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The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 8:4-8

Philip Proclaims Christ in Samaria

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city[a] of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.

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My previous entry discussed the first three verses of Acts 8.

In summary, Stephen’s brutal martyrdom — aided and abetted by Paul (verses 1 and 3) — caused the disciples to scatter. The Apostles remained in Jerusalem to minister to the converts there.

Despite Stephen’s martyrdom in Jerusalem, which everyone would have been aware of, those who scattered continued to preach the word (verse 4).

Matthew Henry makes this point about the persecutors (emphases mine below):

The persecution that was designed to extirpate the church was by the overruling providence of God made an occasion of the enlargement of it. Christ had said, I am come to send fire on the earth; and they thought, by scattering those who were kindled with that fire, to have put it out, but instead of this they did but help to spread it.

As for the disciples:

They did not go to hide themselves for fear of suffering, no, nor to show themselves as proud of their sufferings; but they went up and down to scatter the knowledge of Christ in every place where they were scattered. They went every where, into the way of the Gentiles, and the cities of the Samaritans, which before they were forbidden to go into, Matthew 10:5. They did not keep together in a body, though this might have been a strength to them; but they scattered into all parts, not to take their ease, but to find out work. They went evangelizing the world, preaching the word of the gospel; it was this which filled them, and which they endeavoured to fill the country with, those of them that were preachers in their preaching, and others in their common converse.

They knew Samaria and the Samaritans knew about Christ:

They were now in a country where they were no strangers, for Christ and his disciples had conversed much in the regions of Judea; so that they had a foundation laid there for them to build upon; and it would be requisite to let the people there know what that doctrine which Jesus had preached there some time ago was come to, and that it was not lost and forgotten, as perhaps they were made to believe.

This was thanks to the exchange Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:

25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

27 Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.

39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

John MacArthur picks up on the words ‘went about’ in verse 4:

It literally means, “They went through countries and districts.” And it’s used of missionary extensions, and here you have the first missionary effort of the church.

Verse 5 brings us to Philip, the subject of much of Acts 8. Like Stephen, he was one of the first deacons, as Acts 6:5 tells us:

And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.

He, again like Stephen, was a Hellenic (Greek) Jew who converted to Christianity.

The Apostles instituted the office of deacon to ensure that food and charity were fairly distributed in the Church in Jerusalem. Acts 6:1 says:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists[a] arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

Incidentally, Philip the Deacon — or Evangelist — is different to Philip the Apostle. Philip the Evangelist might have been the founder of the church in Tralles in Anatolia. He also had four daughters who followed him into prophesying (Acts 21:9).

In a third similarity to Stephen, God gave Philip remarkable powers. Acts 6:8 states:

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.

Acts 8:6-8 describes Philip as being able to accomplish God-given signs and the ability to drive out demons as well as restore the paralysed and lame to full health, all of which brought much happiness to the people of Samaria.

MacArthur describes the history of the uneasy relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. First, there is the statement in verse 5 that Philip ‘went down’ to Samaria:

Now when it says he went down to Samaria, everybody always thinks, “Well, my map, Samaria is up.” But if you were in Jerusalem, everything is down because Jerusalem is way up on a high plateau and you go down to go to Samaria, down to go to Jericho, down to go to anywhere. And so he went down and north to Samaria. Samaria was an area, and it was also the name of the city, the ancient capital of that whole area, the Northern Kingdom, was Samaria. And so he went to this place.

Now into the history:

In the 8th Century B.C., you remember before that had been split into the Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom of Israel. After Solomon, Solomon messed everything up so much that Solomon had brought about a fracture in the kingdom and, of course, following Solomon, the kingdom was split: Jeroboam and Rehoboam in the north and the south. Ten tribes went north, two tribes went south: Judah and Benjamin. The Northern Kingdom, by the 8th Century, was carried off into captivity by the Assyrians. And at that time, there were some Jews left in the lands. Most of them were carried off; some were left. They then moved strangers into the land, and the Jews, not being really committed to their Judaism, intermarried with the strangers that the Assyrians put in the land. Consequently, it became a mongrel race.

In the 5th Century B.C., the Jews who had been carried into Babylonian captivity, the South Kingdom, was Judah, Benjamin. They’d been carried off. After 70 years, Cyrus gave a decree they could come back. Now remember they came back under Ezra and Nehemiah to build the temple again, and the walls. So they all marched back and started their building. Well, all the guys in the North who were now half-breeds came down and said, “We want to help.” They were contemptuously rejected. Remember the story? They didn’t want a thing from those half-breeds who had desecrated their Judaism by intermarrying with Gentiles. And that began the rift, and it’s continued even until the book of Acts, and often times even until today.

MacArthur says that Philip was the first to bridge the gap between evangelist and teaching pastor. Verse 5 tells us that Philip ‘proclaimed’ Christ to the people. In some translations, the word is ‘preached’:

Now this is an interesting thing because the word “preached” in 5 is different than the word “preaching.” One is euaggelizo, one is kerusso. Philip – kerusso; that means he “proclaimed”. He was a public herald. There is a difference between an individual presenting the gospel, and somebody who is a preacher, a herald, a public speaker. Philip was a public speaker and he presented, in preaching – look at it – Christ, unto them.

The people of Samaria understood and appreciated Philip’s public proclamations because they already knew something about Christ:

So, when Philip went there, he presented to them that Christ is Messiah. It was a simple message, and they were ready for it. Now, hang on to this point. You see, they had the background to understand that announcement.

Because of this, they ‘paid attention’ to what he said and did (verse 6):

In verse 6, bang, they responded right off. And these people, the word is “multitudes,” with one accord, they had a wholesale spiritual awakening; gave heed unto those things which Philip spoke.

Furthermore, the miracles proved the truth of Philip’s words:

God confirmed the preaching with miracles, so they would know it was from God.

MacArthur points out that these abilities ended with the Apostolic Age:

We don’t have that power today. Jesus had the power to cast them out with a word. His apostles and these two [Stephen and Philip], whom He gave the gift of miracles, had the power to do it. But today, we are the same level as we are when we come to the sick. We have to pray for their healing. And so with demon possessed people. We can’t walk around saying “Alright all you demons. In the name of Christ, get out.” And I think a lot of people today are frustrated because they try it and it doesn’t work. You know, people say to me “Well, I tired to cast these demons out. It didn’t go.” Well, I’ve done the same thing and I’ve tried and it didn’t go either.

There’s a question of the ability to do miracles here that does not belong to us and we have to pray for these people even as we do sick people, because we can’t just walk up and say, “Be healed.” That gift belonged to this age.

He says that there was only one time when he was sure he had met someone — a woman — possessed by two demons, who came out only when she confessed serious sins from her past to him and another minister with him at the time:

we found that we had to pray, and it all boiled down to her confession of sin before those demons ever left. Because I had worked for two hours and so had Jerry, trying to get rid of this one demon, called Decito. And nothing ever happened until she finally was willing to confess some really filthy things in her life for which she needed relief, the relief that comes in confession, and the cleansing. And then it was gone, no problem.

So again, we cannot go about casting out demons, but we can certainly pray for people. And we can certainly confront them with the need for confession and cleansing that there might be no place for demons to occupy.

Next week’s post will feature more about Philip’s ministry.

Next time: Acts 8:9-13

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The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 7:2b-8

“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.

—————————————————————————————————–

Before we come to today’s reading, it is worthwhile recapping Acts 6, which is part of the three-year Lectionary readings for St Stephen’s feast day. He was the first martyr.

Because the first Pentecost took place during the Jewish feast of the first harvest, Jews from all over the ancient world had gathered in Jerusalem.

Among them were many new converts, including Jews from Greece, the Hellenists (Acts 6:1). The Hellenists complained that their newly converted widows were receiving less in charity than the widows of Jerusalem and surrounds. Whether this was a sound complaint, we do not know. However, the Apostles decided that keeping track of charity and collecting funds for the new Church would limit the time they spent teaching and healing.

Therefore, they instituted deacons to take on the charity work — to ‘serve tables’ (Acts 6:2). The word ‘deacon’ is not used as such in Acts 6, but this essentially was what the position involved. Matthew Henry tells us that the Greek words for serving tables are

diakonein trapezais–to be deacons to the tables, Acts 6:2.

The Twelve directed all the disciples — which now included several thousands of converts — to name seven men who were (Acts 6:3):

of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom …

Henry explains:

These must be, First, Of honest report, men free from scandal, that were looked upon by their neighbours as men of integrity, and faithful men, well attested, as men that might be trusted, not under a blemish for any vice, but, on the contrary, well spoken of for every thing that is virtuous and praiseworthy; martyroumenous–men that can produce good testimonials concerning their conversation. Note, Those that are employed in any office in the church ought to be men of honest report, of a blameless, nay, of an admirable character, which is requisite not only to the credit of their office, but to the due discharge of it. Secondly, They must be full of the Holy Ghost, must be filled with those gifts and graces of the Holy Ghost which were necessary to the right management of this trust. They must not only be honest men, but they must be men of ability and men of courage; such as were to be made judges in Israel (Exodus 18:21), able men, fearing God; men of truth, and hating covetousness; and hereby appearing to be full of the Holy Ghost. Thirdly, They must be full of wisdom. It was not enough that they were honest, good men, but they must be discreet, judicious men, that could not be imposed upon, and would order things for the best, and with consideration: full of the Holy Ghost, and wisdom, that is, of the Holy Ghost as a Spirit of wisdom. We find the word of wisdom given by the Spirit, as distinct form the word of knowledge by the same Spirit, 1 Corinthians 12:8. Those must be full of wisdom who are entrusted with public money, that it may be disposed of, not only with fidelity, but with frugality.

Henry says that the seven men chosen were not among the disciples at the first Pentecost but those who had converted and received the Holy Spirit afterwards. Furthermore, their names were Greek, implying they were Hellenists (Acts 6:5). Perhaps this was a better way of ensuring charity was distributed equally to Hebrew and Hellenist alike.

Henry tells us more about these men:

Nicolas, it is plain, was one of them, for he was a proselyte of Antioch; and some think the manner of expression intimates that they were all proselytes of Jerusalem, as he was of Antioch. The first named is Stephen, the glory of these septemviri, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost; he had a strong faith in the doctrine of Christ, and was full of it above most; full of fidelity, full of courage (so some), for he was full of the Holy Ghost, of his gifts and graces. He was an extraordinary man, and excelled in every thing that was good; his name signifies a crown. Philip is put next, because he, having used this office of a deacon well, thereby obtained a good degree, and was afterwards ordained to the office of an evangelist, a companion and assistant to the apostles, for so he is expressly called, Acts 21:8. Compare Ephesians 4:11. And his preaching and baptizing (which we read of Acts 8:12) were certainly not as a deacon (for it is plain that that office was serving tables, in opposition to the ministry of the word), but as an evangelist; and, when he was preferred to that office, we have reason to think he quitted this office, as incompatible with that. As for Stephen, nothing we find done by him proves him to be a preacher of the gospel; for he only disputes in the schools, and pleads for his life at the bar, Acts 6:9,7:2. The last named is Nicolas, who, some say, afterwards degenerated (as the Judas among these seven) and was the founder of the sect of the Nicolaitans which we read of (Revelation 2:6,15), and which Christ there says, once and again, was a thing he hated. But some of the ancients clear him from this charge, and tell us that, though that vile impure sect denominated themselves from him, yet it was unjustly, and because he only insisted much upon it that those that had wives should be as though they had none, thence they wickedly inferred that those that had wives should have them in common, which therefore Tertullian, when he speaks of the community of goods, particularly excepts: Omnia indiscreta apud nos, præter uxores–All things are common among us, except our wives.–Apol. cap, 39.

The Apostles prayerfully laid their hands on this group of seven men (Acts 6:6), which also included (Acts 6:5):

Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas …

Thus ordained, the first deacons went about their duties.

Stephen was filled with such grace and faith that he performed (Acts 6:8):

great wonders and signs among the people.

Henry tells us that wonders and signs were not restricted to the Apostles:

It is not strange that Stephen, though he was not a preacher by office, did these great wonders, for we find that these were distinct gifts of the Spirit, and divided severally, for to one was given the working of miracles, and to another prophecy, 1 Corinthians 12:10,11. And these signs followed not only those that preached, but those that believed. Mark 16:17.

A group of devout Jews from abroad — Greece, Asia Minor and freemen (freed slaves) from Rome — took issue with Stephen’s actions (Acts 6:9). However, he responded with such divinely inspired wisdom that they had nothing more to say. So, they took their hostility further and made up lies about him, saying he had blasphemed Moses and God (Acts 6:11). Having cooked up a lie, they then used it to agitate the scribes and elders in the temple (Acts 6:12), which produced the desired result. Stephen was brought up before the council at the temple. Acts 6:15:

15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

This brings us to Acts 7, which begins with the high priest asking Stephen to explain himself.

John MacArthur tells us about the charges of blasphemy levelled against Stephen:

He had been charged with blasphemy against God, Moses, the law and the Temple, the most sacred things in the mind of any Jew. And he had to answer the charge. But he knew what he believed, and he knew why he believed it. And he answered it. And I think it’s important to notice that he answered the charge with Scripture. He defended the faith not in vagaries of philosophy, not in logic, but in verbal testimony to the Scripture. And he even quotes it repeatedly verbatim, which shows something of what he must’ve known about Scripture.

Historical Jewish tradition says that the great rabban Gamaliel — from last week’s post on Acts 5:33-42 — trained Stephen in Scripture. Gamaliel certainly taught St Paul and he might well have taught Barnabas also.

Stephen’s speech is a magnificent lesson in apologetics, a defence of the Christian faith, not being sorry for it, as apology generally means today.

Before we look at it in more detail, MacArthur posits that Stephen’s ministry to the Hellenists was a means of moving the thrust of the new Church along and out of Jerusalem:

It was now time for operation number two, which was Judea and Samaria, moving out from Jerusalem. Now, Stephen became the key to this thrust, for many reasons. In the first place, they needed to get better organized in order to step out. The church was falling into some internal problems because they weren’t structured right, so in chapter 6 they got organized. They chose seven Spirit-filled men to handle the business of the church so the apostles could be free to preach and to pray …

And so Stephen was important to the progress of the church because he was taking over responsibility that freed the church to go. Secondly, he was important because he was a preacher, a New Testament prophet, and he preached to foreign Jews. So he began to extend this from the Palestine Jews to the Hellenist, or Grecian, Jews, who would come into Jerusalem.

Ultimately, Stephen’s ministry ended in martyrdom, which further assisted the Church at that time:

immediately following his death, chapter 8, verse 1 says, “And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem.” The death of Stephen precipitated the persecution of the church. And, as you know, when the church gets persecuted, the church gets going.

And so the persecution came, and immediately they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, which is right on target, right on schedule, exactly where God wanted them to go. Phase two begins to move. And it isn’t because God sent them out there directly. It’s because the people in Jerusalem started persecuting them and they fled to those places.

Stephen’s speech explains early Jewish history concerning the covenant and promises that God fulfilled for the people of Israel. Today’s reading is only the first part, relating how Abraham was called by God from Mesopotamia to inhabit a new land (verses 2, 3).

Note that Stephen addressed those gathered as ‘brothers and fathers’. In other words, ‘I am one of you’. Left unspoken for now is that he understood that God wanted them to believe in Jesus, the Messiah.

He also referred to ‘the God of glory’ and ‘our father Abraham’, further evidence that he was not blaspheming and that he had reverence for the Almighty and the great persons in Scripture.

Stephen went on to say that Abraham accepted God’s instructions and moved to Haran, then on to the present land ‘where you are now living’ (verse 4). Yet, God didn’t leave Abraham an inheritance of land, but told him it would belong to his offspring (verse 5). This was incredible, because Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children. She was sterile. Furthermore, they were advanced in age. So, Abraham spent time alone with their servant Hagar. Nine months later Ishmael was born. However, Ishmael was not part of God’s plan for Abraham.

Yet, Abraham’s faith was such that, even though his understanding of that plan was imperfect, he did not question God or His design for him and his people.

Then, as Stephen related (verses 6, 7), God had more news for Abraham: his offspring would be slaves to others, toiling in a foreign land for 400 years. (MacArthur tells us that it was 430.) Then, His people would be released from bondage and come to worship Him in their own land.

God made a covenant with Abraham, one of circumcision (verse 8) for every male in his family down through the generations, including slaves and foreigners. Abraham circumcised Isaac eight days after he was born. Circumcision continued with Isaac’s son Jacob and so on, encompassing all twelve tribes of Israel and their descendants.

What Stephen did here was to express his faith in God’s sovereignty. MacArthur explains:

Stephen’s saying, “I realize the destiny of Israel’s in the hands of God.” Do you see what he’s saying? That’s what he’s recognizing. “I know that God is running the show. I believe in the God of Israel, who called Abraham, who took the children of Israel into Egypt, who brought the plagues on Pharaoh and got them out of Egypt, who presented the great deliverer, Moses. I believe it all,” is what’s saying. He’s establishing himself in relation to the God of Israel.

This accomplished two things for those listening to Stephen in court:

He has captured their attention by reciting the history they love to hear. And I’ll bet you he was a dynamic speaker. It says that they couldn’t resist his spirit. And I think they just ate it up. And the second thing he accomplished was, he defended himself against the charge that he blasphemed God. He did believe in God. He did not believe God was unholy, unsacred. He believed God was the holy God of glory, the very God of Israel.

What Stephen was moving towards by recounting their common history as Jews was this:

The third thing he wants to do is indict them for sinfulness and rejection. The fourth thing is to present Messiah.

The story continues next week.

Next time: Acts 7:9-16

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