The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE ACTS OF
Last week we began a study of the New Testament book the Acts of the Apostles. We finished with the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost where the apostle began to speak in foreign languages and although most of the people were amazed at this miraculous happening, there were some who mockingly said that the apostles were drunk.
At this Peter stood up with the other eleven apostles and addressed the people. Peter's speech is known as the first Christian sermon and is divided into two parts: the first stresses the fact that they are living in the times of the Messiah which accounts for the miracle of speaking in tongues and the second part expands on the fact that Christ is the Messiah. So with boldness Peter addresses the mocking men but also all those present saying: "You men of Judea and all of you that dwell in Jerusalem listen to what I have to tell you. These men are not drunk as you suppose seeing that it is only the third hour of the day." The third hour of the day is 9 o'clock in the morning and it was unusual for people to start drinking wine so early on in the day. Peter uses tact when speaking to the men: he doesn't say these men are not drunk as you have accused them mocking and laughing at them; he says "as you suppose" thus attributing their mocking to ignorance and not to insult and offence. The apostle is careful not to agitate the Christ-killing Jews right from the beginning and then they wouldn't stay to listen to what he has to say. He is also careful not to say that Christ spoke about the descent of the Holy Spirit which again would agitate the non-believers so he turns to the prophets and speaks to them of a prophecy by the Prophet Joel who lived 700-750BC.
Peter tells them that this strange and unexplainable miracle of speaking in tongues is what was spoken of by the Prophet saying: "And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy." The last days the prophet speaks of is the time of the Messiah, because this is the last period and there will not be another period until the end of the world. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit is the giving of the Holy Spirit to everyman. The prophet therefore speaks of the first coming of the Messiah and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which began on the day of Pentecost. But the Prophet continues prophesying and speaks of events associated with the Second Coming of Christ. God is eternal and so doesn't see things as past, present and future as we do. Everything for God is the present so the Prophet Joel sees events in the same way and speaks of the events of the first coming and the second coming in the same breath. He continues: "And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come: And it shall come to pass, [that] whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved."
But let's see the two events separately. With the first period of the Messiah, God will lavishly give the Holy Spirit, not only to the Jews, but to every flesh: to every man without respect to age, gender, race, master or slave and those that receive this Divine gift shall prophesy and God will speak to them in dreams and while awake they will see visions. These things happened to the Apostles, to the Church fathers and thousands of Christians and helped them in their ministry to spread the word of salvation to the peoples of known and unknown worlds.
The second period of the Messiah – the second Coming is a period of judgement. The giver will become the judge and people will be judged if and how they used the gifts of the Holy Spirit responsibly. Just before this time of judgement will be terrible signs in the heavens and on earth that the end is near. The signs on earth will be blood, fire, and vapour of smoke. Blood refers to wars and fire and vapour of smoke could again be from the destructions of war or the result of volcanoes erupting. The heavenly signs are that the sun will lose its light and become dark and as a result the moon will look like blood. These amongst many others are things that the Lord spoke about that would happen at the end of time just before his second coming as recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke. (21:9-28) But in spite of all these terrible things that are to come there is hope for every man, woman and child: everyone that calls upon the name of the Lord and believes on him will be saved.
So after showing them that the miraculous event of Pentecost is the fulfilment of the prophecy by the Prophet Joel, Peter begins the second part of his sermon which is to prove to them through the Psalms of King David that Jesus if the true Messiah. He begins with a short account of Jesus saying: You men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as you yourselves also know. This is something that none of them can dispute; they had all heard of Jesus and heard of the many miracles and wonders that he did and many of the men present were also witnesses to these miracles. These many miracles like making the lame to walk, making the blind to see and raising the dead were proof that Jesus was sent from God.
Peter continues: Him then who was proved to be from God was delivered to you by Judas and you in turn delivered him to wicked hands, meaning the gentile idol-worshipping Romans to be crucified and slain. Peter then comes to the main point of his sermon; the resurrection of Jesus: "Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it." What does Peter mean by "loosed the pains of death?" There are two interpretations: firstly that Hades, accepting Christ into it belly had pains likened to birth pains. It cannot keep Christ inside its belly and desperately has to give birth to relief itself of the terrible pains. Secondly that Christ being raised from the tomb loosed the pains of dying: he took the sting out of dying and made it painless. Thus the mania of the Jews shown towards Jesus by having him put to death, backfired on them and instead of getting rid of him they forever glorified him with an eternal body.
To prove the resurrection of Christ, Peter resorts to the most loved by the Jews, king and Prophet David, quoting from Psalm 15 he says: "I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved." Here David is talking about himself. Such was his faith and love for God that he always saw him in front of him, God was always on his mind. As a result of this connection between David and God, David never wavered in whatever difficulty he had in life, but with hope in the Lord his heart and soul were full of joy. For this joy he says: "Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope." Here he is saying that when he dies his body will lay in rest in the tomb with the hope of the resurrection during the future judgement. Justifying his faith the prophet explains the reason for this hope: "Because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption." And connecting all the above he says: "You have made known to me the ways of life; you shall make me full of joy with thy countenance."
All this part of the psalm word for word concerns David and his belief in the resurrection, but it also refers to Christ, because David was a type of Christ. Christ as a man had far more faith and love for God and hope in the Father. The apostle Peter enlightened by the Holy Spirit adapts this psalm to Christ saying: "Men [and] brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day." Peter is telling them that the psalm cannot refer to David because David died and was buried and his tomb can still be seen today so he saw corruption and was not resurrected so the words of David cannot refer to himself but to none other than the Messiah. Peter continues: Therefore David being a prophet and knowing that God had sworn an oath with him that a descendant from his loins, in other words Mary, would give birth according to human nature the Christ who would be his heir as King and Prophet. Seeing this aforehand, David spoke of the resurrection of Christ that his soul would not remain in Hades and neither would his body see corruption. Thus the prophecy refers to Christ and not to David.
As a seal that this is true Peter tells them that this Jesus God has raised up and we the apostles are all witnesses to his resurrection. And not only this but he has ascended into heaven and is by the right hand of God and as he had promised he has sent the Holy Spirit forth which you now see and hear, in other words, the Holy Spirit has enlightened us and you hear us speaking in foreign languages. As proof of the Ascension Peter again turns to the Psalms of the beloved David and quotes from Psalm 109: David, he said is not ascended into the heavens but he said: "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Until I make thy foes thy footstool." Who then is David referring to, who are the two Lords? Clearly he is referring to the Father and Christ. The Father is telling Christ to sit by his right side. David did not ascend to heaven so we cannot assume that he is referring to himself. It can only refer to Christ that Christ ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God.
Peter then sharply brings his sermon to an end saying: Without any doubt let all the house of Israel know that this Jesus whom you have crucified, God has made him Lord and Christ. At this accusation the men felt that a knife went throw their heart and felt a deep pain at what they had done and ask the apostles what they can do. All the Jews were guilty of killing Christ and they ask what they can do to atone themselves for Christ's crucifixion. Peter replies: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." Peter continues speaking to them testifying of Christ and urging them to save themselves from this corrupt generation. After hearing Peter they gladly received his words and that same day were all baptized. Altogether there were about 3,000 men.
The remainder of chapter two tells us of the life of the first Christians. They were occupied with four basic things: listening to the apostles preaching, having a close fellowship between the members of their new community, the breaking of Bread, in other words, offering the Divine Liturgy and frequent prayer. We are then told that they had all things in common; that they sold all their possessions and goods and divided them among the people according to what each had need of. Many compare the first Christian Church to communism but there is one very big difference between the two. The Christian says "Why should I have something when you have nothing" and the communist would say "Why should you have something when I have nothing. Luke continues telling us of the first Christian community saying they continued daily with one accord in the temple. Even though the first Christians had their own form of worship, they still continued to pray and took part in the sacrifices held in the Jerusalem temple. This shows that they didn't break away from the Jewish faith, but saw the Old Testament as foreshadowing the New Testament. The only difference was that while the mainstream Jews continued in anticipation of the fulfilment of the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah, the early Christians believed that the prophecies had now been fulfilled and the expected Messiah had come in the person Jesus Christ. So they observed the Old Jewish worship, but also offered the New kind of worship that Christ had instigated with the breaking of bread at the Mystical Supper.
Chapter three begins with a miracle by Peter and John. They had both gone together to the temple to pray at the hour of prayer which was the ninth hour. The ninth hour is 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The Jews prayed three times a day, in the morning, 3 in the afternoon and at evening. The actual temple is made up of two parts; the holy where only the priest may enter and the holy of holies where only the high-priest can enter only once a year. Surrounding the Temple are two courtyards the inner courtyard where the Jews prayed and the outer courtyard where Gentiles were allowed to pray. Going from the outer to the inner was a gateway called Beautiful because it was extravagant in design. At this gate people used to carry a man that was born lame and laid him daily at the gate to beg for alms from the people entering the courtyard. When he saw Peter and John about to enter the temple he asked them to give him something. Peter and John stared at the man and said to him to look at them. He looked up thinking that they were going to give him something. Instead, Peter said to him: "Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk and Peter took him by the hand and lifted him up and immediately he felt his feet receiving strength." The man began to walk and he entered the temple with them walking and leaping and praising God. When the people saw him they recognized him as the man that sat at the gate begging for a living and were filled with wonder and amazement at that which had happened to him. As the apostles began to leave the healed man held onto them in gratitude and all the people ran together hoping to understand what had happened. When Peter saw the people gathered together he took the opportunity to give his second Christian sermon. Peter wants the Jews to repent for killing Jesus and his sermon begins with the accusation of what they had done.
"You men of Israel, why marvel at this? or why look you so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk? The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his Son Jesus; whom you delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let [him] go." The Jews had delivered Jesus to Pilate so that he would crucify him, but six times Pilate proclaimed him innocent of the accusations against him. The Jews though refused to accept Jesus' innocence and insisted upon his death. Peter continues: You denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you. With bitterness he tells them that they killed the Prince of life, but God had raised him from the dead and they are witnesses to his resurrection. He then explains to them how the lame man was healed. Through the name of Jesus and by faith in his name, this man who you see and know was made strong and made whole in the presence of you all.
Having accused them of killing their Messiah, Peter then moves to soften their guilt and bring about their repentance. He tells them that he understands that they did what they did through ignorance: neither they nor their rulers didn't know that they were crucifying their Messiah. That was why Christ on the cross said: "forgive them for they know not what they do." But not only this, God had foretold through the mouth of the prophets that Christ would suffer so in reality the Jews were simply the instruments that carried out the Divine will which had to be fulfilled. Having associated their responsibility with the divine plan and removed most of the guilt from them, he then speaks to them of repentance, to accept the truth and be converted and not only will their sins be blotted out but they will have eternal life when the Lord comes a second time. He explains to them that Christ having fulfilled his work on earth must now remain in the heavens until his second coming, the judgement and the renewal of nature which God has spoken of by the mouth of the prophets since the world began. Moses had foretold of this saying: The lord your God shall raise up a prophet from among you who is like unto me, him you shall hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. When Moses says a prophet like unto me he means someone who like himself would speak mouth to mouth with God, be a mediator between God and man and someone who would lead the people, like he did, to salvation. This could only mean the Messiah. No other prophet came near to being like Moses: they had visions and dreams, but only Moses had seen the glory of God.
Peter then tells them that whoever does not listen to that prophet will be destroyed from among the people and that all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days. These days means the eternal blessedness which began from the first appearance of the Lord and reaches to his second coming. Peter mentions all the prophets from Samuel, but in fact the Bible doesn't record that Samuel said anything concerning the Christ. It would seem then that Peter was simply referring in general to all the Prophets collectively. Peter ends his sermon by pointing out to the Jews the great honour God has bestowed upon their nation saying: you are the children of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed. This seed of Abraham in which all the nations of the earth will be blessed is the Christ and Peter is telling them that the Jews are the closest and rightful heirs of Christ's salvation, because the prophets who foretold all these things belonged to their same race. He then tells them of a second honour God has bestowed upon them: God having raised up his Son Jesus sent him first to you before all other nations to bless you and help you turn away from your iniquities.
Chapter four tells us of the outcome of Peter's sermon. While the Apostles were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them. They were annoyed because the Apostles were speaking publicly in the temple without first obtaining their permission. The Sadducees were doubly annoyed because they preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead. The Sadducees were the aristocrats of the Jews and didn't believe that the soul lived on after death and denied the resurrection of the dead which the majority of the Jews believed in. They arrested the apostles and put them in prison until the next day because it was already evening. This didn't affect the influence the apostles had on the people; from those that heard them speak about five thousand men believed and were converted.
The next day the Great Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, was assembled. This consisted of the rulers, elders and scribes. The rulers were mainly the heads of the priestly families, the elders were the representatives of the people and the scribes who were the legal experts of the Jewish law. At the head of the council was the active high-priest Caiaphas and his father in law Annas, the previous high-priest, who were both responsible for the condemnation of Jesus. With them Luke mentions a John and an Alexander and a great many relatives of the high-priest. For Luke to mention this John and Alexander means that they were well known figures in Jerusalem at that time, but in history they have remained completely unknown to us. The council now assembled, they call for the prisoners to be brought before them. With them also is the lame man that was healed. They begin the questioning and ask the apostles by what authority and by what name they had cured the man. They of course knew the answer because the apostles had healed the man in the temple and preached the crucified and resurrected Christ and it was for this reason they had them arrested.
Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, began their defence: "You rulers of the people and elders of Israel, If we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole." What Peter is saying politely not wishing to show disrespect is that in healing the impotent man we did nothing bad but only good. Courts do not judge benefactors but criminals thus your injustice is very clear. Peter then continues to tell them by what authority they performed the miracle: Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, [even] by him doth this man stand here before you whole. Then Peter wishing to stress the greatness of Jesus quotes a verse from Psalm 118: This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. In other words Jesus is the stone which the builders of the house of Jerusalem, the rulers of the Jews disdainfully cast out as being unsuitable yet this same stone has become the cornerstone which joins two walls together, the Jews and the Gentiles on which his church will be built. Peter seals this by saying: there is no salvation in any other for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.
Seeing the boldness of the apostles the members of the court marvelled because they could tell from their speech and probably from their clothing that they were uneducated men, yet they had no fear of speaking in front of the aristocracy and rulers of Israel. They also marvelled when they recognized them as being with Jesus on the night that he also stood before them. But on that occasion they remembered that Peter acted with cowardice in the high-priest's courtyard, what happened that now he had so much courage to stand before them and even accuse them as Christ's murderers. The Jews thought that when they killed Jesus, they also put a stop to his ministry and that his followers had dispersed and each gone his own way. But now they were faced with the boldness of many Jesus'. They look at the man that was healed who was standing next to them. They had him brought to the court thinking that they could scare him into denying that the apostles had healed him but now after seeing the boldness of the apostles they feared to say anything against his healing. They commanded that the man and the prisoners leave the courtroom so that they could confer among themselves.
The rulers were in a dilemma: what should they do with these men? It was impossible to accuse them as frauds that staged the healing of the lame man because everyone knew the man that he was born lame and the miracle had become so widely known in Jerusalem that not even they themselves could deny it. They decide therefore to threaten the apostles to speak no more in the name of Jesus and called them into the courtroom to give them their verdict. Peter and John answered them and said: If it's right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to listen to God we leave that for you to judge, but we cannot stop preaching of the things we have seen and heard.
The court finding nothing with which they could punish them threatened them again and let them go free. They could do nothing because all the people glorified God for that which was done. The two apostles returned to their own company and reported everything the chief priests and elders said to them. When they heard the apostles story and the threats they had receive they lifted up their voice to God and prayed together. The words that follow are considered as the first prayer of the church and it was probably recited by Peter with the rest of the community repeating certain parts of the prayer or sealing parts of the prayer with Amen.
The prayer begins: Lord thou art God which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is: then Peter quotes from Psalm 2 saying: Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. This was a prophecy now fulfilled so Peter continues: For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever your hand and your counsel had determined before to be done. Up to this point of the prayer Peter acknowledges God and the things that Jesus was destined to suffer by the will of God. Next comes the actual petition. This form and composition of prayer has remained in most of the prayers of the church. We do not ask God immediately for what we have need of: we first praise God for who he is and then comes the requests and then we finish with a doxology to God.
The Prayer continues: Lord behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word, By stretching forth thine hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done by the name of thy holy child Jesus. As soon as the prayer was finished God sent his answer. The place where they were assembled shook like in an earthquake and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness. This being filled with the Holy Spirit doesn't mean that the Holy Spirit they had received during Pentecost had left them or had expired its use by date; The Holy Spirit at Pentecost had the mission of giving them the gift of speaking in tongues and now his mission was to give them courage to preach with boldness. Also there were now many more faithful who were not present at Pentecost who also had to receive the Holy Spirit.
The last six verses of chapter four seems to repeat things that were said in chapter two that everyone of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: no one said that the things that he had were his own possessions, but they had all things common. The reason for this repeat appears to be because the first Christians had increased greatly and in spite of the threats from the Jewish leaders, there was brotherly love between them. Nobody lacked anything and everyone that owned lands or houses sold them and brought the funds from the sell and laid them down at the apostles' feet, and distribution was made to every man according to what he had need of. Among the Christians was a man who name was Joses who was called Barnabas by the apostles. Barnabas was a Levite born in Cyprus and later was adopted by the Cypriot Church as their patron saint. Barnabas had land and sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostle's feet. Many people sold their lands and gave the money for the community so why does Luke single out Barnabas by name and not the others. Luke is preparing us for an episode involving a man named Ananias and his wife Saphira which immediately follows in the next chapter and which we will see next week.