The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

 

TALK ON THE ACTS OF

THE APOSTLES
PART 3
23rd October 2014

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Last time we finished with chapter four of the Acts of the Apostles which ended with Luke mentioning that Barnabas, a Levite Jew born in Cyprus had sold his land and brought the money and laid it at the apostle's feet. At that time many who had lands and houses sold them and brought the money to be used for the common good of the first Christian community. The author of Acts singles out Barnabas by name probably because, among those that offered their lands, Barnabas was the most well known and has a great missionary role to play in later chapters when he joins up with Paul. But another reason for mentioning Barnabas is because Luke wants us to compare Barnabas' charitable and unselfish example with an episode involving a man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira which cast the first satanical shadow over the early church. The episode opens the fifth chapter.
Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold a possession and kept back part of the price secretly for their own use. When Ananias brought the money to the Apostles, Peter, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, knew what he had done and said to him: “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? While it remained, was it not your own? and after it was sold, was it not in your own power? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” For lying to God, Ananias died there and then and they took his body and buried it.
Ananias' sin was not that he kept back part of the money, the land belonged to him and even after the sell the money was still his property and he could do with it whatever he wanted: no one forced him to donate it to the church and no one would have judged him if he kept it all for himself; he had free will to do whatever he wanted. But wanting to mimic what Barnabas had done, he couldn't bring himself to give all of it away. He could have just laid the sum he wanted to give at the apostles feet without saying anything and no one would have been the wiser, no one would have questioned why he didn't give it all, but his actions showed that he hypocritically and deceitfully planned to deceive the Apostles and the Holy Spirit by lying about the total sum of the sell and alleging that the sum he laid down was the full amount.
With Ananias now dead and buried, no one went to tell his wife what had happened because they were all afraid of what they heard. Ananias had left his home to take the money to the Apostles and after three hours hadn't returned. His wife beginning to worry and not knowing that her husband had died decided to go and look for him and went directly to where the apostles were. On seeing her Peter asked her how much they got for the land. She told them the same as did her husband. Peter then said to her: "How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of them which have buried your husband are at the door, and shall carry you out. Then she immediately fell down at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband."
Today it might seem to us that the couple's punishment of death was rather harsh for just keeping part of the money for themselves, but at the time it was a necessity to protect the new church which was founded by the Holy Spirit on truth and honesty. These were the virtues that gave life to the church and any deceitfulness had to be wiped out from the beginning so that the stain of evil would not be allowed to grow and infest the rest of the community. The sudden, dramatic deaths of Ananias and Sapphira served to purify and warn the church. “Great fear seized the whole church” (Acts 5:11). Right away, in the church’s infancy, God made it plain that hypocrisy and deception were not going to be tolerated, and His judgment of Ananias and Sapphira helped guard the church against future pretence. God laid the bodies of Ananias and Sapphira in the path of every hypocrite who would seek to enter the church.
The story of Ananias and his wife serves to testify that Luke's historical account of the first century Christian Church is accurate. Luke is writing about the things that happened after Jesus had left this world to communicate to the people the good news of the Gospel of Christ and that God is love: why would he what to include a story that would cause offence and paint a picture of God as judgmental, harsh, cruel? If we think about it, Ananias was not even given a chance to repent before he was struck down. Then the apostles didn’t even have the courtesy to inform his wife about his death and when she came looking for him, she was also struck down for participating in the lie. What kind of a merciful and loving God is this? We see this sort of judgement in the Old Testament, but never think to see it in the New Testament.
Luke writes the book of Acts in order to record for us the work of God the Holy Spirit among the community of believers, but he also wants to inform us of a different spirit which is also at work in the world and in the church. Hypocrisy is a destructive force within the community of God’s people. If Satan cannot destroy the church from without, he will attempt to destroy it from within and it is here that the greatest harm is done. The first century Christian Church was not a perfect community; they were still in infancy and had to be taught from the very beginning that the Holy Spirit will not be mocked by human sin! He is holy and he is good, but he will not be trifled with. This God will not be mocked.
After this warning which brought fear among the people we are told that by the hands of the Apostles many signs and wonders were performed among the people. They had come to Solomon's Porch which was a sheltered porch in the temple's courtyard said to have been built by King Solomon and none of the unbelieving Jews dared to approach them, but through their continued preaching many more joined their community. The people magnified the apostles and their fame as miracle workers was spreading fast. People would bring the sick on beds into the streets so that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them. Christ had never healed anyone only with his shadow so Peter's miracles are now even surpassing the Lord's. But Christ did say that the apostles would perform greater miracles than himself. The apostle's fame was beginning to spread throughout Judea and a great many people from the surrounding cities came flocking into Jerusalem bringing their sick and those vexed with unclean spirits: and they were all healed.
All this filled the high priest and the Sadducees with envy and indignation and they accused them of disrupting the peace to the Roman authorities who laid their hands on them and put them in the common prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought the apostles forth. The angel told them to go and stand and speak in the temple the word of God. So early in the morning the apostles obeyed the angel and came to the temple and began preaching.
In the meantime the high priest had called for the gathering of the great council and called for the prisoners to be brought before him. When the officers came to the prison they found the prison doors shut with the guards standing outside, but when they opened the doors the prison was empty. The officers returned to the council and informed them that the prisoners had miraculously disappeared and they wondered at this new phenomenon and how they should interpret this strange happening. Then someone came and informed them that the apostles were in the temple and teaching the people. The captain of the temple and the officers went and found them and because they feared the people, they brought them without violence to the council. The high priest said to them: Did we not command you that you should not teach in this name? But what have you done, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and by doing so the people will believe that this man's blood is upon us. In defence Peter and the other apostles replies that they ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you slew and hanged on a tree. Him has God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.

Hearing this they were offended and took counsel to slay them. But one Pharisee came to their rescue, His name was Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, who was held in high respect among all the people. He commanded that the apostles leave the court because he wanted to address the council in secret. He then warned the council to be very careful with want they do to these men. He reminded them of past events that came to nought. Before Jesus there was a certain Theudas who boasted that he was somebody and had a following of about four hundred men. When he was slain all his disciples scattered and his sect came to nothing and was forgotten. After him came a Judas of Galilee who rose up in the days of the taxing. This was in the year 6 or 7 AD and was the second censor of the people, the first being mentioned by Luke in the Gospel when Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem when she was heavy with child and while there gave birth to Jesus. This Judas also managed to persuade many to follow his doctrines but when he also perished all his followers were dispersed. Gamaliel proceeds to tell them that they should leave these men alone because if their preaching is the work of men then sooner of later they will also come to nothing and be forgotten, but if their preaching and healings be from God you cannot overthrow it otherwise you will be found to be fighting God himself.
The council agreed with Gamaliel and called the apostles back into the courtroom. They then had them beaten and commanded them that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Luke doesn't tell us how they were beaten because the punishment was well known and written in the book of Deuteronomy. (25:3) Those found as unrighteous by the court and were punished with stripes received exactly 40 beatings with a rod. The apostles of course didn't listen to the demands of the court and continued daily in the temple and in every house teaching and preaching Jesus Christ.
In chapter six, Luke describes certain problems within the ever growing Christian community, problems which the apostles couldn't spend their precious time solving and which led to the election of seven deacons to deal with the internal disputes. The election of the Seven Deacons which the chapter describes is very instructive and reveals to us human weaknesses in the early apostolic Church. It allows us to touch the body of the Church as it took its first historic steps as a society and a community of men: men who in spite of the fact that they had accepted the new faith and had enjoined themselves to the body of the Church, continued to be surrounded with human imperfection and were influenced either by their own passions or by temptations by the evil one.
The Church is not a society for the clean and perfect, but a hospital for the weak. Perfection as a way of life in Christ is the end result which the faithful attempt to achieve. Overcoming human imperfection and achieving perfection beyond the renewing energy of the Holy Spirit, presupposes the continual spiritual struggle of the members of the Church. Thus the complaints and the resentfulness of the Christians of the first Jerusalem community, mentioned in the chapter, come and verify the human element of the Church, which we very often forget about and which is why, even today, we are so easily scandalized by the weaknesses which we observe in people in the ecclesiastical enclosure. The enrolment of the first Christians to the new faith does not mean that they were automatically transformed or that by some magic their way of life and behaviour were completely changed overnight.
Luke begins: "And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration."
The Church was still in its infancy and having taken those first baby steps, conflicts began to arise among the members from different ethnic background. From early on, the Christian community began to grow and in spite of the opposition that the Christian Gospel found among official Judaic circles, the number of the members of the Church increased very rapidly. One of the names which from early on was adopted to identify a member of the Church was the name “Disciple”. The name Christian was not adopted until it was first used by the Antiochian Church. Until then the members were called Disciples and the name was to be used widespread later even outside of the Palestinian borders.
As a result of the increase of the Christians there appeared various problems. Luke mentions the complaints of the Greeks against the Judaics in connection with the daily distribution of foods to Christians who were in need and especially the Greek widows. From the beginning, the Church showed particular concern for the welfare of the widows. The Greeks were Christians who had Judaic roots but who came from Greek places and spoke the Greek language. The Judaic Christians were Hebrews, born in Palestine and spoke Aramaic. Thus both the Greek and the Hebrews belonged to the same race but they spoke different languages and of course had different mentalities and attitudes. Yet in spite of the fact that they were of the same race, it was like having two different communities within the one Christian community. Each community had a great number of poor folk and widows who needed to receive help from the community's common funds. The apostles had assigned the responsibility of distributing the food and funds to the Judaic Christians who quite naturally took care of their own people first and neglected the Greek widows. The Greek therefore brought the problem to the apostle's attention.
“Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.”
The problem that arose had to be dealt with and to find a solution, the twelve Apostles, including Matthias who took the place of Judas Iscariot, called a general meeting of all the members of the Church, of the multitude of the disciples. This action by the Twelve shows the measure of wisdom and humility which discerns them, because even though they had the power and authority of the Apostolic dignity given to them by the Lord himself, they do not solve the problem by themselves, but they place it before the whole body of the Church and ask for the active participation of all the Disciples.
The Apostle’s words to the gathering of the Church reveals the deep consciousness they had for their mission. They had the Lord’s commandment to preach the Gospel. But now with the increase of the Christians and the subsequent problems which began to appear in the internal life of the Christian community, they foresaw a danger of all their time being absorbed by the work of serving tables and thus their main work of preaching the Gospels would be neglected.
The serving of tables, which was daily, must have been the common meals which came to be known as the Christian “Agapes” or the gatherings of love which took place daily during the gatherings of the Christians. After the meals they would then offer the Eucharist and very possibly the practice of collecting and distributing charity which had been placed at the disposal of the Apostles for the needs of the members.
The priority which the Apostles give to the preaching of the Word of God does not mean that they undervalue the work of serving tables and other works of charity and love. Both are equally sacred ministries and the practice of both constituted a commandment by the Lord himself. But comparing the two, the work of preaching the Gospel was unquestionably far more nobler and holier. Thus the Apostles had to remain exclusively devoted to it.
“Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.”
The Apostles proposal to the members of the Church was for them to choose from among themselves seven of their members to whom would be assigned the responsibility of serving the tables at the Agape gatherings. Special attention should be given to the criteria proposed by the Apostle by which the people were to use to select the Seven. The Seven had to be men of honest report, in other words they had to have a good name and be blameless among the people. This is a basic precondition that the Church has always tried to observe from the times of the Apostle to the present day. All candidates who are to be chosen to serve the various positions and ministries within the Church must have this good report, an unimpeachable life and an unimpaired character. At the same time they had to be full of the Holy Spirit and full of wisdom. Every ministry which is exercised within the body of the Church, even the most material, is a sacred work which is done in the name of Christ and serves the salvation of the body of members. Thus even the serving of tables was a ministry of the saints. And that is why those who were to be entrusted with this ministry had to be active members of the body of Christ, partakers of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, men that stood out for their discernment and wisdom, so that they could exercise the ministry entrusted them with success. It is clear that the Apostles use of the word wisdom does not refer to the wisdom that is associated with knowledge but rather the prudence and good sense and fear of God which are fruits of the Holy Spirit abiding within us.
The Apostles entrust the election of the Seven to the multitude of the faithful and keep their own authority for the appointing, in other words the power to ordain someone into the diaconate of the Church. St. John Chrysostom observes that they could just as easily had asked to choose the seven by drawing lots or by a ballot vote or even select the Seven themselves inspired by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless they don’t, but allow the election of the Seven to the crowd and fully accept those that are chosen and had the Good report of many. Why? So that they would not appear as favouring certain people over others. They retained for themselves only that which was exclusively their work, the number to be chosen, the appointing and the ordination of the chosen.
Traditionally we call the Seven chosen as Deacons and Stephen an Archdeacon, but nowhere in the Acts of the Apostles are they given this title. Their ministry was to serve the tables, the widows and the poor and thus we cannot say that they were ordained Deacons like the Deacons mentioned in Paul’s letters who were Deacons of the priestly order as we know them today. But if we judge from the case of Stephen and Phillip, it is clear that they did not only serve the work of charity but also preached the word of God.
“But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.”
In this verse we see the emphasis given to what is proper for the Lord’s Apostles. Of foremost importance above anything else are the work of prayer and the ministry of the word. In contrast the serving of tables was of a secondary nature. The first was the work of the Apostles and the second the work of the Seven. St. Luke does not speak of prayer in general. In the Greek text we find the article “the” before the word prayer so it should read: “But we will give ourselves continually to the prayer”. This allows us to conclude that he is referring to a specific prayer – the public and common prayer offered on behalf of the assembled community which included the breaking of bread and which has come down to us as the Divine Liturgy.
Thus prayer and the ministry of preaching the word of God comprised for the first years of the Church’s life, the two founding rules of the ecclesiastical life. With the preaching of the word, God spoke to his people and with the common prayer, the assembled Church communicated and united herself with the Lord. Through this double ministry the Apostles played a significant role. In the ministry of preaching they were the mouth of God through which he voiced his will. In the ministry of praying they became the voice and mediators of the people to God. This double ministry has always been the primal work of the shepherds of the Church and like the Apostles they should give themselves, or more correctly, devote themselves to it continually. Every other work is secondary and must never be exercised at the expense of the main ministry. That is why the Church has always encouraged various committees to exist within the structure of the Church; the Church committee who are responsible for the Church funds and buildings and the charity committees who are responsible for the cares of the needy within the Parish.
“And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch:”
The Apostle’s proposal was accepted unanimously by the assembly of the multitude of disciples and is proof of the unity of the Apostolic Church and expresses the spirit of obedience the first Christians had before the Apostles of the Lord.
First is mentioned the First-martyr Stephen as a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost. By placing Stephen at the head of the list and characterizing him as a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, Luke expresses the common awareness and agreement of all the Church concerning Stephen. It is certain that when Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles, St. Stephen had already been martyred for his faith in Christ and was a partaker of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Next follows the name of Phillip possibly because in a following chapter, Luke mentions him preaching in Samaria. Next follow the other names and lastly is mentioned Nicholas with the observation that he was a proselyte of Antioch: in other words a believer who as a gentile first joined himself to the Jewish religion. In the New Testament apart from the proselytes to Judaism we also have those who “feared” God and those who “worshipped” God who were people who accepted the Jewish teachings and mainly the belief in the One God; they took part in the synagogue’s worship, but had not completely embraced the Jewish faith by receiving circumcision. Nicholas on the other hand was not just a fearer or a worshipper of God, but a proselyte, in other words a gentile who had received circumcision.
“Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.”
After the election the assembled community present the seven before the Apostles who then pray and lay their hands upon them. The prayer and ordination being exclusively the work of the Apostles completes the official posting of those whom the multitude gave preference to. With the prayer they invoke the enlightening and power of the Holy Spirit so that the elected will have the strength to exercise the ministry they are called to do. With the laying on of the hands the transmission of the grace in a certain way becomes tangible and observable. This was something which was done even in the Old Testament when the Levites selected from the people those who were to dedicate themselves to the ministry of God. In ordination we see the human hand touch the head of the candidate - these are the sensible and visible elements of the Sacrament, but the person who performs every work is always God; thus the invisible and supernatural element is always Divine Grace and so we can say that it is God’s hand that touches the heads of those ordained into the Priesthood. In the Acts of the Apostles we come across this laying of hands on many occasions. Sometimes it is to transmit the gifts of the Holy Spirit after Baptism, at other times to cure an illness and at other times for the mission of preaching. From similar testimonies from Paul we can say that the laying of hands as an action to transmit spiritual graces for the various ministries had become a common practice during the early Church.
“And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
With the election of the Seven Deacons, the problem of caring for the poor was solved and the Apostles remained completely devoted to the ministry of preaching the word of God. It didn’t take long for this arrangement to bear its fruit. With the spreading of the word, the numbers of the Christians increase daily in Jerusalem. Among the new Christians who abandoned the Jewish faith and embraced the new faith were many of the Jewish priests. The new Christians were obedient to the faith. Faith is an act of obedience; obedience to the Gospel and obedience to God himself who gave us the commandment “That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another. (1 John 3:23) Only those who are obedient to the Gospel of Christ become partakers of his life and citizens of his kingdom.