The Orthodox Pages



13th November 2014

































































































































At our last talk on the Acts of the Apostles, we finished seeing part of chapter six which dealt with the election of the seven deacons who were responsible for the distribution of the food and charity funds to the poor leaving the Apostles free to concentrate all their time on preaching and prayer. At the head of the deacons is Stephen who as Luke tells us was full of faith and power and did great wonders and miracles among the people.
Acts do not tell us anything about his short life other than the fact that Stephen was a Greek Jew who was elected as the archdeacon and one day when preaching was accused of blasphemy and was stoned to death, but tradition has supplemented us with some details. Before entering the service of Christ, the young Stephen had studied under the renowned rabbinical tutor Gamaliel, who had been the mentor of the great St. Paul. If you remember from our last talk, Gamaliel stood up at the Jewish council and persuaded them not to slay the apostles for preaching Christ saying that if it is a manmade teaching then it would soon die out, but if it is from God then they would be fighting God himself.
So according to tradition, Stephen was a qualified religious scholar who like Paul once sought to discredit the Saviour, until he came to know Jesus Christ and to embrace him. Certain accounts of his life have him as being a relative of Gamaliel and others as a kinsman of St. Paul. Acts tells us that Paul was present at Stephen's martyrdom and consented to his death. If they were related or were disciples of the same tutor, Stephen's acceptance of Jesus would have been received by Paul as treachery against their master's teaching and would have been enraged with hatred. But according to tradition and unknown to Paul, Gamaliel together with his son Avelvos were secretly baptized by the Apostles and took the dead body of Stephen and buried it in Gamaliel's personal tomb 20 miles outside Jerusalem.
Stephen is the first martyr of Christ and because of this Luke gives almost two chapters to describe how he was accused, his defence before the Jewish council and how he was stoned to death. The story begins: "there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called [the synagogue] of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen."
At that time in Jerusalem, there were many Jewish synagogues. Synagogues were places where the Jews gathered for daily prayer and to hear readings from the scriptures, they were also used as courthouses and schools, but no sacrifices were performed in them, all sacrifices were performed in the Jerusalem temple. Some of these synagogues belonged to the Greek speaking Jews and here we have two such synagogues. The first belonged to the Greek speaking Jews from African towns - the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and the second belonged to the Greek speaking Jews from Asia Minor - Cilicia and of Asia. Stephen, himself being a Greek Jew was active spreading the word of the Gospel among the Greek Jews. His preaching was not received favourably and they began disputing with him, but they were not able to rise above his wisdom and spirit with which he spoke. Seeing they couldn't overcome him with words, they persuaded some men to lie and say that he blasphemed against Moses and God. They stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes and taking hold of him they brought him before the council.
Up until now the crowds respected the Apostles and Christians, but when they heard that they were blaspheming against God they were indignant and would not stand for anyone disrespecting their God. At the council the false witnesses said that "this man hasn't stopped speaking blasphemous words against this holy place and the law, we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy Jerusalem and the temple and will change the law and customs which Moses has delivered us. We do not know the exact words that Stephen said but we can be sure that whatever he said was not meant to be interpreted literally, just like Christ did not mean it literally when he said "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." (John 2:19) From their accusation we can surmise that their veneration of the temple and the name of Moses were equal, if not greater than their veneration of God and we can see this also in the fact that they had chosen to leave their own country in order to be near the temple. Notice also that they venerated Moses for giving them the law and not God.
As Stephen heard his accusers and was preparing for his defence, everyone at the council saw his face as it had been the face of an angel. This was the grace of God shining forth in defence of his innocence. The apostles also stood before the Great Council, but their faces didn't shine as angels because they were not falsely accused, they were just forbidden to preach in the name of Jesus, but Stephen was falsely accused as was Jesus and God's grace rectified this evil against him pleading his innocence with the countenance of angelic innocence. This confused and dismayed the high priest: he would have expected that for someone who was accused with a crime punishable with a penalty of death would be terrified and distraught by standing before his judges, but Stephen showed no fear and his calmness was something completely unexpected. This reflects in how the high priest begins to question him. Very mildly and almost politely he asks Stephen if these accusations are as they had been told. For this reason Stephen also begins his speech in a tone of gentleness, and says: Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran."
With this Stephen begins a long speech detailing the history of the Hebrew race from Abraham, how God had told him to leave his home in Mesopotamia for an unknown land, which God would give to him and his heir as an inheritance, at a time when Abraham didn't have and didn't expect to have an heir. After Abraham he reminds them of the Patriarchs Isaac and Jacob and how Joseph was sold into Egypt. Stephen's intention is not to give them a history lesson; every Jew knew the stories of their forefathers, what Stephen was trying to point out to them was that they give so much importance to the temple, yet God spoke many times to Abraham at a time when there was no temple, He spoke to the Patriarchs and his grace was with Joseph even in a foreign and pagan land. God didn't need the temple to be with his chosen people. Stephen continues to tell them how God's grace and wisdom shone through Joseph before Pharaoh and from a Israelite slave became governor over all of Egypt and second only to Pharaoh himself. Then how in the time of famine he was revealed to his brethren who had sold him into slavery and how their father Jacob and all their household came to sojourn in Egypt. Stephen continues to tell them how Israel prospered in Egypt and multiplied until a new king arose in Egypt who didn't know of Joseph.
This new king enslaved the Israelites and ordered the death of all the newborn males so that he could control their numbers. At this time Moses was born and was secretly hidden for three months in his father's house and when he could be hidden no more God protected the child and arranged for Pharaoh's daughter to find him and raise him as her own son. Moses' story is divided into three sections: the first from his birth until the age of forty when he lived as a prince of Egypt and received a prince's education in the royal palace. The second period from the age of forty when he fled from Egypt after killing an Egyptian and came to live as a shepherd in the land of Midian. And the third after another forty years at the age of eighty when he had the vision of the burning bush on Mount Sinai and became God's prophet and Israel's deliverer. Throughout this last period God spoke with Moses, gave him powers to perform miracles and instructed him how to lead his chosen people to the land he promised their forefather Abraham.
At this point, Stephen makes a short break from the history lesson to compare Moses and his contemporary Jews with Christ and his contemporary Jews. This Moses whom they refused, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? the same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him in the bush. He brought them out of Egypt with wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, in the Red Sea and in the wilderness forty years. This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear. The Jews had always interpreted that this prophet who would be like Moses was the expected Messiah and by mentioning this prophecy the Jews knew that Stephen was referring to Jesus as being that prophet and Messiah. Continuing with Moses he says: This is he that was in the church in the wilderness at the base of Mount Sinai who received from God the Law to give unto us. Stephen stresses the greatness of Moses showing his great respect towards Moses and the law for which he has been accused of speaking against.
Next Stephen points out the shameful behaviour of the Jews towards Moses. Who our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt, saying unto Aaron, make us gods to go before us: for this Moses, which brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what is become of him. And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. And God turned from them and gave them up to worship the sun and the stars as it is written in the book of Amos: O ye house of Israel, in the space of forty years in the wilderness you haven't offered me sacrifices, instead of my tabernacle you turned to the tabernacle of the gods you made to worship and for this you will be carried away beyond Babylon.
For the last part of his speech, Stephen talks about the tabernacle until the building of the temple by Solomon. Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as God had appointed, speaking unto Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen. This portable tabernacle wherein God's love and power were continually present was with their forefathers as they travelled the wilderness and was brought into the land of Canaan by Jesus of Nun and remained with them until David the King. David was God's beloved and he pleaded with God to allow him to build a permanent temple, but God denied him this honour and told him that his son Solomon will build it. And Solomon indeed did build the temple, but Stephen wanting to show them that the temple was just a temporary building reminds them what the prophet Isaiah said: The most high dwells not in temples made with hands, for the Lord said heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; therefore what house can you build to contain me, what place is worthy to give me rest; have not my hands made all the universe, I have need of nothing.(Isaiah 66 1-2)
Having said all this in his defence Stephen then throws his own attack against them: You stiffnecked and hard hearted and deaf in ears, you have always resisted the Holy Spirit as also did your fathers. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? They slew every prophet that prophesied the coming of the Just one, the Messiah, of whom you have become betrayers and murderers. You received the Law from God, but you have not kept it.
Up until know the Court had listened, remained silent and controlled their anger, but now with hearing these accusations against them they became enraged and as Luke describes it they gnashed on him with their teeth. But Stephen, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up to heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said to them: I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. The opened heaven means that the entrance has been opened to receive Stephen and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God is the Messiah, the crucified Christ who awaits to receive him. But for the court this was blasphemy because these words made Jesus equal to God so their reaction was to scream and cover their ears to not hear more of the blasphemer's word. They then rush against him and cast him out of the city and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul and they stoned him. This was all done in accordance with the law as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 13: 9-10). The first to throw the first stone had to be the witnesses who heard the blasphemy and then the rest of the people. That is why it says that they laid their cloths at the feet of a young man named Saul. Their wide garments restricted their movements when throwing the stones so they removed them, but why did they lay them at Saul's feet. This shows that Saul played an important role in Stephen's stoning and was probably the leader of the group that accused him.
As they stoned Stephen he called upon the Lord to receive his spirit and kneeling down he cried out with a loud voice saying Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. His last words echo the last words of his master Jesus.
Chapter eight begins to tell us of a persecution of the Christians immediately following the lynching and death of Stephen. It begins telling us that Saul who later became the great Apostle Paul was consenting unto his death and at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial and made great lamentation over him. As we saw earlier, according to tradition the devout men were Gamaliel and his son together with the apostles. As for Saul he waged war against the church. He entered the Christian houses and dragged the men and women out casting them into prison to await trial by the Great Jewish council. This persecution caused the Christians to leave Jerusalem and went abroad to preach the word. In a later chapter we are told where they went. "Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only." (Acts 11, 19)
With the story of Stephen's martyrdom finished Luke now turns our attention to Philip the second of the Seven Deacons. As a result of the persecution Philip went down to the capital city of Samaria and preached Christ unto them. The Samaritans gave Philip all their attention especially after seeing the miracles that he did. The unclean spirits came out of the people that were possessed with them and the lame and paralysed were healed. In the city was a certain sorcerer named Simon who for a long time had bewitched the people and had pronounced himself as some great Messiah. Everyone in the city had great respect for him and considered that he indeed was the great power of God. But Philip convinced them that Christ was the true God and soon the men and women of Samaria were being baptized. Simon himself also believed and when he was baptized he continued with Philip being amazed by the miracles that he saw.
Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John to pray for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. The people had been baptized but as yet had not received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is a separate sacrament and even today baptism is administered first and then the sacrament that bestows the gifts of the Holy Spirit called in the Orthodox Church Chrismation and in the Roman Catholic Church as Confirmation. In the Orthodox Church the two mysteries are performed together, as soon as the candidate is baptized and comes out of the water, the priest then anoints him with Chrismation oil called myron which today is used instead of the laying on of hands that was the common practice during the times of the Apostles.
So with Peter and John now in Samaria they laid their hands on the people and they received the Holy Spirit. When Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, so that they would give him this power to be able to transfer the Holy Spirit to others. As a sorcerer he thought that this power would make him more powerful and bring him even more financial gain by selling the gifts. Peter was enraged with Simon and said to him that his money would perish with him because he thought that he could purchase the gift of God with money. Peter continues: you are not worthy of the grace that you ask for because your heart is not right in the sight of God, therefore repent of this wickedness and pray to God that maybe the thought of your heart may be forgiven you, because I perceive that your inner self is bound with mortal sin. Simon begged Peter to pray for him that none of these things which Peter had mentioned come upon him. Simon was not showing signs of repentance but feared that he would be punished for his evil thoughts. After preaching the word of the Lord the two Apostles returned to Jerusalem and on the way stopped at many of the Samaritan villages preaching the gospel.
With the apostles gone, an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip and told him to go south and take the road from Jerusalem to the Gaza desert. So Philip did as the angel had instructed him and came upon an Ethiopian eunuch who was the treasury minister of Queen Candice of the Ethiopians. The title of “eunuch” was often given to persons in authority in court, even though its literal meaning did not actually apply to them. This eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship and now returning to his own country was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the Prophet. The Ethiopians were pagan worshippers, but it would seem that this Ethiopian had rejected the faith of his people and had found the God of the Israelites. He may have been a fully converted Jew or a proselyte, but his soul was still searching for the truth and he had hoped he would find it by travelling over 3500 kilometres to worship at the Jerusalem temple.
The Holy Spirit told Philip to go near and join himself to the chariot. As Philip approached he heard the Eunuch reading aloud as was the custom of the Jews from the Prophet Isaiah and asked him if he understood what he was reading. He replied that unless someone was to guide him and explain to him the scripture, it was impossible for him to understand and invited Philip to sit with him and teach him the meaning of what he was reading.
The Eunuch was reading from the 53rd Chapter of Isaiah where he prophesies about Christ's Passion: "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth." The Eunuch asked Philip if the prophet was speaking of himself or of some other man. So beginning from the same scripture Philip preached to him about Jesus and must have explained to him how Christ instructed them to baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity. The Eunuch believed everything that Philip has said to him and when they came to a place of water the Eunuch asked Philip if he could be baptized. Philip replied that if he believed with all his heart then there was nothing that would hinder him. The Eunuch replied that he believed that Jesus was the Son of God and stopping the chariot they both went down into the water and Philip baptized the Eunuch. When they were come out of the water, the Spirit caught Philip away and the Eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.
Philip turns up in Azotus and passing though he preached in all the cities till he came to Caesarea. Azotus was the capital of the Philistine cities in northern Gaza and to get to Caesarea which was in Palestine by the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, he probably went through Accaron, Kedron, Jamnia, Lydda and Joppa. We know that Philip made Caesarea his permanent home because in chapter 21 of Acts we are told that Paul and his company came to Caesarea and entered Philip's house and stayed with him. Also that Philip had four daughters who prophesied.
In chapter nine, Luke turns our attention to Paul's conversion. We saw earlier that after Stephen's stoning there was a persecution of the Christians which forced them to flee to places like Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch. As we would expect some of the Christians took refuge in Damascus the capital of Syria. Saul was still extremely hostile towards the Christians and made it his mission to wipe them out. He went to the high priest Caiaphas who was the head of the Great Jewish council and asked of him letters giving him authority to take to the synagogues in Damascus that if he found any Christians there he could bind them and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. On his journey, as he came near to Damascus, he suddenly saw a blinding light from heaven and fell to the earth. He then heard a voice saying to him Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? Saul asked who he was and the voice replied: I am Jesus whom you are persecuting; it is hard for you to kick against the pricks. This was an old Greek and Latin proverb. The prick was a stick with a pointed piece of iron fastened to the end of it. This instrument was used to prod the oxen on when they were plowing. Sometimes the animal would rebel by kicking out at the prick, and this would result in the prick being driven even further into its flesh and wounding it. In resisting the teachings of Jesus, Saul was kicking against the prick similar to the stubborn ox and his resistance was causing him further suffering.
Saul trembling asked the Lord what he wanted him to do and Jesus told him to go into the city and there he would be told what he must do. The men who were with Saul remained speechless; they heard the voice speaking to Saul but didn't see anyone there. From this we can assume that Saul not only heard Jesus but also saw him. Saul arose from where he had fallen, but he was now blind and was led by the hand into Damascus. He was there for three days waiting, during which time he neither ate or drunk anything.
Now in Damascus there was a certain Christian named Ananias and the Lord said to him in a vision to go into a street called Straight and inquire in the house of Judas for a man called Saul of Tarsus. Ananias was told that Saul had also seen a vision in which a man named Ananias would come in and put his hand on him and he would receive his sight. But Ananias was concerned because he had heard of this Saul and how much evil he had done to the saints in Jerusalem and that he had authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on the name of Jesus. But the Lord told him not to worry because Saul was his chosen vessel who would bear his name before the Gentiles and kings and to the children of Israel. So Ananias went and found Saul where the Lord told him and said to him: Brother Saul, the Lord, Jesus, that appeared to you in the way as you came, has sent me, that you might receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. Immediately Saul received his sight and was baptized a Christian and remained with the Christians for a few days.
Luke continues the account of Paul's conversion letting us believe that after he was baptized he began to preach in the Synagogues that Christ was the Son of God, but according to Paul's own account in his Epistle to the Galatians he didn't speak with anyone but went to Arabia and returned after three years. In Galatians Paul also says that he was not preached the gospel by any man but received it as a revelation from Jesus Christ himself. This probably happened during the three years he spent in Arabia in solitude. After Arabia he returned again to Damascus and Luke continued his account without mentioning the three year gap. Paul now begins preaching in the synagogues that Christ is the Son of God. Everyone that heard him were amazed because they knew who he was and that he persecuted the Christians and had come to Damascus with the intent of arresting them to lead them to trial. After many days the Jews in Damascus took counsel to kill him and they watched the city gates day and night so that he would not escape. Paul was aware of what the Jews were planning and the Christians took him by night and helped him escape down the city walls with a rope and basket.
From here Paul went to Jerusalem and tried to join himself to the Christians there, but for good reason they were afraid of him and didn't believe that he was now a Christian. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the Apostles and told them how he had seen the Lord on his way to Damascus and how he had spoken to him and had boldly preached in the name of Jesus. Luke doesn't say which apostles were present, but according to Paul, again in his Epistle to the Galatians, the only apostle he saw was Peter and James the Lord's brother and had stayed with Peter for fifteen days. During this time he spoke boldly in the name of Jesus and disputed with the Greek Jews with whom at one time he was in coalition with during the stoning of Stephen, but now they went about to slay him. When the Christian brethren were aware of the threat against Paul's life they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him forth to Tarsus his homeland. Paul tells us in Galatians that his stay in Jerusalem and Caesarea were so short that his face was almost unknown among the Christians there.
For the rest of the Chapter Luke turns to Peter and two miracles that he performed: the cure of Aeneas in Lydda and the raising of Tabitha in Joppa. For today we will see only the first miracle and continue with the second at our next meeting.
Some time must have passed from when Paul was in Jerusalem and now there was rest and peace in the churches throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria and the faithful are continually multiplying. Peter now journeys to the towns of these places to strengthen the faith of the new Christians. Peter reaches Lydda after having passed through all quarters. With the phrase “all quarters” we should understand the places and the lands of those who had received the word of God. It could also be interpreted that he passed though all the saints, which would agree with what is said in continuance that he came also to the saints which dwelt at Lydda. Saints is one of the names of the first Christians. In the Acts of the Apostles it is used sparingly, but Paul in his Epistles makes greater use of the name. In the Hebrew tongue Lydda is known as Lod (1 Chron. 8:12) and was also known by the Greeks as Diopolis. It was found on the road from Jerusalem to Joppa and at the most 20 kilometres from Joppa.
In Lydda, Peter meets probably by chance, a man named Aeneas. From his name we can assume that he was a Greek Jew and possibly that he was already a Christian, because Peter does not make a condition for curing him that he must first believe in Jesus Christ. Luke who is also a physician gives us the length of time and nature of Aeneas’ illness. For eight whole years he was paralysed and bedridden. This information given us by the writer which show Aeneas’ tragic condition, allow us to think that neither Aeneas nor those near him could have had any hope of a possible cure from the grave illness he suffered. And it is this fact that makes more wonderful Peter’s miraculous intervention. There where the boundaries of hope end, the almighty God can give miraculous solutions.
Peter said to Aeneas, Jesus Christ makes you whole: arise, and make you bed. Peter does not ask Aeneas if he believes in Jesus Christ nor if he desires to be cured; possibly, because as we have already mentioned, Aeneas was already a Christian. St. John Chrysostom says that the miracle happened in answer to many supplications and that when Christ began his miracles, he did not insist on faith and so also the Apostles did not insist on faith. St. Peter’s words “Aeneas, Jesus Christ makes you whole” emphasises that the person who performs the miracle is not himself but Jesus Christ. This emphasis by Peter helps to strengthen the faith of the new Christians in Jesus Christ and also helps to draw others into the new faith by convincing them of the power of the name of Jesus. At no time did the Apostles allow to pass through their own minds and in no way did they allow people to believe that the miracles occurred through their own power. They always acted with faith in the Name of Christ whom they preached. On many occasions, the people were ready to worship them as gods so it was important to get the message across that the miracles occurred through the power of Jesus and not their own. What Peter says next “arise, and make thy bed” and the immediate response by Aeneas, not only informs us of the realization of the miracle, but at the same time comes and unquestionably verifies that it took place. The man who for eight years was bedridden and completely dependant on others can now rise and also make his own bed. By telling Aeneas to make his own bed, Peter gives proof of the miracle and an opportunity for others to check and verify that it happened.