Sunday, June 2
Acts 6:1-15: In this very significant chapter, the word “disciples” appears for the first time in this book. Also, for the first time in Christian history, the ordered ministry of the Church has become tripartite: apostles, elders (prebyteroi, whence “priests”), and “assistants” (diakonoi, whence “deacons”). Likewise in this chapter the city of Antioch, so important to this book and to the rest of Christian history, is mentioned for the first time. In the initial five chapters of this book Luke has stressed the unity and communion of the first Christians, their unselfish devotion to one another’s well being. In the present chapter, however, we discover the first indications of conflict, which has arisen between two culturally different groups of Jewish Christians, those who speak Greek and those who speak Aramaic, the first European and the second Semitic. This early conflict, which immediately leads to a decisive and death-dealing encounter between the Church and the Sanhedrin, foreshadows worse tensions to come, eventually expressed in the historical rupture between the Church and Judaism. This chapter also introduces the chief spokesman for the Greek-speaking (“Hellenist”) Jewish Christians, Stephen. He is one of the seven men, all with Greek names, chosen for their administrative skills, in order to deal with certain practical problems in the Church related to the distribution of material resources to the widows dependent on the congregation. The “tables” in this chapter should better be translated as desks or accounting tables, for these seven men are ecclesiastical administrators, assisting the apostles. (This will be the defining function of “deacons” for many centuries to come.) Nonetheless, as we see in the ministries of Stephen and Philip, this work will also include considerable evangelism, and the Church immediately realizes a greater growth, including converts from the Jewish priesthood (Sadducees!). Then more trouble starts, once again from the Sanhedrin. Abandoning the sound counsel of Gamaliel, the Sanhedrin responds to charges brought against Stephen by certain international groups of Jews living in Jerusalem.
Monday, June 2
Acts 7:1-10: Here begins Stephen’s long discourse, which is chiefly an historical survey constructed to show that, throughout its history, Israel has ever been disposed to idolatry and rebellion. Its recent killing of the Messiah, Stephen argues, is of a piece with all of Israel’s earlier sins. He begins to recount these, stage by stage, starting with the call of Abraham in ancient Mesopotamia. His point in starting in Mesopotamia is to show that God’s Word is not limited to the Holy Land nor tied to the temple or any Jewish institution. To demonstrate this, Stephen speaks of the endless wandering characteristic of the patriarchal period. Even the covenant itself, he notes, was prior to Israel, whose son Isaac was not yet conceived until afterwards. (This characteristic of the covenant with Abraham, particularly its priority to the Mosaic Law, will be an important aspect of the treatment of Abraham in Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews.) In Stephen’s discussion of Joseph (verse 9), he begins to introduce the theme of jealousy and rebellion, taking the attitude of Joseph’s sinful brothers as a foreshadowing of Israel’s rejection of Jesus. Their cruel treatment of Joseph makes him a type or figure of the coming Messiah, who, albeit innocent and unoffending, would also be condemned, sold, arrested, and put in prison. Then, Stephen goes on, a pagan Pharaoh would receive favorably the very one that the sons of Israel had rejected, accepting him as their “leader.” Again those events formed a foreshadowing of Jesus’ rejection by the Israelites and His turning to the Gentiles. Here Stephen is addressing one of the most important messages of the Acts of the Apostles.
Tuesday, June 3
Acts 7:11-22: Stephen’s point in verse 11 is that the Israelites, not able to feed themselves, were dependent on a pagan people. Thus Jacob, father of all Israelites, died outside of the Holy Land, along with all the tribal patriarchs. Though they were buried in the Holy Land, the site of their graves was purchased from yet another Gentile (verse 16). Meanwhile, it was in a Gentile land that the Israelites experienced their phenomenal growth. Even Moses was raised in a Gentile home and received a Gentile education (verse 22). He too was repudiated by the other Israelites, who have never, Stephen contends, shown themselves satisfied with the leaders that God sends them.
Wednesday, June 5
Acts 7:23-34: Moses’ first encounter with the other Israelites was not very promising, Stephen argues; they did not want him for a “leader” (verse 27) nor a savior (verse 28). As a result, yet once again, God’s designated leader of the Israelites was obliged to flee to yet another Gentile region, the land of Midian. Like Abraham (7:6), Moses must become a “wanderer” or “pilgrim” (paroikos—7:29). Indeed, the very first land in the Bible to be called a “holy land” is found, not in Palestine, but in the Gentile territory of Moses’ wandering (verse 33)! It always seems to be the same pattern, says Stephen, because the Israelites are a rebellious people, recalcitrant to God’s provision. Thus, Moses will be treated by them no better than Joseph.
Thursday, June 6
Acts 7:35-53 (Note that in the Daily Devotional Guide there is a misprint at this point, which would cause the reader to stop at verse 43.): Since the Israelites rejected Moses as “leader and deliverer” (verse 35), in spite of his miracles (verse 36), how could we expect them to treat differently the latter day “prophet” that God would “raise up” (verse 37)? Here, of course, Stephen is citing the same text (Deuteronomy 18:15) earlier cited by Peter in Acts 3:22-23. In this fairly lengthy treatment of Moses, Stephen is answering the accusation that he had blasphemed against Moses (cf. 6:11). He is saying, in effect: “Look, you stiff-necked people. I am not the one who insults Moses; you people have never stopped insulting him, right from the inception of his ministry. Even then you were already idolaters (verses 39-43). Just as in the desert you worshipped a “work of your hands” in the golden calf, so you now idolize the temple itself (verse 48). In making this assertion, Stephen is specifically addressing one of the charges brought against him (cf. 6:13-14). Instead of defending himself, however, Stephen directly attacks his accusers (verses 51-53). His trial will end rather abruptly.
Friday, June 7
Acts 7:54—8:4: Several aspects of Stephen’s death may be noted: First, the change in tone. Bitterly denouncing the Israelites near the end of his testimony, Stephen now devoutly prays for them, holding no grudge. (See the moving description by Dante, Purgatorio 15.106-114.) Second, Stephen is once again said to be “full of the Holy Spirit,” as was the case when he was first introduced (cf. 6:3). This relates his martyrdom to the Pentecostal outpouring. The Christian Church has, from the beginning, always regarded blood martyrdom as the highest of the charismatic gifts and the most convincing testimony of the Holy Spirit. Third, he calls Jesus “the Son of Man,” the only person in the New Testament, save Jesus Himself, to do so. Fourth, Stephen is never condemned by the Sanhedrin, which in any case was not authorized to implement a death sentence (cf. John 18:31). He is murdered by a lawless mob, with no pretense at legal procedure. Fifth, like Jesus Himself (John 20:19; Hebrews 13:12), he is executed outside the city wall. Even in this massive miscarriage of justice, Stephen’s murderers adhere to the Mosaic prescription (Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:35f). Sixth, and as a great feature of irony, it is in this scene that St. Paul is first introduced (cf. Acts 22:20; 26:10). Seventh, Luke takes great care to observe the similarities between the deaths of Jesus and Stephen; compare verses 59-60 with Luke 23:34 & 46. (This literary feature was noted very early by Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3.12.13.) Eighth, Stephen’s death unleashes a violence that causes many Christians to flee Jerusalem, thus spreading the Gospel even farther. Some of them go to Samaria, where those persecuted at Jerusalem stood a good chance of a sympathetic welcome, especially if, like Stephen, they expressed reservations about the temple at Jerusalem! This detail leads immediately to an account of Philip’s ministry in Samaria.
Saturday, June 8
Acts 8:5-13: Chapter 8 will treat of the ministry of Philip, Steven’s companion (6:5), chiefly concentrating on his dealings with two types of people who were regarded as “outsiders” with respect to Israel: Samaritans and eunuchs. Through Philip’s preaching, both of these are now brought into the Church, illustrating a standard Lukan theme of the raising up of the downtrodden and the dispossessed. Philip’s preaching in Samaria, like that of Stephen in Jerusalem, is accompanied by miracles, especially the expulsion of demons (verses 6-7). The most notable of his converts, Simon Magus, was also the most troublesome. Justin Martyr, himself a Samaritan, tells us that Simon came from the hamlet of Gitta in Samaria (First Apology 1.26,56; Dialogue with Trypho 120.6). In spite of having his own enthusiastic following, Simon, persuaded by the preaching and especially the miracles of Philip, was baptized. The next scene, however, will suggest that his conversion was still something short of complete. Simon’s endeavor to purchase spiritual authority by means of money has given us the word “simony.”