The Gospel: Grows the Church Acts 8:1-8 I. Persecution scatters the seeds of the gospel; 8:1-3. 1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Saul expressed his agreement with Stephen’s death sentence as publicly as possible by guarding the executioners’ clothes. The opposition did not end with Stephen’s death. If anything, his bold witness in both his Sanhedrin testimony and his death only served to fuel the flames. A violent persecution erupted and the Christians, except the apostles, were forced to flee Jerusalem. The resistance began in the Greek-speaking synagogue. They unleashed their fury on these Greek-speaking Christian radicals in their midst. The apostles and their fellow Aramaic-speaking Christians were likely able to remain in Jerusalem unbothered. Their Greek-speaking brothers/sisters were persecuted and forced to flee the city. The persecution and scattering of the Christians only led to their further increase. With the dispersal of the Greek-speaking Christians, the fulfillment of the second phase of Jesus’ commission began; the witness to all Judea and Samaria. Stephen was given a proper burial by “godly men”. They were probably some of his fellow Jewish-Christians. It was an act of real courage on their part. Saul, with the necessary authority from the chief-priestly leaders of the Sanhedrin, agitated the church, arresting its members in their own homes, and sending them off to prison. This century has seen a lot of persecution and martyrdom of Christians. Associated with the persecution is great effectiveness in the gospel message. Evangelism provokes persecution while persecution energizes evangelism. If we are obedient to Christ, we will face suffering of some sort. It may be suffering of tiredness or pressure of a concern for people. It may be the hurt that comes from people who disappoint us. It may mean being betrayed by people we trusted. It can take the form of persecution and being labeled intolerant for sharing Christ with non-Christians who do not want to hear the gospel, or for telling Christians things that they do not like to hear. A biblical understanding of suffering will take the sting out of it. It will help us maintain joy during it and turn the suffering into something constructive for the kingdom of God and the church. II. Persecution grows the church; 8:4-8. 4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city. The persecution did not hamper those Greek-speaking Christians from sharing the gospel. If anything, it increased it. They communicated the gospel wherever they went. The dispersed believers did the utmost good to the people among whom they went by telling them the good news of the deliverance accomplished by Christ. Philip, another Greek-speaking Jewish leader who, like Stephen, was one of the seven appointed to manage the daily administration of the communal fund. Driven from Jerusalem, Philip went north to Samaria and shared the gospel there. To the Jews the Samaritans were half-breeds and heretics. It was thus a bold move on Philip’s part to preach the gospel to the Samaritans. In preaching to them, Philip was taking a major new step in the fulfillment of Christ’s commission. Great numbers believed his message and were filled with rejoicing. It is in sharing the gospel message that the power of suffering is best illustrated. The North African Christian writer Tertullian, addressing the rulers of the Roman empire, said, "Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to the dust. . .. The more you mow us down the more we grow, the seed is the blood of Christians." Persecution intensifies the purity of the church and prioritizes the gospel message over every other activity. Nothing can hinder the growth of the church when the gospel is faithfully shared.
Grows the Church
March 24, 2019 • Monty Mullenix
Reactions • March 17, 2019 • Monty Mullenix
The Gospel: Reactions Acts 7:54-60 According to Open Doors research, every month: • 255 Christians are killed • 104 are abducted • 180 Christian women are raped, sexually harassed, or forced into marriage • 66 churches are attacked • 160 Christians are detained without trial and imprisoned In 2018: • 3,066 Christians were killed; 1,252 were abducted; 1,020 were raped or sexually harassed; and 793 churches were attacked. 54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep. When he threw the charge of blasphemy, persistent opposition to God and His ways back on them, their rage could no longer be restrained. Stephen had been filled with the Holy Spirit throughout his Christian life, and this fullness did not leave him at his time of crisis. Stephen remained calm, fully controlled by the Spirit of God. Suddenly, as he kept his gaze fixed upward, he saw a vision of the glory of God. The presence of Jesus at God’s right hand was much more real to him in that moment than the angry gestures and cries of those around him. He sees Jesus standing as a witness or advocate for his defense. Jesus had said, "I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God." Rejection by his own people, the Jews, would have been hard to bear, but acceptance by the greatest of Jews more than compensates for the pain. The presence of Jesus at God’s right hand meant a way of access to God had been opened more immediate than the temple could provide. Stephen is dragged out of the city for stoning. Stephen's last words just before he died are close to two of the last words of Jesus. Where Jesus committed His spirit to God, Stephen committed his to Jesus. On his knees among the flying stones, he made his last appeal to his Lord, not for his own vindication, but for mercy toward his executioners not to hold this sin against them. Having prayed, Stephen “fell asleep.” This is a peaceful description for so brutal a death, but one which fits the spirit in which Stephen accepted his martyrdom. God, knowing how much we can endure, gives us His strength in our times of need. This boosts our spirits and spurs us on to obedience, even to obedience leading to death. There is a depth of union with Christ that comes to us only through suffering. Not only do we share in His sufferings, He shares in our sufferings. God is powerfully at work both when life is going well and when dark clouds loom. The Bible tells us to anticipate suffering rather than avoid it. The Spirit's fullness in the darkness is so important for our spiritual health that God permits us to go through dark times in order that He can fill us afresh. During our pain we will wonder whether it is worth suffering for the gospel. At such times we ought to fix our eyes on Jesus. He is the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. With such a vision we can run with perseverance the race that is set before us, refusing to give up when the going gets tough, and divesting ourselves of unnecessary earthly weights that so easily entangle us. Paul said, "I want to know Christ . . . and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3: 10). The gospel that brings the crisis and persecution is also what gives us the ability to connect with Jesus in a deeper way during it. God’s plan for the empowerment of His people to share the gospel takes in account the pervasiveness of evil in our world.
God's Plan • March 10, 2019 • Monty Mullenix
The Gospel: God’s Plan Acts 7:1-53 He began his speech reminding them that they were his fellow Jewish “brothers” and showing respect to the elders on the Sanhedrin by referring to them as “fathers.” The real goal of God’s promise to Abraham was not the land. It was instead the freedom to give true worship and devotion to God. A sharp contrast existed between Joseph and his brothers. God was with Joseph. God had delivered Israel from famine and had brought them in peace to Egypt through the hand of Joseph. God had remained true to His promises. Israel was oppressed, but God was true to His promises. He raised up a deliverer and had him trained for his future role. God was with Moses. God remained true to His promises. He had looked upon their oppression and would deliver them. Moses was the one whom God had chosen as leader for Israel’s deliverance. But the Israelites had already rejected him; they would continue to reject him. Moses was the God-sent redeemer for Israel, the worker of signs and wonders, and the one who transmitted the living words of God. As such, he was a type of Christ. Also, like Christ, he was rejected by his people. Stephen was already moving in the direction of his temple critique. Already in the wilderness the people along with Aaron, the Priest, were moving in the direction of the distortion of the pure worship of God, which marked the temple of Stephen’s day. They made sacrifices all right, to golden calves and heavenly bodies and the like, but not to God. The result of the original apostasy of Israel was ultimately exile. God sent them “beyond Babylon.” Stephen saw that the temple of his day had become something other than a house of prayer. It had become a symbol of Jewish exclusivism and a rallying place for Jewish nationalism. As a Christian he was convinced that Israel would never find its true relationship to God and its true worship, apart from the Messiah. His historical survey had illustrated Israel’s constant rejection of God’s chosen leaders. Moses, Joseph, and the prophets are all types of and pointers to Christ. Stephen pointed out to his hearers that they had already rejected and killed Him. There is an implicit second chance offered to his hearers. Stephen was making an appeal for them to take the needed steps and repent. They were the guilty parties in turning the temple into an object for human manipulation and distorting its true purpose of prayer and worship. It was not he but his Jewish accusers who were the real lawbreakers. Stephen realized he would never secure his acquittal without compromising his convictions. He determined to use the situation as one last opportunity to share those convictions, one last chance to appeal to his Jewish contemporaries to abandon their pattern of rejection and accept the Messiah God had sent them. Ultimately his speech was not a defense at all but a witness. Stephen had Scripture as his source and authority. In the same way we too, because of the nature of God's truth, will become radicals if we take the Scriptures seriously today. We can rediscover truths that have been hidden from us because of theological, cultural, historical, or other blinds. True Christian love drives us to do things with which we are uncomfortable so that we can reach our contemporaries. Others who see these new ways of communication may become upset and oppose them. If Scripture drives us to radicalism, we must not be surprised if our best efforts at obedience to God go unappreciated. We are to use language and practices that our audience understands, if they agree with biblical truth. We must not tone down our message and leave out things that are unpleasant. Neither may we add things that are not in or contradict the Scriptures, or else people may become Christians but retain some of their practices that are contrary to Christianity. We must study people and their culture as well as biblical teachings that relate to their ideas and practices. We follow Stephen’s pattern and have gospel conversations and not templated presentations. We must then come up with a message and a lifestyle that is relevant, understandable, and inviting to their situation. This message will challenge their culture through God’s principles. When that happens, some who do not want to change will be provoked and oppose the Word. Others will accept what we say and be transformed by Christ.
Expect Opposition • March 3, 2019 • Monty Mullenix
The Gospel: Expect Opposition Acts 6:8-15 I. The gospel transforms and confronts; 6:8-10. 8 Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)--Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. Because of the gospel, Stephen was a man full of faith, wisdom, grace, power, and above all the presence of the Spirit. These were the personal qualities that equipped him for the ultimate witness he would bear. He was the first person, other than the apostles, to be described as working miracles, which helped to confirm the validity of the gospel message he spoke. Stephen shared the gospel message in the synagogue with his fellow Greek-speaking Jews. The opponents who debated Stephen were members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen. They came from four places: Cyrene and Alexandria (cities in upper Africa), and Cilicia and Asia (provinces in Asia Minor). Freedmen were probably the descendants of those who had been liberated from slavery or imprisonment. In fact, Paul himself may have attended this synagogue. Because of the gospel they could not stand up against Stephen’s wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. If we are to have this kind of wisdom, there are some things that must be in our lives. We must know the Scriptures. We must know the people to whom we are sharing. We must be able to let the Scriptures speak to the issues people face. We must ensure that there is no hindrance to the working of the Spirit in our lives. We must ,through prayer, make sure we are in tune with the mind of the Spirit. II. The gospel reveals opposition to God’s rule; 6:11-15. 11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God." 12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us." 15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. After failing to silence Stephen through debate, the Jews tried to silence him through coercion. They persuaded certain people to make accusations against him, which allowed them to take him to the Sanhedrin for a trial. He was accused of speaking against the temple and against the law. This is expounded with a claim that he said that Jesus will destroy the temple and change the customs Moses handed down. When Judea became a Roman province in AD. 6, capital punishment was allowed only by the decree of the Roman governor, except for offenses against the sanctity of the temple. In such situations, the Sanhedrin could pronounce and execute the death sentence. They had tried to convict Christ in this way but failed. The witnesses gave their evidence. Stephen’s teaching, they said, threatened both the temple and the law, for he maintained persistently that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and change the customs handed down from Moses’ time. Jesus had indeed said something about destroying the temple, and Stephen had evidently repeated His words. What Stephen meant was that the coming of Christ implied the end of the temple order. The apostles and many in the Jerusalem church might have continued to attend the temple services and be respected as devout Jews. Stephen held that the gospel meant the end of the sacrificial system and all the ceremonial law. While his accusers pressed their charge against him, Stephen stood before them with face aglow, as one in the presence of God. Stephen maintained a pleasantness in a very hostile circumstance. His relationship with God seemed to deepen as the oppositions grew. His face and demeanor showed it. Their reaction to the gospel did not affect how it had transformed him. The gospel is very personal, convicting, and irritating because of our pride and self-focus. The gospel confronts our self-focused and self-benefiting way of life. It often causes strong and even violent responses, which shows the work of the Holy Spirit. However, without the gospel there will be no fundamental change in anyone’s life.