Wednesday 29 May 2013

Persecution (Acts 8:1-8)

The beginning of worldwide missions

Acts 8 is the beginning of worldwide missions in the bible. Jesus promised this would happen when he said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) He promised that the message of the gospel would not be restricted to just one people in one place but that it would go out into the world - “to the ends of the earth.”

In the coming weeks we are thinking about what that promise means for us.

Was Jesus giving this command to a special group of people - to missionaries - to go to another country, to preach in a different language?

Is missions something we do in addition to our mission as a church - as sort of an optional extra - in addition to reaching people here in our city?

Does it make sense to send people overseas? Isn’t it easier to send books, to send money or to put the gospel on the Internet?

What kind of special training does a missionary need? How to raise money? How eat spicy food?

We will be thinking through these questions - on what missions means for us - as we go through the book of Acts in the coming weeks. But today as we look at just the first few verses of Acts Chapter 8, which record for us the beginning of worldwide missions, what I want us to see is God’s sovereignty over missions. Missions is God’s idea. Missions is the unfolding of God’s plan.

Because what is so clear from these verses in Acts 8 is: No one would have done it this way. The church is being destroyed. Christians are being persecuted. And God uses this as a springboard for missions - to send Christians out into the world as missionaries.

Three points from today’s passage: (1) The surprising context of missions, (2) The surprising audience in missions, (3) A sovereign God over missions.

A surprising context; a surprising audience and finally, a sovereign God.

1. The surprising context of missions

The first thing we see is a surprising context: Persecution. That’s the context that sends these Christians out into the world as missionaries.

And Saul was there, giving approval to his 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.
Acts 8:1-3

The church was at this point, several thousand strong. The last headcount we had was in Acts Chapter 4, where it says there in verse 4, “the number of men grew to about five thousand.” Notice, that was just the number of men. It is a conservative way of saying, these are the number of household heads - the number of men - who had committed themselves to Jesus; meaning the church was, at the very least, much larger than five thousand at this point.

But here we read in verse 3 that Saul began to destroy the church, going from house to house, to drag “both men and women” into prison. And what this tells us is that this was personal. Saul didn’t target just leaders. He didn’t go just for the men. Every individual believer - male and female - was a target.

This says something about how he set out to destroy the church. Saul didn’t write a nasty letter to the newspapers nor did he set fire to a church building (because, of course, there wasn’t one). No, when the bible talks about the church, it isn’t referring to a building or an organisation but a people. The church is the gathering of believers. Saul attacked the church - Saul tried to destroy the church - by attacking Christians personally. He went into their houses. He put them into prison. And for the moment at least, it looked like he was succeeding in destroying the church.

The church was scattered. No one could meet in Jerusalem, it was too dangerous, and everyone had to leave their homes. It became illegal to have bible study even in your own living room.

What would you do? Find another church? There wasn’t one. Remember, at this point, the one and only church was in Jerusalem. Perhaps you could start another one: Your pastor could to plant a new church in Milton Keynes where it’s safe. But all the apostles are still in Jerusalem. In a weird turn of events, everyone else is forced to leave town but the apostles remain in Jerusalem. Everyone else has to pack their things, leave their homes, look for new jobs in a new place with zero Christian friends.

But what they also do is preach the gospel.

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
Acts 8:4

In other words, they become missionaries. These Christians who weren’t trained as pastors, who weren’t sent by a mission organisation like COCM. They were just ordinary believers. They preached the word wherever they went.

Here is the surprising context of missions: It’s persecution, yes, but moreover it is faithfulness in preaching the gospel in season and out of season. They had been scattered - dispersed - from their homes, and that must have been painful and difficult. It must have felt discouraging. The Greek word diaspeiro where we get the English word dispersed makes me think of the Chinese Church, actually. We are the diaspora Chinese, spread across the globe. That’s why you can walk down Regent Street and have tim sum, Sichuan hot pot, Cantonese roast duck and bubble tea, because having been dispersed we have brought with us these elements of who we are with us to our new homes - our food, our culture, our language.

And really, the bible is saying to us, have we brought the gospel with us? “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” We don’t always move home because of the best of circumstances. Some of us lose our jobs and some of us are forced to live in a neighbourhood where there isn’t a decent takeaway for miles and miles, arrrgh(!) But these guys who had just had their lives threatened because of their faith in Jesus, who didn’t have another fantastic church like the Chinese Church to go to - these guys who had lost everything - still had something amazing to share with their neighbours. The gospel.

These are the first missionaries. It’s a surprising context that creates the opportunity for them to be missionaries - the persecution of Christians, the destruction of the church. That is, they didn’t have a conference. Peter didn’t get up to speak and then pray for a special call whereby those who felt a burden would come forward to commit themselves to mission. No, they were kicked out of their homes. Many, if not, most didn’t want to leave their homes.

Yet wherever they went - wherever God sent them to make their new home - they spoke the gospel. Some of us read, “they preached the word,” in verse 4 and think of a preacher on Sundays who stands up front with a microphone. No, all these guys did was tell people about Jesus. That’s what it means. The word can be translated “evangelise,” or even, “gospelled.” They were gospelling the gospel. Everywhere they went, they weren’t shy about telling people the good news about Jesus. They were gospelling the gospel.

This wasn’t an accident. It was intentional and deliberate - yet at the same time, it was natural. Telling people the gospel isn’t just for missionaries. It is a mark of any Christian who knows the gospel. Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses.”

What was surprising was the context: They were under pressure. I’m sure many of them were discouraged. Yet in the midst of this, they continued to tell people about Jesus. So far in Acts, we’ve seen the apostles do this. Last week, we saw Stephen do this at the cost of his life. But here, we see all Christians involved in gospelling the gospel.

2. The surprising audience of missions

Next, we see a surprising audience. Picking up from verse 5, Philip preaches to the Samaritans, who were the half-Jews, who were the BBC’s of their day - just mixed up, in terms of their identity and religion.

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 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.
Acts 8:5-8

Next week, we see that this was such a controversial thing - for the Samaritans to become Christians - that the apostles Peter and John had to make a trip from Jerusalem to see it for themselves.

Historically, the Samaria was part of Israel that was once taken over by a foreign superpower, Assyria, who brought in outsiders to intermarry with the Jewish locals. The Samaritans started worshipping idols and foreign gods, but then someone came in to teach them the bible all over again, but the result was a mixture of Jewish religion plus idolatrous practices.

Now the Jews and the Samaritans did not get along. You remember the parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan? To the Jews, the only Good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. Samaritans were seen as racially inferior and religiously unclean.

And Philip decides he would go and tell the Samaritans the gospel. Notice how it is phrased in verse 5: “He proclaimed the Christ,” which in your footnotes, also says, “the Messiah.” The Samaritans only believed the first five books of the Old Testament bible written by Moses. What this tells us is that Philip was speaking about Jesus in categories they would have understood, building on the specific promise given by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 that God would send another prophet like him to restore his people. If you are familiar with John’s gospel, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman by the well, you might remember how she says, “I know Messiah (called Christ) is coming,” (John 4:25) to which Jesus replies, “I who speak to you am he.”

In other words, Philip would have used the bible to point to Jesus, building on their expectations and knowledge from the writings of Moses. At the same time, Philip would have had to clarify any confusions and misconceptions they had about whom Moses was talking about (in the same way a Christian today might have to clarify to a Muslim that Moses wasn’t referring to Prophet Mohammed in that same verse).

It would have taken time. We read that Philip did miraculous signs - casting spirits out of many, healing the sick - and the result in verse 6 was that his hearers “paid close attention to what he said.” The signs alone were enough. Next week, we’ll see that trusting in the signs alone can lead us away from the truth. No, the signs point us back to the truth, to pay attention to the truth, and to consider the evidence of the truth.

As a result, verse 8 tells us there was great joy in that city. These Samaritans heard and received the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s like saying: The FaLun Gong followers heard and received the gospel, or that the Mormons heard and received the gospel, or that the Jehovah’s witnesses heard and received the gospel. I wonder if we only ever engage with people of different religions in order to have debates, to do apologetics or to win theological arguments. Mission is about helping people know Jesus and respond to Jesus. Stephen preached in Samaria and the result was great joy.

3. A sovereign God over missions

Finally, we see a sovereign God over missions. The key is to see how Acts 8:1 is a reflection of Acts 1:8.

Jesus promised his disciples in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” and it is no coincidence that here in Acts 8:1 the church is scattered “throughout Judea and Samaria”.

From Saul’s perspective, he thinks he is destroying the church. From Jerusalem’s perspective, the church is finished. From the perspective of non-Christian sympathizers - the godly men who bury Stephen in verse 2 - they mourn over what has happened to the church.

But most striking of all, from a biblical perspective, the Christians appear to be under the judgement of God: The word “scattered” (in verse 1 and again in 4) evokes biblical imagery of the judgement of God that falls on the people of Babel, it evokes the memory of the dispersion of Israel from the Promised Land. Scattering was a sign of God’s judgement - Adam and Eve from the garden, the people of God in exile. Scattering is almost the biblical definition of death: to be kicked out from the presence of God, separated from the source of life and blessing.

And yet, under God’s sovereign control, this dispersion - this scattering - becomes the means of blessing and salvation. Verse 4, “Those who had been scattered preached the word.” The worst Saul can do is imprison men and women but Stephen preaches the gospel in Samaria where many are freed from spiritual imprisonment - verse 7, “evil spirits came out of many.” Even the mourning of godly men over Stephen’s death is contrasted in verse 8 with “great joy in that city.”

This reversal - from judgement to salvation; from mourning to gladness - is a picture of what God is doing through missions. It is a reminder that God is ultimately sovereign over missions. And that ought to fill us with confidence: That God is in control every step of the way. That ought to spur us towards missions: That God is saving men and women through the gospel preached to the nations.

But one last thing: That ought to soberly remind us the shape of missions. Missions is shaped not ultimately by the context nor the audience - as important as it is to keep our focus to reaching the lost - because ultimately, missions is shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that what we see in this reversal? That God uses the very sinfulness of man to bring about his purposes. That Jesus, through his death and resurrection on the cross, receives all authority in heaven and earth to send out disciples to make disciples, to send out churches to multiply churches.

The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
2 Corinthians 4:7-11

What we proclaim and display through missions is nothing less than the cross. “We carry around in our body the death of Jesus.” That means proclaiming his suffering and joining him in his suffering. It means the shape of missions is that of sacrifice, of self-denial. It means taking up our cross to follow Jesus - dying to ourselves... but notice why. "So that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body."

In God’s mercy and wisdom, this abundant, eternal, fullness of life is displayed most gloriously through the self-denial, self-sacrificial, cross-bearing proclamation of the gospel. That was Jesus’ mission when he went to the cross - sent to die, sent to those who would reject him yet always trusting in his Father’s plan. That was the shape of his mission. It is the shape of ours.

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