A Christian Guide to Acts by R. David Pogge

Chapter 4

The Ministries of Stephen and Philip

Acts 6 - 8

God chose human ordinary beings, rather than angels, to spread the Gospel. He gave them the Holy Spirt to enable them to do the work. Two of them were Stephen and Philip.

Section 4.1 - The Need for Organization

Stephen and Phillip were ordained because there was a need for organization.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. [Acts 4:32-35]

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. [Acts 6:1-6]

Stephen and Philip (along with four other Jews, and one Gentile) were chosen to do the necessary, but mundane work of caring for the poor. As we will see, this did not exclude them from doing some spiritual work as well.

Section 4.2 - Politics of Personal Destruction

Sinful men,

“began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’ So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.’ ” [Acts 6:9-14]

If Jesus really had abolished the law (including the rules about unclean meats), or if Stephen and the other apostles were worshipping on Sunday (instead of Sabbath) then there would have been no need to secretly persuade false witnesses to lie and say they did. Honest witnesses could have testified against them.

The tactic of attacking the personality of a speaker, rather than the undeniable truth of his argument, isn’t just characteristic of modern politics. It goes back thousands of years. If someone needs false witnesses to win an argument, it is a reliable indication that the opponent’s argument cannot be refuted honestly.

Section 4.3 - Stephen’s Defense

The apostles were not teaching that there was an Old Covenant based on the law which had been replaced by a New Covenant based on grace, so Stephen did not try to prove that there was a change in covenants (as some modern denominations do). Instead, Stephen argued that everything in the Old Testament is true, and is the basis for Christianity. Jesus is the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament. You can read for yourself the first 50 verses of Acts Chapter 7 in which Stephen recounted Jewish history, establishing his credibility as a faithful Jew who believed, respected, and understood the scriptures. He quoted the Old Testament ten times, and never once tried to twist the scripture to give it a new, misleading meaning.

After laying this foundation, Stephen could have tried to win over the opposition by saying, “All I have to add is, God loves you!” That wasn’t the message the Holy Spirit told Stephen to give. Instead, he said,

“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” [Acts 7:51-7:53]

His accusers were the ones who were not obeying the law of Moses. They were stiff-necked sinners. They needed to be told they were sinners, and Stephen wasn’t afraid to say so, even though it cost him is life.

He did not try to excuse their sin by saying that the commandment against murder has been abolished. He did not comfort them by saying that grace covers a multitude of sins, and they need not worry about having killed Jesus.

Stephen taught that it was important to believe the Old Testament and obey God—not that the Old Testament had been replaced with a kinder, gentler gospel which eliminated the need for obedience.

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul [later named Paul].

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul approved of their killing him. [Acts 7:54-8:1]

Paul witnessed Stephen’s death. It did not have an immediate effect on Paul, but it may have served to inspire him after his conversion.

We will just note in passing that Luke says Stephen “fell asleep.” He did not say, “Stephen went to up to heaven to join Jesus at the right hand of God.” How the Roman Catholic Church replaced the biblical truth about death with Greco-Roman mythology about death is covered in Appendix B - Death, so we won't address that right now. Please just remember that Luke referred to death as “sleep” when we get to Section 12.2 – The Resurrection Controversy.

Section 4.4 - The Persecution-driven Church

Acts Chapter 8 describes how, on the day Stephen was stoned, persecution began, causing believers to flee Jerusalem, and take the Gospel message with them. That's how the Gospel began to spread all over the world.

All 31 sermons in the book of Acts (listed in Appendix A – The Sermons in Acts) provoked a strong reaction. The Gospel truth can’t be ignored. People either fully accept the message or completely reject it.

Have you noticed how few sermons today evoke a similar reaction? Have you wondered why that is? Could it be that funny stories and theological discussions about the difference between sanctification and justification aren’t really that meaningful?

There’s nothing wrong about telling a funny story that has a moral—but that isn’t the Gospel. Aesop gave us a lot of good advice—but Aesop never saved a single soul.

Yes, we should strive to understand the exact meanings of words in ancient languages—but let’s not spend so much time looking at leaves that we don’t see the path through the forest.

The Book of Acts shows us that the Gospel preached by Jesus, Peter, Stephen, Philip, and Paul has real power. Power is frightening.

A chain saw is a very powerful tool which needs to be handled with a respectful fear—and so does the Gospel. If there is no gas in the chain saw, it isn’t very frightening or useful. Sermons which lack gasoline don’t have the power to save anyone.

Persecution is the response of evil to the truth. There was a lot of persecution in the days of the apostolic church because there was a lot of truth being preached. Today, there isn’t nearly as much persecution. Is there a lesson to be learned from that?

Section 4.5 - Philip in Samaria

On that day [when Stephen was stoned] a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul [Paul] began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. [Acts 8:1-5]

When you hear the word, “Samaritan,” the first word that probably comes to your mind is, “Good!” because you’ve heard about the Parable of the Good Samaritan, 1 even if you have never read it. Because Samaritans have come to symbolize good, hospitable people in our culture, a national network of campgrounds have taken the Good Samaritan to be their logo.

It was the exact opposite in Jesus’ day. When Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the reaction was similar to what would happen today if a rabbi told a parable about a Good Nazi who found a sick, starving Jew who had escaped from a death camp, took him home, nursed him back to health, and gave him a ticket to America. Jews and Samaritans hated each other back then as much as everyone hates Hitler today. There was a good, historical reason for that. You need to understand that history in order to fully understand Philip preaching to the Samaritans.

When King Solomon died, the northern ten tribes of Israel living in Samaria broke away from the Jews living in Judea to the south, and formed a rival kingdom called “Israel”. Since they didn’t want to go to Jerusalem (the capital of the southern kingdom, “Judah”) to worship God, the king of Israel set up an alternate place of worship in Samaria.

All of the kings of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord. To punish them, God sent the Assyrians to invade Israel and deport most of the people from Samaria to other parts of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians moved a mixture of people from other parts of the empire to Samaria to prevent the people they had conquered from uniting and rebelling against them.

The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. When they first lived there, they did not worship the Lord; so he sent lions among them and they killed some of the people. It was reported to the king of Assyria: “The people you deported and resettled in the towns of Samaria do not know what the god of that country requires. He has sent lions among them, which are killing them off, because the people do not know what he requires.”

Then the king of Assyria gave this order: “Have one of the priests you took captive from Samaria go back to live there and teach the people what the god of the land requires.” So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria came to live in Bethel and taught them how to worship the Lord.

Nevertheless, each national group made its own gods in the several towns where they settled, and set them up in the shrines the people of Samaria had made at the high places. The people from Babylon made Sukkoth Benoth, those from Kuthah made Nergal, and those from Hamath made Ashima; the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire as sacrifices to Adrammelek and Anammelek, the gods of Sepharvaim. They worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines at the high places. They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.

To this day [probably written around 600 BC] they persist in their former practices. They neither worship the Lord nor adhere to the decrees and regulations, the laws and commands that the Lord gave the descendants of Jacob, whom he named Israel. … Even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols. To this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their ancestors did. [2 Kings 17:24-34, 41]

In Philip’s day, the Samaritans were still considered to be heathen squatters, living on the land that God gave to Israel, practicing a corrupt version of Judaism, disobeying the law of Moses, worthy of scorn.

Some Samaritans thought they were worshipping God properly. That’s why the Samaritan woman at the well said to Jesus,

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” [John 4:19-20]

Jesus’ response is the closest Jesus ever came to abolishing the law of Moses; and He didn’t really get very close. As at other times, He magnified it.

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” [John 4:21-26]

Judaism could not become a world-wide religion as long as everyone had to worship God at the temple in Jerusalem. The sacrifices in Jerusalem pointing forward to the sacrifice of Christ were no longer necessary after the sacrifice of Christ had actually been made. At that time, Jesus said, “the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth”—not in Jerusalem or any other specific location. God sent the Roman army to destroy the temple and prevent Christians from thinking they had to offer sacrifices in Jerusalem.

Although the woman was “just” a Samaritan, she was familiar enough with the Old Testament to know that the Messiah was coming. The Jews should have known that, too; but many didn’t. Christians should know Jesus is coming back again; but many act like they don’t know it.

With that background, we can better understand Philip's ministry in Samaria.

Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw. [Acts 8:9-13]

Any supernatural power that doesn’t come from God comes from the devil. Simon recognized supernatural power when he saw it. He also recognized that the power Philip got from God was greater than the power he himself got from Beelzebub. He wanted more power, so he switched sides—or so it seemed.

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. [Acts 8:14-17]

We will talk about the difference between water baptism and baptism by the Holy Spirit in Section 10.1 - Baptized by the Spirit. We can’t get distracted with that now because we are right in the middle of the story about Simon the sorcerer.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” [Acts 8:18-24]

Apparently, Simon wasn’t converted after all. Perhaps after Peter rebuked him, Simon really did become converted on his second attempt. The Bible doesn’t say.

It isn’t up to us to judge whether or not Simon’s repentance was real. That’s not why Luke told us this story. The point is that the Holy Spirit can use us for His purposes—but we can’t use the Holy Spirit for ours. Simon wanted to use the Holy Spirit. That’s why Peter rebuked him.

Peter and John saw the Holy Spirit being poured out on the Samaritans, confirming yet again that Gentiles (even Samaritans!) could be saved.

After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages. [Acts 8:25]

Section 4.6 - Philip Explains Prophecy

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”[Acts 8:26]

So, we need a quick look at the map to see what is going on.

Hammond's Atlas of the Bible Lands (back cover)

The eunuch was going south from Jerusalem to Gaza on his way to Ethiopia. We don’t know exactly where in Samaria Philip was when the angel spoke to him; but he was somewhere north of Jerusalem. Presumably, the angel gave Philip enough of a head start so that he could catch the eunuch soon after the eunuch left Jerusalem.

So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
   and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
   so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
   Who can speak of his descendants?
   For his life was taken from the earth.” 2

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” [Some manuscripts add Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea. [Acts 8:27-40]

The eunuch was a Gentile who worshiped the God of Abraham, and was reading one of the scriptures which foretold the coming of the Messiah. The Holy Spirit had done most of the work. All Philip had to do was put the last piece in the puzzle. The eunuch recognized his sin and need for baptism. The eunuch was baptized and took the gospel message all the way through Egypt down to Ethiopia.

The Holy Spirit gave Philip a free ride back to Samaria, where he preached from Azotus all the way up the coast to Caesarea.

Philip’s witness to the eunuch is the 7th sermon (out of a total of 31 sermons listed in Appendix A) recorded in the Book of Acts. By now you may have noticed something all these sermons have in common. (Spoiler Alert: The remaining 24 sermons in the Book of Acts also share the same characteristic.)

The recurring theme in all these sermons is that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies found in the Old Testament. The Messianic prophecies are the best evidence that Jesus is the Son of God. There are lots of other teachers who have good, moral messages; but Jesus is the only one who perfectly matches the prophetic Old Testament description of the Messiah. This gives credibility to both Jesus and the Old Testament.

You cannot fully appreciate the ministry of Jesus Christ unless you understand the Old Testament. The Old Testament has not been replaced by the New Testament. The two Testaments explain each other. If you think the two Testaments disagree, you certainly don’t understand one of them, and probably don’t understand either of them.

Back to Chapter 3 Table of Contents On to Chapter 5

Footnotes:

1 Luke 10:25-37
2 Isaiah 53:7-8