|RPM, Volume 17, Number 18, April 26 to May 2, 2015|
Now turn with me if you would to the Acts of the Apostles. Once again as we continue to unfold the narrative that Luke provides for us of the spread of the church from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth And we'll see now tonight in Acts 8 that we cross a threshold — it's like peeling an onion, the Acts of the Apostles — and no longer is the focus going to be Jerusalem.
Up until now the focus in the first seven chapters has entirely been Jerusalem. But something new and fundamentally new is going to occur in the 8th chapter of Acts. And we see the beginning of the fulfillment of that mandate that Jesus gave — His final words before He ascended up into the clouds — that they were to be His disciples and His witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and in the uttermost parts of the world.
And the thing that I want us especially to focus on is the means by which God fulfilled that mandate and I doubt this evening that it would have been the means that you and I would have thought God would have used to bring that about.
Before we read the passage and I'm going to read in Acts 8 following the sentence that Saul was approving the execution of Stephen and halfway through the first verse of chapter 8.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You again for the Bible, for the scriptures, Your Holy Book. We thank You for the truth that men wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We thank You that Your Word is utterly trustworthy because it comes from You and You cannot lie or deceive and therefore, the Bible cannot lie or deceive. We thank You for all that it teaches us and pray this evening as we examine it together, come, Holy Spirit, and shine into our minds and help us once again to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. For Jesus sake. Amen.
Now hear with me the Word of God:
[A]nd they were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put the in prison. Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was much rejoicing in that city.
Amen and may God bless to us the reading of His Holy and inerrant Word.
Now one of the great documents from the early church is a document, an apologia, and apology, written by Tertullian from North Africa, and the very end of 50 chapters of the apologia, he has this often quoted statement and I'm just going to read a couple sentences from it. And he's speaking about a persecution, not the one in Acts 8, now, but persecutions that have arisen during his lifetime — imprisonments, the carnage, the martyrdom of many who have been cast into Roman amphitheaters and fed to wild animals. And he says in a piece of exquisite rhetoric at the end of the apologia, "You sacrifice the Christians at their wish. Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust. The oftener we are mown down by you the more in number we grow."
And it's Tertullian throwing the gauntlet down to bring it on because the more damage they seem to be doing, the more the church seems to be growing. Well, on a dark night in the winter you want someone to encourage you, go to Tertullian and read what that great North African leader of the church said.
Well, here we are in Acts 8. Stephen has been killed, brutally killed, by stoning. Stephen, of course, has thrown down the gauntlet. He would have been aware of what he was doing. No longer would the church be sheltered under the umbrella of Judaism that Rome afforded protection via a law that went back 150-200 years, the religio licita [a tolerated religion]
Now that Stephen had categorically said that the temple was finished and that the law of Moses in all effects was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Once Stephen had uttered those words, the Sanhedrin had heard blasphemy and in the eyes and ears, of course, of the Roman Empire, Christianity was no longer just a troublesome sect of Judaism, it was something entirely different.
And so the gauntlet has been thrown down and further recriminations now come upon the church in Jerusalem, probably upon a certain section of the church. In all likelihood, it is the Hellenistic wing of the church. Those, you remember, Diaspora Jews who've lived a while in the far off nations of the Roman Empire, perhaps speak Greek more than they speak Aramaic or Hebrew. Perhaps less given to some of the ceremonial laws of Judaism.
You remember the seven men elected in Acts 6 were all Hellenists. Stephen was one. Philip will be another. And the church is scattered the same day, the day Stephen died. The mob in Jerusalem now take it upon themselves to wreak havoc in the church of Jerusalem. And here is this picture of Saul, the man who had consented to the death of Stephen, here is Saul and he's going to house-to-house and dragging men and women and putting them in prison. And you've got this equivalent of a Christian Kristallnacht. You remember in the Second World War and the Pogroms against the Jews in the German cities of Dresden and other places, the so-called 'Kristallnacht'. Well, here is Saul of Tarsus dragging men and women out of their houses and into prison.
Well, every cloud has a silver lining they say. And, of course, from a Christian perspective, it does. And this is a storm cloud. This is a storm cloud of typhoon or tornado or hurricane proportions coming now all of a sudden on the city of Jerusalem. And thus a silver lining because at the back of this storm cloud you can hear a voice and it says, "Ask of Me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession."
And there is the voice of God the Father in the second Psalm, as it were, echoing above this storm cloud because in the strange providence of God, through this pogrom in Jerusalem, God is going to fulfill His promise and expand the church. Now, I want us to see four things. I want us to see, first of all continuing what I've just been saying, the great persecution, a great persecution, as devout men are burying Stephen and perhaps that's a reference not so much to believers who are burying Stephen, but perhaps they're devout Jews who are appalled as to what has happened are burying Stephen. This persecution breaks out at the hands of Saul of Tarsus.
And you remember when Paul later will write his epistle to the Galatians and talks about his former life and how he persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. There was blood on Paul's hands. He had tried to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. Here is proof positive that Jesus is building His church within site of the very gates of Hell in enemy occupied territory.
And there is a principle here that Calvin refers to in a comment that he makes on 1 Peter 1 verse 11 that God has so ordered the church from the very beginning that the cross is the way to victory and death is the way to life and that good emerges out of a context of evil and repression and persecution. It is the Jesus principle of John 12 that unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains alone. It's only as that grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies that fruit comes. It is the principle that Paul enumerates as he writes to the Corinthian church in 2 Corinthians 4 and he tells them in the context of speaking about trials and tribulations and sufferings, "Death works in us, but life in you so that the sufferings of one or the sufferings of a community can in the providence and overruling of God produce life elsewhere."
How is the Great Commission going to be fulfilled? To go and make disciples of all nations because up until this point, the church is more or less confined to Jerusalem. How is the Matthew 28 Great Commission, how is that going to be fulfilled?
And if you turn in your Bibles just a couple of chapters, Luke gives a sort of backward glance at what we're looking at here. In Acts 11:19, we pick up the story again and he says, "Now those who scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch." They were scattered as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch up north and Antioch will become a far more important city than Jerusalem. It'll become the mission base of the European mission. And in the purposes of God, the grain of wheat that has to fall to the ground and die is the Jerusalem church, the men and women who are being dragged from their houses and being put in prison and as the church scatters as a consequence, out of that God is fulfilling His purpose.
You want First Presbyterian Church to be a mission church, a missionary reminded church? Some of you pray that prayer, "Lord, make First Presbyterian Church a missionary-minded and mission-focused church."
Well, be careful when you pray that prayer because I want to know that my car is full of gas before you pray that prayer in case I have to leave town. Because how is God going to answer that prayer? How did God answer the prayer to make the New Testament church a mission-minded church, an outward-focused church instead of an inward focused church? — By sending trouble — by sending trouble. Be careful what you pray for because it seems to me that very often one of the obstacles to mission-focused churches is the very prosperity that is ours. Because often that very prosperity can produce in us a dreadful inertia and we spend our time doing the evangelical and reformed equivalent of counting how many angels there are on the head of a pin.
So we spend hours and hours discussing the Reformed philosophy of going to the movies or the Christian view of flower arranging when a world is dying and souls are passing every second into a lost eternity — the Great Persecution.
The second thing I want us to see is great evangelism. I love the way Luke does this and it's almost shocking the way he does it. He says they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria except the apostles. And he mentions in verses 4 and 5 those who had been scattered went about preaching the Word. It's not the apostles he's referring to here. He's talking about ordinary men and women of the Jerusalem church who have been scattered abroad in Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch and other places. And they went about, now I really don't understand why Bible translators insist on saying "preaching" the Word. The word isn't preaching. It's the word for gospel. It's the word for evangel. And it just confuses things when Bible translators insist on translating this word by preaching because what they were doing was witnessing. What they were doing was gospeling. What they were doing was gossiping the gospel. And it's every member evangelism. It's not the elite few. It's not just those who had been trained in evangelism. This is every member evangelism. All those who scattered abroad are going about and they're gospeling the gospel, they're gossiping the gospel.
It's very interesting. Kenneth Latourette, the Yale historian, says the chief agents in the expansion of Christianity appear not to have been those who made it a profession, but men and women who carried on their livelihood in some secular manner and spoke their faith to those they met in this natural fashion, that the expansion of the church at this point didn't depend upon the apostles, but on the grass roots, men and women gossiping the gospel as they went.
Now, think about that because these are men and women who've lost their homes, who have been scattered on the same day, so they probably left much of their belongings behind them. They may even have left members of their family who have been carried off into prison. And you might have expected them to lie low and to hide somewhere in caves until the trouble dies down and it's astonishing, it's breathtaking that these men and women are going about and they're gossiping the gospel of Jesus Christ.
God uses people in evangelism, people like you and me, ordinary folk. And the rule of our duty here is not that we are able to pry into the secret will of God and discern who the elect are. The rule of duty here is: God has commanded us to do this: 'Go into all the world. You are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria and in the uttermost parts of the world.' And that's you and you and you.
The third thing I want us to see are the great signs. There's great persecution and there's great evangelism, evangelism that God owns and God blesses. And there are great signs because now Luke folds into the narrative of focus on Philip, one of the seven or perhaps now we should say one of the six. A man full of the Holy Spirit just as Stephen was. He's the first official missionary of the church. Now why, why Samaria?
You know I've been reading the Bible for 35 years as a believer and I don't think I've thought through this issue as much as I have in the last few days. Why Samaria? Why did Philip go to Samaria? There was a history, you understand, between the Jews and the Samaritans. This terrain of land north of Jerusalem in between Jerusalem and Galilee and the Sea of Galilee, there was a terrain of land. If you drew a straight line from Jerusalem up north you would go through Samaria.
You remember in John 4, Jesus' encounter with the woman of Samaria when tired and weary, He stops by the well at Sychar and engages in evangelism, in conversation with this woman of Samaria. And you remember the comment that John makes, a parenthetical sort of comment he makes as he tells us that story; the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. That's a loaded statement, by the way. The Jews have no dealing with the Samaritans.
When pilgrims would make their way to Jerusalem or make their way home from Jerusalem who came from up north, they would cross over the River Jordan to the east and go down that way rather than go through Samaria because there was history between the Samaritans and the Jews. The Jews didn't like the Samaritans. They thought them half-breeds. Forgive the expression, but that's exactly what they were called. Josephus and his antiquities writing the history [though he's pro-Jewish, of course, so his history is slanted] but that's what he calls them. For a thousand years ever since the ten tribes had broken away, you remember, and they sat up their rival kingdom with its capital in Samaria. It was all down hill from then for a thousand years.
When Assyria invaded Samaria, took the capital city of Samaria in 722 B.C., carried off the people, repopulated the city with foreigners so that when the Jews 200 years later came back from Babylonian captivity, the Samaritans offered to help rebuild the temple, but the Jews said no, they wouldn't have it. They didn't want their help.
In that period of the Maccabean revolt, a couple hundred years before,150, 160 years before the birth of Jesus, a high point in Jewish history, when Judas Maccabeus tried to overthrow the tyrannical rule of the Syrian monarch and king and despot Antiochus IV Epiphanes. So great was that revolt that the Jews began to have a feast day in his honor, the Hanukkah, the feast of candles and lights in honor of Judas Maccabeus.
Well at the same time, the Samaritans caved in and the rival temple, which they had built in Samaria, was dedicated to the Greek god, Zeus. You can understand the history between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Jews didn't like the Samaritans not one little bit.
So why does Philip go to Samaria as a Jew? He is a Jew, a Hellenistic Jew, but he's till a Jew. Why go to the Samaritans? The Samaritans had long since forsaken the sacred scriptures of the Jews. All that they had retained were the first five books, the Pentateuch. Why go to Samaria? Because I think Philip could hear in his ears the final words of Jesus before His ascension, "You will be my witnesses in Samaria." — in Samaria to a race of people that the Jews regarded as hostile and half-breeds. Yes, it was ethnic and cultural and much else.
And my friends, surely there's a lesson there for us when we live in a society that is racially torn apart, that there's a message there for us, that here is this godly, spirit-filled man and he's taking the gospel to probably one of the most difficult areas imaginable culturally and ethnically.
As Philip walks in to Samaria, there'd been hostility-some people had been killed walking through Samaria according to Josephus, and what did he do? Do you notice in verse 5? He began proclaiming what? Racial reconciliation, ha! No. That would be a road to disaster. Did he come with a program? No. He began proclaiming Christ. He took Jesus to them because they were sinners like he was.
And I imagine, I've been trying to imagine — how do you proclaim the gospel of Jesus to people who only have the first five books of the Old Testament? Well, very simply, very simply. Because in the opening pages of the Pentateuch you have the protoevangelium, the first gospel promise, the seed of the woman who will come and crush the head of Satan. And as you delve into the belief system of the Samaritans, one of the things that the Samaritans emphasize more than anything else was that promise in Deuteronomy 18 of a prophet that will arise like Moses and be their deliverer.
I have a notion that Philip latched onto that with both hands. And he's saying to them, "I have seen and heard the prophet like Moses and His name is Jesus Christ and let me tell you about Him." And he preached Jesus to them.
And his preaching is accompanied by extraordinary signs and miracles, unique, I think to this period of redemptive history. Now I know that Philip is not an apostle, but in the next section as we'll see in a couple of weeks, Peter and John come down to investigate what Philip is doing as if to say that Philip is there as a plenipotentiary of the apostles. And the signs that accompany the preaching are as Paul will testify in 2 Corinthians 12:12 signs of the apostle or the plenipotentiaries of the apostle.
As the gospel moves into new territory, it's as though, don't push this too far, but it's as though there's a recycling of a Pentecost. It's as if there's a mini-Pentecost taking place now, not in Jerusalem, but in Samaria as one of those boundaries is crossed.
And fourthly, great persecution and great evangelism and great signs and great joy and great joy, verse 8, "so there was much rejoicing in that city."
Now, don't you think Luke, as he's writing this, is saying, "Do you see the contrast?" He begins this part of the story with great persecution, Saul ravaging the church, and he ends with great rejoicing. There's trouble in one city and there's joy in another city.
It was what Jesus prayed for in the upper room, "That they might have My joy fulfilled in themselves and that they might be kept from the evil one who's a joyless critter for all eternity."
Do you see my friends what you have here? As these Samaritans begin to see what I think must have been for them a little glimpse of what redemption was all about.
As their souls are saved and their bodies are healed, it must have been a little glimpse of heaven, of the new earth and the new heavens come down by the power of the Holy Spirit and there's great rejoicing and there's joy!
"Jesus shall reign where ere the sun does its successive journeys run. His kingdoms stretch from shore to shore 'til moons shall wax and wane no more."
In 1949, when the Communists defeated the national government of China, 637 missionaries were evicted from China. In less than five years half of them were back in Southeast Asia having been redeployed in battle. Today, my friends, some say the church in China is 40 times the size it was then. Out of trouble, good comes.
As Tertullian so eloquently put it, "The more you mow us down, the more we grow."
Be careful, my friends, when you pray in this prayer meeting. Make this a mission-minded church because God's way of answering that in order to bring joy to another city may be to bring trouble to you and me. And are you ready for that?
Father, we thank You for Your Word. Hide it now in our hearts and give us the boldness and the courage that Philip had to preach Jesus and to see nothing else in the picture but Jesus. For Jesus' sake we ask it. Amen.
|This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor. If you would like to discuss this article in our online community, please visit the RPM Forum.|
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