God’s Power for God’s Purpose
A Church on the Move
Dr. Jim Denison
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.