Sunday, July 6
Acts 7:44-53: Stephen continues: 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.
Monday, July 7
Acts 7:54Ñ8:4: Several aspects of StephenÕs 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, StephenÕs 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, StephenÕs 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 PhilipÕs ministry in Samaria.
Tuesday, July 8
Acts 8:5-13: Chapter 8 will treat of the ministry of Philip, StevenÕs 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 PhilipÕs 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. PhilipÕs 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 the 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 was persuaded by the preaching and especially the miracles of Philip and was baptized. The next scene, however, will suggest that his conversion was still something short of complete.
Wednesday, July 9
Acts 8:14-25:The importance of these verses would be difficult to exaggerate, because of what they convey respecting the structure of the Christian Church. Philip was an ordained minister of the Gospel (6:6), authorized to baptize converts and to begin new churches. This is clear from what he did at Samaria. In the present text, however, it is clear that something further was required. Namely, a more direct line of communion with the apostles themselves and to the "mother church" at Jerusalem. Although ordained by the apostolic laying-on of hands at Jerusalem, Philip was not adequately qualified to provide that direct line of communion. The baptized Christians in Samaria were obliged to receive that provision from men of a higher rank than Philip, the apostles themselves, delegated by the Church at Jerusalem. This is our earliest historical evidence for the authority of those early churches recognized as "apostolic," founded immediately by the apostles and pastored by their direct and validated successors. Through the early centuries of Christian history these were the churches to which all the newer churches looked for the assurance of doctrinal orthodoxy, liturgical propriety, and sacramental validity. New churches could not simply start on their own; they had to be validated by, and remain in full communion with, the mother churches. These were the churches that gathered and canonized the writings of the apostles into what we now call the New Testament. Founded by such men as Peter, Paul, John, Matthew, Barnabas, Luke, and Mark, these ancient churches of great canonical authority and prestige included Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus, Caesarea, Ephesus, Smyrna, Hierapolis, Athens, Thessaloniki, Alexandria, and Rome.
Thursday, July 10
Acts 8:26-40: The conversion of the Samaritans, who may be described as half-Jewish, was a step toward the universalizing of the Gospel. Now, however, we come to the case of someone of completely Gentile blood, one of the many Gentiles who maintained some active interest in Judaism without joining it. It should be noted that this first completely non-Jewish person to become a Christian was from Africa. He was a governmental official of "Candace, which is not a proper name but, like the word Pharaoh, the title of an office, in this case the queen of Ethiopia (the kntky of Egyptian inscriptions). This man is obviously reading the Bible out loud (which was the common practice among the rabbis and, with the exception of St. Ambrose, the Fathers of the Church) and is overheard by Philip. The man wants someone to "guide" (hodegein in verse 31) him in understanding Isaiah. Instructed in the ChurchÕs understanding of the Old Testament (cf. Luke 24:27,44-45), Philip interprets the text for him, going on to explain other passages as well. This exercise terminates in the Sacrament of Baptism. (The Scriptures are intrinsically, and of their very nature, ordered to the Sacraments. All proclamation outside the Church is ordered to Baptism, as in this case. All proclamation within the Church is ordered to the Eucharist; cf. Luke 24:30-35.) Sad as I am to say so (for I love it), verse 37 is a later addition to the text, not found in the older and more reliable manuscripts of the New Testament.
Friday, July 11
Acts 9:1-19: Having described the initial overtures that Christian evangelism made to the Gentiles, Luke is ready to tell of the conversion of the man who would extend that evangelism in a dramatic way. Here we have the first of three accounts that the Acts of the Apostles gives of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. (Paul himself provides another account in Galatians 1:11-16.) These three versions of the event are strategically placed in the Book of Acts in order to mark significant points in the narrative. This first account, framed between the conversions of the Ethiopian minister and the Roman centurion, relates PaulÕs conversion to the evangelism of the Gentiles. The second (22:3-21) is found in PaulÕs last public proclamation in the temple at Jerusalem, and the third (26:12-18) launches his trip to Rome. (Just as LukeÕs gospel begins and ends at Jerusalem, the Book of Acts begins at Jerusalem and ends at Rome.) We note that there are already Christians living at Damascus, doubtless having fled there at the persecution following the death of Stephen. At the time of PaulÕs conversion Damascus was governed, under Rome, by a Nabatean king named Aretas IV (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:32). In JesusÕ words to the persecutor of Christians ("Why are you persecuting Me!"), we should see the seed that would grow into PaulÕs doctrine of the Church as "the body of Christ." His three-day fast in preparation for baptism, a sort of early Lent, became standard in the Church for centuries to come. Verse 15 indicates the three groups that we will find Paul addressing throughout the rest of Acts: Jews (13:5,14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1-4,10,17; 19:8), Gentiles (17:22; 18:6-11; 19:10), and kings (26:1-29).
Saturday, July 12
Acts 9:20-30: PaulÕs early preaching in the Damascus synagogue is directed to the true identity of Jesus, "that He is the Son of God." This title of Jesus is used in only one other place in the Acts of the Apostles, again on the lips of Paul (13:23). The verb used in verse 21 to speak of the "havoc" (porthein) caused by Paul in Jerusalem also appears in PaulÕs own description in Galatians 1:13,23. It is between verses 22 and 23 that we should place PaulÕs trip to Arabia (Galatians 1:17), which Luke omits from his narrative. (Comparison with PaulÕs own letters demonstrates that Luke streamlines his story in several places, which I will endeavor to indicate.) Since the visit to Jerusalem in this chapter is clearly identical with that in Galatians 1:18, three years have elapsed since PaulÕs conversion. Inasmuch as Aretas IV (2 Corinthian 11:32) did not come to the throne until 37, a ready calculation would date PaulÕs conversion to 33 or 34 at the earliest. Planning to kill Paul, the local Jews had arranged for him to be arrested by the civil authorities. Aretas IV was glad to be part of this plot, because he was attempting to curry favor with Herod Agrippa at this time. PaulÕs nocturnal ride down the side of the city wall in a basket was the first of his many close-calls for the sake of Christ. Arriving at Jerusalem, he found that the Christians there did not trust him, remembering the angry young persecutor who had left for Damascus some three years earlier. It is at this point that Luke inserts the helpful Barnabas back into the story. Paul must soon flee Jerusalem, however, threatened by the same people responsible for the murder of Stephen. Via the port at Caesarea, Paul returns to his hometown, Tarsus in Cilicia, where he will remain until Barnabas searches him out in 44 or 45 (cf. 11:25). Meanwhile Luke turns our attention, once again, to the ministry of Peter.