Acts

Persecution Causes Growth

And Saul approved of his execution.

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.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. 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 paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. Acts 8:1-8.

Immediately after the martyrdom of Stephen, a great purge was launched against the believers in Christ. It was so aggressive that many of them fled Jerusalem. This had the unintended consequence of scattering them like seed throughout the area. And that seed started germinating new life everywhere.

It is interesting that although the apostles remained in Jerusalem, when Philip went to Samaria, the power of God went with him, even though he was not designated as an apostle. It is evidence that what Jesus commanded them was coming to pass.

“And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs. (Mark 16:17-20).

The Chains We Love

“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,

“‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?’

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” Acts 7:44-53.

This was the conclusion of Stephen’s speech before the high priest and the elders. He had been falsely accused of blasphemy, so Stephen finally gave them something to be mad about. He did so by retelling the history of the Jews and their unfaithfulness to God, and then he told them they were no different. If anything, they were worse for murdering their messiah. And that proved to be the last straw. They dragged Stephen outside the city and stoned him.

A man named Saul presided over this execution, and he would later become a believer and then the apostle we all know as Paul. When Paul went on his missionary journeys years later, he would go to the Jews first, until he got thrown out, and then he went to the gentiles, the non-jews. The story of Jesus was a hard pill to swallow for the Jews. They must have felt like they were the villains in the story. That is why it was usually the Jews who tried to kill him.

Eventually, the gentiles would be offended, too. It usually happened when he told them to give up their idols. It nearly caused a riot in Ephesus. And we are no different. Our idols are whatever we will not give up in order to be submitted to God and His word. It may be our sexual practices, our politics, or whatever lies we will not let go. At some point, being free from the bondage of sin is a threat to the chains we love.

J’accuse!

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Acts 6:8-15.

Once an organized movement of accusations targets someone, that person is in danger. After all, it’s how they got the mob riled up to demand the crucifixion of Jesus. And it was ramped up on an industrial scale during the French Revolution. Thousands of people were fed to the guillotine on the strength of enough people crying out, “J’accuse!” And throughout history, up until the present time, lives and reputations have been ruined, and wars have begun, because public opinion was driven to rage by organized media campaigns.

Stephen will go down swinging, preaching the Gospel and forgiving his assailants with his last breath. And because God gets the last word, it will be worth it. We all need to remember that the devil is known as “the accuser of the brethren.”

“And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.'” Revelation 12:10.

Job One Must Get Done

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

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. Acts 6:1-7.

When Jesus fed the five thousand, He was not instituting a new feeding program. It was incidental to His main mission: seeking and saving the lost by preaching the kingdom of God. So it should be of no surprise to us that His disciples would make sure that they kept doing what Jesus sent them to do, and not get sidetracked by something that could be delegated.

That mission is still in effect. But now it is largely confined to an hour or two every week in a building that consumes many times those hours for its upkeep. This is not to say that it might not be appropriate to own dedicated buildings for church purposes, but we should at least examine our priorities to see if we are executing job one. If the word of God is not increasing and disciples are not multiplying, an audit might be in order.

Super Spreaders

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 5:27-32.

Peter, John, and the other disciples were filling Jerusalem with the message that the man that had just been crucified was not only raised from the dead, but was actually the Messiah. This upset the religious rulers greatly. They thought that killing Jesus would end His popularity. Instead, He was reported as risen again and had further ascended into Heaven. And now He was being multiplied as miracles continued and the forgiveness of sins was preached in His name. Quick! Make this illegal!

During the covid-19 outbreak, the church got to decide if a little civil disobedience was in order when some state and local governments decided to tell us we could not come together to worship in our sanctuaries. Most congregations agreed to go along and moved their services online. A few bucked the order and made the news. Fewer still decided to go full super spreader and take the Gospel outside. This level of obedience to God is a pretty novel idea, and I hope it catches on.

If you are more afraid of the virus or the government than you are of God, you need to reconsider. We have been under orders to spread the Gospel contagion for about 2,000 years, and if it takes being locked out of your building to get you to do it, so be it. If we had done that, the authorities would have begged us to go back inside.