Today some churches in the East celebrate Christmas, while for most western churches today is Epiphany. At epiphany we remember (as recorded in Matthew 2:1-12) when the…
"wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."
The visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus beautifully compliments the visit of the shepherds. The two groups couldn't be more different. The shepherds were Jews, while the wise men were gentiles. Intellectually, the shepherds were ordinary people while the wise men had the ancient equivalent of PhDs. The shepherds were poor; the wise men were wealthy enough to bring expensive gifts. Yet despite these barriers – racial, intellectual and social – which normally separate people from one another, they were united together in their worship of the Lord Jesus, the first of many millions of others from every walk of life who would also come to worship him. The good news of Jesus is for all people everywhere!
As we begin this new year, we're going to look at the first few verses of Act 8, so please pick up a Bible and turn to Acts 8:1-8 – it will help you to be able to see that as I speak.
'Why is Jesmond Parish Church such a successful church?' That is the question I was once asked by a new friend I had just made. They had heard about the church and knew a bit about what goes on here – the thousands who come to our carol services at Christmas and so on - and had concluded that we are 'successful'. They wanted to know why. I'm not sure I gave a good answer to the question, but being asked it really got me thinking. What is it that makes a church 'successful'?
The book of Acts was written by Luke and describes for us what happened after Jesus had died, rose from the dead and returned to heaven. It contains the early history of the church and in the first part of the book we read about how that first ever church began and grew in Jerusalem. The church was very young, about 5 years old, with a membership of thousands. It was growing every day and they were committed to the teachings of Jesus and to prayer. They had not had an easy life and their leaders had been persecuted and intimidated into remaining silent about Jesus, although this did not stop the church growth.
Does that sound to you like a successful church? In many ways – yes. God was powerfully at work and He was building his church. However, the way Luke encourages us to assess this church is this: 'how obedient is it to God's word?'. Look back to Acts 1.8. This is Jesus, speaking to his disciples just before he left them. He says this:
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."
The living Lord Jesus had made himself very clear. They would receive the Holy Spirit. Why? So they could be witnesses; first in Jerusalem, but it was not to end there. They were to move out from there to the neighbouring Judea and Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. Using that as the measuring stick, how have they done? Luke gives us a summary at Acts 6.7. He says this:
"And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith."
We see that although the church was exploding in the first period of growth, both in quantity and in quality, it is clear that everything happened only in Jerusalem. So how successful was this church? Despite all the good things that were clearly going on, they were not fully obeying God's orders. Up to this point Christianity has been a highly localised affair with little regard to God's commands for them to be witnesses to 'all ends of the earth'. It has been said that:
"Hundreds of millions of Christians think that Luke's Acts of the Apostles records the 12 apostles' obedience to the Great Commission. Actually it records their reluctance to obey it."
Don Richardson, 'Eternity in Their Hearts: Startling Evidence of Belief in the One True God'
Chapters 6-7 then go on to record the trial and brutal execution of Stephen, one of the church's key leaders, which brings us to our passage. Let's look at what happens under three brief headings then, once we see the whole story, we can think about what lessons there are for us today.
My three headings are:
- The church in Jerusalem is persecuted and scatters (v1-3)
- Those scattered share the good news (v4)
- The church finally advances (v5-8)
1. The Church in Jerusalem is Persecuted and Scatters
Take a look at chapter 8, verses 1-3:
"And Saul approved of his execution [of Stephen]. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison."
We cannot underestimate how awful the events described here would have been for the church in Jerusalem. After what has been a time of amazing growth, we see the persecution first of Stephen and then of the church. This would have had a huge and devastating effect on the church. We see that in verse 2, when godly men mourned deeply for him. We also see that in verse 3, where this persecution triggered a season of hostility towards the Christians in what would have seemed like a severe setback in the advance of the gospel in Jerusalem.
It was not just the church's teaching or the leaders who were targeted. Christians were being personally attacked, and were being dragged off and placed in prison. They must have struggled to understand why God would allow something like this to happen. Not only were they thrown in prison, but the church, from an external perspective, would have looked like it had crumbled as we see in verse 1 that "they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles." Surely this must have been considered a severe setback in the 'successfulness' of the church and advance of the Gospel in Jerusalem.
And yet Luke helps us see that the result of the persecution was that the church was scattered – into the area where it should have been already! The church should have been obediently reaching out into the surrounding areas, and from there to the rest of the world with the news about Jesus. But in the end it is the systematic attack on the church lead by Saul that drives them to leave Jerusalem and take the good news with them, not a deliberate attempt to leave their fellowship and take the news of the gospel to "all ends of the earth" of their own accord. This was God's way of way pushing them across the barriers that they needed to cross.
2. Those Scattered Share the Good News
Take a look at verse 4:
"Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word."
This is a really strategic development! The gospel message is being taken where it has not been before – and Luke points out that it's not primarily the apostles who lead this, but church members. Personal witness was clearly part of their lives and they didn't wait to be given a specific role or title, or need training at a Bible college before they were qualified or motivated to witness to others. They just got on with it! Those who had tried to stop them, had actually assisted their growth. A good example to follow!
It is also a clear example of God using his people in a very difficult period of their lives, when their security was gone, their safety of the church family taken away, their homeland far away and the threat of persecution a reality. These people may have lost their earthly security but their faith and obedience to Christ was clear and steadfast in the middle of the turmoil. We also see that God was always in control. We may not understand what is going on. The situation may be outside our control. But his plans cannot and will not be stopped by man.
3. The Church Finally Advances
Take a look at verses 5-8:
"Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city."
One of the people who was scattered was a man called Philip. Back in chapter 6 he had been chosen as one of a group of seven godly men given the task of looking after the practical aspects of the church life, so the apostles could concentrate on prayer and teaching God's Word. Beginning here and for the rest of chapter 8 we see how he went into the area of Samaria – the old enemy of the Jews and preached Christ there. We must not lose sight of what this would have meant for Philip. He had a willingness to go to people whom he would have regarded as his enemies, crossing a huge personal barrier to carry the message to them. Furthermore, it is a testimony of God's sovereignty that the people within the city had this unlikely and extraordinary response of listening to a message that was carried by a Jewish messenger, one of their enemies.
This preaching was followed by many miracles, giving authenticity and authority to what Philip was saying. As well as the miracles, a church was established there. Again we see this as an example of God's faithfulness to Philip who continued to obey him in whatever situation he was in, despite the fact that he may not have chosen to be in those circumstances or may have found them very difficult. From the initial persecution, God clearly used the scattering of the church (despite it not looking outwardly 'successful') to advance His plans growing the church as he intended it should be grown. The church in Jerusalem is persecuted and scatters. Those scattered share the good news and the church finally advances.
So, what are some lessons for us today?
We need to keep in mind that it is very easy to take the wrong lessons from what we are reading. This type of writing is a historical story. Unlike other types of writing, there are no direct commands to us tell us what to do. The key principle is to look carefully at the text and work out what the author is communicating to us.
What we must not do is take the details of the story and turn them into an absolute lesson if Luke did not mean us to. So for example, we cannot say that whenever we proclaim Christ we must also make sure there are miraculous signs such as the healing and release from evil spirits that we have just read about. Those things can and might happen. But that's not the main point. What Luke wants us to understand is that God is always in control, that he can use us in our weakness and through difficult times and that his purpose is to grow his church. There may be opposition, but that will not stop him!
So the key lesson is this: The growth of the church is God's sovereign work and will happen despite opposition.
Luke draws our attention to the fact that in one swift act of persecution, God forced obedience on his church, compelling them to move out to Judea and Samaria. He is teaching us that God will have his way – his church will advance. He will achieve his purposes. That lesson was a lesson the church in Jerusalem needed to learn, and a lesson we need to learn. Let me bring out three areas where we can apply this passage to our lives.
First, God wants us to move out and spread the Gospel:
We need to be challenged about whether or not we are being obedient to God's commands in this area. That is, are we spreading the word throughout Newcastle and the rest of the earth, and what is our motivation for this? Are we doing this out of a love for Christ and desire for others to know him regardless of where they are from? Are we doing this because we feel we ought to or because we are convinced it is what will please God?
God wants us to move out to meet people who do not know the gospel and share it with them. Are we doing this? Are we reaching beyond our own social groupings in our own lives and in the church life? Are we willing to physically move to share the gospel?
We may consider ourselves a successful church, but what are we measuring our success against? Are we feeling safe because we are in a big church that seems outwardly successful, with many ministry areas and lots of members? We need to make sure we are not making the same mistake the Jerusalem church did – which was to forget that they were under orders to be his witnesses to their locality and to the very ends of the earth.
There may be some here who need to respond to the call to move halfway across the world to obey God in this way. Others need to stay in Newcastle and yet step outside our comfort zones, reaching new people, where we are now. This could involve us meeting and reaching new people beyond our immediate circles of friends in totally different social or cultural groups. We also need to be a church for whom church planting is not a one-off blip, but a core part of what we are about. The call is the same – God wanting us to move out to meet new people and share the gospel with them.
Second, God may force us to move out where we can spread the Gospel:
God has made it clear that his will is for us to move out to the "ends of the earth" and this can be achieved by either our direct obedience or by circumstances and God's sovereign intervention. God may use persecution or other means to make us move, either physically to new people or in the social circles that we meet in. In this passage it is clear that persecution has forced the church members to scatter and spread the gospel, however, it may be that some have to move by circumstance e.g. by change of jobs, unemployment. We may not want to move out but we are forced to by our own changing personal circumstance. Do we need a 'persecution' of our own or a change of circumstance to force us out into the world to share the gospel with those around us? If so, would we remain faithful to God, like Philip and those who were scattered?
We need to be a church that is not inward looking, satisfying our own demands and desires without regard to God's commands to take his message to the ends of the earth. We need to challenge ourselves personally and question whether we are obeying God in our current circumstances or whether it would take a persecution of our own to push us out of our comfort zone. It is very easy to hide in a large church and stay in a holy huddle without looking outward to our society on an individual level. If you are saying to yourself, 'it's ok, JPC has a Christianity Explored course, I don't need to let my neighbours, friends, or work colleagues know about Jesus', then take a hard look at what it took for people to obey God's commands and the church to grow in Jerusalem. We should not be waiting only for formal church ministries before we obey God, we need to obey Him in whatever situations and circumstances we find ourselves in.
We should be encouraged that God shows He is in control in all circumstances and His plans, throughout history, have neither been thwarted nor will they be now. But do we really want to wait until persecution or some other means forces us out of our comfort zone and security so that we obey God and allow him to show his power fully, advancing his message and advancing the Church?
We have no idea what this new year will bring us as a church. But whatever happens, we can be confident that God remains in control and will continue to be with us.
Third, God will cause the gospel to advance
It was clear from the response of the people in Samaria that God's Almighty hand was in control of the mission. As their response was so extraordinary it is an encouragement to us that even in circumstances that may seem beyond our control, alien or even dangerous, God's sovereign plan is at work. Once we have moved out, some of the fears, worries and doubts we may have are:
- Will I even be able to relate to these people?
- Will I be bold enough to share the gospel with others?
- How can I explain the gospel in a way they will understand?
- How can I reach people so different from me and who are so far from being able to respond to the Gospel? In other words: will this work?
This is where we can take courage from the example of Philip and what happened in Samaria and to trust in God that he will give us the boldness and courage where needed, that he will give us the words to say and that ultimately he is in control and he can bring about a response in unlikely places and with very unlikely people. God is the only one who can make things work.
So let us be a people willing to go with the gospel message to those who have not heard, and trust the one who will make His church grow.