OUT OF JERUSALEM Trinity
Acts 8:1-25 7.7.19
8 years ago, God sent a stroke to a clear thinking, clear speaking friend of mine who was a preacher in his 40’s. He hasn’t been able to say a word since. What was God doing, silencing a man to whom a whole generation of young men looked?
Stephen was head and shoulders above the men in the church in Jerusalem. He was clear in his thinking, insightful and discerning, as well as bold and courageous.
His address, recorded in Acts 7, is the longest and maybe the most significant in the whole of the book of Acts. The people against whom he spoke knew that their cover was blown, and that Stephen had to be stopped. They killed him, just as they had killed Jesus.
What was God doing? His death seems such a backward step, if the cause of Jesus is to advance.
As if that is not bad enough, because of what Stephen had said, “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered.” (8:1b) These are the people who were so tightly knit together in love that they shared with one another so that no one was in any need.
What on earth is God doing? Why did God send the Chinese police last December to close down the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, to torture its members, and imprison so many of them? Why has he caused most of the Christians in Syria to be dispersed?
What is God doing? Expanding the kingdom of Jesus or reducing it? Making the gospel known, or silencing it?
I can’t answer those questions in detail – why this person and not that one? There is a big answer; it comes out here, in the case of Stephen’s death.
GOD IS COMPLETING HIS PLAN TO MAKE JESUS KNOWN
God has a plan. He has told us part of it in 1:8. We usually take that verse to be a command, but it is really a promise that comes out of God’s plan. Jesus told the apostles. “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 ends of the earth.”
The rest of the book of Acts describes how that plan works. In chapter 2, the Holy Spirit came with power on the apostles, and they preached in Jerusalem. For 6 more chapters they did that.
Chapter 8 brings us to the next stage in the plan. After Jerusalem? Judea and Samaria are next. What about after that? To the end of the earth. If you a good Jew, that has got to sound like a weird plan to you. You get the Jerusalem part of it. That is where you expect God to do big things.
Going out to the country hicks (simple common people) of Judea, and the heretics of Samaria? Then to the ends of the earth inhabited by Gentiles? That doesn’t make any sense. Wasn’t it always going to be that people out there would come in to the “holy city” of Jerusalem, and that this is where the kingdom of God would be?
That is why God had given them Stephen. He has proved (chapter 7), that that kind of thinking was always wrong. God has always been active out there, he had said. To tie God down to this city, any city, has always been wrong.
Not only did God set them free to leave this city, by what Stephen said, but he forced them to leave out at the end of a spear and facing the sword. What on earth is he doing?
Look again at 8:1. “There arose on that day [the day that Stephen died] a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” And 8:4 “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”
You can scatter someone’s ashes, so that they blow away. Or you can scatter seed, so that it takes root and produces a crop. It’s that second scattering here.
These Christians, Philip with them, are prepared by God and sent out to fulfil the next stage of God’s plan, to witness to Jesus in Judea and Samaria.
And that is exactly what they do. Look at the repetition:
v4 those scattered “went about preaching the word”
v5 Philip (like Stephen, one of the Greek men chosen to help care for the church in Jerusalem, now also a preacher) “went down to city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.”
v6 The crowds “paid attention to what was being said by Philip”
v12 “they believed Philip as he preached the gospel about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.”
v14 the people of Samaria “received the word of God”
v25 they “testified and spoke the word of the Word … preaching to many villages” in Samaria.
The big deal is not that they came with signs and wonders, but they also came with the Word of God.
I am sure that the plan of 1:8 (Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, the ends of the earth) did not sit easily with these good Jews, when they first heard it. God has now prepared them for it by what Stephen had said. Now that they have no alternative but to go, they go willingly, to be witnesses to Jesus by telling the gospel.
God hasn’t answered every question we have about the confusing things that happen to us. He has told us the big picture. Is he taking the gospel to the ends of the earth? Yes. To unite all things in Jesus (Eph 1:10)? Yes. Working through what is painful as much as what is pleasant? Yes. Bringing eternal blessings wherever he does that? Yes. Then, that’s enough.
Dear friends, that means we can roll with the hard times and the things that don’t work. The fact that they are painful or difficult proves nothing. People who are run by the big picture make a difference in a way that the people who want to know “why me?”, “why this way?” never do.
What is Jesus doing, sending the police to torture and lock up the members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China?
What is Jesus doing, striking my preacher friend with a stroke, when it seemed he had 30 years of fruitful ministry ahead of him?
What is Jesus doing putting you in a situation which is really, really tough, where your heart breaks over your kids, your bad health, and the smashing of your best hopes and plans?
I can’t tell you what he is doing in the specifics of any of that. But I can tell you the big picture. I can tell you that God is working out his plan to make Jesus known everywhere. I can tell you that the evil things cannot stop that plan, but will fulfil it.
You don’t have to win every battle. Not every person you tell the gospel to has to become a believer. Not every court case has to go our way. Not all tears have to be turned to cheers.
The losses are real and so are the failures, and the tears. The good and wonderful plan of God, however, works out through them all. That means you can roll with the losses.
God is completing his plan.
MakingA MULTI ETHNIC FAMILY IS AT THE HEART OF HIS PLAN
The people who lived in Samaria were heretics. They had a watered down kind of Jewish faith that was plain wrong. They are so far off beam, they and the true Jews are poles apart.
That is why good Jews were horrified when Jesus told the story about a “good” Samaritan. Or when Jesus talked to the woman at the well who was a Samaritan.
Here is Philip preaching to the wrong people. As if they can be in on the same deal as these persecuted Jewish Christians.
How could that ever be? They don’t belong. Wrong skin colour. Wrong history. Wrong religion. Won’t they have to be some extra hurdles they are going to have to jump, if they want to be part of the kingdom of Jesus?
No, no. The message Philip preached to them was the same message that Peter preached back in Jerusalem – the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.
What is God going to do to make it clear that they are all starting in the same place? Did he do signs and miracles back there through Jesus, and then through the apostles in Jerusalem. He does some of those here. You see them in verses 6 and 13. The confirmation of the gospel’s truth that the Jerusalem people had received is the same confirmation that these heretics in Samaria receive.
How had the Lord sent the Holy Spirit on them in all his fulness? When they first believed in Jesus? No. Later, at Pentecost. Those two stages are repeated here at Samaria.
God isn’t doing it this way so that we will seek the signs, or expect that the Holy Spirit comes later, once you have trusted into Jesus. This was God’s way of saying that the new people on the block are in the same situation as the first kids on the block.
How many times does God need to say it’s like that? Once is enough, isn’t it? That’s why we don’t find these miracles all the way through the book of Acts, but only as the Plan unfolds into each new stage. Once the gospel has gone into Judea and Samaria, that’s it!
Here is the point: same gospel. Same signs. Same response of faith. Same family.
It goes against what real Jews have believed, to accept that heretics and pagans are on the same level in the same family as they are. That is probably why the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John off to Samaria to check out of that could be true of the Samaritans.
When they came, the same thing happened to these new converts as had happened to them. Hadn’t Peter and John followed Jesus as Lord and God? Sure. Then, later the Holy Spirit fell on them? Yes. That’s what happened to these people – a double stage for them too.
So that that’s the way it happens for us? No. This was God’s unique way of saying that in Jesus there is no difference between Jews who turn to Jesus, and pagans and heretics who do.
There you have it. What is God doing in all the mess and confusions of life? Rolling out his plan. Which plan? The plan that has the creation of a multi ethnic family at its heart.
If you have belonged to Jesus for as far back as you can remember, praise God. If you have had a diet of sound doctrine for years and years, praise God. If you look back over your life and cannot see any of the really gross sins that others have done … womanising, paedophilia, getting stoned regularly, and other debauched actions, praise God.
Does that mean you hold those who are not like that at arm’s length? Can’t quite accept them as real brothers and sisters?
Run through a check list, to see how you are doings:
Do the people from Judea and Samaria get a place at your table, when you invite people in for a meal?
Will you rejoice if one of these people becomes your next small group leader, or church elder, or not be able to handle that?
What’s the big thing for you to talk about when you meet a new Christian? How he votes, what level of education she has, what nationality he is, what her tables manners are, whether he smells, or whether she dresses to your standard? Or is the big deal that he or she belongs to Jesus, and you are family?
Do you actively do whatever you can to support those who take the gospel to Muslims, atheists or aboriginals? Or is it just more comfortable to keep things in house?
The kingdoms of this world are based in things like those, but not the kingdom of Jesus. It has always been different – radically different and God means it to show.
God’s plan is wonderful, and nothing is going to stop him completing it. Nothing. Rather, “he works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). Stephen’s death. The persecutions in China? The stroke of my friend? “All things”.
What is at the heart of his will and his plan? “To unite all things in him” (Ephesians 1:10).
That’s big enough to change everything for you, isn’t it? So that we roll with the bad stuff, with our tears and that we enjoy and work hard on being the multi-ethnic family of the Lord Jesus.
This is an exciting and life-changing passage. I do pray that my preaching hasn’t muddied it in any way. I pray that the joys of what it says, settle deeply in your heart and over your life.