Sunday 30 June 2013

Saul (Acts 9:1-31)

Three things I want us to see from today’s passage: (1) How Saul is chosen, (2) How the church is strengthened and (3) That Jesus is Lord. And what I want us to see is a connection between the three. Saul is chosen in order that the church is strengthened, in order to remind us that Jesus is Lord.

1. Saul is chosen

Firstly, Saul is chosen. He is introduced to us in verse 1 as “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples”. This is a guy who is really angry. Every breath that comes out of his nostrils, he is saying, “I hate those guys. I can’t stand those guys.” (Ever met someone like that? I hope not!) Saul was someone who obsessed with hatred; obsessed with revenge.

You see, back in the beginning of Chapter 8, Saul was responsible for “destroying the church”. That’s actually what it says in Chapter 8, verse 3, “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” As a result, people moved away from Jerusalem – it was too dangerous to stay here or to meet as the church – so they left the city and they moved out of Jerusalem. In a sense, Saul succeeded in “destroying” the church.

But it didn’t work. That’s why Saul is so angry here in Chapter 9. The Christians who were forced out of Jerusalem ended up telling other people about Jesus and as a result, more people got saved and more churches were planted.

So by the time we get to Chapter 9, Saul is angry. He is frustrated. And he decides that what he needs to do is go out and catch all these Christians and bring them back home to be punished. “He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus,” – that’s way up north from Jerusalem, about 200km – “so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” So, that’s the plan. Go up north to Damascus. Find the Christians who are hiding in the city and in the synagogues, that is, amongst the other Jews in the city. Bring them back. Why? Because Saul doesn’t want these Christians “infecting” the other Jews. He doesn’t want more people believing in this guy called Jesus because as far as Saul is concerned, he’s a fake: Jesus didn’t die for our sins. And to say that he did, well, that’s blasphemy! That’s why Saul hated Christians so much. Christianity was a perversion of Saul’s Jewish religion. It was a cult that turned good, religious Jews away from the true God of the bible to worship a man on the cross!

We need to understand that from Saul’s perspective, Saul thought he was doing a God a favour by destroying the church; by killing Christians, which by the way, he did in the case of Stephen’s death back in Acts 7. And it was because Saul was so convinced that Jesus could not be – he could not possibly be – the Messiah. Jesus could not possibly be God.

Until, that is, Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus.

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.
Acts 9:3-5

The last person Saul expected to meet on that road that day was Jesus. He fell to the ground and said, “Who are you, Lord?” The response he heard was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” How those words would have shocked him – “What? Jesus? Alive?” How those words would have wounded him. “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” I am the one you are trying to kill.

Verse 7 tells us the men travelling with Paul didn’t see anything. This vision was just for Paul. And when he got up from the ground, in says in verse 9, “when he opened his eyes he could see nothing.” He was struck with blindness.

Imagine if the story ended here. A whole lot of people would be going, “Yes!” wouldn’t they? “That evil man finally got what was coming to him.” Saul is struck blind. He is helpless and he is humbled.
If the story ended here, why, it would make perfect sense. The bad guy gets punished. The Christians are safe all thanks to Jesus.

But Saul is not chosen in order to face judgement. He is chosen in order to be saved. And as we’ll see next, he is chosen to strengthen the church. That’s our second point.

2. The church is strengthened

In the second half of the story, we meet another guy, Ananias, who also talks to Jesus, who also receives a vision from Jesus. You see, there is a second half to the story and it’s actually our story as the church. Because what Jesus tells Ananias to do is welcome Saul into the church. What Jesus tells Ananias to do is welcome Saul into the family. Look at what Jesus says to him in verse 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.”
Acts 9:10-12

Essentially Ananias responds by saying, “Are you sure you want me to do this?” Ananias (very respectfully) reminds Jesus, his Lord, that Saul is not one of the good guys. If Ananias heals him, Saul is just going to cause more trouble for Ananias and the other Christians living in Damascus.

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.”
Acts 9:15-16

You need to think about this: Why does Jesus send Ananias to heal Saul? If Jesus was going to heal Saul anyways, why make him blind in the first place?

I want us to see that the second half of this story is there for our benefit. Jesus wants us to understand that despite all the evil that Saul has done in his life, Jesus has forgiven him. Despite all the harm Saul has done to other Christians, Jesus chosen him to be saved; to become a Christian.

Ananias got that. He goes to the house on Straight Street, just as Jesus told him to. He places his hands on Saul, just as Jesus told him to. But listen to what he calls him as Ananias places his hands on Saul. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus… has sent me so that you may see again.” Saul is no longer his enemy but his brother in Christ. Ananias understood the reason why Jesus sent him to Saul: to welcome Saul into God’s family.
Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit. He is enabled to see again – something like scales falls of his eyes – and he is baptised. Meaning, the point of Ananias’ visit again was not simply to heal him physically – that’s verse 20 where Saul eats some food and gets better physically, like when you are recovering from the flu. No, Ananias was there as part of God’s plan to heal Saul spiritually. The giving of the Spirit symbolising new life. The scales falling from his eyes symbolising the removal of his spiritual blindness. What was happening was: Saul became a Christian that day.

If you are here today and you are not a Christian, I want to say that this is what makes Christianity a supernatural faith, by which, I don’t mean that it’s magic. No, what I mean by supernatural is that only Jesus can make you a Christian. No amount of sincerity, no amount of church attendance, no amount of bible reading can turn you into a Christian. It might turn you into a religious man like Saul but it won’t turn you into a Christian.

No, being a Christian is something that Jesus does through his work on the cross. He forgives us of our rebellion. He takes our punishment for sin upon himself and exchanges it for his righteousness. And often times, your Christian friends will tell you how Jesus did this for us when we were still rebelling against him, when we still didn’t want anything to do with him. He came to us and he removed our spiritual blindness so that we could recognise him for who he really is: our Lord, our Saviour and our God.

3. Jesus is Lord

That brings us to our final point today: Jesus is Lord. The question is: How do we see the lordship of Jesus Christ? In your own personal, day-to-day life: How would the lordship of Jesus Christ be seen, if someone were to follow you around and record the events in your daily life?

Would it be seen in your successes? You got a first. You got that job. You’re getting married. Jesus is Lord. Would it be seen in blessing over your family, your health, your church?

Saul the persecutor has just become a Christian and I want us to see: How is this evident from his life now that he has become a Christian?

In verse 19, he immediately begins to tell people about Jesus. “At once,” it says, “he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” Now remember the plan. The original plan Saul had was to come to Damascus, round up all the Christians, bring them back to Jerusalem. Verse 21, “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?’”

But instead of arresting all the Christians, what does Saul do? He goes to the synagogues where all the Jews are gathered - and remember he has all these letters of approval from the chief priests in Jerusalem, so they are all welcoming him as their honoured guest and inviting him to speak to the whole gathering as their important guest speaker – and what does Saul say? “Jesus really is the Son of God!” Saul was supposed to get rid of the Christian heresy. Instead he is now telling Jews to follow Christ.

Is it any wonder then why they tried to kill him?

After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close 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.
Acts 9:23-25

It is possible to read this story as if Paul was some kind of hero, as if this was Die Hard, and Paul is Bruce Willis evading the terrorists out to assassinate him. “How cool and exciting his life was as an evangelist,” we think. Some of us, guys especially, think that it’s a manly thing to preach the gospel and in the process, try to offend as many people as possible, thinking that that’s what it means to be an evangelist.

The truth is, when Paul recounts this episode in 2 Corinthians 11, he refers to it as one of the most embarrassing and humbling events in his entire life. He says, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (and he goes on to tell about the time he was lowered in a basket in a wall). It’s not fun to have a load of people hate your guts and want to kill you, especially when they are supposed to be your brothers, especially when your intention is to tell them about Jesus. It’s actually quite painful and humbling to be hated that much. But then you remember, don’t you, the words Jesus said to Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name”? Saul the persecutor has become the persecuted and this is part and parcel of his mission to as an apostle of Jesus Christ.

The same thing happens in Jerusalem. In verse 26, he goes to Jerusalem. Everyone’s afraid of him, thinking it’s some kind of trick. But Barnabas sticks his neck out and brings Saul to meet with the apostles. He puts his reputation on the line and says to them, “Saul is the real thing. Jesus appeared to him. Jesus saved him. He is a follower of Christ and we should not treat him like our enemy but welcome him in as our brother.”

We will look at Barnabas again in a few weeks, in Acts 11, but for now, I wonder how many of us are willing to be a Barnabas or an Ananias here in the Chinese Church? When you welcome someone new here in the Chinese Church, you have that opportunity – and  it’s a real opportunity – either to welcome that person or to ignore them completely. By all means, introduce yourself but why not invite to hang out with you and your friends after church today? All of us remember coming for the first time to church, how awkward it can be, how scary, maybe, it can be, and some of us remember how good it was when we met a Barnabas or an Ananias, who called us, “Bro,” or “Sis,” and welcomed us and made us feel part of the family.

That was Paul’s situation with the Christians in Jerusalem. With the Jews, however, the same thing happened as in Damascus: They tried to kill him. Verse 29, “He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him.” Notice, it wasn’t a personality thing. It was because Paul was proving from their own Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. That’s what it says in verse 22, “He baffled them,” meaning it was right in front of their eyes in the bible; they couldn’t deny it. Same here in verse 29, where he talked and debated with them. The reason they wanted to kill him was to shut him up. They didn’t want someone like Paul walking around using the bible as evidence for Jesus as God. As a result, verse 30, the Christians shipped Paul off to Tarsus, his hometown, far away from the death threats.

Now, look with me to the way the whole account ends in verse 31.  We have been focusing on Paul, but the story actually ends with the church. There is a connection there between the two. And here is the summary statement:

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 the fear of the Lord.
Acts 9:31

Literally, it reads, “Therefore, indeed, the church… enjoyed peace… it was strengthened (or built up).” That is a huge conclusion to an episode that began with persecution in Chapter 8, with the death of Stephen, the destruction of the church in Jerusalem, the scattering of the Christians away from their homes, away from their church. This is a conclusion that says: Here is the turning point to all that suffering that resulted in peace.

What was that turning point? Saul of Tarsus becoming a Christian. Friends, when you think of persecution amongst Christians in the world today, what do you pray for? For justice to be done? For protection of the weak? For God to hear the cries of the innocent and come down and do something to show the nations who he is?

Friends, God does all that here in Acts 9 – he rights the wrongs, he protects the innocent – but don’t you see? He did all that through Saul of Tarsus, through his conversion and through his commission. He did it not simply to show that he is God, that he is powerful and just. He did it to show us that Jesus is, indeed, Lord.
Look back to what Saul said when he met Jesus on that road to Damascus.

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.

It’s an amazing response: Who are you, Lord? Saul doesn’t know who he is talking to. And yet, he calls him, Lord. Friends, it isn’t enough for you to know God as God. You need to know Jesus as Lord. Look at what Jesus says to Saul in verse 5.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Jesus reveals himself to Saul as the Lord of the persecuted church, or to be exact, the one whom Saul has been persecuting. What we see in Acts 9, is the lordship of Jesus Christ. To Saul, Jesus reveals his lordship over Saul’s life by calling him to suffer. That’s unexpected because it isn’t in order to punish Saul for his past sins. No, it is part of his commission to Saul to witness to the cross. Saul will speak boldly on Jesus’ behalf but as a result many of his hearers will reject his message and in the process, they will reject the messenger.

We see the lordship of Jesus in the suffering of the church. So closely does Jesus identify with the suffering church that he is able to say to Saul, “You are persecuting me.”

But finally we see the lordship of Jesus in the spread of the gospel. In verse 31, it is not simply the church in Jerusalem that is blessed, but the whole church which has now grown to include Samaria and Galilee. There is absolutely nothing that will stop Jesus in his mission to bring the message of salvation to the nations. Such is the lordship of Christ that he is able to use both our obedience and our disobedience, both situations of blessing as well as persecution, to bring about his sovereign purposes. 

Thursday 27 June 2013

Scripture (Acts 8:26-40) - MP3 Recording

Preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 23 June 2013.

Download MP3 View transcript

Saturday 22 June 2013

Scripture (Acts 8:26-40)

Have you ever looked at a part of the bible and go, “Hmm, I wonder what that means?” “I wish someone would explain this to me.”

In today’s passage, we meet a man reading his bible and asking that very question - “What does this mean?” The amazing thing is: God sends a Christian across a long distance in order to meet him at that precise moment so that he can answer the man’s question.

In verse 26, God says to Philip, “Go south to the desert road,” and on that road he meets the Ethiopian eunuch. God says to Philip again, “Go to that chariot,” and Philip hears the Ethiopian eunuch reading his bible, and says, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” Verse 35: Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

Isn’t it amazing that God sends Philip all this way to answer a question from the bible and to tell him the good news about Jesus? (Notice that right after the encounter, Philip is whisked away to another location, reinforcing the fact that Philip was only meant to be there long enough to speak to that man.)

Well, that makes me think: What about our questions? Should we expect God to do same for us today?

Three points I want us to see in today’s passage:

1. The movement of the Spirit
2. The curiosity of a Seeker
3. The purpose of Scripture

1. The movement of the Spirit

The first thing we see is the movement of the Holy Spirit. By the way, that is something we have seen running right through the book of Acts - the Holy Spirit moving to bring the message of the gospel out to the nations, in fulfilment of what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit at the beginning of Acts, in Chapter 1 verse 8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

So we’ve seen Peter filled with the Spirit, preaching to the crowds of thousands, standing up to opposition of the religious council. But here we see something new: The Holy Spirit speaks to Philip giving him clear instructions, “Go to the desert road,” the angel of the Lord says to Philip in verse 26, “The desert road - that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” That’s pretty specific. “Go down Hills Road from the city to Addenbrooke’s.” (“Well, traffic’s bad at this time of day, shall I go though Cherry Hinton instead?” “Nope! Go down Hills Road.”)

Again in verse 29, the Spirit says to Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

These are specific, clear directions given to Philip by the Spirit of God. But notice as well that in each instance, Philip immediately obeys.

Verse 27: “So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch...”
(The ESV is much more straightforward: “And he rose and went.”)

Verse 30: “Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet.”

Philip hears God’s voice and obeys. That tells us a lot about how God was leading him. God didn’t give him a supernatural Google Map: “Here’s the lay of the land. Samaria, here. Eunuch, over there. After that, Caesarea, down south. That’s the plan.” Nope, God gave him the spiritual equivalent of a TomTom. “Go here. Turn left. Keeping moving.” And each time God spoke to Philip, Philip obeyed God’s instructions.

Back in Chapter 6, Philip is described as a man full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. And the way we see that is through his obedience. It doesn’t mean that he spouts wise-sounding words while stroking a long white beard, “The Spirit is strong in you, my young Padawan.” The way that we can see Philip clearly being led by the Spirit is through his obedience.

God speaks to Philip directly and clearly - and from what we see from Acts 8 - quite regularly through the Holy Spirit. And it’s not to give him running commentaries on the events of the world; it is to lead him step-by-step along the path of obedience. (For example, it is obvious from the passage that Philip didn’t know he would meet the eunuch when he went down the road. God said, “Go,” and Philip upped and went.) Here is a man full of wisdom; full of the Holy Spirit. Here is a man full of obedience.

Now, this immediately raises the question: How do we know when the Holy Spirit speaking to us? Isn’t there a danger that Christians will read this text and expect the Holy Spirit to tell them everything they need to do: Whether to have cereal or muesli for breakfast? Do I take the bus to work or cycle to work today? Isn’t there a danger of spiritualising our decisions and not taking responsibility for them. How much should we expect the Holy Spirit to be guiding us in our day-to-day decision-making?

There are two answers to that question. The first is to recognise how the Holy Spirit is sent by Jesus to speak on his behalf. The Holy Spirit is sent to remind us of all that Jesus said when he was on earth.

All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
John 14:25-26

How does the Holy Spirit do that in Acts Chapter 8? From the beginning of the chapter, we see a clear movement of the Spirit - beginning in Jerusalem with the church being scattered; into Judea and Samaria where Christians begin to share the gospel with their neighbours; and now on the road to the Gentiles in Caesarea, where Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch along the way. The movement of the Spirit is the fulfilment of Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem... in all Judea and Samaria... to the ends of the world.”

So, the first way to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit is to recognise the words of Jesus. The Spirit reminds us of what Jesus said and puts them into action, that is, he calls us to obedience to Jesus’ words.

The second way - not unrelated to the first - but the second way we recognise the Spirit’s prompting is through our relationship with God. That is, we recognise the voice of our heavenly Father.

Don’t you get phone calls from friends whom you instantly recognise without having to ask who is on the line? From the way they say, “Hellloooooo brother!” or sometimes they don’t even bother to say hello and get straight to the point, “Why aren’t you home yet!” (That one might be from your mum!)

God speaks to us out of his relationship with us through Jesus Christ. He isn’t giving us information to memorise which he will test us on later. He is speaking to us as our heavenly Father, guiding us each step of the way to live holy lives for him and like him. He is involving us in his plan and calling us to trust that he loves us and knows what is best for us.

So, we recognise the Spirit’s voice in two ways: by recognising that it is Jesus speaking to us through the Spirit; and by recognising God leading us to trust in him out a relationship of love and obedience.

2. The curiosity of the Seeker

The next thing we see is the curiosity of the Seeker. And the reason why I call this Ethiopian eunuch a seeker is because he is seeking God by coming all this way to Jerusalem but also because he is seeking God through his word; by reading the bible.

In verse 27, we meet an Ethiopian eunuch who is “an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship.”

So, on the one hand, this guy was important, wealthy and influential. He is Finance Minister. He works for the Queen. He has his own carriage (It’s like having your own Bentley).

Yet at the same time, this man was an outcast. He was the Ethiopian eunuch. Ethiopian - meaning, he was a foreigner; not one of the people of God. Eunuch - meaning, he was physically unacceptable before God. He would have been barred from entering the temple (or at least, from going beyond the outer sections of the temple), the place of worship of God.

Knowing all this, he still came to Jerusalem, it says in verse 28, to worship. He wasn’t a tourist. He came all this way to the temple to worship Yahweh as his God.

On the way back, he reads from the book of Isaiah. It is amazing that he has his own copy of Isaiah - this would have been very rare and very expensive. Imagine the bible today costing a thousand pounds - you wouldn’t have copies lying around on every chair the way we do here in church. This book of Isaiah that the Ethiopian eunuch owned would have been a long scroll hand-written by an expert scribe. He didn’t buy it to put on display in a museum. He was reading it from cover to cover (we know this because the section quoted later in verse 33 is near the end of Isaiah). This man wanted to know God and he was willing to spend his time, his attention and his wealth to seek him.

The question is: Why? Why would he be interested in such a God? We get a clue from verse 34.

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
Acts 8:34

Something he has just read from Isaiah makes him go, “I want to know who this is talking about. I need to know who this person is.” Why? Because the Ethiopian eunuch comes to a section of the bible which talks about a man who is rejected. He comes to a section which talks about a man who is helpless before his enemies and deprived of justice; a man who has no descendants, something the Ethiopian eunuch would have identified with.

But friends, I wonder, he read this passage of Scripture and understood that it God was responsible for this man’s condition. Look at what it says in verse 32:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before his 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.”
Acts 8:32-33

The eunuch read this in the bible and something inside him went, “I need to know who this is talking about. I need to know why such a person is in the bible. Why would God allow such pain and suffering in this man’s life?”

And notice how Philip answers his question in verse 35.

Then beginning with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:35

Philip told him about Jesus’ rejection at the cross; how he was humiliated - stripped of his dignity; how he faced injustice at the hands of his enemies. And how he remained silent - like a lamb before the shearer. Jesus was submitting himself to his Father’s plan by going to the cross and taking upon himself the punishment that we deserved. The same passage from Isaiah 53 has these words, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each one of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)

Friends, this is what makes Christianity so offensive. Christians believe that in order for us to be accepted, Jesus had to be condemned. That’s a statement that offends any good Muslim, who, though they do not believe that Jesus was God but was instead a prophet of God, nonetheless could never believe that God would subject his servant to such humiliation and suffering. Such a statement call into question God’s justice and holiness - How could he condemn an innocent man for the sake of the guilty?

But that is precisely what the bible says happened on the cross, “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” And we believe that is actually good news. The day that Jesus died is Good Friday. Because his rejection meant our acceptance. His condemnation resulted in our salvation.

And what this says to people who have come to seek God - people like eunuch who have come all the way to Jerusalem to seek and worship God in temple - is, that God sought them while they were still in rebellion against him. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” the bible says (Romans 5:8)

And what spoke so powerfully to the eunuch that made him so curious about Jesus was not his wealth. It was not his status while Jesus was in heaven. It was not his influence before the Father as the Beloved Son. No, it was his submission to the Father’s plan. It was his humility on the cross. It was his rejection before his very own. That was what attracted this seeker to Jesus. Not his wealth but his poverty. Not his status but his submission.

You see, the eunuch was a man who recognised his own poverty before God. He knew he was unacceptable and yet he still approached God, he still came all this way to worship the true God of the bible. And essentially, what Philip told him in the good news about Jesus was the fact that through the cross, the eunuch was accepted, he was whole and he was loved.

If you are here today and you are not yet a Christian, I want to say to you that what happened to the eunuch pretty much needs to happen to you, if you are to be accepted by God. You need to recognise your own unworthiness, your own poverty. And you need to see Jesus in his. Those two things need to happen - recognising your own sin and seeing how Jesus took upon himself your sin. Because when that happens, you see how Jesus exchanges your sin for his righteousness; how Jesus takes your rejection and gives you his stamp of approval. The bible says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

The Ethiopian eunuch saw that, with the help of Philip, of course, but he saw that for himself and gave his life to follow Jesus, as evident from his baptism. He was so eager to be baptised, that he says to Philip in verse 36, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptised.” All the barriers stopping him from knowing God were instantly removed. It wasn’t like in the temple in Jerusalem where he would have been turned away from approaching God. Now, nothing could stand in his way of being in God’s kingdom as a full citizen. He knew that Jesus died for his sins and understood that he stood before God fully loved and fully acceptable before him.

3. The purpose of Scripture

Finally, we see the purpose of Scripture. We see the reason why it is so important that Christians read this book and understand the bible for themselves. The reason is this: The bible is God’s word to us. God speaks to us through the words of Scripture.

The Ethiopian eunuch reads a passage from Isaiah 53 and asks Philip to explain that passage to him. Notice how “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture” and told him about Jesus. He didn’t change the topic. Philip didn’t go, “Maybe we should begin with something simpler, like the gospel of Mark instead” (also because it hadn’t been written yet!) No, that very passage of Old Testament Scripture written over 700 years ago was God’s word pointing to Jesus and his work on the cross.

Isaiah was written 700 years before Christ and yet it is God’s way of telling us who Jesus is and what he came to do. That principle applies to whole Old Testament. Remember how Jesus appeared to the two travellers on the road to Emmaus after he was raised from the dead (recorded for us in Luke Chapter 24)? Jesus says something very important there in verse 25.

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Luke 24:25-27

“Moses and all the Prophets” is a neat way of summarising the whole Old Testament. Jesus essentially did a bible overview to show how “all the prophets” (verse 24) and “all the Scriptures” (verse 27) were pointing to him as the Messiah, specifically how the Messiah or king would have to suffer first before entering into his glory (a way of talking about the cross and the resurrection).

That means that we should be confident about our Old Testament. Don’t be afraid of teaching the Old Testament to Sunday School kids, for example. 2 Timothy 3:15, which is a verse about the Old Testament says, “And how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Paul is talking to Timothy who was taught the Old Testament since he was a kid (from infancy) which had the effect of making him wise for salvation through faith in Christ. Don’t be afraid of the Old Testament, especially if you’re a Sunday School teacher, teaching it to kids!

We should be confident of our Old Testament, but also, we should be careful, especially when applying the bible to our lives today. When the Ethiopian eunuch turns to Philip and asks, “Who is this talking about?” Philip did not reply, “Why of course, the bible is speaking into your situation, identifying with your struggles - but in the end, God will accept you just as you are.” He didn’t say that. I wonder if sometimes we are tempted to apply the bible directly to our own experiences in order to make a connection. No, Philip understood that Scripture is God’s word to us first and foremost about his Son, Jesus. He knew that the cross is a lens by which we are to look at the Old Testament, focussing on the work of Jesus in his death and resurrection, and only through him, do the blessings and applications come to us today.

So, back to the Sunday School teacher, don’t be too quick to apply the battle between David and Goliath to our battles today. Don’t be too eager to connect Daniel’s situation in the lion’s den with our situation in the workplace. But look at the text through the lens of the cross and ask how do the prophets prepare us to recognise Jesus and his faithfulness, his struggles, his victories, his suffering and his glory?

And maybe when you are planning your Sunday School lesson to begin not by saying, “Hmm, I wonder what stories I can use from the bible to entertain the children this weekend?” but by honestly asking yourself, “Do these kids know Jesus?” And to then be encouraged by the fact that God wants us to know him and he does so through his Word. In a sense, when you teach the bible, you are letting the bible speak for itself. Your job is to point in the direction the bible is pointing: Look here to Jesus!

By the way, we began with the Spirit speaking to Philip. Now if God can speak so clearly and directly to a man like Philip, why, do you think, doesn’t he just speak to the Ethiopian eunuch himself? Why send Philip all this way to meet him in the middle of nowhere on the desert road to do a bible study?

The answer is: God was speaking to the eunuch. He did so by his Spirit, though the Scriptures but also - and get this - but also through Philip. Friends, if you are a bible study leader and you faithfully point to Jesus in your leading, do you realise that God is using you to speak his word? If you are a Sunday School teacher, God is using you to speak to the kids his word about Jesus!

I think that should make us extra confident and extra careful when he open our mouths to tell people about Jesus. It should make us prayerful. It should make us humble. It should make us take this book seriously because it is God’s book with God’s words spoken through God’s Spirit pointing us to God’s Son.

Epilogue: God’s mission

We have seen three things. The movement of the Spirit which is the movement of the gospel going out to the nations. We have seen the curiosity of the Seeker, or the sincerity of the Seeker, in the eunuch who seeks after God to worship him at his temple and to know him through his word; but really it is God who first sought him, by sending Philip to tell him the gospel; by sending Jesus to die for his sins on the cross. Thirdly, we have seen the purpose of Scripture, to prepare us to recognise Jesus as the Christ.

But I wanted to end by drawing your attention to the last couple of verses in the chapter because they remind us that all this is happening in the context of mission. Look with me to verse 39. It is a rather strange way to end the account. If you remember, the eunuch is so eager to get baptised, he stops the chariot at a pool of water. Philip baptises him right there and then. Now look at what happens next!

When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared in Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
Acts 8:39-40

This has kinda happened before. Chapter 8 begins with Philip preaching to the Samaritans and the whole town become Christians! But when that happens, the Spirit tells Philip, “Go south to the road - the desert road.” God tells Philip to leave. And here, we see it happening again! The Ethiopian eunuch becomes a Christian and he is barely out the water when God sends him off to the next town!

God does mission in such a way that only God would ever think of doing it this way. You see, if we were Philip and we’d just planted a church in Samaria, the natural thing would have been to stay. To try grow the church and send out more missionaries from Samaria. But no, God says to him, “Move on!”

And with the Ethiopian eunuch, do you realise that Philip has just evangelised one of the most influential people on the planet? Imagine David Cameron turned up here at the Chinese Church and became a Christian right after this message! Wouldn’t it be tempting to say to Mr Cameron, “Now, let’s talk about what it means for you to glorify Jesus as a Christian Prime Minister.” Or even to think strategically about planting churches, or in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, I don’t know, stopping the persecution in Jerusalem?

But you see, God’s mission is carried out in such a way that God’s way is often times, not our way. He doesn’t need to use influential people. He doesn’t need resources and connections. All the God uses in God’s mission are three ingredients: His Word, His Spirit, His people to bring all glory to his Son.

What happens at the end of Acts Chapter 8 is the same thing that happens throughout the whole book of Acts. God sends his Spirit to empower his people so that they will boldly preach his Word. Why? Because when that happens, all glory goes to Jesus. When that happens, God’s mission looks like God’s mission.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Greatness (Acts 8:9-25)

Who you would consider as someone great? Someone you look up to or someone whom you aspire to be like?

If I asked that question ten, twenty years ago, I would get answers like: the Prime Minister or Martin Luther King or Einstein. “I want to change the world.” Today, most would say, “I want to be famous.” Or, “I want to be rich and successful.”

Greatness today has to do with popularity. How many people follow you on Twitter. Greatness today is about winning the X-Factor or being the next Apprentice. We’ve stopped trying to change the world. Instead, we want to known all over the world.

I think, because our perception of what greatness means has changed, so has our perception of God changed. We think of God’s greatness the way we want to be great. God is lovable, God is always helping me out - Isn’t God great? (in the same way we use “awesome” to mean cool). Moreover, we think that the way we display God’s greatness is by being great: By being a great church, by being famous on the Internet, by getting lots of people to come to church.

Today’s passage is about greatness. It’s about a guy who thinks he is great; who thinks he is hot stuff. We see that he is an entertainer, who knows how to draw a crowd. And here in Acts, Simon, who starts out a magician, becomes a Christian, gets baptised and aspires to become a church leader. The scary thing is: We see a lot of Simons in churches today. Many of us want a guy like Simon leading upfront. The tragic thing in Acts is, he is exposed as a fake. In verse 21, Peter says to him, “You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right with God.” Peter questions whether Simon is even a Christian.

Again, the scary thing is: Simon’s the kind of guy we look out for: Someone who has the stuff. We’re looking for someone to impress us.

We’ll see three points in today’s passage that have to do with greatness: We’ll see (1) The attraction of greatness, (2) The deception of greatness and finally (3) The reflection of greatness. Attraction, deception and reflection.

1. The attraction of greatness

The first thing we see is attraction of greatness. We are naturally drawn towards greatness.

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 rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women. Simon himself believed and he was baptised. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
Acts 8:9-13

Something changed when Philip arrived at Samaria. Suddenly Simon was no longer the centre of attraction. Suddenly, everyone was giving their attention to Philip - to the gospel he was preaching. Look back to verse 6.

When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said.
Acts 8:6

The same guy preaching the same message but two different responses. They saw the signs and this caused them to ask, “What do these signs mean?” They paid close attention to what he said. Simon, on the other hand, was still focussed on the packaging. Verse 13, “He followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.” The signs were packaging for what the signs pointed to - the message. The signs were meant to draw your attention to what the signs were pointing to - the gospel. But Simon loved the miracles more than the message. He was caught up with the packaging.

Philip preached the same message. He did the same miracles. But there were two different results. It ought to remind us of Jesus and his ministry. Lots of people were following Jesus because of the signs he did. Lots of people were fans of the signs he did. But again and again, Jesus was differentiating the fans from the followers and he did this through his words. “He who has an ear, let him hear.” Are you listening to what I’m saying - really listening? Or are you in love with an image, an idea of what impresses you about me?

It happened to Jesus. It happened to Philip. Notice verse 12: “Philip... proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” Here was a guy who was faithful. He stuck to the message of the gospel. And praise God for that, people became Christians through his preaching. Even so, some were drawn to him impressiveness instead of his faithfulness.

If you are someone who gets up in front often here in church, you need to be aware of that. As a song leader, as a speaker, even if you’re simply reading the passage this week, people will notice the clothes you wear, your accent, your confidence. And if you’re not careful, you may end up being more of a hindrance than a help. How can you avoid drawing attention to yourself rather than God? You do that by drawing attention - yes, to God’s goodness and God’s greatness and God’s presence instead of your own; or you might try to do that by drawing attention away from yourself, by telling self-deprecating jokes (this rarely works, by the way), or getting more people involved in leading the service by taking turns to pray and introduce the songs.

But let me suggest to you the way you do that most effectively is by drawing attention again and again back to God’s word. The Samaritans saw the signs but they paid attention to what Philip said - about the kingdom of God, about the name of Jesus. The way to ensure that our worship and attention is rightly focussed on God, and not ourselves or any one person, is by coming back again and again to God’s word. This is what God says. This is who God is.

Song leaders: More important than what you wear or what the powerpoint looks like is what you say when you talk about God. Musicians: More important than what the music sounds like is what the lyrics tell us about God. You are drawing attention to who God is, to what God has done.

Now some people sitting in the pews will still be like Simon. Some will get stuck at the packaging. But for those who hear the message and respond to the message of the gospel, you would have helped them to know Jesus - who is great, who does deserve our attention, our love and our worship.

2. The deception of greatness

The second thing we see is the deception of greatness. Greatness blinds us to our sin. The great deception is thinking the solution to our sin is success. Or, as in Simon’s case, we mistakenly think the solution to our sin is ministry.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostle’s 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.”

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 in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
Acts 8:18-23

That’s kind of harsh, isn’t it? When Peter says, “May your money perish with you.” The problem we usually have with money is greed but notice that’s not his problem. Peter isn’t saying to Simon, “You’ve not been generous in your giving.”

No, Peter is accusing Simon of buying his way into ministry. What is he saying? “You think its a career path.” The truth is, many today go into Christian ministry expecting to climb a career ladder. I know some of you hear that and think, “That’s crazy! Being a pastor or a church worker is donkey’s job. Low pay. No career prospects.”

But we have just seen that Christian ministry is attractive. You become the centre of attention. You exercise influence over over Christians. Simon sees that - he sees the apostles Peter and John laying their hands on believers and the Holy Spirit comes upon them - and he says to them in verse 19, “Give me also this ability.” I want this power. I want this position and I’m willing to pay for it.

Peter’s response? To hell with you and your money (I’m paraphrasing verse 20, but it’s not far from what Peter means). That’s harsh. Peter questions whether Simon is a genuine Christian, whether he is going to hell. Verse 23, “I see that your heart if full of bitterness and captive to sin.” Now the problem is not that Simon is being overly ambitious. The problem is that Simon is blind to his own sin. The problem is that Simon is filled with jealousy and bitterness of sin.

Now maybe Peter has special X-ray eyes that allows him to see into Simon’s soul to be able to tell this spiritual condition of Simon’s heart. But aren’t there obvious clues the passage wants us to be able to see for ourselves? His past career perhaps as a magician, when he was known as the Great Power of God (verse 10), enjoying the praise of all his friends? Or the way he hero-worships Philip and follows him around like a crazed Justin Bieber fan?

Yet I think the biggest clue lies in the way Simon tries to bribe the apostles. He is willing to pay good money. He knows you don’t get something for nothing - not in the business world, you don’t, nor in the political world - and Simon is willing to exchange his wealth for this new form of power. In essence, Simon is willing to pay for this new position within the church.

And friends, I want you to see that what Peter did in response to that was loving and truthful. He rebuked Simon. He warned Simon of God’s judgement over his sinful heart. “Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.” Would you dare say that to a successful businessman who says he wants to be a worship leader? Would you rebuke an ambitious Cambridge graduate who wants to be a pastor? You should if that brother is blind to his own sin because of his success. You should if that brother is deceived into thinking he doesn’t need to deal with his sin as long as he is serving in the church.

Ministry is not a stepping stone to worldly success. And yet some people will only consider going into ministry if God gives them that guarantee of a successful ministry - being senior pastor in five years, getting the chance to speak at a national conference, being a published author - otherwise, they wouldn’t give it a second thought. The saddest thing is, some of these aspiring ambitious multi-talented ministers may not be Christians believers. Some, like Simon, chase after success in the church in order to hide sin in their hearts. The fundamental question we need to ask a pastoral candidate, a potential missionary, a new Sunday School teacher, is not: Have you had a special calling from God into ministry? No, the fundamental question is this: Are you done with sin? Have you turned away from your sin?

3. The reflection of greatness

Finally, we see the reflection of greatness. And we see this in our humility. God’s greatness is truly reflected in our submission to his will.

So far, we have been looking at story of Simon. But Acts interweaves this account of Simon into a second story about the apostles. Two of the apostles, Peter and John, go to Samaria to investigate something so surprising and so unexpected, they had to see it with their own eyes: The Samaritans had become Christians! This was big news because the Samaritans were not Jewish (well, they were half-Jewish, but that made it worse as they were seen by the Jews as impure and unclean).

The Samaritans and the Jews never got along. They were neighbours (Samaria was to the north, Judea was to the south) who avoided each other, who told their kids not to mix with one another. And so for the longest time, none of the Jewish Christians ever thought of sharing the gospel with their Samaritan neighbours. But now, thanks to Philip, these Samaritans heard the gospel and became Christians. And quite frankly, I’m not sure whether the apostles were shocked or surprised or suspicious, but whatever it was, they felt they needed to check things out for themselves.

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Acts 8:14-17

Why did Peter and John have to pray for the Holy Spirit to come on these Samaritan? Why didn’t the Holy Spirit come on these Samaritan Christians before the apostles arrived in town - like when they first believed?

Over the centuries, Christians and bible experts have proposed several solutions to this problem. Some suggest that the Samaritans weren’t real Christians - after all look at Simon who was also said to have believed and been baptised but turned out to have serious sin issues. But Acts goes to great lengths to tell us that Philip told them the gospel. He proclaimed the Christ (verse 5), he explained the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ (verse 12) - Acts goes out of its way to say that these Samaritans responded and trusted in the real message of the gospel - “They accepted the word of God” (verse 14).

Others say that this passage teaches the need for second blessing. It is proof that even genuine Christians need to pray for the Holy Spirit to give them the gift of tongues as a guarantee that they are the real thing. Some churches go so far as to suggest that unless you have this sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence, you’re not a real Christian. But this goes against what Peter promises about the Holy Spirit in his first sermon in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptised, every one of us, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Everyone who trusts in Jesus receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter says. In fact, the only way you can repent and trust in Jesus is if the Holy Spirit enables you to repent and trust in Jesus. You don’t believe first and get the Holy Spirit; no, the Holy Spirit comes first to cause new birth and to enable you to believe in Jesus.

Still others suggest that what this passage demonstrates the apostolic authority of Peter and John, over against the authority of Philip who wasn’t an apostle. Hence, the Holy Spirit is given only at the laying on of the apostles’ hands because only they have the authority to establish the church, and so it is suggested that Philip didn’t have the right authority to baptise these new converts. Now, I do agree that in some sense, there is an authenticating factor here about the apostles special role in the mission of the church. However, in the very next chapter we see the Holy Spirit coming on Saul when he is baptised but Ananias who is not an apostle, or when Philip baptises the Ethiopian eunuch, are we saying that he wasn’t a real believer?

These common thread running through these suggestions is that they try to see the problem from the believer’s perspective: What’s wrong with the Samaritans? Why didn’t they receive the Spirit? When in reality the focus is on the apostles. You see, the apostles hear of this news. The apostles send Peter and John. The apostles lay their hands on these believers. The account is being told from the apostles’ perspective because Acts is telling us: God is dealing with a problem that the apostles had with this situation. The giving of the Holy Spirit was a solution given by God to solve a problem to do with the Samaritans, but which the apostles struggled with in regard to God’s mission to the Samaritans.

The problem was this: How could God save the Samaritans? For thousands of years, the Jews had been the people of God. But now with the coming of Jesus Christ, in a strange turn of events, the church was being kicked out of Jerusalem, the city of God, and a new church was being planted amongst foreigners; people who weren’t Jews.

Right from the beginning of the book, Jesus said, “And you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And I’m sure those words would have been ringing in the apostles’ ears, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem... but also in Samaria.” It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was still a surprise to the apostles, who up till Chapter 8, had concentrated all their witness in Jerusalem.

And here the Holy Spirit is held back from the Samaritan believers - why? For the benefit of the apostles, Peter and John, so that they can see that what has happened in Samaria was God’s doing. Jesus was working through his Spirit to bring the gospel to the nations

How did the apostles respond to this? Imagine you are Peter or John and your own church in Jerusalem is destroyed. It used to be a church of thousands and thousands of people but overnight, everyone gets driven out of town because of persecution. But then you hear news that Yao goes to Arbury and starts a new church. Not a Chinese Church, but a church filled with … dun dun dun!!!... English people! What would you do?

Would you be tempted to turn that into another Chinese Church? Would you go there and say to them, “These are our traditions and rules which you have to follow, otherwise, you’re not a real church?” Would you question God for allowing that church to prosper and yours to shrink?

Here is the amazing thing about the apostles, because notice in verse 25, what did they do? Two things: They preached the gospel and they they left. That is amazing!

After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.
Acts 8:25

Firstly, the preached the gospel. Their main job was to strengthen the church through the teaching of the bible. But they didn’t just do that in the one town of Samaria, they were “preaching the word in many Samaritan villages.” Now the interesting thing about that phrase is how it is the exact same expression we find in Acts 8:4, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” They were gossipping the gospel in other towns in Samaria. Or in our case, not just Chinese people, but especially to local villages.

But this expression also tells us that the apostles were doing what all the other Christians were doing all along. They were humble enough to recognise that even as apostles, they had something to learn from the other believers. Philip was preaching to the Samaritans before they did. Everyone else was reaching the Samaritans before they did. A proud leader would be tempted to stick to his own ways, to say, “I’m the boss. My employees should do what I tell them to do, not tell me how I should do my job.” No, these apostles recognised that what these Christians were doing was God’s mission to the nations and they were humble enough and godly enough to join them in that mission.

So, that’s the first thing they did. But the second thing they did was even more amazing. They returned to Jerusalem. That is, the apostles didn’t set up a committee to report back to Jerusalem, they just left. Why? Because, and this is very important to recognise, these Samaritan believers were the real thing. They were their brothers and sisters in Christ, full citizens of the kingdom of God. It would have been very tempting to make them sub-members. Remember, the Samaritans were half-Jews, they had a history of idolatry. It would have been very easy to turn the Samaritan church into a kind-of sub-church under the headship of Jerusalem. To justify that kind of actions by saying, “They aren’t mature enough, they need our guidance and supervision.” The apostles did not do any such thing.

What they did do was teach the bible. Again, verse 25, goes out of its way to emphasise this, “They further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus.” The one thing they did was strengthen the Samaritan church’s confidence in Jesus through their confidence in his word.

Here we see the reflection of true greatness. It isn’t seen through impressive acts of grandeur. It is seen through the submissive obedience to God’s word. That shouldn’t surprise us because we follow a Saviour who was himself a servant; who was himself humble and obedient under his Father’s will.

Christ Jesus, who being in the very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
Philippians 2:6

We reflect God’s greatness by reflecting the cross of Jesus Christ. That is God’s greatest act of salvation - his masterpiece - and what we see when we look at the cross is the humility, obedience and submission of Jesus Christ.

Who has felt the nails upon His hands?
Bearing all the guilt of sinful man
God eternal, humbled to the grave
Jesus, Saviour, risen now to reign

Behold our God seated on His throne
Come, let us adore Him
Behold our King—nothing can compare
Come, let us adore Him

(“Behold our God”, Sovereign Grace).

Saturday 1 June 2013

Surprisingly helpful: Why trusting in Jesus is worthwhile in times of practical need (Acts 6:1-6)

1. A surprising problem

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
Acts 6:1

The church was experiencing explosive growth. From 120 to 3000 in a single day at Pentecost (Acts 2:41), to 5000 at the last count (Acts 4:4) which was just the tally of “the number of men” - meaning, it was somewhere around seven to ten thousand strong, once you added up the women and children. This was the first megachurch.

So we read, “in these days when the disciples were increasing in number,” (Acts 6:1) a complaint arose. It is surprising because this complaint concerned a minority within the church. The Greek-speaking Christian widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

And yet it was a major problem, to the extent that the apostles would summon “full number of disciples” to discuss this issue. Why? For one thing, it was a potentially divisive problem: The Hellenists arose against the Hebrews. One racial group was making an accusation against another racial group. The Greek-speaking Jews were the second-generation believers in the church. They looked like their fellow Jews, but many read their bibles in Greek instead of the original Hebrew and some couldn’t even speak Hebrew (and those who did, conversed with a slight Roman accent). The accusation had overtones not simply of neglect but discrimination.

Furthermore, the word for “complaint” (Greek: gongusmos) is reminiscent of the grumbling of the Israelites in the desert during the time of the Exodus, directed against Moses and his leadership. This might explain why the apostles took action immediately. It was an accusation against their oversight.

But isn’t this a practical problem? For those of us who come from large churches: Isn’t this a familiar problem? Any church that grows so big in such a short span of time will experience this problem of neglect: Some will inevitably feel left out. As the membership grows and the responsibilities of the leadership multiplies, people will not get the same kind of attention from their leaders as they would have when the church was smaller in size.

And yet, here in the early church we find a response that is truly surprising from the apostles: They address this very practical problem with the attention it deserves. They gather in the whole church. Why? Because in these days when the church is growing and multiplying and experiencing tremendous blessing, they understand that it is all the more important that the needs of the few be met, not less.

As a church grows, its role in loving the individual - in loving each and every member - grows as well; it doesn’t diminish. That is a challenging thought for those of us who come from large churches. We ought to be more attentive, not less, towards the individual - especially those who are most likely to be neglected; especially those who are most vulnerable. Paul illustrated this principle in 1 Corinthians 12, when he wrote:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”, nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.
1 Corinthians 12:21-22

Who are the seemingly “weaker” members in your church? Who are the “widows” in your church? The bible tells us we ought to look at them as indispensable. As a church grows numerically, so also should our love towards each individual believer.

2. A surprising solution

And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Acts 6:2-6

The solution proposed by the apostles is surprising on several levels. Firstly, they gather the “full number of disciples” - everyone was called to this meeting of several thousand believers to address this one issue.

Secondly, the apostles ask the congregation for their help in choosing “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”. The task of identifying and appointing these stewards was entrusted to the congregation. Why? Well, the apostles didn’t know everyone in the church. Here was a church of thousands pastored by twelve apostles.

Thirdly, their proposal pleased “the whole gathering.” The expression could be translated “the all of everyone.” It is saying that every single member voted “Yes” in this resolution.

Some see this account as the appointment of the first deacons within the church. The word “diakonia” occurs three times in the passage, where we get the English word, “deacon”. In verse 1, it is used to describe the task of distributing food to the widows. In verse 2, it is again used to describe a food-related task, this time, to “serve” tables. But in verse 3, the apostles use the same word to describe their priorities in the “ministry” of the word.

Another way to understand this is to ask: What were these seven men being appointed to do as deacons? The first two occurrences of “diakonia” suggest that they were to be delivery boys or waiters. That is, theirs was a practical task to dealing with the day-to-day responsibilities within the church - feeding the widows, making sure there was enough food, keeping the costs within budget - that sort of thing. Hence, the bible outlines qualifications for the appointment of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, alongside the appointment of elders within the church. The two roles are meant to complement one another. Elders are tasked with leading the church, especially through the teaching of God’s word. In fact, what is striking in the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 is how similar the qualifications are between that of an elder and a deacon - with one exception: the ability to teach. Again, the distinctive role of the elder is their responsibility in leading the church through the ministry of the Word of God.

Having said that, the third occurrence of “diakonia” describes precisely that: the ministry (or “deaconing”) of the word. Acts 6 is a key text many turn to to highlight the main responsibilities of deacons within the church and yet the word never occurs in this passage to describe a person (diakonos = deacon/minister) but rather as a description of a task (diakonia = ministry). In other words, what Acts 6 gives us is a picture of what it means to serve; what it means to do ministry. Whether you are wiping tables, arranging chairs or preaching the Sunday sermon, that’s ministry. There is no less dignity or worth in doing either one of these tasks. Ministers are not defined by their role or title in the church but by their service to the church. The seven men they were appointing that day were servants, yes. Their job was not unlike that of the delivery guy who gets on the bike to deliver the black bean noodles you ordered from Hong Kong Fusion to your doorstep. But they are servants no less than the apostles themselves are servants through their ministry of the word.

Now in a moment, we will see that there ought to be a priority in the way we are to serve. In verse 2, the apostles say, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables”. But even there, the apostles are recognising their limitations. The apostles couldn’t do this themselves. They needed help. They needed more ministers to help them serve the church well. Through the congregation puts forward the list of names, it is the apostles who “appoint” these seven men to the task in verse 3, that is, the apostles are publicly entrusting their authority to these deacons. The seven deacons are as much a help to the church as they are to the apostles in the ministry/service they are entrusted with.

Notice how all seven men have Greek names, strongly implying that they are all Greek-speaking Jews. Bearing in mind how the Greek-speaking believers were the ones who lodged the complaint against the local Hebrews, it is remarkable how the whole congregation - made up of majority Hebrews and minority Hellenists - chose to elect these seven Greek-speaking Christians as their first council of deacons. That would have been like the Chinese Church electing members of the English Congregation exclusively to its next Council - only BBCs! Or the entire CICCU voting in a whole team of internationals to head up its Executive Committee! Can you imagine that every happening today?

To understand why they did this, we need to remember the nature of the problem. It wasn’t the food. The problem was rather that of neglect. The widows were being “neglected” in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1). What we see here is the church addressing the problem not simply by proposing a solution (ie. “Make sure we feed the widows. Let’s come up with a system to make sure all the widows get their food delivered on time.”) but by entrusting the problem to trustworthy men.

Hence, the selection criteria: “Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” (Acts 6:3) The most important qualification for these men was not their ability to cook the food, to deliver the food nor manage the distribution of the food, as useful and essential as these skills would have been to carry out their jobs. No, the key qualification they were looking for was faithfulness, trustworthiness and godliness (even though their job would have mainly involved handling the food). Similarly, when we choose members for our music team, the key qualification might not be musical skill (as important as that might be); when we choose our bible study leaders, the key qualification might not be their ability to read Greek and Hebrew. In any ministry, the key criteria are faithfulness, trustworthiness and godliness.

Why did they choose seven Greeks? They would be entrusted with distributing the food to both the Greek and Hebrew widows, of course, but I think it would have been especially encouraging the Greek widows who had been neglected in past, to know that they were being represented in the leadership. It is one thing for Singaporean students to frequent a local church and sit with their friends and mix the church family over coffee after service; but something happens when they see one of their Singaporean friends go up on stage to do the bible reading (in a thick Singaporean accent) or play in the music group or perhaps even deliver the sermon that morning. When they see that, something clicks and a voice at the back of their head says, “Maybe I don’t have to be a spectator in this local church. Maybe my Singaporean-ness doesn’t disqualify me from serving God and serving my fellow brothers and sisters in this local church.”

This was a surprising solution. There was 100% consensus. They did not choose the usual suspects. But most of all, it is a surprising because the church didn’t propose a fantastic programme, they proposed faithful people as the solution.

3. A surprising result

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Acts 6:7

Verse 7 does not say, “And all the widows were fed.” That is what we would have expected it to say: Problem solved!

Rather, the account ends with the church growing; with more people hearing the gospel and being saved. In addition to this, “a great many priests” became Christians. Up till now, the priests were the main opponents to the church. The chief priests and Sanhedrin were frequently jealous of the church and its growth. They kept arresting the apostles and threatening them for preaching about Jesus. Yet here, the very opponents of the gospel become its converts.

In other words, God blesses the church even more abundantly and unexpectedly because of the manner in which they handled this seemingly minor problem. Why? In part, it must have been the witness of their love and care for the widows. In part, it must have been the unity the church displayed in tackling this potentially divisive issue.

Yet notice how it isn’t simply that the church grows but that the gospel also grows with the church: “The word of God continued to increase.” I think God is blessing the church in a specific way in response to what the apostles said back in verse 2, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” The apostles saw that there was a priority in their responsibilities; a peculiarity in their service: They were to put the word of God first. In this sense, the election of the seven deacons was not simply to ensure that the ministry of food distribution would be carried out in the most effective manner, it was so that ministry of preaching and teaching the word of God could be carried out without hindrance. The apostles were rightly to focus their attention on the word of God.

And the surprising thing is: God blesses that move, almost as a sign of affirmation. The word of God increases and the number of “disciples” multiplies. Acts 6 is actually the first time it refers to Christians a disciples in the book. The word literally means “students”, again emphasising that focus on the word of God as the source of the Christian’s instruction and life. Here in Cambridge, we think of student ministry as something peculiar to this city. We have lots of in-depth studies from the bible, evangelistic talks from the bible and expository preaching from the bible - because Cambridge students need to be challenged in their minds with the bible. Well, Acts 6 tells us that all Christian ministry is essentially student ministry: Christians must be continually shaped by the word of God. The bible must always be at the centre of our identity and activity as the church.

As we have seen the nature of the problem was neglect: Neglect of the widows. Neglect of the helpless and the weak. It is wonderful how the entire church recognises the problem and addresses it head on in a practical and loving manner. But the apostles’ statement teaches us to be mindful of neglecting a greater responsibility: the ministry of the word of God.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that the following two chapters in Acts record the ministry of Stephen and Philip - the first two names listed in the team of servants - not distributing food as they were appointed to do, but rather, preaching the word of God to the Jews, the Samaritans and the first of the Gentiles. The truth is, we don’t know if Stephen and Philip ever got a chance to do the ministry they were appointed to because soon after, Stephen gets killed, widespread persecution breaks out against the church and all the believers are expelled from Jerusalem (including, presumably, the widows). Instead, what we see clearly from Acts 7 and 8 are these two young men taking up the call to preach the word of God boldly and faithfully, just like the apostles, even when it cost one of them his life.

Against the backdrop of a practical need, the bible highlights a greater priority: faithfulness to God’s word and focus on God’s mission. The temptation for us today is to neglect this priority in favour of our practical needs. We justify our neglect with our urgent needs. The reason is: We don’t believe God will come through for us. We think we will lose out if we don’t focus first on our needs.

And what this passage reminds us is: God is no one’s debtor. He blesses his church. He multiplies his word. More and more people come to know Jesus and more and more people become recipients of his salvation. Both the physical hunger of the widows as well as the spiritual hunger of his people are satisfied.