A Church on the Move

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

A Church on the Move

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 8

Think back to your personal conversion experience. What was the setting? Who was involved? Were your parents engaged? A Sunday school teacher, perhaps? Your pastor? A spiritual friend? Who then would have predicted that you would be teaching your class this weekend? Would you?

I became a Christian while sitting on a metal folding chair in the living room of a house down Beechnut Street from College Park Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. At the time, I would have been voted least likely to write this Sunday school lesson. My parents’ patience was tested daily by my childhood. Conduct slips sent home were a daily occurrence. Five of my six elementary school teachers quit the year they had me—perhaps that’s a trend. Every time I open the word of God to speak or write, I am reminded that the Lord has a wonderful sense of humor. And the ability to hit straight licks with crooked sticks.

This week, imagine all God might do with your faithfulness. We so often limit God by our limited faith. We struggle to believe that he could actually use us to do something eternal, spiritual, or miraculous. We’ll learn this week that he will use any who will be used. And that he can do far more with us than we imagine.

When Bill Parcells became the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, his first speech to his new players included this statement: “Raise your expectations.” They expected to lose. He expected to win, to do more than they thought possible. Eventually, so did they.

So can we.

Bloom where you’re planted (vs. 1-8)

Have you ever been frustrated by your spiritual circumstances? Maybe you’re at such a place today. You want to serve your Lord, but it seems that your opportunities are limited. People don’t seem receptive. Your gifts and abilities go unrecognized. Life is preventing your ministry. We’ve all been there, and we’ll all have days when we return to that place of self-doubt and discouragement.

Such was the scene as our text opens. Stephen has been martyred, the first but not the last. A “great” (mega) persecution “broke out” (a word often used for a disease or plague which “breaks out” in the population) against the church at Jerusalem (v. 1a). “Against” means “in opposition to, as an adversary.” The church has assaulted the gates of hell (cf. Matthew 16:18), and now they’re fighting back. The enemy has tried to decapitate the Christian movement by threatening its leaders; he has sought to sow seeds of discord and division; he has achieved the execution of one of the church’s godliest leaders. Now a full-scale war begins.

As a result, “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (v. 1b). “Scattered” means “to be thrown about,” a word used to describe a sower who “scatters” his seed. We picture them thrown into the winds and landing wherever they are taken. The church buried Stephen and mourned his death (v. 2), while Saul began his murderous rampage against their members (v. 3).

Luke says that Saul “began to destroy” the church, words used for tearing down a building. At this time in history, of course, the church had no buildings. The church was and is its people. And so Saul went “from house to house,” where the first believers lived and worshiped. He “dragged off men and women,” persecuting both with equal severity. He “put them in prison,” not so they would be punished by incarceration (such was not the purpose of first-century Roman prisons), but so they could be tried and executed as blaspheming criminals and rebels.

Later Paul recounted his rampage against the church this way: “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (Acts 22:4). It appears that the future of the Christian movement is bleak at best. No one is safe. All are at risk. Who will want to join such a faith? What optimism could these believers hold for their future? How many were certain that their church would achieve global or eternal significance now?

Step into their lives. You’ve been a Christian for only a few months; no one has been for more than three years. You have no New Testament, and no church except at Jerusalem. Now the Empire is after you; Saul is trying to find you; you don’t have your apostles, your pastors, any more. They’re back in Jerusalem, but you’re gone. You have no home, no job, no church and no leaders. Is this new movement dead?

As it turns out, what the enemy meant for evil, God used for good. He always does.

The “scattered” Christians “preached the word wherever they went” (v. 4). Running for their lives, fleeing the mighty Empire, they were still faithful to their call and God. Note that none were “apostles”; the leaders of the church stayed in Jerusalem to face persecution and continue their ministries there (v. 1). But all “preached” (the Greek word means simply “to proclaim”). Ordination and license are not required. Every time you teach the Scriptures, you are “preaching” God’s word. Every time you share your faith, or speak a spiritual word, you are preaching. And God is pleased.

These preached “wherever they went.” They assumed their new circumstances to be no surprise to God. They seized the moment, the opportunity presented to them. Philip in particular “went down” to a city in Samaria; the words mean that he traveled downward in elevation from the hills of Jerusalem to the valley of Samaria, not that he traveled south. No self-respecting Jew would do this before Pentecost. The Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the Jews, their faith and culture despised and avoided. But now the universal love of God lives in Philip’s heart. And soon in the hearts of those he served.

The people of this Samaritan city “heard” his message and “saw” the miraculous signs performed by God through his ministry (v. 6a). And so they “paid close attention” (v. 6b; the phrase means to examine with utmost interest and detail) to the gospel he shared. With this result: “With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed” (v. 7). When we attack the gates of hell, they cannot withstand our assault. Imprisoned spirits and bodies were released and healed. And “there was great joy in that city” (v. 8). From “mega” persecution (v. 1) came “mega” joy.

God Arrests Saul

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

God Arrests Saul

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 9:1-31

On April 17, AD 29, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. The cross was not the end of the story, praise God. On Easter Sunday Jesus rose from the grave, and the rest is history. History we continue today. But so much has changed since then. A car remote is now available to start your car from a quarter-mile away, so the air conditioner will cool the car before you have to drive in the Texas heat. My first car didn’t have an air conditioner. My second car’s air conditioner worked great until it got hot outside. Much has changed.

But much has not. We’re still afraid of death, even more so with the terror alerts which are now part of our national existence. Lincoln Continental has produced a $140,000 Town Car which can stop an AK-47 and block a grenade. BMW has a car which can be hermetically sealed in a gas attack. Full-metal jackets can be put on Cadillac Escalades and Hummer H2s, for $30,000 to $350,000. Breathing masks are common in Hong Kong and Toronto.

Much has not changed. We still want our lives to have meaning, significance, and purpose. But where do we look for them?

Refuse the seduction of secondary success (v. 1)

Let’s consider the wrong answer first. Woodrow Wilson said, “Many men are seduced by secondary success.” A recent business bestseller is titled, Good to Great. Says the author: “Good is the enemy of great.” Good schools prevent great schools; good government prevents great government; good lives prevent great lives. The seduction of secondary success.

I fear that God feels the same way about our society today. Time was when we needed religion to give life meaning and significance. But in the last century, Darwinism taught Americans that we don’t need religion to explain our natural lives and world. Freud taught us that we don’t need religion to explain our emotional and psychological lives. Science and medicine have all the answers, or soon will. So what’s left for church?

Today we use religion to serve us. We use the spiritual to make us feel better about our secular lives, to give us peace, to help us get ahead. To meet our needs, to serve our agenda, to help us find success.

We’re not the first: “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (v. 1). “Breathing out” means that “murderous threats” were the air he was breathing, the atmosphere in which he was living. Why? Because of “Lord’s disciples,” to his mind a malignant tumor which must be removed from the soul of Judaism. He would be the surgeon who would save his people and their faith from this malice.

So he went to Damascus, 150 miles to the north, walking as far as the distance from here to Waco. He held in his hand “letters,” extradition warrants to bring any Christians he might find in Damascus back to Jerusalem for trial and execution.

This man desperately wanted a life of significance. He could meet with the high priest personally; can you get an appointment with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? He was a member of the Pharisees, the elite corps of Judaism, and a scholar trained by Gamaliel, their finest theologian. But it wasn’t enough. Now he would be known as the man who saved Israel from these malicious Christians. He would do this for God. He would achieve greatness in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. He was seduced by secondary success, but didn’t know it.

He’s not the last.

Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has written a fascinating exploration titled The Secular Mind. In it he quotes the poet William Carlos Williams, who knew a woman born in Italy who raised her family in America. She “told me a few weeks ago that it’s become different going to church here than it was when she was in Italy and when she first came here. She used to sit there and talk to God, and try to figure out what he wanted, and try to please him. Now, she says, she mostly thinks about what’s going on in her life, in her kids’ lives, and she asks God to make it better.

“She said to me, ‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave . . . but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours! It used to be, when I prayed to God, I was talking to him; now . . . I’m only asking him to help out with things.'”

And so our society comes to church on Easter and other Sundays to keep religious tradition, to be spiritual, to get God’s blessing, to ask God to “help out with things.”

Experience the Easter encounter (vs. 2-9)

Now comes the most famous conversion in Christian history. It was “about noon,” Paul would later say (Acts 26:13). He saw “a light from heaven.” Later he would describe it as “above the brightness of the sun” (Acts 26:13). In other words, a miracle, not a natural phenomenon. It “flashed around him.” The Greek is clear: this happened specifically to Paul. God had his spotlight on him, as he has it on each of us today.

Then Paul “heard a voice”—the Greek means that he heard with understanding. The others heard the sound but did not understand it or see anyone (Acts 9:7). This call was specifically and personally for Paul, as is God’s call for each one of us. No one else can hear God’s will for you. God speaks a “language of the heart” which you alone can understand.

He knew it was God: “Who are you, Lord?” “Lord,” kurios, God and King. Then came the shock that would change his life forever: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” “I am Jesus”—he is alive. His church is his body “whom you are persecuting.” And this “Lord” had a purpose for him: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (v. 6).

Peter’s Miracle Ministry

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Peter’s Miracle Ministry

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 9:32-10:48

A study in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that talking on a cell phone while driving increases the risk of accident fourfold, the same risk as driving while intoxicated. It doesn’t seem to matter if the phone is hands-free or handheld. The study did cite one safety benefit. Nearly 40% of those surveyed used their phones to call 911 after they crashed.

Who can we call before the accident? Before we drive into an uncertain future? Before we meet the truck coming around the next bend?

We in Western culture like to visualize history as a line, a timetable with a past, present, and future. We appreciate five-year plans and strategies for the future. We are at our most disconcerted when tomorrow is clouded in the mists of uncertainty and our headlights cannot see around the turn in the road. But there’s only One who knows the road before us. Learning to let him drive is the key to traveling well.

What about the future most worries you today? Let’s learn how to give that very burden to God this week.

Trust the power of God (9:32-43)

No one in scripture faced a less certain future than the apostle Peter. Identified already by the Sanhedrin as the leader of the movement they branded criminal, he will soon face the wrath of Rome yet again (ch. 12). In the meanwhile, our study this week will put him squarely in the sights of the Jerusalem church leaders and their centuries-old, cherished customs and beliefs regarding the Gentiles. Such racial tensions were at least as deep and divisive then as racism is today.

Before we can follow God into such uncertainty, we must first believe that he will lead us well. Only when we trust his power, will we trust his providence. Now Peter will learn to do both.

The apostle has traveled from Jerusalem to Samaria and back (Acts 8:14-25). Now he is in the midst of another missionary journey, this time to Lydda, a town situated some 12 miles northwest of Jerusalem. There he met a crippled man named Aeneas. Likely a believer (“he went to visit the saints in Lydda,” v. 32), he had been bedridden eight years.

Remembering his earlier experience with the healing power of Jesus (Acts 3:1-10), Peter offered this man the same grace from God. He received it in faith, getting up and trusting God to heal him (v. 34). And the Lord answered his obedience, so that all in Lydda and Sharon (probably the region, but possibly a nearby town) saw him “and turned to the Lord” (v. 35). A changed life is the most potent means of changing other lives.

26 miles further to the northwest lay Joppa, an important sea port. A suburb of Tel Aviv today, it is still a popular tourist attraction. The last time I was in Israel, our group stopped and read the story we will now review. A disciple named Tabitha lived there. Her name is Aramaic; Luke translates her name into the Greek Dorcas, a hint that his reader(s) did not understand Aramaic and thus may have been Gentiles and/or Romans (cf. the dedication to “Theophilus,” perhaps a Roman official, Luke 1:3, Ac. 1:1).

Her mercy ministry was widely known and received, so that her untimely death was mourned by all. The disciples heard that Peter was nearby in Lydda, and summoned him to come urgently (Jewish custom gave those living outside Jerusalem only three days to bury the corpse).

Peter found the deceased girl and her mourners “upstairs” (v. 39), the typical “upper room” used by families as a kind of den. The apostle had been present each time Jesus raised the dead (Matthew 9:25, Luke 7:11-17, John 11:1-44), so he knew that his Lord possessed such power. Unlike Jesus, he knelt and prayed, making clear the fact that this miracle would come from God or it would not come at all. He then called the girl by name, an indication that he believed God intended to raise her. And he did.

The result of this physical miracle was an even more important spiritual miracle: “many people believed in the Lord” (v. 42). As in Lydda earlier (v. 35), this is always God’s ultimate purpose in healing our bodies. They will die again, but souls which turn to him in response to such grace will live forever in his paradise.

If Jesus can raise the dead, what can’t he do? Think back to all the ways the Lord has revealed his powerful grace to you. He gave you physical life, then spiritual salvation. He has given you health, the freedoms we enjoy, and a loving church family. When we remember all he has done, we will more readily trust him for all he will do. When we see his power, we can trust his providence.

Hear the voice of God (10:1-18)

So we know that our Lord can lead us into an uncertain future. But will he? Will the God of the universe actually speak with us?

He certainly spoke to Cornelius and to Simon Peter. The issue before us in Acts 10 is the most crucial turning point in Luke’s entire narrative: can Gentiles become Christians, or must they first become Jews? Is the gospel for everyone? Do you and I as Gentiles have the right to this mercy and grace?

To this point, no one had come to faith without a prior relationship to Judaism; even the Samaritans of Acts 8 espoused a kind of Jewish theology and culture. One could argue that the Ethiopian eunuch was himself related to Judaism, given his Jerusalem worship (Acts 8:27) and obvious interest in the Scriptures (v. 28). Must we all go to Jerusalem before we can go to Jesus?

Peter’s residence with Simon the Tanner in Joppa (Acts 9:43) is indication that his heart was already turning from the racial and moral prejudices of his traditions. A “tanner” was one who worked with the skins of dead animals, and thus handled things unclean to the Jew. To stay with him was a significant step out of the legalism of Peter’s heritage. Now he will be asked to take a second step, the largest of his entire life.

Stephen, the Man God Crowned

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Stephen, the Man God Crowned

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 6:8-7:60

I recently taught a course titled, “The Faith of the Presidents.” Week three was devoted to Abraham Lincoln, the consensus choice of historians as the greatest president in our nation’s history. Many believe that his genius and courage were more responsible for the preservation of the Union than any other single factor.

Given the veneration extended to Mr. Lincoln across the generations since his tragic assassination, I was surprised to learn of the vilification he faced during his lifetime—from critics in the North. I expected to find Southern opposition to his leadership and character, but was not prepared for the degree of persecution he experienced from those on his side of the conflict.

For instance, the Baltimore Sun editorialized on his actions between his election and his inauguration: “Had we any respect for Mr. Lincoln, official or personal, as a man, or as President-elect of the United States, his career and speeches on his way to the seat of government would have cruelly impaired it. We do not believe the Presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors, than it has been by him, even before his inauguration.”

In 1864, the New York Herald called the president “joke incarnated, his election a very sorry joke, and the idea that such a man as he should be the President of such a country as this, a very ridiculous joke.” An editorial in a Northern newspaper for New Year of 1864 opined, “The people of the North owe Mr. Lincoln nothing but eternal hatred and scorn. There are 500,000 new made graves; there are 500,000 orphans; there are 200,000 widows; there is a bottomless sea of blood; there is the Constitution broken; there are liberty and law—liberty in chains and in a dungeon; thieves in the Treasury, provost marshals in the seats of justice, butchers in the pulpit—and these are the things which we owe Mr. Lincoln.” And Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most respected and popular preachers of the day, characterized the president thus: “Not a spark of genius has he; not an element of leadership. Not one particle of heroic enthusiasm.”

Being right is no guarantee that we’ll being popular. Quite often the reverse is true. When we walk through the biblical Hall of Faith we find this summary at the end of the tour: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:36-38).

By now you may have seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. If so, you have witnessed the crucifixion portrayed more accurately than by any other film in history. Remember that the crowd shouted “Crucify him!” And know that the followers of this Christ will be persecuted as well.

With Stephen we learn how to stand up to opposition, how to defend our Lord no matter what happens to us. Where might you face persecution for your faith? What real or possible issues might you address? The stones thrown against you for your faith may be geological, social, or financial. But they will all be real. Here’s how to respond.

Face opposition for the right reasons (Acts 6:8-15)

Stephen, immediately upon his selection to “the Seven” (Acts 6:5; cf. 21:8), vindicated the choice of the people. He was “full of God’s grace and power” (v. 8a); “full” means “to be controlled by” or “submitted to.” He submitted himself to the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, and became a conduit for his work. You and I are to do the same (Ephesians 5:18).

The result was “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (v. 8b). “Wonders” point perhaps to miraculous abilities, “signs” to miraculous actions. Perhaps the people witnessed wondrous power or revelatory conviction and wisdom in his preaching, teaching, and leadership; and “signs” through a healing ministry performed through him. His work was done “among the people,” providing public proof of the reality of the Spirit’s work in his life.

Such a widespread ministry would quickly lead to reaction by the Jerusalem authorities. This was precisely what they had tried to prevent with earlier arrests and warnings (Acts 4:18-21; 5:40). In their minds, the spiritual malignancy of the Christian faith was spreading and must be contained at all costs: “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” (v. 9a).

The “Synagogue of the Freedmen” was a popular title for Jews who had earlier been freed from slavery. They had come to Jerusalem from a wide geographic spectrum: Cyrene in northern Africa; Alexandria in Egypt, second only to Rome in power and first in academic achievement and learning; the province of Cilicia in southeast Asia Minor (Turkey today), where Tarsus was located; and the province of Asia on the western coast of modern-day Turkey. Since this synagogue included those from Saul of Tarsus’s hometown, it is possible that he met with them. And that he participated as “these men began to argue with Stephen” (v. 9b). Such disputation was a principal way those in Jewish synagogues dealt with theological issues; the losing party was expected to cease its heretical actions.

In this case, the synagogue leaders “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by which he spoke” (v. 10). So long as we work in the wisdom and Spirit of the Lord, our words will always be powerful and victorious. He will give us what to say when our faith is opposed—either through prior preparation or on-the-spot leadership (cf. Mark 13:11, “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit”).