Our study in Acts is picking up speed – from now on we will highlight only key themes from each section. In chapters 3 to 7 the focus is on Jerusalem. This is the city where ‘our Lord was crucified’, Rev. 11. 8. Now Jerusalem also becomes the place where the Lord’s ambassadors are rejected.
The miraculous healings performed by Peter are a taste of the ‘powers … of the coming age’, Heb. 6. 5 YLT. In the recorded sermons, there are promises that repentance will trigger the Messiah’s return, Acts 3. 20, and the ‘putting right of everything that’s wrong’, v. 21, my paraphrase.
On three occasions in this section, the Jewish leaders hold a council. Each time they refuse to accept the apostolic message. Their responses become increasingly hardline.
Like Pharaoh centuries before, their repeated refusals harden their hearts, until God gives them up, cf. Rom. 1. 26. In terms of Bible prophecy, this is a key moment. Israel will now be sidelined in God’s purpose, 11. 25, until the nation realizes a future opportunity for repentance, Zech. 12. 10.
We see a recurring cycle in these chapters. Preaching leads to conversions, which lead to persecution.
The first cycle begins with Peter’s message in the temple, Acts 3. 21-26. A crowd has gathered to listen as a result of the lame man’s sudden cure. Peter takes advantage of the situation to preach an impromptu (but Spirit-enabled, 4. 8) gospel message. He urges his audience to ‘repent and turn to God’, 3. 19. He contrasts God’s judgement upon Messiah rejecters, v. 23, with God’s blessing upon Messiah acceptors, v. 26.
As a result of this short yet powerful message, many people are saved. There are now around 5,000 believers in Jerusalem, 4. 4, up from earlier counts of 3,000, 2. 41, and 120, 1. 15. The seed is falling into good soil – ‘honest and good’ hearts are receiving God’s word, Luke 8. 15.
Peter and John soon discover that faithful, fearless preaching has troublesome consequences. The two apostles are arrested and imprisoned, 4. 3, along with the healed man, v. 14. New converts can be persecuted as much as mature believers. In this early skirmish, Peter reiterates his clear gospel message to the Jewish rulers, culminating in a key evangelical statement, v. 12. After this first encounter with the authorities, the apostles are given an injunction to prevent them from preaching. They weigh up man’s authority against God’s and decide that God’s authority overrules any earthly court. If we face similar confrontations today, we should follow Peter’s lead and behave with prayerful consideration, v. 24, courtesy, vv. 19-20, spiritual sensitivity, v. 8, and determination, 5. 42.
The second cycle follows a similar pattern. Peter preaches, vv. 20-21, as part of a blanket coverage of Jerusalem with the gospel, v. 28. The authorities intervene to imprison, v. 18, interrogate, v. 27, and punish, v. 40, the apostles. They also issue a further banning order, although this is just as ineffective as the previous one, v. 42. Thus, the preaching continues, and people continue to get saved, 6. 1. Conversely, if we do not share God’s word with people, Rom. 10. 17, we cannot expect them to get saved.
The third cycle involves Stephen, a prominent Christian worker in the early church. His name means ‘victory crown’. He is the first martyr, Acts 7. 60, to receive the ‘crown of life’ from the Lord, Rev. 2. 10. As with Peter’s message, Stephen provokes the gospel-hating Jews to drag him before the ruling council. There, 7. 2-51, Stephen gives a brief history of Israel’s record of rejection. In the past they exiled Joseph into slavery, v. 9, refused Moses’ deliverance, vv. 27, 39, persecuted God’s messengers, v. 52 and finally murdered the Messiah, v. 52.
This account incenses the council to such fury that they expel Stephen from the council chamber, and stone him to death, v. 58. Stephen’s beautiful vision of Jesus standing on God’s right hand, v. 56, strengthens the faithful servant in his distressing circumstances.
What about the positive consequence of Stephen’s sermon? It provokes persecution, but also sets in motion a chain of events in the life of Saul of Tarsus, v. 58. Stephen’s assurance in the face of death convicts Paul. It is one of the ‘goads’ that prick his conscience, 26. 14, eventually leading him to Christ. Stephen’s suffering finally results in a massive chain reaction of blessing following Saul’s conversion. This should encourage us to witness steadfastly and leave the results with God.