Today, we are going to talk about three great witnesses of the resurrected Lord.
Okay, we pick up this lesson with Stephen in Acts chapter 7 delivering a speech to the Jewish Sanhedrim in an, attempt to defend accusations that he was a blasphemer and spoke against the Temple and the Law of Moses. Stephen is giving an amazing speech by laying the foundation for bearing witness to them of Christ. Moses was probably the most important prophet in the eyes of the Jews, and Stephen, with inspired skill is leading up to the fact that Moses prophesied about Jesus in Acts 7:37 “This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet (meaning Christ) shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him (Christ) shall ye hear (listen to and obey).“ After patiently relaying the history of the Jews to his audience, Stephen seems to shift into high gear and says to his accusers Verses 51 -53 “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your father’s persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of who ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.”
So, after condemning these Jewish leaders they went ballistic. Standing before them was one of their own – a Jew – who had accepted Jesus, who they put to death – as Lord and Savior. They were so angry with him they couldn’t refrain themselves any longer. Verse 54 “When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.” Recorded are these powerful verses. Verses 55-56 “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” Stephen looked steadfastly to the only place that he knew He could – into heaven – the only place where WE can place our trust. And he saw “the glory of God” – a display of magnificent light – some sort of exhibition of the presence of God. He was having a vision or a revelation of God’s glory. And Jesus was standing by the glory of God. “On the right hand of God” refers to a place of honor, not literally on the right hand of something. God is Spirit, Light, and Fire. Stephen did not see God the Father in a body with Jesus standing on his right side. That would be eisegeses – reading into the text. It says that Stephen saw the “glory of God.”
Verse 57 “Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord.” They had heard enough and together, they rushed upon him. Verse 58 “And cast him out of the city, and stoned him and the witnesses laid down their clothes (so they wouldn’t get dirty when they killed Stephen) at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.” A very dramatic end to a faithful witness of Christ. And, an introduction to a character who will play the most major role in the early Church – Saul, whose name will be changed to Paul. Verse 59 “And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Steven here was praying and speaking to Jesus. Verse 60 “And Stephen kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep (he died).” And this brings us to the first line of the first verse in chapter 8 “And Saul was consenting unto his death.” We will read more about this Saul who was a devout Pharisee, who persecuted and imprisoned the Christians.
In the meantime, we read in Acts chapter 8 about Philip and his successful missionary work. Verses 26-28 “And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saiying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia (a nation in eastern Africa, south of Egypt), an eunuch (a man who had been surgically rendered incapable of fathering children) of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship. Was returning (home to Ethiopia from Jerusalem), and sitting in his chariot read Esaias (Isaiah) the prophet.” This is a really inspiring story – here’s a man sitting roadside and reading Isaiah – and God caring enough about this man’s heart and mind that He had another man leave his local in Samaria and travel a great distance just to reach this single Ethiopian eunuch with the truth. Verse 29 “Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot (where the man was sitting).” Why was he reading Isaiah – we don’t know. It may have been simply because he was a Jew or possibly he had been to Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – that he had heard about Him, and that he opened the scripture to see what it said on the subject. Regardless, the Eunuch was reading from Isaiah and by the time Philip arrived on the scene, he had some questions. Obviously, the Eunuch was reading out loud Verse 30 “And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias (Isaiah), and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?” “Are the words you are reading making sense to you?” I have, to ask do you know the scriptures well enough that you’d feel confident asking a stranger that question? Would you be equipped to answer questions they might have?
Verse 31 “And he (the Eunuch) said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.” The Eunuch was humble and open to being, lead to understand the things of the Lord by a complete stranger. He was like a sheep looking for a shepherd. Being a Jew and familiar with the Torah, he was trying to understand the scripture and how it spoke of the promised Messiah. And being in Jerusalem he was probably told that the true Messiah had come, and His name was Yeshua. Verses 32-33 “The place of the scripture which he read was this (and he cites Isaiah 53:7-8), 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.” Isaiah 53 is perhaps one of the most poignant Old Testament chapters that speak clearly of the Messiah’s life and death. Acts 8:34 “And the eunuch answered (asked) Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?” In other words, “Who is Isaiah talking about here?” Verse 35 “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” How much detail Philip went into is unknown, but he must have said something in his teaching about water baptism, because of the next verse. Verse 36 “And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” “Is there any reason why I shouldn’t be baptized?” He was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and wanted to make an outward profession of his inward conviction. Verse 37 “And Philip said, if thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
At this point, I want to relate an experience I had several years ago. I was on a business trip in Tempe, Arizona. Being a missionary-minded Mormon, I always traveled with a copy of the Book of Mormon and would pray for an opportunity to give it away to someone. During this trip, I stopped by a McDonald’s to grab a quick breakfast before I went on to my business meeting. When I walked into the establishment, I noticed a homeless man sitting at a table reading his Bible. We were the only two in the eating area. I recognized him from the night before as I spotted him walking down the sidewalk. Because he had a long thick gray beard, I thought he looked like Santa Clause. As I sat and ate my egg-McMuffin, I thought how I would start up a conversation about his reading the Bible to introduce the Book of Mormon. So, I walked over to his table and asked, “What are you reading about in the Bible?” Without looking up at me, he quietly said “About the Messiah.” I asked if he wouldn’t mind sharing with me what he was exactly reading about the Messiah? I sat down next to him and listened intently – looking for my opportunity to interject a message about the Book of Mormon. He began by going to prophecy found in the Old Testament about the coming Messiah and then quickly to a passage in the New Testament where that prophecy was fulfilled. With complete knowledge and command of the Scripture, he moved back and forth through the pages of his Bible with ease. And without even looking at me, he spoke of his love for, and honor of, the Savior. I was captivated! I was so touched by the sincerity and reverence this homeless man had for the Word of God. My initial somewhat, prideful intention for bring up the Book of Mormon faded into the background. I knew that I was in the presence of man of spiritual greatness. After five or ten minutes, I thanked him for his time and asked if I could give him some money. All he said was – “if God wills it.” That entire day during my meetings I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room where a Gideon’s Bible waited for me in the dresser drawer. I wanted to read those passages that dear man shared with me that morning. I made up my mind that day, I would begin reading the Gospel according to John. That was the start of my discovery of the True Jesus. Since I somewhat considered myself a student of the Gospel, I thought I knew who He was – but I did not. From that point on, my eyes were opened to the truth and I realized that Jesus was God incarnate. He was the great I AM. So, I can relate to what the Eunuch said in Verse 37 “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
We will end this lesson by reviewing the conversion of the Pharisee Saul – persecutor of the Christians – as he enters the path to becoming one of the most influential Apostles ever. His name will be changed to Paul and he will become the Apostle to the Gentiles, who wrote fourteen of the books of the New Testament.
Acts 9:1-2 “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.” Saul got permission to arrest any Christians and to put them in chains. Verses 3-4 “And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” A light appeared – as it did on the mount of transfiguration – and the voice spake to him. Paul was overcome and overpowered – thus falling to the ground. Jesus asks Saul why he persecutes him. Verse 5 “And he (Saul) said, who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” A prick was a goad, a sharp stick which could be used to poke animals when herding them along. The tendency of the animals when poked with the goad, was to stubbornly kick back against it, thus driving it deeper into their hide. Perhaps, Saul’s conscience was starting to bother him. Verse 6 “And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.” Here Saul is called out by the Lord, himself, for persecuting others for believing in Him. Now, it is Saul who is shaking in fear. But then becomes peacefully compliant and doing what he was told to do. In one fell swoop he placed himself in the employ of Jesus forevermore. The experience left him blind for three days and neither could he eat or drink. In the meantime, the Lord came to Ananias in a vision instructing him to find Saul who had reached Damascus. The Savior told Ananias Verse 15 “For he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel.” So, Ananias found Saul and blessed him. Immediately he received back his sight, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and was baptized. Verse 20 “And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.”
What we have just briefly covered is considered one of the greatest conversion stories in the annuls of the faith.