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Sunday, November 27, 2011

[Matt's Messages] "Even the Gentiles"

“Even the Gentiles”
From Jerusalem to Pennsylvania: The Book of Acts
November 27, 2011
Acts 9:32-11:18
                           
For those of you who were participating in “the guess the title contest” that we weren’t really having, the title of this message is not Peter or Aeneas or Dorcas or even Cornelius.

It is this: “Even the Gentiles.”

And I get that from the NIV’s rendering of Acts 11:18 which will be our last verse this morning: “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”

Even the Gentiles.

So far, in our study of the book of Acts, the gospel has spread like wildfire in Jerusalem and in Judea and even in Samaria. We’ve seen that in Acts 1-8.

And in chapter 8, we also saw the gospel of Jesus Christ spread to a proselyte, the Ethiopian treasury official who was probably Gentile but had apparently converted to Judaism.

But now in Acts chapter 9, after the arrest and salvation of Saul, we are going to see the gospel of Jesus Christ move beyond Jews and half-breed Jews and converts to Judaism to bona fide Gentiles.

And that is amazing.

You and I don’t truly comprehend the barrier that existed between Jew and Gentile.

The observant, pious, godly Jew was supposed to be separate from all things Gentile.

But that is about to change.

And the change is orchestrated by the Holy Spirit of God.

God’s empowering presence – the Holy Spirit orchestrates a plan to connect a Gentile who is ripe for gospel harvest and the lead apostle of Jesus Christ who brings the gospel with him.

That apostle’s name is Peter, and the story turns to him in verse 32.

It’s been several chapters since we were with the apostle Peter. Verse 32 picks up Peter’s trail. He’s traveling in the north of Israel along the seaboard and sharing the gospel and seeing God heal people. V.32

“As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years. ‘Aeneas,’ Peter said to him, ‘Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat.’ Immediately Aeneas got up. All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.”

How exciting!

Healed by the name of Jesus. The power of God is still present and operating through Peter. And people are seeing that and turning to Jesus.

Next, Joppa. That city where Jonah got into his trouble. V.36

“In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, ‘Please come at once!’ Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.”

Dorcas must have been a wonderful saint. She cared for people in extremely practical ways.  The Lord loves that kind of ministry!  V.40

“Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.”

And that exciting day leads up to this next story.

Simon Peter is living in Joppa with the other Simon, Simon the tanner.

And the Holy Spirit orchestrates the genuine spread of the gospel even to the Gentiles. Chapter 10, verse 1.

“At Caesarea [which is also in the North, not too far from Joppa] there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”

Cornelius is a Gentile.

He is God-fearing. He is generous. He is a good man, but he is a Gentile, not a Jew.

He is a Roman soldier. A commander of a group of 100 men known as the Boys from Italy.

Cornelius is a Gentile, and God has marked him out to be the bridge from the Jews to the Gentiles. V.3

“One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, ‘Cornelius!’ Cornelius stared at him in fear. ‘What is it, Lord?’ he asked. The angel answered, ‘Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.’ When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.”

Got it?

Do you see how the Holy Spirit is orchestrating this whole thing?

Day One: An angel tells Cornelius to send for Peter.

Day Two: While the 3 men from Cornelius are traveling, the Holy Spirit talks to Peter. V.9

“About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.”

I’ve said it before that I always imagine this sheet to be red and white checks.

It’s time for Peter’s Picnic. V.12

“It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’”

Do you have the picture in your mind?

Peter’s hungry. And a giant picnic cloth from heaven drops down and has every animal that Leviticus forbids Peter to eat.

But God Himself says, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

What’s going on?

I know one thing. It’s never smart to say, “Surely not, Lord!”

“No” and “Lord” don’t go in the same sentence together!

“I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

Good for you. Do it know.  V.15

“The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.”

Three times!

“Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 
“Surely not, Lord.”

“Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 
“Surely not, Lord.”

“Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 
“Surely not, Lord.”

“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

What’s going on?

Is this about food?  Well, yes and no. It’s about food and more than food.

It’s about people.

The Holy Spirit’s timing is perfect. V.17

“While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon's house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.’”

And guess what? They are not Jews.

“Peter went down and said to the men, ‘I'm the one you're looking for. Why have you come?’ The men replied, ‘We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.’ Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.”

That’s amazing! That itself is amazing. That he would invite these Gentiles in to stay for hospitality. But it gets better than that. V.23

“The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along [witnessess]. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. [Something big is going to happen.] As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.  But Peter made him get up. ‘Stand up,’ he said, ‘I am only a man myself.’”
       
And both of us are here because of the Holy Spirit.  V.27

“Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: ‘You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”

Did you catch that?

Peter has figured out the meaning of the vision, the meaning of the picnic.

“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

“Do not call anyone impure that God has made clean.”

God is doing something new. V.29

“So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?’ Cornelius answered: ‘Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, 'Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.' So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.’”

Can you feel his anticipation?

Here we are. We’re ready to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.

Give us the gospel!

Okay. Here it is.

“Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism
but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news [gospel] of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached–how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses [there’s our word again!] of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen–by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify [witness] that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’”

That’s the gospel, friends.

And it’s going to the Gentiles.

“You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in Judean and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” v.44

“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message [and believed!]. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. [Remember when that happened on the Samaritans a couple of weeks ago in Acts 8?] For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God [this is FOR REAL]. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.”

They were baptized.

Not circumcised. Baptized.

They didn’t become Jews.

They became Christians.

Even the Gentiles!

Now, notice that they still needed the gospel.

Even though Cornelius was a pretty good man, upstanding, generous, seeking God in some real ways, it took the gospel of Jesus Christ and the baptism of the Holy Spirit for them to be saved.

Even Cornelius needed the gospel–but he got it and was saved!

And baptized. If you have never stepped forward in baptism, I want you to notice how important it is in the Bible, especially in Acts.

“Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” (V.47).  They are genuine believers just like us. And genuine believers get baptized with water when they believe.

Even the Gentiles.

Now, we’re not done yet. What Peter has done will be controversial.

There will be people who are Jewish Christians who are not going to be happy with Peter’s actions. They will need some convincing. Chapter 11, verse 1.

“The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’”

What. Were. You. Thinking?!!

Peter says, “I know, I know, I thought that the same thing, but let me tell you the story. V.4

“Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened: ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds of the air. Then I heard a voice telling me, 'Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.' ‘I replied, 'Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.'”

“‘The voice spoke from heaven a second time, 'Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.' This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again. ‘Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, 'Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.' ‘As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'

So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?’

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.’”

Three questions as points of application this morning.

#1. EVEN US? GIVE THANKS THAT YOU HAVE BEEN INCLUDED!

I think that it’s easy to miss the fact that the picnic was about you and me here in Pennsylvania.

How many here are Jewish?

Anyone?

One tenth?  One hundredth?  Anybody know?

Acts 10 should be one of our favorite passages in the whole Bible.

Because this is where we come in.

Now, of course, God has always had a heart for the Gentiles. The whole point of Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles.

But it didn’t always work that way.

And before this point, you had to come into Judaism to come under God’s wings.

But now the even the Gentiles have been granted repentance unto life.

Even—you and me.

I wonder how many of us when we sat down to our Thanksgiving meals this last week gave thanks that we are included in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

It’s not a forgone conclusion. It’s not something to be taken for granted.

It is all grace.

Even us.  Give thanks that you have been included.

Thank you, Lord!

#2. EVEN THEM? ACCEPT THOSE WHO ARE VERY DIFFERENT FROM YOU.

I think that the lesson that Peter learned has a broader application than just that Jews should accept Gentiles as genuine Christians.

The Lord pounded this into Peter’s head:

“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

But we do that all of the time when we fail to love other Christians who are different than we are.

Maybe they believe some minor point of doctrine differently than we do.
Maybe their skin color looks different than ours does.
Maybe they are rich or they are poor.
Both sets of those people enjoy excluding one another.

Maybe they talk different or have different traditions they practice.

Maybe they just get on our nerves.

But they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.

Acts 10:28, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”

Accept those, as brothers and sisters, who are very different from you.
 
That does assume that you are a believer.

That’s our last point today.

#3. EVEN ME?  TURN TO JESUS TODAY.

You might think that you are too far for Him to reach, but you are not.

He makes the lame to walk and the dead to rise again!

Be like Cornelius and his friends and family and those folks in Lydda and Joppa.

Turn from sin and trust in Jesus, and you will be saved.

Come to Him, and you will be made clean.

That’s what he was doing when (chapter 10, verse 39), “they killed him by hanging on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and cause him to be seen.”

Turn from sin and believe in Jesus today.

Chapter 10, verse 43, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Even the Gentiles.

Messages So Far In this Series:
No Other Name
Snapshots of the Early Church
Stephen
Philip
Saul

Sunday, November 20, 2011

[Matt's Messages] "Saul"

“Saul”
From Jerusalem to Pennsylvania: The Book of Acts
November 20, 2011
Acts 9:1-31

Two week’s ago’s message was titled “Stephen.”

Last week’s message was titled “Philip.”

After church last week, someone told me, “I know what next week’s sermon is called.”
   
“What?”

“Saul.”

And that’s right.

Today’s message is about that murderous young man who was bent on destroying the fledgling church of Jesus Christ.  Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”

And Saul said, “Not if I have anything to say about it!”

We met this “beast” two weeks ago when Stephen was stoned. Saul was there.  He was holding the coats of those who were pitching rocks at an innocent man.

And the Bible tell us that Saul was giving approval to his death.

“Yes! Yes! Let’s stomp out these Jesus freaks.”

More than that, Saul was dragging men and women out of their homes and tossing them into prison for believing in Jesus.

We’re going to see that he has not stopped. He has only gotten worse.

But something is going to happen to change all of that.

Chapter 9, verse 1.

“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”  Stop there for a second.

Saul has been very active as a persecutor of the church.

And successful. He’s tossed a lot of believers into the slammer.

Remember last week we read that the church had been scattered in this great persecution. And probably the greatest persecutor is Saul.

Saul is on a mission to stamp out the church.

And he’s willing to travel for it.

Damascus is 150 miles from Jerusalem, and in Syria, not even in Israel.

He gets authority to extradite Jesus-followers from faraway Syria and drag them back Jerusalem for trial. No one is safe from his clutches.

The church is scared of Saul. He is enemy #1.

And so Paul heads up the road to Damascus to make some arrests.

...But Saul is the one gets arrested. V.3

“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’” Stop there for a second.

What a moment!

This story is told three times in the book of Acts.  Three times! It must be pretty important.

In one of the times, he says that the light from heaven in verse 3 was brighter than the sun.

All of sudden, Saul is surrounded by flashing light, brighter than the sun and he can’t see a thing, but he can hear something.

Someone asks him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Now, notice something there. Very important to note.

We are Jesus’ body.

When you persecute the church of Jesus Christ, you are persecuting Jesus Christ.

He doesn’t say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my church?”  He could have. It would have been true.

He says, “Saul, Sual, why are you persecuting me?”

That how intimately Jesus associates Himself with us.  Chew on that for a while.

Saul could probably guess who is speaking, but he asks anyway, just to make sure.

“Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now, get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” v.7

“The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing.  [He saw the light and it was blinding.] So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”

Isn’t that interesting?

Saul was arrested by Jesus.

He had planned to come roaring into Damascus to root out the followers of Christ.

And instead, he comes limping into Damascus, blind and helpless.

And for three days he fasted and prayed.  I think they were prayers of repentance and new faith.

Next step. V.10

“In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered. The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’”

Uhhhh. 

“‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’”

Did you know about that Lord?

I’m just checking here, Lord. I’m not saying, “No.”

I’m just checking to make sure that I’m hearing you right.

Did you say, “Go to Saul?”  V.15

“But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’”

That’s interesting, isn’t it?

Go, Ananias, and encourage Saul that he is my chosen instrument, and tell him that he will suffer.  V.17

“Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord–Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here–has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Stop there for  a second.

I love that Ananias calls him “Brother.”

That’s the first time that Saul has ever been called “Brother” by a Christian.

And he will use that word again and again in his writings.

“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me to you. See and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

And Saul could sing, “I once was blind but now I see.”

Notice that Saul gets baptized soon after getting saved.

That’s the normal pattern. Becoming a Christian. Signify that with water baptism.

And then Saul did something that not all Christians do. He began to preach! V.19 again.

“Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, ‘Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?’ [People can’t believe their ears.] Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.”

This is not a flash-in-pan. This is no trick. Saul is convinced and converted and is seeking to win others to Christ. 

But it’s not easy. V.23

“After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.”

What a ironic twist.

This is what Saul came to Damascus to do. And now, he’s the target.

Later, he comes to Jerusalem.  V.26

“When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.”

You can see their problem.

“But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him.”

Probably the same bunch who killed Stephen that he agreed with before. Now he’s the target. V.30

“When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. [His home town.] Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”

That’s a healthy church!

“It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”

That is was a great gift to the church after the great persecution.

Now, what lessons can we draw from this passage of Scripture?

It’s very familiar.

It’s very important to the story of Acts. Because this man Saul is going to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.

The one who stood opposed to Jesus’ promise is the one of the key people to fulfill it.

I’d like to make four points of application this morning. More could be said. And will be as we will hear this story told two more times as we study Acts together.

But these are four for us today.

#1. THERE IS REAL HOPE FOR HARD CASES.

Saul was the least likely person to become a follower of Christ.

This guy was stomping out the followers of Christ.

Now, he is one.

How did that happen?

Notice. Jesus came looking for Saul, not the other way around.

It’s Jesus.

Saul was arrested by Jesus.

Do you have someone in your life that you despair of their ever becoming a Christian?

They are just too far gone, too hardened, too spiteful, too bitter.

They say that they don’t want anything to do with Jesus.

Well, that was Saul.

So, your hard case is not beyond the power of God.

Don’t stop praying.
Don’t stop looking for opportunities to reach out with the love of Christ.
Don’t stop sharing the gospel just because they are a hard case.

There is real hope for hard cases.

They can change through Jesus!

And that goes for you, too.

It doesn’t have to be somebody far away who thinks they are two hard a case for the Lord.

Could be somebody right here in this room.

Not everyone has a Damascus Road conversion.

Nobody else I know got knocked off a donkey or horse by a blinding light to become a Christian!

For many of us, it was a quiet thing that happened, and we can’t even tell you when.

But we know that Jesus did arrested, and now we believe in Him.

There is real hope for hard cases.

Don’t give up on them.

Ladies, is there a hard case in your life right now that you should be inviting to the Women’s Christmas Tea?

Don’t just invite your Christian girlfriends from other churches.

They have their own things.

Invite some hardened lady who is skeptical of all of this Jesus stuff.

Invite somebody who once went to church but decided that it was just full of hypocrites and quit.

Invite somebody who hates Jesus. You might be surprised at what happens next.

#2. BECOMING A BELIEVER MEANS ACCEPTING SUFFERING.

Did you notice that when Saul become a Christian his life got harder, not easier?

We do people a disservice when we communicate to them that trusting Jesus will make their life a whole lot easier.

In one sense, it does, of course. It gives us new joy and a new outlook on life and a great ending to our own personal stories that makes it all worth it.

But becoming a Christian also means that we become servants of Jesus. In the words of verse 15, His “chosen instruments.”

And v.16, “I will show [Saul] how much he must suffer for my name.”

It’s not a bed of roses.

Following Christ is worth it, but it is not easy.

It could mean getting dropped out of town in a basket.
It could mean running for your life.

Becoming a believer means accepting suffering.

Have you heard the Lord say that to you?

“I will show [him, her] how much [they] must suffer for my name.”

Have you accepted that part of being a Christian?

It’s actually hard to be a new Christian.

That’s why we have point #3.

#3. WE NEED TO BEFRIEND NEW BELIEVERS.

I don’t look down on Ananias or the disciples in Jerusalem for their skepticism.

V.26 “They were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.”

But what would have happened if Ananias or Barnabas had not taken that risk?

They were brave to reach out to that former monster and call him brother.

And more than that, sponsor him with the other believers.

Now, most new believers aren’t like Saul was. They aren’t former persecutors of the church.

But it’s still not easy to be a newbie.

We need to reach out and welcome sinners into our midst.

This church is good at that.

I’ve seen this church love on new believers whom they would not naturally be attracted to.

Someone who comes from a bad background.

We welcome them.

The church is for sinners.  The church is to be a hospital for sin-sick people, not a museum full of perfect exhibits.

Is there someone that you need to befriend? To reach out to and make sure they feel encouraged?

Let’s all be Ananiases and Barnabases.

And #4.  JUST ONE NEW CHRISTIAN CAN MAKE A BIG IMPACT.

We have only just begun to see what Saul is going to do.

He’s going to be the first major missionary of the early church.

He’s going to end up writing 13 books of the New Testament.

We know him even better by the name “Paul.”

Just one person becoming a follower of Christ.

What kind of difference could that make?

All of the difference in the world.

Which brings me back to the question that we’ve been asking ourselves for the last few weeks.

“What is stopping you?”

What is stopping you and me from talking to others about Jesus?

We might only lead one person to faith in Christ.

But what if that person is the next Saul?

Just one new Christian can make a huge impact.

Let’s not give up.

Let’s not stop now.

Let’s be like this new Christian here in Acts 9 who wasn’t hardly a follower of Christ for a few days before he was telling others about Jesus.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving.

The thing we have most be thankful for this year is the same every year.

Jesus.

Jesus, who is the real hope for hard cases.
Jesus, who shows us how much we must suffer for his name, and how much He is worth it.
Jesus, who befriended sinners like us.
Jesus, who uses us to make a big impact if we will only just follow Him.

Let’s be thankful for Jesus.

Messages So Far In this Series:
No Other Name
Snapshots of the Early Church
Stephen
Philip

Sunday, November 13, 2011

[Matt's Messages] "Philip"

“Philip”
From Jerusalem to Pennsylvania: The Book of Acts
November 13, 2011
Acts 8:1-40

I’m going to continue in our series on the book of Acts, that I’m calling “From Jerusalem to Pennsylvania.”

But I almost didn’t.

This was such a tumultuous week for our community because of the events in Happy Valley, and I thought long and hard about a message entitled “The Bible and the Scandal at Penn State.”

I decided not to preach that message because I think we’re all fatigued from hearing and talking about it all week long. But I am concerned, as a pastor, that no one assume from my silence that God has nothing to say about these events.

In actuality, the Bible has the most important things to say about everything. And it gives us categories that help us to make sense out of life. The Bible’s teaching on sin, on responsibility, on justice, on suffering, on love. The Bible’s teaching on how the world is not as it should be but one day will be. The Bible’s teaching about the preciousness of the blood of Christ–able to make the foulest clean. The Bible’s teaching on idolatry anything that takes the place of God in our lives. The Bible’s teaching on the coming judgment when God will settle all outstanding accounts perfectly. Those teachings and more can give us the categories we need to understand our often confusing world.

If you want to talk more about that with me, that’s why I’m here.

I do want to give one more word of pastoral counsel about the whole thing–and that is, as Christians, we need to act and speak as Christians.

Very simple. My point is that we are not, first of all, Penn State. We are...Jesus’ people. That doesn’t mean that we can’t love Penn State or, if we are on the other side, despise Penn State. But our ultimate and most important allegiance is to Jesus.

And Jesus has a certain code of conduct and a code of speech that should rule the way we talk to others. And we can’t forget it as we vigorously debate or champion any cause.

What would Jesus do?
What would Jesus say?
What would Jesus have me do or say?

The answer may not always be obvious, but we need to ask those questions of ourselves and represent our Lord well–at work, at school, on Facebook, or wherever.

We don’t just speak for ourselves. We speak for Christ. And that’s huge.

Let’s turn now to the book of Acts. Chapter 8.

Last week, we studied chapter 7 and the title was simply, “Stephen.”

Stephen was chosen in chapter 6 as one of “the Seven,” administrative leaders who helped the church through an ethnic crisis. He was also a preacher who got in trouble for preaching about Jesus and then was killed for preaching about Jesus.

Today, our title will simply be “Philip.”

Philip was also one of the Seven.

And chapter 8 is about his ministry. It’s almost everything we know about him.

In chapter 21, we’ll find out that he had four unmarried daughters.

Poor fella probably never saw the inside of the bathroom at his house!

But other than that, everything we know about Philip comes from this chapter. Like Stephen, Philip is an important bridge character–he helps to bridge the story from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

Remember what Jesus said in chapter 1? “You will be my witnesses in  Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

And how far have we gotten up to this point in the book of Acts?

Well, pretty much we’re still in Jerusalem.

Big crowds, some opposition. Some warnings, some floggings, and now Stephen has become a martyr. He died for preaching about Jesus.

And that seems to open the floodgates of persecution.

Acts chapter 8, verse 1.

“And Saul was there, giving approval to his [that is, Stephen’s] death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”

Stephen died and a great persecution broke out.

Those big crowds of new believers got scattered. Only the apostles were left in Jerusalem to brave it out.

Stephen was barely in his grave and Saul was monstrously attacking the church, dragging people men and women to prison.

The bad times had come.

It is fitting that today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

We aren’t doing anything special for it that today, but here it is our text.

A great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem.

The dam broke and big wave of trouble poured out over the church.

And one of the chief trouble-pourers was a young man who had just witnessed the stoning of Stephen and was nodding his head in approval.

Yes! Let’s stomp out these Jesus freaks!

Now, just for a second, pretend you don’t know the rest of the story.

Is all of this good or bad?

Verses 1 through 4. Good or bad?

Yes, that’s a trick question.

Of course, there are bad things in those verses. People are going to prison for believing in Jesus. People are dying for believing in Jesus.

But.

Here’s lesson #1 of 4 this morning.

1. GOD USES EVEN THE BAD STUFF TO WORK OUT HIS PLAN.

This persecution doesn’t take God by surprise.

“Oh, no. What am I going to do now?!”

No, God has a plan for all of the bad stuff.

Remember, again, what Jesus said was going to happen in chapter 1.
“You will be my witnesses in  Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

They hadn’t made it very far yet.

But now they did.

Look at verse 1 again.

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”

And what did they do there? V.4

“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”

One of my old professors used to say that they “gossiped the gospel” wherever they went.

Stephen’s death and the great persecution didn’t slow down the progress of the gospel–it accelerated it!

God is sovereign. He uses even the bad stuff to work out His plan.

Did you need to hear that today?

It’s the truth of Romans 8:28.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

That doesn’t make the persecution good or the martyrdom.

But it does mean that all of the badness of it will ultimately be drained and it will be worked to our good and God’s glory.

Are you going through a bad time right now?

Take heart. God uses even the bad things to work out His plan.

“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”

Including a man named Philip. V.5

“Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city.”

Wow. This is cool.

Notice that it isn’t an apostle who is bringing the gospel and whom God is using. It’s just a guy named Philip. One of the Seven, sure, but not one of the Twelve (that’s a different Philip...).

He’s gospelizing....where?

Samaria.

Home of the Samaritans.  The despised. The half-breeds. The beloved of God.

God is obviously at work through Philip. The town is hopping. Satan is on the run.

Verse 9

“Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.’ They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.”

Do you get the picture?

There is this guy named Simon (not Simon Peter) who is a magician in this Samaritan city. And he’s convinced the people that he is someone great. They have even called him, “The Great Power.”

How would you like that title?

Here comes “The Great Power.”

That’s a hard one to live up to!

I don’t how much demonically-sourced power he really had or if he was just a deceiver.

Either way, he thought he was something and so did the people until Philip came along.

And Philip has real power but he doesn’t preach Philipism!

He preaches Jesus and the good news of the kingdom of God.

V.13

“Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.”

Now, we don’t know if that “believing” in verse 13 is saving faith or just professing faith, but Simon jumps in line, too. And he goes through the motions. Even gets baptized.

Now, we’re all interested in Simon because he was “The Great Power.”

But the apostles are interested because these are Samaritans.

The gospel is moving outward from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria.

Or is it? V.14

“When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.”

We’ve got check this out. This is a new development. And something strange has happened. V.15

“When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”

Now, I have a bunch of unanswered questions on this text.

In the first place, how did they know that the Spirit had not come upon any of them?

And in the second place, why not? 

This is very unusual. Not the way it happens everywhere else or in our lives today.

When you and I believe in Jesus, we get the Holy Spirit. One step.

But here, there was demonstrably, no Spirit yet, even though they had Son.

And then, with Peter and John placing their hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit.

How did they know?

Some people think that they spoke in tongues. Maybe. It doesn’t say.

I can’t answer the question of how, but I think I have an idea of why.

I think it’s to demonstrate that this is the genuine spread of the genuine gospel of Jesus Christ.

It’s the real deal. Peter and John have witnessed it.

God held back the Spirit in Samaria and then gave Him to the Samaritans in the witnessing of Peter and John, the two apostles who were closest to Jesus.

And, more than that, John was one who wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans.

Remember that from Luke 9?

Well, now, he’s calling down the Spirit on them.

And, somehow, it’s obvious. The Spirit comes in power. And that is interesting to Simon the Magician. V.18

“When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Cool!  What does that cost?

“Peter answered: ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.’”

Lesson #2.

2. THE SPIRIT IS NOT FOR SALE.

We actually have a word for it in English. The word “simony” means to try to buy religious authority.

Like becoming a bishop because you pay for it.

But the Spirit is not for sale.

He comes a free gift to believers in Jesus. Not as magic incantation that you must buy the secret for.  V.20

“May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!”

The Spirit is the gift God. And He’s not for sale.

Of course, we try to bribe God in lots of different ways than money.

“I’ll be good, God, I promise. Just give me that.”
“I’ll give my time, Lord, if you’ll bless me.”
“How about we work a little deal?”

But that won’t work.

Don’t try it.

The Spirit is the gift of God.

Again, I don’t know if Simon was a true believer or not. He seems to have some repentance in him. V.24

“Then Simon answered, ‘Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.’”

Maybe he’s just afraid of the consequences, with a worldly sorrow, I don’t know.

Either way, the message is delivered. You can’t buy the Spirit.

And the gospel has truly come to Samaria!  V.25

“When they had testified and proclaimed the word of the Lord, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.”

But again, it is not just Peter and John who gospelize.

It is a regular old guy like Philip. And like you and me.

In verse 26, the story shifts. It’s still Philip, and he’s still preaching the gospel.

I love this story. V.26

“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Go south to the road–the desert road–that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet.”

This is a great story.

It’s told in contrast to good old “Simon the Great Power.”

This guy has some real power in politics.

He is the Treasurer of Ethiopia. Which in this time was actually a kingdom where central Sudan is now.

Probably a black man and a very powerful one in government though because he was a eunuch, he was unable to enter into the temple.

But he obviously believes in the God of the Jews. Perhaps he is a covert to Judaism.

He’s been to Jerusalem to worship and he’s on his way back.

And he has a divine appointment with Philip.

This government official is reading the book of Isaiah. Apparently, he is rich enough to his own personal copy.

And he’s reading, apparently, out loud.  V.29

“The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’ Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.”

You can see what’s going to happen, can’t you?  V.32

“The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: ‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.’”

Where is that from?

That’s Isaiah 53. It’s describing the suffering servant of the LORD.

How many here have memorized some portion of Isaiah 53?

I know that our older Kids for Christ classes have been memorizing Isaiah 53 this year. I hear it repeated again and again and again in our home.

“We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity (the sin) of us all.”

Him?

Who is the him in Isaiah 53?

That’s the question the Candice’s cabinet member asks Philip. V.34

“The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’ Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.”

Lesson #3 from Philip:

3. JESUS IS THE SUFFERING SERVANT.

Jesus is the “him” in Isaiah 53.

“Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

That’s Jesus.

That’s Jesus 800 years before Jesus was born!

Jesus is the suffering servant who rose again.

And the eunuch believed!

And more than that, he obeyed the command to be baptized. V.36

“As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?’ And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.”

#4. BAPTISM TELLS THE WORLD THAT YOU BELIEVE THE GOSPEL.

Then eunuch believed, and he understood that he should signal his faith by go forward with water baptism.

Philip was happy to oblige.

There was some kind of body of water, and they stopped the chariot. Whoa!

And they went down into the water, and Philip baptized this man. V.39

“When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.”

Why?

Because he believed the gospel.

He believed that the Lord had laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all.

And that made all of the difference.

Have you put your faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior, as the Suffering Servant who was numbered with the transgressors for you?

Have you been baptized to tell the world that you believe the gospel?

I think that many people think that baptism is either something we do to children–which there are no explicit child baptisms in the Bible or something that mature Christians do when they get spiritual enough.

But water baptism is for ordinary Christians to do soon after they believe–at least if they are adults.

Like this guy. He believes. He says, “Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”

And hearing no reason why not, he is.

Have you been baptized?

What are you waiting for?

Tell the world that you believe the gospel.

By getting dunked...and with your mouth. That’s what Philip did.

He was active in sharing his faith wherever he ended up. V.40

“Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.”

That was one busy gospel guy.

A great model for you and me.

He kept going and going like the Energizer Bunny of the gospel.

Let’s end with that question we’ve been asking ourselves the last few weeks.

What’s stopping you?

Nothing stopped Philip. He was always ready to share about Jesus.

He knew that God uses even the bad things to work out His plan.
He knew that the Spirit was not for sale but freely given.
He knew and was bold to tell others that Jesus is the suffering servant.
And he knew that water baptism was outward sign that you inwardly believe the gospel.

And he never stopped sharing it with those who need to hear.

What is stopping you and me?

Let’s be like Philip.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Book Review: What Do You Think of Me? Why Do I Care? by Ed Welch


Ed Welch never talks at you. He talks to you.

I knew before I picked it up that What Do You Think of Me? Why Do I Care?: Answers to the Big Questions of Life would be a good read. Welch has already been proven a reliable guide on the topic of fear. His book Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest, an instant classic, continues to speak to me every time I open it. I give away copies left and right.

This book is aimed at younger people–ages fifteen to twenty-five. Not being in that bracket, it’s hard for me to judge how it comes across. But as I read it, I immediately thought of someone in that age range that I am sure it would help.

Welch’s style is truly conversational. Even though he is communicating a message about idolatrous worship, misplaced love, and our perverted fear of others, I never felt condemned or shamed or alone with a finger pointed in my face. Welch offers genuine hope for escaping the trap of needing the approval of others. He covers familiar ground from previous books but with a fresh and quotably succinct approach.

There is much wisdom here. Welch has a happy grasp on the gospel and has an ability to show the surprising implications of the gospel on our sinful messy lives.

Downsides? Just a few. First, the title doesn’t do a thing for me. I’m sure that it’s hard to top a title like When People Are Big and God Is Small, but this one doesn’t even come close. I’m not in the target range–maybe it speaks to younger people. On the other hand, the cover image is terrific! It has the ubiquitous digital camera aimed at the picture-taker! That says a thousand words.

Secondly, I don’t care for the formatting of the pages. There are a number of blank spaces with no explanation stuck in strange places throughout the chapters. Eventually, I decided that they were spaces for writing in, as each one is preceded by a question. Maybe it’s a kind of a workbook? It would help this reader if there were more visual clues as to why those big spaces are there. That’s a small thing but disruptive to the reader (and again, maybe younger people will like that–I’m a fuddy-duddy sometimes).

I could probably come up with other quibbles, but they would be just that–quibbles. This is good stuff, and I highly recommend it.

Thanks to New Growth Press for the complimentary review copy. It’s always good read a book that gets one into conversation with Ed Welch.

A trailer about the book which really gets at the subject matter:


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sunday, November 06, 2011

[Matt's Messages] "Stephen"

“Stephen”
From Jerusalem to Pennsylvania: The Book of Acts
November 6, 2011
Acts 6:1-8:1


This is the sixth message in our study of the book of Acts. Our series is called “From Jerusalem to Pennsylvania,” and together we’re watching the gospel take root and then spread from the center of Judaism to the ends of the earth.

So far, we’ve just been in Jerusalem. The gospel has taken root–there are over 5,000 Christians and the number is still going up. There has been some opposition, but the church has continued to grow in the face of the opposition.

Last week, we looked at some snapshots of the early church which included an angelic jailbreak.

The apostles had been preaching and the been arrested and then put in jail and then were broken out by an angel and then were preaching again and then were arrested again and then were...flogged.

And then they were preaching yet again. The Bible says “they never stopped teaching and preaching the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”
                   
And we ended with this question, “What is stopping you?”

What is stopping you and me from sharing the good news about Jesus?
Well, today’s passage is going to get even more serious.

Because we’re going to read about a man who was stopped.

And the only way to stop him was to stone him.

His name was “Stephen.”

[pull out rock]

Here’s a good sized rock. Fits nicely in the hand.

Not so heavy that it couldn’t be thrown.
Not so light or smooth that it wouldn’t do any damage.

Can you imagine throwing one of these at person?

Can you imagine having a hundred or so of them thrown at you?

We would all cringe if I just threw this one at that piano over there.

What if it was thrown at a human being?

What if it was thrown at an innocent human being?

This is how Stephen died.

Now, normally, I like to have a bunch of points that I give you when I preach. You know, point #1 this and point #2 that up on the big screen.

Well, I couldn’t figure out what “points” to make this week.  So you can take notes if you want to, or you can just follow along in your Bible as we read this story together and think about what it means for us today.

In Acts chapter 6, we get introduced to this man named Stephen.

He is called upon to help solve a problem. Verse 1.

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.”

The church is growing and that means more problems.  More people, more problems.

And this was an ethnic problem. The Jews who were Greek speaking, probably had lived outside of Jerusalem were not getting the same distribution of food for the Greek speaking widows. The early church was committed to caring for widows and the poor in general. We saw that last week.

But some were getting missed.  Is that a problem?

Is that an important problem. You bet it is.

They brought that problem to the Twelve. The apostles. V.2

“So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’”

Now, the apostles see that this is an important problem. People are a priority! But they have another priority that cannot be neglected either.

So, they come up with a solution that gets approved the congregation (sounds like good-ole-congregationalism, doesn’t it?).

The solution is a division of labor and a new ministry team we could call “The Seven.”

Not just any seven. These need to be godly men, known to be mature Christians full of the Spirit of God, controlled by Him and exhibiting His fruit and wise.

So, the nominating committee gets to work and puts forward seven names.

And what is the first one?  A man named “Stephen.”  V.5

“This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip [we’ll learn more about him in chapter 8], Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

The plan worked. The seven made sure that it worked and the apostles kept up their priority of prayer and preaching. And the word of God spread.

Even a large number of priests were believing the gospel.

Everything seemed good.

Doesn’t it seem good?

Like the whole thing is inevitable now.

Jerusalem is being overrun with Christians.

Next stop, the world!

Put them in prison, and angels break them out.

Nothing can stop us now!

Yes and no.

The progress of the gospel is unstoppable.

But there are a lot of twists and turns in the story to get to the end.

Sometimes the van breaks down 10 hours from the gospel concert.

Is God still good then?
Is God still sovereign then?
Is God still in charge?
Can God still be trusted?

What if they kill us?

Verse 8.

“Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”

Just in case there might be a mistake, understand this, Stephen is a good guy. He was one of the Seven. He was (chapter 6, verse 5, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”) here verse 8, “full of God’s grace and power” and used by God to do miracles.

This is a good guy if there ever was one. V.9

“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. These  men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.”

So, Stephen didn’t just wait on tables either. He spoke up about Jesus and He did it with wisdom and power.

Stephen tussled with these Grecian Jews who were not Christians. And they were frustrated that they couldn’t win the argument.

So, if you aren’t wining the argument, what do you do?

Change the rules. Cheat a bit.  V.11

“Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.’ So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.’ All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

Now, given what we’ve read so far in Acts, what do you think will happen?

The track record in Acts is that Stephen will be like Peter and explain the gospel and people will get saved, and Stephen will be released!

These are false charges, right?

Do you think that Stephen spoke against the temple and the law?

Well, we’ll see about that in a minute.  The basic answer is, “No.” Though he’s going to adjust their categories a bit in just a second.

But there is not going to be a jailbreak this time.

This story is more like the story that we read at the end of the Gospel of Luke.  (Of course, there was an ultimate jailbreak at the end of that story, too! Sometimes, we have to wait for the ultimate jailbreak!)

But it doesn’t come in Acts 7 or 8.

What does it mean that Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel?

I’m not sure. Does that mean that it was shining?

That’s possible.

I tend to think that it means that it was pure and worshipful.

But I don’t know.

I do know that whatever it looked like, it meant that Stephen was demonstrably innocent of the charges.

Do you get what the charges are?

They talk about the temple and the law that Stephene was blaspheming against Moses and against God.

But we all know what the real issue was.  V.14

“For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

The issue is always Jesus.

The problem is always Jesus.

Chapter 7 verse 1.

“Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are these charges true?’”

What do you have to say for yourself?

The high priest gives Stephen the floor.

Do you think he knew what was going to happen?

I think he knew what could happen.

Stephen takes this opportunity as an open door to share the good news about Jesus and to defend what he has said.

I’m always amazed that they let him talk so long.

Chapter 7 is the longest sermon in the book of Acts.

But I think Stephen was interesting to listen to and it wasn’t until he really started applying his message that it became intolerable to his listeners.

But the whole thing is about Jesus.

Jesus is always the issue.

But Stephen starts way back at the beginning of the story.  He goes all the way back to Genesis.  V.2

“To this he replied: ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. [Remember this from when we went through Genesis together?] 'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.' ‘So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child.”

[Stop for second. Has he said anything wrong yet? Anything that could get him into  trouble with this crowd? Not yet. But notice that he didn’t start with the law or Moses or even inside of the land. The God of glory appeared where? In Mesopotamia? Is that okay? Can He do that? What about the land? V.6]

“God spoke to him in this way: 'Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,' God said, 'and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.' [Well, that’s okay then. Just as long as you aren’t talking against this place.] Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs. ‘Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt; so he made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.”

Notice again that God is blessing OUTSIDE of the land and BEFORE the Law.

“‘Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our fathers could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers on their first visit. On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph's family. After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died. Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money. As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased.”

Turn the page. It’s time for Exodus. I don’t think that Stephen was stalling. I think he was building towards something.  V.18

“Then another king [Pharaoh], who knew nothing about Joseph, became ruler of Egypt.  He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die. At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father's house. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh's daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.”

[Does it sound like Stephen is blaspheming against Moses?  No. He respects and honors Moses. V.23] 

“‘When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.”

Stop there for a second.

Interesting. Stephen understood what Moses was thinking even though Exodus doesn’t tell us that.

Isn’t it a lot like Jesus?  His “own people” should have recognized that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.  “He came to that which was his own but his own received him not.”  V.26

“The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, 'Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?' ‘But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, 'Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?'  When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons. After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to look more closely, he heard the Lord's voice: 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.' Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look. ‘Then the Lord said to him, 'Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground.’”

Holy Ground?

Is that in Israel? Was Sinai in Canaan?

No. You don’t have to be in the holy land to be on holy ground.

Wherever God is is Holy Ground. V.34

“I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.' ‘This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, 'Who made you ruler and judge?' He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 

He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert. [Now we’re in Numbers!]  ‘This is that Moses who told the Israelites, 'God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.' [That’s Jesus. It’s always about Jesus.] He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us. ‘But our fathers refused to obey him.

Catch this.  Stephen is not speaking against the Law.

He is saying that the Jews have been disobeying the Law over and over again for years and years.

“[Moses] received living words to pass on to us. ‘But our fathers refused to obey him.  nstead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, 'Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt–we don't know what has happened to him!' [Hope he doesn’t come back!] That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands had made. [That’s speaking against the Law!]

“But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the heavenly bodies. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets: ‘'Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of Molech and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile' beyond Babylon.” [That’s from the book of Amos. And it’s the rest of the sad story of the Old Testament.]

The “people of God” have a history of rejecting the word of God!

And what about this temple that’s so important?

Well, yes, it is a good gift from God, but He doesn’t literally live there!  V.44

“‘Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. Having received the tabernacle, our fathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God's favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built the house for him.

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. [Not literally. It’s just a big old symbol!] 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 where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?'”

Stephen is not anti-temple, but he knows that the temple in Jerusalem is just a symbol of much greater things.

He knows that God cannot be imprisoned in a building.
He knows that God won’t stay in a little box.
He knows that God has been on the move since the beginning.  The story starts in Iraq not Palestine! And it continues outside of the borders in places like Egypt and Babylon.

And Stephen knows that the people he’s preaching to don’t get that. Won’t get that. Refuse to get that.

And they refuse to receive what the temple stands for.

The people he’s talking to won’t see that the temple was a symbol of the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Lord Jesus.

Yes, he said that the temple would be destroyed but that he would build it up again in three days.

And we know now that he was talking about His body.

Stephen got that, I think.

But he knew that they were no longer listening.

So, he came to his points of application. V.51

“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One [the Lord Jesus!]. And now you have betrayed and murdered him–you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.’”

Stephen was boldly saying that it wasn’t him that was rejecting the Law.

It was them.

They were really the ones on trial, and they were guilty.

Not the best way to win friends and influence people.

But it was the truth and it was what they needed to hear.

And it brought glory to Jesus. V.54

“When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”

Wow.

It was too much for this crowd. They don’t even finish the trial.

They take the law into their own hands a mob. V.57

“At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”

“Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. [We’re going to hear a lot more about this young man.] While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.”  He died. “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”

Notice, how like our Lord, Stephen was in his last moments.

He forgave those who were killing him with rocks.
He asked the Lord to receive his spirit.
He died to bring glory to God.

Stephen lived for Jesus, and he died for Jesus.

I love that picture of Jesus in verse 56.

Did you notice that?

Normally, we’re told that the present position of our Lord is that He is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on High.

But what is Jesus doing in verse 56?

What does He allow Stephen to see?

Jesus is standing at the right hand of God.

Now, I don’t know all of what that means.

I heard it once described as a standing ovation.

I like that. I think that must be part of it.

The Lord Jesus stands to approve and receive the soul of this one who was faithful unto death for Him.

“What is stopping you?”

Nothing stopped Stephen short of rock in the mouth.

What is stopping you?

What is stopping me from speaking out about our Lord?

You know the truth is that we’re all going to die.

I actually have put it on my electronic to-do list.

Not with a particular date, but I read it every day. “You are going to die.”

I keep my to-do list in my email inbox, it probably looks like a death threat sent to myself.

But I need reminder. I am going to die.

Maybe I won’t get hit with a pile of jagged rocks, but I will die.

The question is what will I die for?

What will I live for?

What is stopping me from living and being willing to die for Jesus?

It’s always about Jesus.

We don’t have time to waste.

We need to tell others about Jesus.

Sometimes, we’ll do it and the opposition will melt away.

And other times, there will be no jailbreak.

We’ll just die trying.

And Jesus will still be worth it all.

Jesus will be standing, waiting to receive those who live and die for His glory.


Messages So Far In this Series:

No Other Name
Snapshots of the Early Church

Saturday, November 05, 2011