Acts Chapter 8 opens up with the aftermath of Stephen’s stoning, and a great wave of persecution flows over the Christians in Jerusalem. It happens just as Jesus predicted. He told them they would suffer persecution and that they would preach to all the nations, but I’m guessing they had no idea one would come as a result of the other. Christians were either hunted and dragged from their homes, or they fled and scattered into Samaria and the surrounding region. My question is this. If Jesus told them to preach among all the nations, why did they stay in Jerusalem so long? Why didn’t they immediately start spreading the gospel into the region? In fact, during this wave of persecution, most of the Apostles stayed and did not flee. To understand their probable frame of mind, and to see how Jesus laid the foundation for the remaining passages in Acts, we are going to continue exploring the various aspects of the heavenly and earthly economies.
THE OLD COVENANT
Looking back on the Old Covenant, which was originally made with Abraham and confirmed with King David, it promised descendents uncountable and a kingdom unending. God intended the Old Covenant, provided for the earthly economy, to serve as a picture that would reveal its spiritual reality in heavenly economy. Here on earth we see Israel set apart from other nations, with their own laws and customs. To be counted among this community of believers, regardless of lineage, one had to submit to their laws and customs, and remain exclusive. Most notable among their laws were circumcision and sacrifices. On the surface it might appear that keeping the law is the picture we’re supposed to grasp, but it’s not. The Apostle Paul in the New Testament is very clear that circumcision of the heart, not the physical procedure, is what really matters to God. And we can be sure that God was no different in the Old Testament. He didn’t suddenly change his mind when Paul came around. By looking at I Samuel 16, when Samuel anointed David as the new king of Israel, both Jesse and Samuel were confused because David’s brothers appeared more kingly than David. And God responds,
The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (I Samuel 16:7 NLT)
Note that God said this while the Old Covenant law was heading to its height in glory.
If the picture of the Old Covenant isn’t about appearances, works for salvation, or salvation by lineage, then what is the picture we are supposed to see? Without providing and exhaustive list, first God wanted the world to see that his heavenly community is indeed unique and set above human standards, so he made the earthly Hebrew community unique and set apart. Second, his heavenly community, upon entering by faith, one is made holy and stripped of his sin, so God provided circumcision to symbolize this stripping. And third, the heavenly community is indeed exclusive, but exclusive of sin, so God required Israel to exclude the sinning nations to symbolize his heavenly purity. God chose the picture of the Old Covenant in the earthly economy to demonstrate his truth in the heavenly economy.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
The pinnacle of this picture and the ultimate fulfillment of the Old Covenant is Messiah. Israel greatly anticipated Messiah who would reign as king and establish his forever Kingdom. Jesus began his ministry by methodically fulfilling every single prophecy, and he told his disciples,
Don’t go the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the people of Israel – God’s lost sheep. (Matthew 10:5 NLT)
Interestingly, during this same period of time, what did Jesus do? He headed through Samaria and stopped at a well to offer salvation to a Samaritan woman. Seems like a huge contradiction, but it’s not if you can discern his actions by the appropriate economy. To complete the picture of the Old Covenant with Israel, the gift of Messiah would be offered to Israel and only Israel. So the disciples were sent to complete this picture for the earthly economy. Jesus on the other hand was offering salvation to the Samaritan woman, because he was operating in the heavenly economy, outside of the earthly pictures and covenants. He is not constrained by these earthly pictures and this earthly economy. His heavenly economy supersedes all else.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand
Jesus knows he’s close to revealing the full picture of the heavenly economy, so he continues to lay the foundation through additional symbols during his ministry. Let’s look at a few of those nuggets. First in Mark 6:30 is the account of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus blesses the bread and fish, and it results in twelve leftover baskets of food. There are actually quite a few symbols embedded here, but I want to look at just one, which is the number twelve. The number twelve has always corresponded to government and Israel, or the Old Covenant. There were twelve tribes in Israel and twelve disciples, and virtually every artistic artifact in the Temple came in twelve’s. These twelve baskets of food symbolize the Bread of Life being offered to Israel. This miracle actually occurs in Galilee, just north of Samaria.
[Just a quick history of these people. After King Solomon died, there was a huge dissent among the people as they fought over the throne, and the ten tribes of the north split from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah in the South. Each with their own king, they became known as Israel in the north and Judah in the south. These northern tribes had wandered so far from God that they were carried off by the Assyrians much earlier than Judah. The people living in this territory at the time of Jesus were Israelites who had intermarried with the Assyrians and mixed the sacred practices of God with pagan rituals. This was of course terrible which is why the Jews hated these people so much.]
The Feeding of the Four Thousand
Look now at Mark 8:1-10, they’ve crossed the Sea of Galilee and continue ministering. This is the account of the feeding of the four thousand. After blessing the loaves of bread and fish, they ended up with seven baskets of leftover food. The symbol here is the number seven which has always corresponded to the idea of completion and perfection. God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. What it means here is that the Bread of Life will also be offered beyond Judah, a world with Gentiles, bringing his picture of salvation to completion and perfection. Mark says that the disciples did not understand the significance of these feeding miracles. Their hearts were still hardened to the truth.
Jesus was introducing the New Covenant to the world through pictures and symbols. But because the Apostles didn’t entirely understand this after he ascended, they were anxiously awaiting for his return to establish his earthly kingdom in Jerusalem – a fulfillment of the Old Covenant. They probably assumed that they would be preaching to all the nations under Jesus’ earthly rule. I assume the disciples stayed in Jerusalem when the persecution heightened because they didn’t want to miss Jesus’s glorious return.
ISRAEL REJECTS MESSIAH & USHERS IN THE NEW COVENANT
Let’s revisit Acts chapter 6 from our study last week. We run into the issue of food and feeding again. In Acts 6 the early church finds that the widows who were Greek were not getting fed. So the twelve apostles appoint seven men to administer the feeding program. Coincidence? Probably not. God’s picture for the earthly economy is on the verge of evolving, from Israel and the Old Covenant to the Gentiles and the New Covenant, and he provides these symbols as confirmation. What happens right after the seven were chosen? Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin. If you remember, Moses was rejected not once, but twice. First, by the Hebrews while he was still living in Egypt, and again after they left, when they refused God’s oracles and turned back to the pagan Egyptian gods. This picture of Moses was fulfilled when the Sanhedrin rejected Christ first by arresting and crucifying him. And again by rejecting Stephen’s offer of Christ and stoning him. So in Chapter 8 we see the beginnings of the Gospel going out into all the nations.
“It’s kind of like a Christmas present holding the name of one particular child. Only the name bearer can open it. However, once it’s opened, all the children will get to play with it.” –Dr. James R. Roberts II, 2014
Philip flees to Samaria, and the Samaritans readily receive the gift! The Apostles in Jerusalem get wind of this, and immediately send Peter and John to investigate. They must have been a little wary of the reports, still operating within the parameters of the Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant anyone joining the community of believers converted to the Jewish customs. The Apostles were opening the Christmas present marked for the Jews.
This group of Samaritan believers experienced a delay in the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, the sign of tongues. Many scholars believe this was for the benefit of Peter and John. God was in all likelihood proving to Peter and John his hand over those believers. This was a pretty dramatic departure from the Old Covenant standards, and these very good Jewish men would be hesitant to do so without a heavenly sign. I say likely because the scriptures don’t explicitly explain the delay of the Holy Spirit. Based on Paul’s later writings, we know the Holy Spirit will enter us immediately upon our belief, yet it’s delayed in Acts 8. There could be other legitimate reasons for the delay, so however God is leading our understanding, it would be wise to do so with a holy uncertainty.
IS THE NEW COVENANT REALLY NEW?
Is the New Covenant really new? Yes and no. It is new here in the earthly economy. God’s choice of picture for his people changes from the old to the new. However, the scriptures indicate that salvation for the Gentiles is really not a new thing for God in his heavenly economy. This has been the way of it all along, but he’s dramatically modifying his pictures in the earthly economy to reveal it. You only have to remember the story of Jonah, under the Old Covenant, to see his acceptance of all people. Jonah was instructed to go to Nineveh and preach, and he did not want to go. They were despicable, non-Jews and Jonah had been thoroughly trained to exclude himself from these people. But God wanted his salvation message sent anyway. He was asking Jonah to operate under the heavenly economy for a moment. And they received it of all things! Jesus, again laying the foundation for the New Covenant, says,
The people of Nineveh will also stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here – but you refuse to repent. (Luke 10:32 NLT)
Earlier I asked the question, why weren’t the apostles already spreading the gospel message around the region when Stephen was stoned? We see it is likely wrapped in their misunderstanding of God’s plan and purpose for the Old Covenant. However, I am not at all implying they were not following God’s will.
It is in fact beautiful to see how Jesus weaves all these pictures and symbols, even their state of mind, into the spreading of the Gospel to all the nations. For me, having an understanding of God’s heavenly economy and our earthly economy has made the scriptures easier to understand. It helps explain what appears to be contradiction through the scriptures. If you still find it confusing, please don’t worry and don’t give up. Everything fell into place exactly the way it was supposed to fall back then, and the same is true today. We can totally trust God to use our messy lives and our misunderstandings to weave a beautiful and compelling story of his love and provision.
My thoughts for Acts 8 is largely academics today, but it’s important to know that he wants our hearts more than he wants us to be correct academically. He wants to fill us with his Spirit so that he can give us understanding and allow us to live out a life of heaven on earth. When we make knowing him front and center, the pieces do fall exactly the way they should as they did for the Apostles. So if you don’t understand this right now, just know you can trust him.