Acts 5:1-11: These verses really comprise a section along with the closing verses of chapter 4. chapter divisions were added to the New Testament in the 13th century, and sometimes they broke up what should have been together. The positive picture of the early Jesus community in Jerusalem, where all shared their possessions is followed by two specific stories – one positive and one negative. The positive story is about a man named Joseph who is renamed Barnabas. Barnabas had sold a field and brought the proceeds of the sale to the apostles, in keeping with what others had been doing. We are never sure from The Book of Acts whether or not selling all one had was a requirement for discipleship, if it was voluntary and if all did it. From other parts of the book and other parts of the New Testament it would be difficult to argue that every first-century Christian sold their possessions and gave all the money to the community for distribution. Barnabas is commended for doing so.
The negative example comes in the form of a couple, Ananias and Sapphira. They sold a piece of property, but agreed to keep part of the price received from the Jesus community. Frankly, this is a difficult story. What is it about at its deepest level? Well, on the surface it is about deception and its consequences. Like Jesus, Peter has insight into others and he knows that Ananias and Sapphira have withheld some of the money they received from the sale of their property. Somehow, Peter’s words make more sense if the primary issue is deception. He seems to have no problem with the possibility that they might have done with the money what they wanted to, but is very upset that they seem to be portraying that they were giving all the proceeds to the Jesus community. Both Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for their deceit.
The story is more folkloric than historical and is meant to underscore the serious breach that occurs when members of the community lie to one another (New Interpreters Study Bible). One has to wonder about the wisdom of using such a harsh story to illustrate this point. The lack of compassion – not to speak of cruelty – inherent in this scene taken as objective reporting of literally history seems to violate all that the disciples have been called to be (People’s New Testament Commentary). Nevertheless, the story is there for us to grapple with uncomfortably. I don’t know anyone who has ever been struck dead for lying or for trying to take more credit for something than was rightfully theirs. I have seen something die inside of people who try and base their lives on lies and deceit. Maybe a warning about that kind of dying is worth such a stark story.
Acts 5:12-16: Here we have another authorial summary of the life of the apostles and the early church. The apostles continue the ministry of Jesus in performing signs and wonders. It is the apostles who no others may join, but who are held in high esteem. The number of believers increases as does the work load of the apostles. Because of the healing power that works through them, more people are brought to be healed. Even having Peter’s shadow fall on one could be efficacious. Through the Spirit work of the apostles, all whowere brought were cured.
Acts 5:17-42: Parallels with the life of Jesus continue. Just as Jesus was opposed and arrested by Jewish leaders, so, here, are the apostles. They had been arrested before, but here things have gotten more serious. They are imprisoned rather than questioned. But just as the prison of death and the tomb could not keep Jesus trapped, so the walls of a prison cannot keep God out or the apostles held. “The whole message about this life” (verse 20) is a unique way to refer to the Christian message of faith, but it is a good one. The freed apostles go to the Temple to share that message. They are found and arrested again, this time they are questioned immediately. The authorities reminded them that they had issued orders not to teach in the name of Jesus. Peter tells them that they need to obey God rather than human authority. “The difficult issue is, however, is to discern what is divine and what is merely human” (People’s New Testament Commentary). One cannot use this text to treat human authority cavalierly. But neither should we be merely deferential. Following this assertion Peter launches into doing what they have forbidden him to do – he tells the story of Jesus again. There is an irony here – the very authority that the leaders are trying to assert is the authority by which Jesus was killed. But the Jesus who was executed is Leader and Savior – titles bound to provoke the ire of both the Jewish and Roman authorities. Peter and the apostles are witnesses, but so is the Spirit herself/himself – it is the Spirit which is giving Peter the courage to speak. In an unsurprising development, most of the council is outraged, and would like these pesky followers of Jesus to suffer Jesus’ fate. Unlike with Jesus, there is another voice on the council, Gamaliel. Gamaliel was an illustrious Jewish teacher, the grandson of another such teacher, Hillel. He was also the Pharisee under whom Paul studied. In telling this story, Luke offers an olive branch to the Jewish community, which by his time had become separate from and rather hostile to the Jesus movement. The hostile feelings were often mutual. Luke portrays Gamaliel as making a profound argument, comparing the Jesus movement to other movements – movements that dissipated after the founder died. By the time Luke is writing Luke-Acts, the Jesus movement would have been over fifty years old – it is now nearly two thousand years old. God seems to have been up to something in this Jesus. By the way, that this speech is more for Luke’s own time is illustrated by the fact that the history he cites is not very accurate. Theudas was executed by the Romans in 44 CE, several years after this episode in Acts was to have taken place. Judas was indeed executed in 6 CE, several years before Theudas, but the text locates him later. Luke’s point is theological rather than historical, and he is making a case for readers of the late first century more than trying to record what happened mid-century.
Though the council is convinced by Gamaliel, they nevertheless reassert their authority by forbidding the apostles to teach and by having them flogged. Rather than kowtowing to this authority, the apostles find joy in having suffered for their faith and continue to teach about Jesus.
Acts 6:1-7: As Luke has been telling the story, the Jesus movement has grown considerably, and some organizational changes need to be made. While movements indeed often lose something when they organize and institutionalize, would movements survive much beyond a first or second generation without some organization and institutionalization? It is also interesting to note that with growth comes diversity (Hellenists are Greek speaking Jews) and with diversity comes the possibility of discrimination. With growth comes the need for a distinction of function. The apostles feel their primary calling is to continue to preach and teach rather than administer a distribution program for necessities. It is not that such work is “beneath” them, but rather they cannot continue their teaching and their administration work and do both as well as they would like. The decision is made to select seven men to oversee the distribution program. Two “orders” of ministry emerge, one devoted to worship and the ministry of the word, the other to administering the benevolence program of the church (People’s New Testament Commentary). Both groups of leaders are to be people full of the Spirit and wisdom. It is interesting to note that all of the seven chosen have Greek names. Luke adds yet another note about the success of the movement in verse 7.
Acts 6:8-15: The narrative continues with the story of one of those chosen to administer. Stephen had already been described as a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Now he is described as “full of grace and power.” He did great things, signs and wonders, among the people. Stephen is a Hellenist, and a dispute arises between he and others who would also have been Hellenists. Stephen seems to be engaged in the work of teaching and preaching here, interesting given the earlier part of the chapter. Stephen is portrayed as winning the debate, but those who opposed him are sore losers, apparently. They conspire against Stephen, bringing charges of blasphemy against him – similar charges that were a part of Jesus’ trial. He is brought to trial, and his story will be continued in the next chapter.