Thursday, May 30, 2013


Acts 8:9-24

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money.

—Acts 8:18


8:9 Now a certain man named Simon had previously  practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10A11 of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, "This man is the power of God that is called Great." 11 And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.

14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, 19saying, "Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." 20But Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money! 21You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness." 24Simon answered, "Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me."


As Christians, as congregations, as denominations, and as Christ's one universal church, we do not depend on ourselves but on Jesus Christ our Lord. Christ's is the only authority that we are to seek and discern in the midst of our lives. We are not lords of others or ourselves. Our Lord, the one who authors our lives, is Lord over all that is and is none other than the triune God. All spiritual power is God's alone. Our power is in cooperation with the power of the Holy Spirit, and we cannot be holy apart from the Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit cannot be owned, parceled, hoarded, bought, or demanded.

As we follow the plot in this story, we see power at work; we see how people respond to this power both in service and in greed. Simon was powerful. People followed and "listened to him eagerly." As the story unfolds, Simon recognizes power greater than his own in the preaching of Philip, and so he follows him. Then there is an even greater power: the power of bestowing the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. When Peter chastises Simon, he draws a vital distinction: one cannot have the power of God. One simply serves it.



We human beings are certainly drawn to power. We enjoy watching powerful athletes; we respect people who are able to use words effectively; and when someone with personal charisma walks into a room, we can't help but notice and show interest. Power brings prestige and recognition, and as we can see in many public figures, it brings the temptation to live outside ethical boundaries. Simon is a powerful man, so powerful that people "listen to him eagerly." They follow him. However, these same people discern a greater power through Philip's preaching when he comes to them in Samaria.

Philip was among those who had been dispersed throughout the area when Saul began his campaign against Christians (Acts 8:1-3). Those who spread out after Stephen's death and Saul's persecution of them did not scatter into the countryside to escape from threats to their lives but to proclaim the gospel. No wonder the Samaritans took note of Philip: even though persecuted, he preached a joyous message that threatened religious assumptions.

The Samaritans believe and are baptized, but the power that Philip brokers is not his own, nor does he buy or sell it for his own sake. Instead, he serves the power of God through proclamation and baptism. Because those in Jerusalem heard of this work of God, they sent Peter and John to demonstrate it further and to serve the power of God by the laying on of hands. Simon doesn't understand that it is God's power alone. The Samaritans discern the power of God and how it is administered. Simon discerns incorrectly when he thinks that this power can be manipulated.

Peter not only accurately accuses Simon of the wrong motives,  he also makes a way clear for Simon to be healed and forgiven for his motivations and misunderstandings. The power of God opens a way to Simon for restoration.

What does Simon do?

He accepts the grace! Certainly, Peter is a strong example of a servant to the power of God; Simon now humbles himself, submits to correction, and learns about the true nature of the power of the Holy Spirit. Simon wanted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit; now he receives it freely, pointing to God alone.



We read about God's power for living in Eph. 3:20:" [God] by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine." It is what gives us the confidence to spread our wings and fly, to dare to say and do all the gospel things we are given. The God of the universe created us in God's own image, which we bear in our daily lives. We are created to be who God created us to be. We are servants, yes. But we are not all the same servant doing the exact same thing in service to the Holy Spirit. And we are not weak servants, "for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim. 1:7).

How do we shine brightly without burning others? Our power is to serve, not destroy. Our lives are like parables, pointing to Jesus or to the kingdom of heaven.

Philip continued the call to proclaim the gospel and to baptize; John and Peter went where they were sent and did what they were given to do; and Peter declared the truth about the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, in the end, serves us by binding us to Jesus Christ, in whom all things in heaven and on earth are reconciled to God. We serve the God who is for us.

Just imagine: your light, shining brightly, glorifies God and points all those around you to the Holy Spirit.



Can you think of a person or two in your life who has "shined brightly" and encouraged you to do so? How does your understanding of this inspiration change when you realize God gives you a spirit of power and love?

Is it hard to affirm others who shine brightly in a way different from the way that you shine? Why or why not?

What power has God given you to point to the gospel of Christ? Do you demonstrate joy, love, peace, patience, or other fruits of the Holy Spirit?



Holy Spirit, if you accomplish abundantly far more than what we can think to ask for or even imagine, we realize that you change the world. Help us to stand up boldly, confident that you have created us to be powerful servants of your gospel. In Christ's name, we pray. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Acts 7:51—8:la
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
—Acts 7:59
7:51 "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it."
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56"Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.
8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him.
The stories of the Gospels and of Acts are written so that we can see the mountains, plains, wilderness, and Samaritans by the side of the road in the text. In this passage, we not only see people murder Stephen; we see the looks on their faces and feel their burning resentment of Stephen. One would think that we would stay away from this passage. But as the death of Jesus is echoed here in Stephen's death, we witness something beautiful, true, and good.
Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and thus enabled to see divine things. While those around him "became enraged and ground their teeth," he saw not the end of his life but the ground of all life: "he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (v. 55). He saw Jesus resurrected, Lord over all, in unity with God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This passage is often referred to as the martyrdom of Stephen. The word martyr is one we should use carefully, because it is a serious word. To be a martyr is to be a witness. Stephen is a martyr because he was killed for bearing witness to his faith in Jesus Christ. This has been happening to Christians over the centuries. When we remember the stories of martyrs, we rejoice in their faith and courage. In fact, it is their absolute conviction of the joy of the gospel that fills their hearts with courage to proclaim that gospel regardless of the enemies who are present.
Unfortunately, the word martyr is used casually even by Christians. Some, thinking that Christians no longer dominate United States culture, have used the word martyr to describe themselves, even when there isn't a hint of physical danger. Complaining about the way things are is very different from being killed for proclaiming the gospel.
On the other hand, there are Christians who have done brave things and died for them but who are not Christian martyrs. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is often called a martyr because after doing what he understood he needed to do as a disciple of Jesus Christ, he was arrested and put in various Nazi prison camps where he was hanged one week before the Allies liberated the camps.
Bonhoeffer was not arrested for being a Christian. He was arrested because he participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. However, Bonhoeffer's courage points us back to Stephen's, and we can start to see how devotion to Jesus Christ reorganizes our priorities. Bonhoeffer understood that he had a unique place in society—he was well-educated, unmarried, and connected to the underground intelligence movement—and thus a unique responsibility. He knew that murder was wrong. He did what he thought he was called to do and left the justification of his act up to God.
"Telling the truth" is one of the best excuses we Christians use to be unkind, since we think of telling the truth as morally right no matter what truth we're telling. But claiming that we are speaking the truth when we are being mean and arrogant turns the gospel of Jesus Christ into a joke. Why should anyone believe that "God is love" when we show disdain for their thoughts or opinions? In Eph. 4, we are exhorted to "speak the truth in love."
This shows us that hypocrisy can go in at least two directions. Stephen shows us both by holding fast to the truth of Christ. First, he does speak the truth, even though he would have gotten along a lot better with people if he had soft-pedaled his message. To be faithful to the truth of Christ means speaking when necessary. Stephen did this in order to refute lies and hypocrisy of the council who claimed to be people of faith but who had turned against God.
Second, Stephen speaks the truth in love, bearing witness to Jesus who had been sent into the world God loves so much not to condemn it, but to save it (John 3:16-17). We know he speaks in love because his last words are selfless words of forgiveness.
Consider how Stephen's witness has been passed to us today. The word tradition means "to hand over." When we teach others about our faith, we hand it over to them and help them to hold it in their own hands. The words and deeds of our faith need to bear witness to the truth in love; otherwise we are handing over a hollow gospel that does not share the good news of our salvation through the love of God.
Stephen allowed himself to be formed into the truth of Christ by his faith tradition and by the Spirit. When we allow ourselves to be formed into truth as Stephen was, we speak the truth in love, no matter the opposition. This means that we, like Stephen, are to be loving and daring in our witness to Christ. We forgive even those who oppose us, and we hand over a tradition of gospel joy.
Boldness requires risk. We take risks when we declare our faith one way or another without considering the cost. Small acts can be bold. We can also be bold in a louder volume, but our boldness will always be unique to who we are as Christ's particular disciples. The Samaritan woman at the well boldly spoke to Jesus, a man and a Jew. Moses boldly argued with God and talked God into a change of mind. We all know people that have been bold when they were heckled on the street or brave as they continued daily life after a cancer diagnosis.
Being bold, as Stephen shows us, is being a Christian no matter what. This doesn't mean we're always perfect Christians. Any situation in which we find ourselves is a situation in which we are called to be Christian no matter what happens. We are bold simply because we speak the truth in love as Stephen did.
You have particular circumstances in your life. How do your situations require Christian boldness?
What does it mean to you to "speak the truth" and to do so "in love"? What particular events would you refer to in order to describe how you were a bold witness to the gospel of Christ, in word or deed?
In what ways do you seek to be formed by the Holy Spirit into the joyful daring that was active in Stephen?
Mighty God, we are bold to approach you for forgiveness, and we are bold to go forth as your servants. Form us into truth and love that we might pass on the gospel of Christ in the way we speak and act. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.