At first glance, the jaw dropping evidence of the profound mercy of God that I spoke of in the last post seems to be undermined with the story of Ananias and Saphira, they are clearly struck down by the power of God. Just stick with me through this post, I will show how it not only does not undercut my claim but establishes it.
We also see Stephen introduced, hear his passionate narrative of Israel's history as he defends his belief that Jesus is the Christ, and witness his execution and amazing final moments and words. We will start with this and come back to chapter five in a few paragraphs.
A man named Chuck Missler help me to see the pattern within Stephen's speech that I had never noticed before. It is more than a recounting of Israel's history. It is a specific focus on a pattern that reemerges. God promises. God prophecies. God's prophecies are fulfilled and their deliverer emerges specifically because the people initially reject this deliverer sent by God.
1. God prophecies that Abraham's people will sojourn within a foreign land for 400 years. Joseph's brothers betray him and sell him into slavery. This choice on their part ends up being the very thing that places Joseph in the position to have power and deliver his people. Joseph's betrayal by his brothers was known ahead of time by God and is the very thing that fulfils the prophecy. This does not relieve them of responsibility, but it shows the power of God.
2. God prophecies that he will deliver Israel from Egypt. Israel not only initially rejects Moses as their deliverer but continue to reject God and Moses within the wilderness, but of course, the people now know that Moses was God's deliverer. Once again, the very rejection of Moses in the beginning was what God used to send Moses into the wilderness to prepare him to lead the people through the wilderness.
Point 1--This pattern which is shown here and which Stephen alludes to as reappearing in the lives of the prophets is the pattern of God's ultimate deliverer, Jesus. Jesus's life falls precisely within the pattern of all or most of Israel's great deliverers. Coicindence???
Another truth that Stephen brings out of their scriptures (Old Testament) is about the tabernacle and the temple. God initially gives the pattern for the tabernacle, and it is built and brought in by the people of God into the promised land. As foundational as this tent is, it is eventually replaced by the temple which is basically a much more permanent and grand version of the tabernacle. The point that Stephen focuses in on is a quote by Solomon that God is too big to actually dwell within a temple made by man's hands. The idea is that the temple itself is by Solomon's own admission a very limited thing in accomplishing the service and worship of God.
Point 2--Jesus not only fulfils the pattern of Israel's deliverer, but He fulfils the purposes of the temple better than the temple itself does in regards to redemption and intercession before God.
As I stated earlier, Stephen is violently rejected and killed, but he provides in his death two great examples to pray for ourselves. He clearly sees that Jesus is intently aware of his plight, and he mirrors the words of Jesus on the cross in his request for his persecutors to be forgiven of their actions.
The killing of Stephen launches a new, more intense wave of persecution that scatters many within the church. As we read of Philip in Samaria throughout chapter 8, it is a good idea to revisit the specific names mentioned in Acts 1 of the ever expanding circle of influence that the disciples were called to move. There are quite honestly some strange aspects to Philip's interactions that I am fascinated by. Apparently, the people of Samaria were not given the gift of the Holy Spirit until Peter and others came to town in spite of Phillip having proclaimed the gospel to them. Also, Phillip seems to be led about by God with amazing supernatural power and specificity. He is led to the Ethiopian eunuch and is providentially placed in his path at the precise moment that he is reading a specific passage in Isaiah prophetic of Jesus. God led this gentile believer to Christ even before the official breakthrough about the Gentiles that was to come in Acts 10. Since we know what is coming in the later chapters, it is easy to see also in chapters 8 and 9 that God is setting the stage for mo gentiles, mo gentiles. In the conversion of Saul(Paul) and the positioning of Peter, everything is in place for God to drag the first generation church kicking and screaming into genuinely grasping what Jesus meant in chapter 1 by "....the ends of the earth." Everything is about to be flipped on its head.
Now, as promised to revisit chapter 5, I would like to point out why I don't believe that the judgment imposed on Ananias and Saphira undermines the notion of God's unfathomable mercy as the foundation for EVERYTHING that takes place in Jesus's life, the book of Acts, and onto today. Chapters 5-9 begins with the death of these two, proceeds with a faithful man of God killed precisely as he faithfully proclaims the gospel and seeks to persuade and open the eyes of his listeners, continues on with a renewed persecution of the church, sees one of the chief persecutors captured by God's mercy for his causes. What is the common denominator that winds its way through these events? Why did God judge Ananias and Saphira? It was not because they did not give enough. Read it carefully. It was because they lied to God. Even this seems strange, but think it through. Why did they lie? They lied to get the benefit of being seen as someone who gives something they did not. By doing this, they were attaching themselves to the ongoing miracles and transformation being accomplished by God through his disciples. How much harm has been done by people who gain a position of leadership and honor within the church only to eventually show, their hearts were in NO WAY intent on making Jesus their Lord? Pedophile priests, sleezy con man televangelists, unfaithful pastors, greedy and unethical leaders....this couple was a forerunner of all of this. See the way Peter deals with Simeon of Samaria in chapter 8. OK....now look at the rest of the violence that God allows to happen not only in chapters 5-9 but throughout the book of Acts. Why?? There is a common theme. It is that ANY thing that stands in the way of God's proclamation of mercy is in grave danger. The internal influence of Ananias and Saphira would have corrupted the church from the inside out. Historically, this is always the greatest real threat for the church. The martyr of Stephen and subsequent persecution of the church served to push their influence outward, and the mercy shown to Paul ends up establishing a servant who is used to thrust the gospel out effectively to the larger gentile world. You will see later that Herod gets a taste of this reality as he seeks to obstruct God. God's mercy came at and comes at a horrific price. He intends for us to extend this to our generation. This is priority number 1. Don't get in the way of it. I believe the more we are gripped by this not only in our heads but in our hearts, we will grasp the will of God more clearly and walk with Him more closely. I pray he will patiently work with my hardened heart to do just this.