Guests: Brant Berglin and Jenn Ogden
Relevant Passages: Acts 1, 2, 4, 7, 10
Leading Question: What evidence is there in the book of Acts that the disciples were still slow to accept the truths that Jesus had tried to teach them during his ministry?
The official study guide selects five narratives from the early chapters in Acts to show the status of the battle between good and evil. And it is very much a mixed bag. Two narratives show how the disciples still could not grasp the fullness of Jesus’ message: Will you restore the kingdom? (Acts 1) and accepting non Jews (Acts 10); one, Pentecost, comes close to the ideal (Acts 2), and two show boldness in witness: blind man healed (Acts 4) and Steven’s speech (Acts 7).
But hidden in the narrative that climaxes in the stoning of Steven, are two potentially troubling aspects not directly discussed in the official study guide. One was the quarreling between the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews about the unfair treatment of the Hellenistic widows, a quick retreat from the harmony of Acts 2. The other is the strident preaching of Stephen that resulted in his stoning, though in some respects his hard words may be similar to Jesus’ pronouncement of woes on the Pharisees in Matthew 23.
Let’s look at all these in the order in which they appear in Acts:
When will you restore the kingdom? (Acts 1:6). According Jesus’ Olivet discourse in Matthrew 24-25, the disciples had already asked about the timing of the second coming and the end of the age (Matt. 24:3). But now they seemed to be expecting Jesus to destroy Roman rule. Or is that reading too much into their question of 1:6? In John 18:36 Jesus had declared, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Did they not yet believe it?
Blessed harmony of Pentecost (Acts 2). The official study guide draws attention to the remarkable contrast between Pentecost and the Tower of Babel experience in Genesis 11:1-9. In Genesis God used language to divide the rebels; by contrast, in Acts 2, God used the gift of tongues to unite people who otherwise could not have understood each other. Is there any other passage in the New Testament that so clearly illustrates the good work of the Spirit of God? This is good evidence that the truth of Jesus’ mission had gotten through!
Brave testimony to the temple rulers (Acts 4). Because of the astonishing healing of a man born blind, Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Jewish leaders. The apostles stood their ground and said that they would not keep quiet as the Jewish leaders demanded. The Jewish leaders “were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (4:13, NIV). Acts 4 also talks about the willingness of the believers to share their goods with each other, Barnabas being a primary example (4:32-37).
Quarreling over unfair distribution to the widows who were Hellenistic Jews (Acts 6). The quarreling of Acts 6 is a wonderful example of how quickly harmony in the church can be shattered. There appears to be very little time elapsing between the joy of Acts 2 and the pain of Acts 6.
Stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). For gentle Christians, Stephen’s brave witness is somewhat tarnished by the stridency of his tone – no wonder the Jewish leaders stoned him! How does that compare with the teachings and example of Jesus? Are strong words sometimes necessary. What about Jesus strong words against the Pharisees in Matthew 23? Ellen White’s comment about Jesus’ methods is worth noting: “He fearlessly denounced hypocrisy, unbelief, and iniquity, but tears were in His voice as He uttered His scathing rebukes” (The Desire of Ages, 354). Can one hear tears in the voice of Stephen?
Slow to learn (Acts 10). The Gospels record several powerful stories in which Jesus speaks and acts positively toward non-Jews: The Canaanite woman in the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15:21-28), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42), and the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). But in Acts 10, Peter requires a three-fold vision before he reluctantly went to visit Cornelius, and with six witnesses, no less! And these witnesses were “astonished” (10:45, NIV) when they saw the Holy Spirit being poured out on these Gentiles. This may have been six to eight years after the resurrection. Human beings can be such slow learners!