June 22: Acts 5:3ff; 7:51

Acts 5:3ff; 7:51

In the previous note, we saw how the presence of the Spirit was tied to the believers’ experience of opposition to the Gospel. The initial experience of opposition and persecution (by the Jerusalem authorities) prompted their prayer in 4:23-31, which was answered by God, by giving to the believers a fresh empowerment with the Spirit (v. 31). The conflict episodes that follow in chapters 5-7 continue the development of this theme, adding to it the idea that opposition to the Gospel is essentially the same as opposing God Himself. This is expressed powerfully by Gamaliel in 5:39 where the possibility is raised that, by opposing the Christians, the authorities may end up being “fighters (against) God” (qeoma/xoi).

Not surprisingly, in light of the Lukan Spirit-theme, this is also expressed in terms of opposing the Spirit of God. We find this in two of the conflict episodes, and, while the nature of the conflict may differ in each, the basic message regarding opposition to the Spirit is fundamentally the same.

In the Ananias/Sapphira episode (5:1-11), the conflict is internal, related to the unity of the Jerusalem believers, as expressed through the communalistic socio-economic structure adopted by the Community. The importance of this mode of existence, as a practical expression of unity, is clear from the summary narration in 2:42-47 (vv. 44-45) and 4:32-37. The latter passage is followed immediately by the Ananias/Sapphira episode. This Christian couple was apparently reluctant to give over all the proceeds from the sale of their property to the Community.

The way this is described in vv. 1-2, the implication is that Ananias and Sapphira presented the money to the Community as representing the full amount, while they actually kept back part of it for their own use. The sin, therefore, was not so much the failure to give over all the proceeds, but the deceitful way in which they handled the matter. This is certainly the thrust of Peter’s announcement of judgment against them (vv. 3-4, 9). It is not stated how Peter became aware of their deception, but the wording in the narrative allows for the possibility that it was revealed to him by the Spirit. What is most significant, from the standpoint of our study, is how their deception is framed as a crime against the Spirit:

To Ananias:
“Through what [i.e. how] did the Satan fill your heart (for) you to act falsely (toward) the holy Spirit…?” (v. 3)
To Sapphira:
“How (is it) that the voice came together in (the two of) you to test the Spirit of (the) Lord?” (v. 9)

Their sinful (deceitful) action is characterized by the verb yeu/domai (“act/speak falsely”) and peira/zw (“test, put to the test”), respectively.

The action by Ananias and Sapphira was opposed to the principle of unity among believers. This principle, in its own way, is fundamental to the preaching of the Gospel; on the theme of unity in relation to the Spirit, cf. the recent “Notes on Prayer” studies on 1:14 and 24.

In the conflict-episode of chaps. 6-7, the focus is on Jewish opposition to the Gospel. This opposition had been building through the episodes of chaps. 4-5, until it reached it climax with the interrogation and death of Stephen. I have discussed the speech of Stephen (and its framing narrative) at length in earlier articles (cf. Parts 912 of “The Speeches of Acts”). Here I will focus specifically on the reference to the Spirit in 7:51. This comes at the conclusion to the speech, where Stephen’s rhetoric becomes most forceful, directed against those interrogating him:

“(You) stiffnecked (one)s and (with) no cutting around [i.e. uncircumcised] in (your) heart and ears! You always fall (down) against the holy Spirit—(just) as your fathers (did), (so) also you!”

He can say that the Jerusalem authorities “always” (a)ei/) oppose the Spirit because they are following the historical pattern of those Israelites who opposed Moses during the time of the Exodus. Such persons have always opposed the word of God and the prophetic Spirit (epitomized in the inspired person of Moses). Now they are standing in opposition to the inspired (prophetic) message of the Gospel, being proclaimed by ministers such as Stephen. The Moses/Jesus parallel is absolutely clear in Stephen’s speech, and follows the message by Peter in 3:22-23 (cp. 7:37), where Jesus is identified as the ‘Prophet like Moses’ promised in Deut 18:15-19. In that passage, a terrible judgment will come upon those who refuse to listen to the words of this Prophet; and, since believers like Stephen are speaking in Jesus’ name, as his representatives, they have the same prophetic authority.

The inspired character of Stephen is specified in the introductory narrative. The seven men chosen to serve as adjunct leaders (to the Twelve) in the Community were expected to be people “full of (the) Spirit and wisdom” (6:3). Stephen clearly met this requirement, as it is said of him that he was “a man full of trust and the holy Spirit” (v. 5). Moreover, he exhibited in his ministry of preaching that he was “full of (the) favor and power (of God)”, manifested specifically through the working of miracles; the “power” (du/nami$) here certainly refers to the power of the Spirit (cf. 4:30f; also 1:4 [Lk 24:49], 8; 3:12; 4:7; 8:19; 10:38, etc). If there were any doubt about the inspired (prophetic) character of Stephen’s speech, this is indicated vividly by the description in 6:15.

The verb a)ntipi/ptw (lit. “fall against”) indicates a more agressive—even violent—form of opposition. In English, we would probably say “fall upon”, as in a mob of attackers who falls upon a person—which, indeed, is what happens to Stephen (7:57-58). Even though his speech is framed as part of a judicial proceeding, an interrogation before the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin), the action taken against seems more like the behavior of a lynch mob. In any case, the death of Stephen sets the stage for a period of persecution of believers in Judea (8:1b-3), that results in many of them being scattered into the surrounding regions. It is there that the proclamation of the Gospel ‘into all the nations’ will truly begin, and the Spirit will be present with the missionaries, guiding them and empowering them along the way. We will see how the author begins to develop that aspect of the Spirit-theme, in the next daily note.


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