yielding to Satan, who put the evil thought in his mind; and second, lying to the Holy Spirit. This double accusation is of great importance in our understanding of the incident. Jesus had said that the one unforgivable sin is sin against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31; Mark 3:29). The Pharisees, for example, had attributed the mighty works of Christ to the devil (Matt. 9:33-34). Persons who attribute the acts of God to the devil cannot hope to be saved because they are incapable of distinguishing between good and evil and thwart the overtures of the Holy Spirit toward them at every turn. This is what Peter discerned in Ananias. He had put his own interests before those of God and the Christian community, had yielded to the devil, and as a result had lied to the Holy Spirit. When Peter told him what he had done, he fell over dead.
Three hours later Sapphira arrived, not knowing what had happened to her husband. Peter gave her the opportunity to correct the mistake by telling the truth, but she repeated the same lie that Ananias had told, and she suffered the same fate. It is dangerous to lie. It is fatal to lie to the Holy Spirit.
In connection with this lugubrious incident Luke uses the word church for the second time in Acts. He uses it first when we would expect him to use it -- immediately after Pentecost, when he says that "the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (2:47). But here he says, in contrast to the joy and praise that marked the church after Pentecost and the favor it enjoyed with all the people, that "great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things" (5:11). To be sure, the church is primarily a joyous fellowship where people find their unity and strength in love and devotion to Jesus Christ. But the church is also God's house of judgment, where God's prophetic word discerns and condemns evil and where unrepentant sinners are brought down.
The apostles continued to work wonders, proclaim the gospel, and make their presence known on Solomon's Porch within the walls of the Temple precinct. People came from outside Jerusalem to hear them and to have their sick cured. The lame and diseased were laid on pallets in the streets so that the shadow of Peter in passing by might fall on them and work a miraculous cure. Multitudes, says Luke, were added to the Christian body.
Persecution, Dissension, and Martyrdom (5:17-8:3)
The gains the Christians were making were too great for the Jewish authorities to tolerate. Jerusalem was a relatively small city, estimated by some to have had no more than twenty-five thousand inhabitants. During celebrations it may have swelled to as many as one hundred thousand. Of course its population was swollen by pilgrims and tourists at the times of the religious feasts. Through the apostles' efforts, natives and visitors alike were being converted. It is reasonable to suppose that the church now had between twelve and fifteen thousand members, and it was continuing to gain at every turn.
Consequently, the high priest and the dominant Sadducean party in the Sanhedrin incarcerated all the apostles. When the Sanhedrin met and the apostles were sent for to be tried, they could not be found in the prison. The angel of the Lord had intervened and set them free. They were right back where they were when they had been arrested, in the very Temple itself, teaching the people. They were brought in without resistance to the Sanhedrin, and the high priest indignantly accused them of doing precisely what he had commanded them not to do, that is, teaching "in this name." He deliberately did not add "Jesus." He would not condescend to utter the name of that malefactor. He did say, however, that it was the purpose of the apostles to bring "this man's blood upon them."
But what else could they expect? Had they not said to Pilate, when he washed his hands of the guilt of condemning Jesus, "His blood be on us, and on our children" (Matt. 27:24)? That is exactly what the apostles reminded them of, as they said through Peter, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (5:29). Peter also stated that Jesus, whom they killed, God has exalted and made to be a Prince and a Savior in order to bring Israel to repentance and to offer the Jews the forgiveness of their sins. The apostles asserted that they and the Holy Spirit were witnesses to all the claims of Jesus.
Luke is the first person in the New Testament to call Jesus "Savior." He uses this word to describe Jesus only once in his Gospel (Luke 2:11), and now he uses it a second time by quoting Peter in his defense of himself and the other apostles before the Sanhedrin.
After Peter's testimony, the assembly went into a paroxysm of rage and was disposed to execute the whole lot of them. But Gamaliel, one of the greatest Hebrew rabbis and a member of the Pharisean party, cautioned them against precipitous action. He said simply that if they were mistaken fanatics, they would in the end destroy themselves, and he cited two recent examples. But if their message was true and what they did was inspired of God, there was really nothing the Sanhedrin could do about it, for God always triumphs. So the body contented itself by beating the apostles with a whip, ordering them again not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then letting them go. The apostles counted themselves fortunate to be able to suffer for Jesus.
The church in Jerusalem had grown so large that the twelve apostles could not handle its business and evangelize and nourish the flock spiritually. Administrative duties distracted them from prayer and the preaching of the word. At the same time the Hellenized Jews of the Dispersion complained that the widows of their deceased brethren were not receiving as much attention as the natives. This complaint no doubt included material support in the form of food and other necessities as well as pastoral care, since the apostles said they did not have time to wait on tables.
To solve this problem, the congregation elected seven men of exemplary character to take on this chore. The remarkable thing is that the congregation chose persons from the group that made the complaint. The seven, as their names indicate, were all Hellenized Jews. These men stood before the apostles who laid their hands on them after prayer and thereby set them apart for this task.
This short passage in Acts is crucial to an understanding of the development of ministry in the church. The apostles were the leaders of the church. Eleven of them had been chosen by Jesus himself at the very beginning of his earthly ministry, and the twelfth had been selected by casting lots between two persons nominated by the congregation. Their qualification was that they had been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry. They were witnesses to his resurrection. The seven now chosen were to be servants to the apostles, transacting business and performing administrative duties assigned to them. Although they had been elected by the congregation, they could not take office and begin their duties until after the apostles had prayed over them and laid their hands on their heads. The laying on of hands after prayer was the sign of the impartation of the Holy Spirit.
Since the ministry of the seven was that of service, they came to be called deacons, which means "servants." Luke describes in this short passage the origin of the diaconate (6:16), which was the church's second ministerial order. Up until that point, the apostolate had been the only ministerial order. When the apostles set these seven persons apart for their ministry of service, they performed for the first time the sacred rite of ordination.
That is not to say, however, that because their duties were primarily administrative and functional, they were inferior and had no spiritual quality. The first deacons preached as well. One of them, Stephen, performed miracles and vied with the apostles themselves in the high quality of his ministry. In fact, he exasperated the leaders of several Hellenized synagogues in Jerusalem because he outdid them in debate. Since they could not get the better of him at argumentation, they lied about him, contending that he disparaged both the law and the Temple and thereby blasphemed Moses and God. As a result, he was brought before the Sanhedrin.
In response to the questioning of the high priest, Stephen delivered the longest address recorded in the New Testament other than our Lord's Sermon on the Mount. He turned the tables on his accusers by saying that they had blasphemed Moses by not keeping his law and had defamed the name of God by presuming that God, like some man-made idol, can be confined to a building made of stone.
His speech is a precis of Hebrew history. In one or two places it follows the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch rather than the Hebrew, for example, the age of Terah, Abraham's father, when he died (7:4; see Gen. 11:26, 32; 12:4). Stephen said that Abraham did not leave Haran until after Terah died, but according to the Hebrew version that gives Terah's death at age 205 and Abraham's departure at age 75, Abraham would have left Haran sixty years before Terah died. The Samaritan version, however, states that Terah died at age 145, which is consistent with Stephen's cornments. It must have galled the Jewish leaders when Stephen reminded them that Joseph was buried in Shechem among the Samaritans, whom they despised. His review of history was a scathing denunciation of Jewish apostasy, and according to his speech, what the Israelites had been, they were still. He denounced the Sanhedrin for both idolatry and Temple worship. Stephen must have been a great orator. He spoke passionately, as if he were reliving the events he recounted. Luke says his face was like that of an angel.
When Stephen told his auditors that they were stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears and that they resisted the Holy Spirit as their fathers had done, it was more than they could take. They gnashed their teeth in rage. Stephen lifted his eyes toward heaven and cried out, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God" (7:56). With that, the Jewish leaders rushed him and cast him out of the city and stoned him to death. In the process of throwing the stones, they placed their outer garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. Stephen died, asking God not to lay the sin of murder to the charge of them who slew him. By his death, he became the first martyr of the Christian church.
The martyrdom of Stephen led to a general persecution of the church in Jerusalem. Saul, for example, went from house to house seeking out the Christians and throwing them into prison. Most of the Christians left Jerusalem and sought safety in Judea and Samaria. The apostles, however, stayed in their post of duty with the mother church. This scattering of Christians meant at the same time the dissemination of the gospel. They carried their faith with them and gave it to others wherever they went. The blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church.
Questions For Reflection And Study
2. Do we still experience miracles? Row does Christ through the activity of the Holy Spirit perform miracles today? What miracles have you experienced in your life?
3. What afflicts people today? What are some of the ways in which we, too, make good use of our afflictions?
4. Do Christians make a display of their generosity to others? How do we make our alms evident?
5. The lame man, once healed, had no petitions to offer to God. Instead, he offered only prayers of thanks and praise. Think about your prayer life. How is it distributed with respect to petitions, thanks, and praise? Row might it be improved?
6. After the healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate, Peter spoke to the crowd, giving credit for the miracle to the crucified and risen Christ. However, not stopping there, Peter immediately turned condemnation into hope and assurance for his listeners, evoking from them a response of faith. Can you give some examples of ways in which Christians have settled for condemnation, stopping short of the life-giving exhortation to faith in the risen Christ?
7. Peter discerned that Ananias had put his own interests before those of God and the Christian community and had yielded to the devil by lying. As a result, Ananias died. Does this imply either literally or figuratively that Christians place themselves in mortal danger by thinking of themselves first or by lying? In what way might this be true?
8. There has been much controversy over the only "unforgivable" sin. Based on the story of Ananias and Sapphira, describe your interpretation of what constitutes such sin.
9. The early church was not only a place of joyous fellowship and worship; it was also God's house of judgment. Is this characteristic of your church? Why or why not?
10.Gamaliel quieted the enraged Jewish assembly by pointing out that if the Christians were indeed fanatics, they would eventually destroy themselves. And if they were of God, then there was nothing that could be done by the Sanhedrin to stop them. What contemporary examples can you cite in which this judgment has proven true?
11. The early Christians placed importance on administration within the community and considered it a vital part of their ministry. How does this compare with attitudes in your church toward administration?
12 How do you react to the fact that representatives of the group making the complaint to the congregation about unfair treatment of widows were the very ones chosen to oversee just distribution? How might this help resolve dissension in your church? in the church at large? What would your reaction have been if you had been one of those chosen? one of the others?
13. What implications for ministry can be drawn from the fact that both the first martyr (Stephen) and the first missionary (Philip) were members of the diaconate, not apostles?