Because Jesus knew His earthly mission was only for a limited duration, He commissioned and authorized twelve men to serve as the foundation stones of His program. They would be apostles—emissaries, representatives—with His full authority to speak on His behalf and carry the work forward. Many times in the Upper Room Discourse—His final training of them before the transformative events of the cross and resurrection—He assures them of the coming gift of the Spirit, whereby they would be fully enabled to speak as His representatives with fresh words from heaven—which themselves would be the “many things” He wished to tell them but they could not yet bear, conveyed to them by the direct revelation of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, 15:26-27, 16:12-15). These men would be, in a very real sense, the physical counterpart on earth to the risen Christ who rules from heaven. They would execute His will and further His program (as do we when we act and pray in accordance with the words from heaven that are the Scriptures). But they did so in a foundational, unrepeatable, unique way.
Indeed, their divinely-given authority was so critical and so pivotal that any message claiming to be for God—even any application of Scripture, or implication of a passage—would need to mesh with what they taught and wrote to gain a hearing. If it didn’t, then it wasn’t from God. God intends His program, and specifically the activities and ministries of those living in the church age, to be governed and controlled by the words and teachings of those His Son divinely commissioned to be the His representatives. In this critical way the anointed King, Messiah, and exalted Son of God rules and is present with His church.
Acts 8 contains an important narrative to help us understand the pivotal, purifying, and authoritative role these men played in God’s plan. We will see four ways they exercised their authority and the impact this has on the shape of God’s program.
A. Apostolic Authority Effectively Deals with External Opposition (vv. 1-4)
This chapter opens immediately following the execution of Stephen by the Jewish leadership. It is also the opening salvo in the latest skirmish between two warring factions: Heaven, whose exalted and resurrected king has been imposing His imperial authority on the world over the last several months, and the men of earth in its fallen sense, who resent the heavenly intrusion into their power trip. This is Psalm 2 in microcosm, where the rulers and leaders of the nations of men seek to cast off the government of God and His anointed Messiah who rules for Him over the earth. Energized by Satan, who now is at work in the spirits of the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:1-3), the one who has some measure of authority over the inhabited, humanly-cultivated earth (Luke 4:5), Saul and the human leaders who lend him their authority are now fighting the new work of God.
To stop the threat of the rule of Christ, the Jewish leaders go after those who express and declare His rule. The persecution is such that for its own safety the Jerusalem church scatters in every possible direction. The great irony to all of this, of course, is that these surrendered, Spirit-filled disciples then use the displacement to take the message of the ruling Christ to places where He has not yet been named (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). By taking the message everywhere, the church is only going to spread, and be that much harder to stamp out!
How is apostolic authority evident in this persecution? In two ways. The most obvious is that they stayed. They did not leave when persecution hit. Why? It is unlikely the entire church left; some stayed. (We know that because Saul was arresting some of the Christians in verse 4, who obviously did not escape in time.) These especially persecuted and beleaguered saints would have needed divinely-appointed leadership, the comfort of knowing they had a human link to heaven in the teaching and direct inspiration of the apostles. The apostles could not leave while their flock was suffering. Second, the young church was already such a threat to the plans and goals of the Jewish leadership that the only response was to forcefully, doggedly attack them to the point of driving out and imprisonment. These were people who learned well, obeyed sacrificially, and responded to the authority God had placed in these twelve men. God’s favor and blessing was upon these uniquely gifted and ordained men at a pivotal time in the church’s founding. Their words by and large did not fall on deaf ears, but divinely opened and submissive ones which responded to the divine authority the Lord had given the 12.
B. Apostolic Authority Makes the Gospel Irresistible to Those God Calls (vv. 5-13)
Stephen’s friend and fellow deacon, Philip, is one of those who leaves due to the persecution. He is not an apostle. But he has been granted manifestations of that authority because of the message he proclaims (the authority is always tied to words, proclamation, or message). As he proclaims Christ to the Samaritans, God confirms the preaching with manifestations of His power. But a different power display is going on—Simon the Sorcerer, who is almost certainly manifesting demonic power, also has a following. But when these people saw what Philip was doing, they were getting saved and baptized. Even Simon was astounded by the display of power far greater than anything he could do. He even is said to believe, though the final section shows it was spurious.
What is the point of this section? The power Philip displayed was apostolic. It was to authenticate the message, the messenger, and the One being preached all as part of God’s divine program and the transition from Israel to the church as God’s saving, ordained institution. God is at work in the world, and He shows it. Jesus has power from heaven over the natural order of things, and He shows it. And the elect see it—and the message authenticated by it—and an irreversible, sovereign, decisive miracle takes place in their hearts. Their eyes are opened, and they see the powerful words and works for what they are, and they turn, and they are forever changed.
C. Apostolic Authority Judges those who Cling to Sin in Unbelief (vv. 14-17)
Because of the historic bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, when many of them came to the fullness of God’s revelation in the church, it was necessary for Jewish apostles proclaiming the Jewish Messiah confirm that these people were part of the messianic kingdom community. This outpouring of the Spirit, resulting in the same manifestation of tongues that had happened (2:4-11) and would happen (10:44, 11:15, 19:6), signified there was one body, Spirit and program. But, there is another message. The apostles’ transferring of the gift of tongues forces us to ask what the point of tongues was. The answer is in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22. Just as the lips of strangers speaking in a foreign tongue was God’s sign of judgment upon rebel Israel prior to its captivity, so Samaritans and Gentiles speaking in other languages as a result of the Spirit’s outpouring meant Israel was now a spiritual enemy of God in a dire way. God was judging and would judge (in AD 70 and in the Tribulation) the nation for rejecting His promised Messiah. God is confirming He has taken the kingdom away from Israel and has given it to non-Jews—the largely Gentile, multinational spiritual entity of the church—for the duration of this age (Matthew 21:43-44). The Jews had numerous covenantal and revelatory advantages, and they squandered them in unbelief. That unbelief has consequences for them. It also has consequences when the unbeliever is one within the church, which is to what we now turn.
D. Apostolic Authority Effectively Deals with Internal Opposition (vv. 18-25)
I mentioned above that Simon’s conversion is spurious. This section shows why. Now, one might ask, if he was a false convert, why did the apostles, Philip, and the other church members not see it? The short answer is since there was no such thing as an unbaptized Christian in the early church—and since water baptism was a costly public step of identifying with an immensely controversial and hated figure—the church had no real reason to doubt Simon’s profession. He obviously was not manifesting doctrinal aberration nor flagrant, persistent wickedness. There was simply no reason to question him—yet.
We do not know how long Simon traveled with Philip and saw the manifestations wrought by him and the apostles. Probably not very long. But when he wants to buy the power—when he assumes it is something on a merely human, or worse, demonic level that can be controlled by human desires—when his motivations for wanting it are clearly seen as simply being self-promoting…that is when the reality of his nature comes to light. It is not the heart of a regenerate person, but one still enslaved to his self-promoting, greedy, pride. Note that he does not repent. At best he is remorseful, sorry over consequences. He simply asks the (powerful!) apostles to pray for him, that any consequences of his unbelief might be averted.
How is apostolic authority manifest here? Because Peter is acting on Jesus’ behalf to declare His will in the church and speak of direct judgment on an impenitent man. We, too, can have this authority as we operate in accordance with apostolic doctrine and practice recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures. We will purge out leaven internally and protect ourselves from the threats of the sinful world system externally. Only in obedience to Christ through the writings of His appointed representatives is our protection!
The risen Christ has given apostles to His church as the foundation on which He builds (Eph. 2:20). They speak to us of Christ—who He is, what He did, what He is doing, will do, and what He wants from us. He rules by His words in the church, and we are to extend that rule to the nations by bringing more and more people under the reign of those words. Only as we cling to the protection of those words can we hope for a divinely powerful message, a God-approved ministry, answered prayer, and the fulfillment of God’s program. May God give us grace to live out His words in utter devotion until the day we see Jesus Christ!