“The foundation of what we believe in here is love for all people,” whispers Peter to Boaz – the sought-after fugitive who attempted to assassinate Pilate – as he lets him know the power of forgiveness. It is this love for God and love for all people that propels the apostles forward as they face deadly persecution in this brutally inspiring episode of A.D. “The First Martyr.” Episode 5 of NBC’s 12-week series A.D. The Bible Continues, continues to illuminate the brutal persecution faced by the founders of the early church as these apostles, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, refuse to cower to the demands of Pilate and Caiaphas and instead risk their lives to spread the word.
This episode is a stark visual into the specific types of physical persecutions the apostles and bystanders faced. Flogging, stoning, and being abused with fire are just a few of the vicious methods enacted. Viewers are privy to witnessing these extreme means of punishment that were commonplace during the time.
The production value of this fifth episode is solid. The team charged with special effects and costuming created accurate portrayals of the effects that intense punishments would have on individuals. Blood pours from the wounds of the disciples as they endure intense floggings. Viewers cringe as they see the consequences of physical brutality. But, the apostles refuse to match brutality with brutality and instead go on peacefully – but intensely – preaching the word.
The score enhances the emotionally charged scenes. In one powerful moment, Boaz – who finally turned himself in – is tied to a stake and told he will endure the wrath of fire. Pilate has ordered that he have a slow death that will last for days. Viewers brace for the hot coals to come into contact with Boaz and fast-paced music matches viewers rapidly beating hearts. But just as the coal touches Boaz’s body the music suddenly stops. This silence emphasizes the painful scorching of Boaz’s skin and is a testament to the genius of the composers.
Cinematically the series continues to wow and truly the power of the Holy Spirit, stunningly portrayed as a whisk of wind, usurps the stage and supersedes all evil. The prison doors holding Peter, John, and the other believers’ hostage are unlocked by a radiant angel of the Lord and led to freedom. The angel proclaims, “Go to the Temple and give the people this message of life.” (Acts 5:20). The apostles push to the streets and once again begin preaching. But freedom of speech is not honored in the Roman province and once again these men, who are confidently proclaiming the message of God, are captured.
The High Council decides to kill them. But, true to the word of the Bible, an aged Pharisee – Gamaliel wisely argues with Caiaphas and says that the council must not be in opposition to these men if it is God’s power leading the apostles.
The council accepts this advice, and instead of a sentence of death the apostles are commanded to public floggings. The apostles accept this fate, for they know that preaching the love of God means accepting the persecution of those who do not yet accept the love. Peter yells, “We must obey God rather than human authority” (Acts 5:29). The team of Burnett/Downey and the host of biblical and historical scholars did a fantastic job accurately portraying the message of the Bible.
Meanwhile the women in A.D. hold their own ground. As a testament to the quality of the script writing, the female characters in A.D. – Leah, Claudia, Mary Magdalene, and Mya are incredibly strong, powerful, and intelligent. The plot-lines allows these hand-picked actresses to fully utilize their acting skills and showcase a depth of humanity and personal strength as Judea erupts in turmoil. Females in A.D. are independent and calculating- they make decisions that propel the story forward. It’s particularly intriguing to see the plotline of Claudia and Leah as it develops.
These wives, whose husbands are intense political foes, secretly work together to save the innocent women at the wedding. But then, the alliance is tested when Leah points out that she is not on equal ground with Claudia – for she is merely yet another person held slave to Roman oppression. Claudia, faced with the truth, slaps Leah. Viewers are left wondering how this turn of events will affect the already contentious relationship of Pilate and Caiaphas.
As the episode comes to a close, Stephen (Reece Ritchie) preaches. He questions and challenges the views of the Sanhedrin with powerful conviction. But his non-violent protest, full of zeal, is met with violence. Set against the sweeping geographic topography Stephen is tied to a lone tree. Stone after stone are cast toward his body. The cinematography does not shy away from viewers seeing this sadistic act; instead we have a front-row seat to the intensity of persecution. Stephen becomes the first martyr as the mob stones him to death. He gave his life to spread the word. Burnett and Downey should be applauded for allowing viewers to fully witness Acts 7:57-60 because this allows us to fully realize the depth of commitment the early Christians possessed.
During the week’s preview of A.D. Downey said, “It’s our prayer that this show serves as a catalyst for furthering the gospel and encourages you to be bold in your faith.” After witnessing this powerful episode that concludes with the death of Stephen, viewers are left contemplating the idea of persecution, what it means to be a bold Christian, and the miraculous power of the life-giving force of the Holy Spirit.