David Guzik’s weekly devotional, based on a verse or two from the Bible.

Bringing Good from Pressing and Pain

Bringing Good from Pressing and Pain

Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. (Acts 8:1)

A few verses before, we met the man who supervised the execution of Stephen, who was the first martyr of the Christian faith (Acts 7:58). Acts 8:1 continues the story of Saul, telling us first that Saul was consenting to the death of Stephen. The English translation probably isn’t strong enough. The idea behind the ancient Greek word suneudokeo is “to approve, to be pleased with.” Some people are reluctant persecutors, but Saul wasn’t one of these; he took pleasure in attacking and even killing Christians.

Bringing Good from Pressing and Pain

Saul of Tarsus – whom most of us know by his Roman name, Paul – later came to deeply regret this persecution of the church. He later wrote that he was not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1 Corinthians 15:9).

Stephen’s death was only the beginning, the start of a great persecution that arose against the church. The floodgates of violence were now open against the Christians and Saul was only one of many persecutors. Before, individual apostles had been arrested and beaten and persecuted. Now, every believer was threatened with violence and perhaps death.

In 1956, on the shores of a river in the jungles of Ecuador, natives murdered five missionaries who came to preach Jesus. To many, this death seemed like a senseless tragedy. Many could only see five young missionaries who had their careers cut short or the five widows and fatherless children. But God did an amazing work through those five men, even in their deaths, and the blessing long echoed through people like Elisabeth Elliot – the widow of one the missionary martyrs.

In a similar way, Stephen’s death might seem meaningless at first glance. His young ministry of power and eloquence was cut abruptly short. His ministry also seemed to end in failure – no one was immediately brought to faith, and all that came was more persecution. But as often has been the case, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church.

Afterwards, they were scattered throughout the regions. Now the Christians were forced to do what they had been reluctant to do – get the message of Jesus out to the surrounding regions. In Acts 1:8 Jesus clearly told His followers to look beyond Jerusalem and bring the gospel to Judea, Samaria, and the whole world. Up to this point, Jesus’ followers had not done this.

The resulting good shows us that God can and will use painful and pressing circumstances to guide His people into His will. Sometimes we must be shaken out of our comfortable state before we do what God wants us to do. When God allows some shaking, pressing, or pain, don’t forget to look for His purpose in it all. It may be something greater than you ever imagined.

Click Here for David’s Written Commentary on Acts 7

Living the Life of a Martyr

Living the Life of a Martyr

And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59-60)

Stephen was accused, arrested, and put on trial. He made his reply to the council, then Stephen suffered their angry and violent response. At the end of it all, they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Stephen’s life ended in the same way it had been lived: In complete trust in God, believing that Jesus would take care of him in the life to come.

As he died, Stephen said something with a loud voice – everyone could hear it. He said, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” Stephen showed the same forgiving attitude that Jesus had on the cross (Luke 23:34). Stephen asked God to forgive his accusers, and he made the promises loudly and publicly.

Living the Life of a Martyr

God answered Stephen’s prayer and used it to touch the heart of a man who energetically agreed with his stoning – even though the man didn’t know the prayer was being answered. When we get to heaven, we should thank Stephen for every blessing brought through the ministry of Saul of Tarsus.

God heard Stephen’s prayer, and Paul is the evidence of it. This first martyr of the Christian faith wasn’t a superman, but he was a man filled through all his being with the Holy Spirit. Many of us have little idea of how greatly we can be used of God as we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit. God even uses our suffering to His glory.

Look how Luke described the death of Stephen: “He fell asleep.” This speaks of the passing of Stephen as tenderly as possible. Instead of saying simply that he died, it says that he merely fell asleep – with the idea that he woke up in a much better world.

Stephen fell asleep, but the church now had to wake up. His death was just the beginning of greater persecution to come. It was going to be a battle filled with suffering, but also filled with glory to God.

Stephen was the first martyr of the Christian faith. I like the perspective of G. Campbell Morgan about Stephen’s martyrdom. He wrote that persecution doesn’t make martyrs, it reveals them. Stephen had the heart of a martyr – a witness, someone willing to die for the sake of his testimony to Jesus – before they stoned him. As Morgan wrote, Stephen “was the first martyr to seal his testimony with his blood.”

Most of us will never die the death of a martyr. But every one of us can live the life of a martyr, faithful to the testimony of who Jesus is and what He did to save us. Today, ask God to build that faithfulness in you.

Click Here for David’s Written Commentary on Acts 7

The First Martyr

The First Martyr

Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:57-58)

For the ruling council, it was just too much. It was too much when Stephen exposed their familiar sins of rejecting those God sent to deliver them, and their idolatry of the temple. It was too much when Stephen saw the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the place of prestige and honor in heaven.

Because it was all too much, they screamed. That is, they cried out with a loud voice. The Sanhedrin reacted quickly and violently. Jesus, before this same council, declared that He would sit at the right hand of God, and they had a similar reaction (Matthew 26:64-66).

The First Martyr

They did not only cry out with a loud voice. They also stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord. The reaction of the Sanhedrin seems extreme but is typical of those who reject God and are lost in spiritual insanity. They wailed in agony and covered their ears at the revelation of God, which they regarded as blasphemy.

It is a dangerous thing to be religious apart from a real relationship with Jesus Christ. This fulfills what Jesus warned about in John 16:2-3: Yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.

Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him: The extent of their rage was shown by their execution of Stephen, which was done without regard for Roman law, and which was performed according to traditional Jewish custom (stoning).

The commentator F.F. Bruce quoted a second-century Jewish writing to explain stoning. First, they gave the condemned man the opportunity to confess. Then they stripped off his clothing. Next, one of the witnesses to the crime pushed him from a height. If that didn’t kill him, then the second witness dropped a heavy stone on the condemned man’s chest. If this didn’t kill him, they threw rocks at the condemned man until he was dead.

In all this, the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. A man named Saul was the supervisor of the operation. The phrase “young man” literally means, “a man in his prime.” He was almost certainly a member of the Sanhedrin, and he heartily approved of Stephen’s execution.

Stephen was the first Christian martyr. His death was a shock to the early church. Yet God did not abandon Stephen; Jesus received him in glory and used his death to bring many into the kingdom. The saying of the early church proved true: the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church’s harvest.

In Jesus, our sorrows need never be wasted.

Click Here for David’s Written Commentary on Acts 7

Jesus Standing By

Jesus Standing By

Grinding Teeth

Grinding Teeth

When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. (Acts 7:54)

This is a remarkable scene from Acts. Stephen, a servant-leader among the early Christians, was on trial before the same council that, just a few years earlier, had sent Jesus to the Romans for crucifixion. Stephen gave a remarkably eloquent and bold explanation of the council’s sin.

Grinding Teeth

In response, these powerful men were cut to the heart. The council was angry because Stephen’s message hit the target. They couldn’t dismiss or ignore what he said. They were guilty of the same sins as many of their forefathers. They made an idol out of the temple, and they often rejected the deliverers God sent them. Especially, they rejected God’s ultimate Deliverer: Jesus Christ.

The Sanhedrin reacted with rage – they gnashed at him with their teeth. It is remarkable to think of this response from men who were dignified and respected leaders. This would as if a group of senators or ministers of parliament ground their teeth in anger in response to the testimony of a witness at a hearing.

According to some commentators (such as Gaebelein), the verb tenses in this sentence indicate that they did not wait until Stephen finished his speech to start grinding their teeth. It was a prolonged gnashing of teeth that lasted through all his words.

It’s not good to grind your teeth. The practice may show that someone is under a lot of stress, or lives with a lot of anger. It is a bad practice for your body, but here it was even worse as an indication of the spiritual condition of these men.

Many times in the Old Testament the gnashing of teeth describes how enemies of God’s people reacted with fury against those whom they persecuted:

They tore at me and did not cease…they gnashed at me with their teeth. (Psalm 35:16)

The wicked will see it and be grieved; he will gnash his teeth and melt away (Psalm 112:10)

All your enemies have opened their mouth against you; they hiss and gnash their teeth. (Lamentations 3:16)

In at least 5 different places in Matthew, Jesus described hell (the lake of fire) as a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So when we read, they gnashed at him with their teeth, it can’t help but remind us of the imagery of Hell.

These men were prominent, successful, and appeared to be religious; yet they rejected God and associated with hell, not heaven. The stress and anger of their rebellion against God showed itself in the grinding of their teeth.

Yet in all of this, God had His victory. Look at Psalm 37:12-13: The wicked plots against the just, and gnashes at him with his teeth. The LORD laughs at him, for He sees that his day is coming.

Today, take confidence in God’s victory – even over those who grind their teeth against Him and His people!

Click Here for David’s Written Commentary on Acts 7

Don't Make the Same Mistakes

Don’t Make the Same Mistakes

You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers.(Acts 7:51-52)

When Stephen was on trial before the Sanhedrin, he gave a history lesson. The points of his lesson were clear: God revealed Himself to Israel many times apart from the temple, and Israel often rejected those God sent to deliver them (such as Joseph and Moses).

Then, like any good preacher, Stephen applied the truth from the Bible. He said, “You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.” We can imagine the angry whispering among the Sanhedrin as Stephen’s history lesson began to make sense. Stephen saw this and knew they were once again rejecting again the One God sent, just as before.

Don't Make the Same Mistakes

Stephen boldly confronted them with their sin: “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears!” Drawing on concepts from the Old Testament, Stephen rebuked those who rejected Jesus as stiff-necked (as Israel was described in passages like Exodus 32:9), and as uncircumcised in heart and ears (as Israel was described in passages like Jeremiah 9:26).

Almost 20 times in the Old Testament, God called Israel stiff-necked. These religious leaders in Acts 7 were acting just as their forefathers acted. Israel also prided itself on the sign of circumcision because it separated them from the Gentiles. Stephen essentially said, “You are just like the Gentiles in your rejection of the Lord.”

Stephen’s main point was unmistakable: “As Israel was in its history, so you are today. God gave you the law, but you have not kept it.” This accusation must have outraged those who prided themselves on their obedience to the law.

Though it must have offended the council, Stephen’s message was true. First, God is no respecter of places; that is, though the temple was a wonderful gift from God, it was wrong to overemphasize it as “the house of God.” Second, Israel at that time was guilty of what they had often been guilty of: rejecting God’s messengers.

Jesus said that it is impossible for old wineskins to hold new wine (Matthew 9:17). Through Stephen, the Holy Spirit showed how the old traditions of Judaism (especially the over-emphasis on the temple) could not contain the new wine of Christianity.

One idea behind a permanent temple is that God says, “you come to Me.” Israel was to be a light to the nations, but mainly thought the world should come to them for salvation. Through the church, God would show a different heart to the world: “I will go to you.”

We must not make the same mistake: repeating the sins of our forefathers, thinking the world will come to us for the message of salvation. God helping us, we will honor God and reach a needy world.

Click Here for David’s Written Commentary on Acts 7

God Greater Than His Temple

God Greater Than His Temple

Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran…” (Acts 7:1-2)

Stephen, a leader in the early church, was on trial before the highest council of the Jewish elders – the Sanhedrin. The high priest mentioned here was probably still Caiaphas, who also presided over the trial of Jesus (Matthew 26:57).

The high priest asked Stephen, Are these things so? He invited Stephen to explain himself considering the accusations recorded in Acts 6:11-14. Stephen was accused of speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God, and against this holy place [the temple], and against the law.

God Greater Than His Temple

In his response Stephen gave a panorama of Old Testament history. We shouldn’t think Stephen instructed the Sanhedrin on points of Jewish history they didn’t know. Instead, Stephen emphasized some themes in Jewish history they may not have considered:

– The Bible says God never confined Himself to one place (like the temple).
– The Bible says the Jewish people often rejected those God sent them.

This really was not a defense. Stephen wasn’t interested in defending himself. He simply wanted to proclaim the truth about Jesus in a way people could understand. Stephen wasn’t trying to be acquitted; he wanted to clearly present God’s truth.

One of the charges against Stephen was that he spoke against the temple, and the same accusation was made against Jesus. Some of the Jewish people of the first century had made an idol out of the temple. They took something good – the temple and its services – and made it the entire center of God’s work. They thought so highly of the temple that it was a death-deserving sin to speak against it!

Stephen confronted this false and dangerous idolatry by remembering Abraham. Stephen explained, The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia. Stephen emphasized that the God of glory appeared to Abraham before he even came into the Promised Land.

Abraham didn’t need a temple for this revelation of the God of glory, and he didn’t even have to be in the land of Israel. God was greater than either. This explained why it was wrong for this council to put Stephen on trial for speaking against the temple.

It wasn’t as if God was in Canaan and Abraham was in Mesopotamia, and God said to Abraham “Come on over here so that I can speak to you.” God appeared to Abraham right where he was in Mesopotamia. He was the God of Israel and Jerusalem and the temple; but God was and is so much more.

Don’t think that you must go to a certain place for God to reveal Himself to you. We don’t go to church because it’s the only place God is; we go because that’s where His people gather. The God of all creation can speak to you right where you are today.

Click Here for David’s Written Commentary on Acts 7

Good Accusations

Good Accusations

Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:11-14)

It’s never nice to be falsely accused, but there can be something good even in false accusations. We see this in Acts 6, when Stephen – a newly-recognized servant in the early church – was untruthfully charged.

Stephen boldly preached, and God did miraculous things through him. Acts 6:10 says that Stephen’s opponents were “not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.” They wanted to stop Stephen’s message. So, they secretly induced men to bring false charges.

Good Accusations

Normally, Luke would not know what they secretly induced men to say. Possibly he knew because a man named Saul of Tarsus was among the opponents. Saul (who became known as Paul the apostle) may have told Luke about this.

In doing this, they stirred up the people. The opponents of Stephen could do nothing against the followers of Jesus until popular opinion was on their side. Previously, persecution against the apostles was limited because popular opinion was with them (Acts 2:47, 5:26).

Popular opinion is easily shaped. The crowds that loved the apostles (Acts 2:47, 5:26) here condemned Stephen. Therefore, we should never let popular opinion shape the vision or focus of the church, but let it rest on God’s eternal word.

When we look at the charges against Stephen, they all centered on the ideas that Stephen spoke against the God of Israel, Moses, the law, and the temple. The accusations twisted truths that Stephen clearly taught: that Jesus was the Messiah, and greater than Moses. In the specific accusations, we can see that Stephen clearly taught:

– Jesus was greater than Moses (blasphemous words against Moses).
– Jesus was God (blasphemous words against…God).
– Jesus was greater than the temple (blasphemous words against this holy place).
– Jesus was the fulfillment of the law (blasphemous words against…the law).
– Jesus was greater than their religious customs and traditions (Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs).

Stephen never taught against Moses and God, but his exaltation of Jesus was twisted by his enemies. Stephen never spoke blasphemous words against this holy place (the temple), but he refused to make it an idol as did some Jewish people in that day.

Here is the good part: many of these same false accusations were also made against Jesus (Matthew 26:59-61). It is a good thing to be accused of the same things Jesus was accused of. Even if the accusations are false, you’re in good company!

Click Here for David’s Written Commentary on Acts 6

Doing the Right Thing

Doing the Right Thing

And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:5-7)

It’s not easy to deal with problems in the church, especially when one group feels mistreated. But in Acts 6, when there was a dispute over the treatment of Christian widows from a Greek cultural background, the Holy Spirit led the apostles to the right solution.

The solution was so good that it pleased the whole multitude. Both sides were happy!  We can’t say this was a good decision only because the people liked it. Yet, God confirmed the wisdom of the apostles through agreement among the people.

Doing the Right Thing

Luke, the author of Acts, listed the seven men. They all had Greek names, showing that they were probably Hellenists themselves. This showed great sensitivity to the offended Hellenists by appointing Hellenists to take care of the widows’ distribution.

After the seven men were chosen, they prayed for them, and they laid hands on them. It was important to lay hands on them even if their service was mainly for the practical needs of the widows. Practical service is spiritual service. The same Greek word is used for both distribution (Acts 6:1) and ministry (Acts 6:4). The idea behind the word in both places is service, whether in practical ways or spiritual ways.

Look at the wonderful result: the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem. Considering all that could have gone wrong when Satan tried to attack the church through division, it’s wonderful that everyone involved did the right thing.

Those with the complaint, the Hellenists, did the right thing: They made the need known, instead of complaining and whining, and they trusted the solution of the apostles.

Those of the other party, the Hebrews, did the right thing: They recognized that the Hellenists had a legitimate need, and they trusted the solution of the apostles.

The seven chosen men did the right thing: They accepted the call to unglamorous service.

The apostles did the right thing: They responded to the need without distracting themselves from their central task.

Satan’s strategy failed. He tried to divide the church, and it did not work. Satan’s second strategy also failed. The apostles were not distracted from the focus of ministry God had for them – to focus on the word of God and on prayer.

Such grace was evident that even a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith – many priests were coming to Jesus!

When we are in seasons of potential division, let’s do the right thing – and see God do His great work.

Click Here for David’s Written Commentary on Acts 6

Qualified to Serve

Qualified to Serve

Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business (Acts 6:3)

Acts 6 tells us there was a problem among the first Christians. Because they were so generous, there was money to help the widows among them who couldn’t support themselves. But there was a disagreement about how that money for the widows was given out.

The Jewish Christians from a Greek or Hellenistic background felt that their widows were neglected compared to the widows among the Christians from a more traditionally Jewish background.

Qualified to Serve

They brought the problem to the apostles and Acts 6:3 says that the apostles spoke to the general group of believers (the “multitude of the disciples” mentioned in Acts 6:2) and pursued the solution with a lot of communication and input from among the people. They even asked those – probably especially those who felt wronged – to seek out from among you men of good character to do this work.

This was a wonderful way to solve the problem. They didn’t throw the complainers out. They didn’t divide into two congregations. They didn’t shun the unhappy people. They didn’t form a committee and endlessly discuss the problem.

No doubt, there were some people who suggested that the apostles should themselves give more direct attention to the distribution of help to the widows. Instead, they delegated and brought more people into doing the work of ministry. Meeting unmet needs is a great way to bring more people into ministry.

But the congregation had to choose men who were of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. These qualifications focused the character of the men to be chosen. The apostles were far more concerned with the internal quality of the men than their outward appearance or image. They didn’t ask for the most popular or best-looking men; they asked for men of character. Because the men were of good reputation, the church family would have confidence in, including the ones who complained.

The idea behind full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom is that these men were to be both spiritually minded and practically minded. This can be a hard combination to find, but they found seven men who were qualified and willing.

However, notice that the apostles said, whom we may appoint. The final decision rested with the apostles. They wanted and valued input from the congregation, but the decision really rested with the apostles.

These seven men were to be chosen for simple, practical service. Yet it was important that they be well qualified for several reasons.

So they could effectively do the job.
So they would well-represent the apostles and the church as a whole.
So their recognized positions would not lead to pride or arrogance.

If you are one of the more practical servants of God’s family, ask God to grow you in these things. If you aren’t then pray for some practical servants you know.

Click Here for David’s Written Commentary on Acts 6