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Sunday, 25 October 2015

Acts part 13: Taking the gospel to the unlovely.

Building the right foundation part 13

Acts 8:4-8

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.

English Standard Version Anglicised
Last time we saw that the persecution of the church was escalating and that Stephen had become the first recorded martyr for Jesus. His death was a glorious one in which he looked only to Jesus and saw heaven open up for him to freely enter into. His death according to Psalm 116 was precious to God and so the Lord Jesus awaited His precious servant into His eternal presence.
Stephen of course was one of the seven righteous men chosen by the church to deal with the contention between the Hebrew and Greek widows. Both in life and in death Stephen displayed the true characteristics of a man of God. He was clearly a man who was full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom and so he proved the church to be correct in their calling of him to serve them through their difficulties.
Another man chosen by the church on that occasion was Philip who Luke now concentrates on. For Stephen the gospel was the cause of his martyrdom from which followed severe persecution resulting in the scattering of the church far and wide. Philip was included amongst those scattered; many went throughout the regions of Judea but Philip went to Samaria. This is a direct fulfilment of the promise of Jesus found in Acts 1:8 where He told His disciples that they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
The gospel is spreading out!
But who would ever have thought that it would be due to severe persecution that the promise of Jesus was to be fulfilled! The devil's intention was that through persecution the church would be stopped in its tracks, but in reality the scattered believers as good disciples could not be silenced.
They took the gospel everywhere thy went!
Philip is an example in this; as a refugee he had to start a new life in a very different place. We could forgive him if he had thrown his hands up in anger to God blaming Him for his plight but he did not. He saw his inconvenience as be an opportunity to proclaim Christ.
The gospel comes to Samaria:
As we have said before; the Samaritans were odious to the Jews because they had seriously strayed from the true worship of God. They had set up idolatrous worship in Dan and Bethel, the excuse being that Jerusalem was too far for them to go. In direct opposition to the temple at Jerusalem they had set up their own temple on Mount Gerazim. Remember when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well He said to her that the Samaritan's worshipped what they did not know on their mountain but the Jews worshipped the God of salvation from their holy mountain. Samaritan worship was heretical and therefore odious to the Jews. It is true to say that they both had a common belief in the Pentateuch that was really the only similarity in faith. (I suppose that in this it is a little bit like Islam today who believe in the first five books of the bible and also in some of the prophets.) For approximately 1000 years there had been an acrimonious separation of the Jews and the Samaritans therefore Philip preaching the gospel to the Samaritans was almost miraculous.
Many believers of the day would have kept away from evangelising the Samaritans but Philip simply could not do anything but speak of Christ.

Are we so taken up with Christ that whatever the circumstance we find ourselves in we cannot but speak of Him? Last time we saw that Stephen could do no other than speak of Christ even though it meant certain death! Now we find Philip in the land of the outcast, where contention between the two faiths is part of their normal life. Samaria was a place where their near neighbour Judah was hated and that was reciprocated by Judeans.
The one thing that they were totally united in was their hatred of each other.
Philip was in the land of the unlovely but yet He so loved Jesus and was concerned for the spiritual state of the people that he was amongst that he simply had to tell of the hope that he had in Christ Jesus. Do we love Jesus and are we concerned for all that we are in contact with that they might come to know salvation? We may not have been sent to Samaria but we are here in our daily routine as was Philip on that day. Have you told of Jesus to those whom you rub shoulders with?

Signs and wonders accompanied Philips proclamation. They heard his gospel and saw the signs that he did which caused them to pay close attention to what he said. It is amazing how this theme is recurring so far throughout Acts:
The signs draw attention and the word takes effect!
At Philip's command paralysed and lame people were healed and devilish spirits were noisily cast out which in turn brought great joy to the city. This new gospel outreach to the Samaritans was authenticated by powerful signs by the Holy Spirit of God.
Note that it was not the signs that affected the people but that it was the preached word. Luke simply says that the result of which brought joy into the city. God was at work in the hearts of unlovely people and a difference was visibly seen in the city. During the revivals in Wales the effect was seen clearly in the community. There are many anecdotal accounts of children wearing shoes, happy wives, pit ponies fed and treated well all due to men having heard and responding to the gospel call. This in turn was the cause of much rejoicing in mining villages all over Wales.
Signs and wonders do not proliferate today as they did in the days of the early church:
Joy fills my soul for Jesus has saved me, freed me from sin that long had enslaved me, lifted me up from sorrow and shame now that I belong to Jesus.” When that is true of you and me then we naturally want others to know that they too can have true joy in their hearts if they will only come to Jesus in full repentance and trust in His saving blood. The only way that they will ever know is if they are told, how can they hear without a preacher and who will that preacher be if it is not you and me?

The gospel was spreading beyond the borders of Judea and had now entered the land of the heretical outcast and guess what they were being saved! We also need the gospel to extend beyond our boundary and out into the street and to go from there throughout Callington and into the surrounding district and then guess where: into Devon and further afield. Who is responsible for taking it?

You and me.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Acts part 12: They saw the face of an angel.

Building the right foundation part 12

Acts 6:8-8:3 “They saw the face of an angel.”

Stephen Is Seized

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Stephen's Speech

And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And Stephen said:
Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot's length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them for four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favour and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph's family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God's sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father's house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh's daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarrelling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ But the man who was wronging his neighbour thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’
This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’
Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favour in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,
“‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

The Stoning of Stephen

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul approved of his execution.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

English Standard Version Anglicised
Last time we considered Stephen a man full of grace and the Holy Spirit having been one of seven chosen by the church to deal with unfairness in the church. The verse prior to our passage today tells us that God continued to bless the preached word and that many including some of the priests were converted. It is therefore no surprise that opposition flared up against the church. Stephen was clearly a key figure; Luke tells his readers once again that he was a man full of grace and power and consequently was performing mighty works among the people.
The church just keeps on being successful no matter what the devil might throw at it.
Internal conflict had failed and there was no time to rest: Enter the synagogue of the Freedmen who were probably an order of freed slaves. They joined forces with a number of other groups and disputed with Stephen.
It seems that it was Stephen against a whole crowd but they could not stand up to him because he was not only wise in the scripture but he was also filled with the Holy Spirit.
The old saying “one with God is a majority” is clearly seen to be true here.
What an encouragement that is to each one of us as we contend for the faith. But beware of simply believing that if we simply wing it and speak of Jesus then we will ultimately be powerful in our witness. We certainly cannot assume that to be the case for Stephen. He was chosen to be one of the seven because he was a man of good repute and was full of the Spirit and wisdom. Remember that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Stephen was a man who loved the Lord and was wise in the ways of God therefore he was a scholar of the word.
Teaching and preaching has largely been relegated in the modern evangelical church to a lesser place with singing and activity taking the lions share of many worship services. The church when it gathers together along with worship and prayer needs to be fed the pure food of the gospel which at first will be milk but very soon will be full of meaty content. The reason being that the world needs to hear what salvation is really all about and not some half hearted ramble that only really tells them that Jesus loves them.
Stephen's reasoning was too much for his critics and so they trumped up false accusations of blasphemy. As we have said many times the devil has no new tricks and so here we see that he brings out the same charges of blasphemy as were made of the Lord Jesus Christ. The leaders went around stirring up trouble and involving as many as possible in their lies. They enrolled the scribes, the elders of the people and as many of the general public as was possible. Of course the Pharisees were involved as we see from the end of the passage where one Saul of Tarsus oversees the execution of Stephen.
But before we get there there are a few things that we need to consider. The passage is too long for our purposes today and so I will leave you with some homework to look at the content of Stephen's defence or sermon.
We will consider what it means when Luke tells us that Stephen's accusers saw that his face was like the face of an angel and also what Stephen saw as he gazed into heaven.

They saw the face of an angel:
I pondered over this statement for a long time wondering what it was that the council saw that day as they sat in judgement over innocent Stephen. I have this picture of an angel as has been portrayed for many centuries now. We have pictures of beings in white with a shiny apparel and a halo prominently over their heads, they of course are always blue eyed with long flowing golden hair and pure white complexion. We need to first of all exorcise that image form our memory banks it is certainly not consistent with the bible's description of what an angel is. It is true that sometimes as at the tomb on the day of resurrection the angel is described as wearing white apparel. But an angel is much more than the clothes that he wears or the way that he looks. The word that we have for angel is something of a made up word that maybe confuses us as to what an angel is. The word translated directly from Greek which along with the Hebrew word simply means messenger.
Easton's Bible Dictionary definition:
Angel: a word signifying, both in the Hebrew and Greek, a "messenger," and hence employed to denote any agent God sends forth to execute his purposes. It is used of an ordinary messenger (Job 1:14;1 Sam. 11:3; Luke 7:24;9:52), of prophets (Isa. 42:19; Hag. 1:13), of priests (Mal. 2:7), and ministers of the New Testament (Rev. 1:20).
It is also applied to such impersonal agents as the pestilence (2 Sam. 24:16,17; 2 Kings 19:35), the wind (Ps. 104:4).
But its distinctive application is to certain heavenly intelligences whom God employs in carrying on his government of the world. The name does not denote their nature but their office as messengers. The appearances to Abraham at Mamre (Gen. 18:2,22. Comp. 19:1), to Jacob at Peniel (Gen. 32:24,30), to Joshua at Gilgal (Josh. 5:13,15), of the Angel of the Lord, were doubtless manifestations of the Divine presence, "foreshadowings of the incarnation," revelations before the "fullness of the time" of the Son of God.

Remember how the Lord Jesus addresses the leaders of the seven churches at the beginning of Revelation. He speaks through John to the angels or messengers of the church. An angel is always a messenger of God and it is his message that is all important!
We have recently been considering the signs and wonders as reported by Luke. They are an authentication as to the reality of the gospel and the church. God chose to work remarkably in order that people would see that this work was of Him and not a sham. Similarly with angels God authenticates their message by making them special and often quite frightening. The point is that it is always about the message and not the messenger. When the message had been delivered the messenger then disappeared.
Some say that what the council saw on that day was Stephen shining as Moses had when he came down from Mount Sinai. Moses had spent 40 days in the presence of the Almighty and some of God's glory had rubbed off on him. I do not think that this incident is of the same order because of what follows. The high priest (you are not too surprised that he is once again in the thick of it are you???) gives Stephen the floor. The gospel message must be heard once again by the leaders of Jerusalem and so Stephen beginning with Abraham and finishing at the cross tells them of their guilt in resisting the Holy Spirit and killing Jesus and of them breaking the law of God. The messenger told them boldly; therefore they could not honestly deny the truth of it because they had seen that Stephen was an angel to them but of course these were not honest men who were interested in the truth. They were charlatans and rogues who were looking after their own ends.
The first part of Stephen's message enraged them but it is what comes next that seals his fate. Can you imagine the scene? They were gazing at the face of an angel but Stephen himself was gazing into heaven. These men were supposed to be the custodians of the faith and yet they never once looked up into heaven where Jesus could be clearly seen by Stephen.
They were enraged but Stephen was enthralled.
They did not want to know the truth of Jesus being God the Son in heaven and so they stopped up their ears, made as much noise as possible and charged at Stephen and dragged him out of the city.

People still act in exactly the same way, if they could get away with it many would march us off up Kit Hill and do away with us but they cannot in this country. It is different for many of our fellow Christians in other countries some are even now being persecuted simply because they believe that Jesus is the King of glory.
Our hearers here in the UK simply stop up their ears whilst singing under their breath “Ho-Hum” etc.
We are their angels and as such they need to hear our message, for that to be really effective we need to know our bibles as thoroughly as Stephen knew the Old Covenant scriptures. That is why we lay so much emphasis upon bible teaching and preaching in the church.
This message is food for the week for you, I wish it could be better but it is the best that I can do.
What we really need is for the message to be empowered by God as Stephen's was on that day.
His message was powerful and was the means of promoting Stephen to glory.
Stephen's death was a hollow victory for his accusers but it was a glorious victory for God and heaven.
Stephen saw the face of Jesus and prayed as he was being bombarded with boulders. As his life ebbed away he saw the Lord Jesus who was standing at the right hand of God. He was preparing to welcome home a good and faithful servant Stephen the first martyr for the faith.
The kingdom of God was about to be Stephen's experience as Jesus promised in the beatitudes!
Stephen's final prayer is also vitally important. Firstly he commended himself into the safe hands of his Saviour the Lord Jesus and then he prayed for his murders the leader of which was Saul of Tarsus. Saul would go on from there to persecute the church with even greater fervour than ever before but as we shall see in chapter 9 Saul is miraculously converted in answer to Stephen's prayer that his murder might not be held against all of the perpetrators.
The church then entered a period of even greater persecution which again did not destroy it but it was the vehicle for the conversion of the greatest Christian of all time, the Apostle Paul.

So what do we learn from this passage?
God always equips the church with messengers sometimes they are special agents appointed by God for a “one off” purpose as on this occasion. Ordinarily it is through the regular pastor/teacher appointed by the church but the message is always powerful and effective! The effect might not be immediately palatable but it will accomplish the purpose for which it was intended.
Prayer in all circumstances even at the point of violent death is vitally important. A man called Nicky Cruise was about to kill a New York pastor but at the point of a knife and almost certain death the pastor declared Christ's love to Nicky Cruise who could do n other than run away. Later Nicky Cruise himself was converted and became a powerful preacher of the gospel. Who would have thought that the dying prayer of the first Christian martyr would be so effective;


Sunday, 11 October 2015

Acts part 11: Here comes trouble.

Building the right foundation part 11

Acts 6:1-7 Here comes trouble.

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. 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.
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.
English Standard Version Anglicised
I recently commented that the devil has no new tricks up his sleeve helps us to understand the reasons why the infant church went through waves of persecution and internal struggles. With this in mind and the fact that the devil's purpose is to oppose the redeeming work of God. He irredeemably fell from grace due to his pride and is under God's judgement. He is banished from heaven eternally and wants to take as many people as he can to judgement and hell with him. His track record or pattern can be observed clearly from the early chapters of Act: he generally has a three pronged attack on the church. Firstly he will persecute believers and when that fails then he will cause some within the church to become proud and arrogant as with Ananias & Sapphira. This pattern can be seen from both scripture and church history alike. If pride and arrogance fails then he pulls out what usually proves to be his trump card. He causes the leaders to be derailed or side-tracked from their calling. The passage that we have to consider today is a classic example as to how this happens.
A lesson from the past:
If you recall after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea and were travelling through the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. It is recorded in Exodus18 that Jethro came to Moses one day and spoke to him about his workload. Moses had spent all day judging over the people of Israel. Some came to him with issues concerning the faith but others concerning squabbles and contentions. Jethro's advice to Moses was to seek out Godly and trustworthy men to judge over the issues in order that they relieve Moses from the lesser issues allowing him to concentrate on more important things. (This is an amazing parallel to the passage that we have before us.) The episode happened at a time when the Amalekites had been defeated and the people were enjoying the favour of God. News had reached Jethro in Midian that God was doing amazing things and so he brought the family of Moses back to him. Jethro wisely saw that Moses was being distracted from his work by over work. Moses was called by God to be His spokesman and the leader of the nation and he was being distracted by taking too much upon himself. The devil loves to use this tactic because it feeds the ego of the leader which in turn will dilute the effect of his ministry. The devil did not have his way on that occasion and as we see from reading our text he didn't succeed on this occasion either. Our concern here today is that he must not succeed here in the Mustard Seed either. The parallel for us is similar; we have been under severe attack and now that it has eased off it would be easy for the leaders to fall for the same temptation and to diversify so much that our God given ministry becomes ineffective.
Back to the passage:
The problem:
The problem was that the church was successful and increasing in number. The first wave of persecution had failed and the error of Ananias and Sapphira had been dealt with but now a far more insidious attack was taking place. It was the mumblings and grumblings of Christians. The word that is translated as complaint in the ESV is “goggysmos” in the original Greek gives the idea of complaining with murmurings. When the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek for the Septuagint the same Greek word was used for an incident in the desert recorded in Exodus 16:7. the occasion was when the Israelites were guilty of grumbling to Moses and Aaron concerning their hunger. Their complaint was brought against the leaders; they were claiming that they were better off in Egypt where they sat next to the plentiful stew pots etc. What a terrible lie that was! They had been released from slavery and were now a free people on their way to a land promised to them by God. In verse 8 Moses told the people that even though the focus of their disgruntlement was against him the reality was that they were really grumbling against God. The parallel of the two passages is obvious. The progress of the free nation was about to be derailed by the mumblings, grumblings and murmurings of the people against the leaders. Their complaints were completely unfounded and unfair after all God Himself had promised to care for them and lead them into the promised land.
Now the infant church was similarly in danger of being derailed through the grumblings of the people. There is no reason to disbelieve that there was some unfairness going on but the emphasis of the word “goggysmos” is clear, they were moaning with a purpose. The Greek widows were being missed out and the Hebrew widows were being favoured but we cannot lay the blame for this on the Apostles. As with Moses there was simply too much work for them to do. Remember that there were now many thousand of new Christians learning to be the church under the leadership of 12 newly saved and appointed apostles. The issue was a real problem that could so easily have derailed the church. Grumbling is always a destructive force in the church.
The church today is plagued with our own equivalents. I am sure that we do not need to dig too far in our own church to discover groaning, mumblings and grumblings that have real foundations but which are equally destructive because they come from negativity.
We need to guard against embittered and sinful grumbling! There is nothing wrong with pointing out problems but it must come from a heart that is concerned for the glory of God and the good of the church. That was clearly not the case with the infant church on that occasion so what is going on in the background?
The devil's influence: The devil is always the instigator of disunity and so therefore he was behind what was going on here. His main aim was to derail the church and to him the best way of doing that was to make the leaders over busy. That is why the apostles acted as they did. If they had reacted and become angry or embittered by criticism as many do then the devil would have won and if they had capitulated and ran around like headless chickens trying to deal with the problem that also would have been a victory for the evil one!
They made a wise decision at:
The church meeting:
They gathered the whole church together and addressed the issue head on. For those of us who do not appreciate church membership as we have it today this passage is helpful for us to understand that even in infancy there must have been some structure and authority in the church. The structure for us has developed into a formal membership of committed believers. The members meeting is then where we can call the church together to deal with our own issues of the day.
At the church meeting the Apostles plainly laid out the truth. They had been appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ to make disciples and to teach and build the church under His guidance. As Apostles theirs was a unique calling which could have been derailed if they had not dealt with this problem wisely and correctly. Peter referred to the distraction waiting on tables which is really serving in an area which was outside of their specific mandate. But this was an important issue and a necessary work but it was not for the Apostles to do. Somebody must do it therefore the Apostles made a wise decision! The church was to choose seven men with outstanding Christian credentials and to appoint them to deal with the problem. If only we would be so wise in our daily church responsibilities!
The Apostles set in place for us an example of common sense leadership. There was a problem to which a simple solution was found and then those appointed were allowed to do their duty. Some suggest that the seven chosen are a prototype diaconate but that is difficult to prove. The diaconate as it is developed later on in the New Testament is much more than a committee chosen deal with disputes over unfairness! What this passage does display is the need that from time to time we may need to appoint specialist members of the church for the issues of the day. There is no evidence that the appointed men on that day continued in the role after the problem had been dealt with. In actual fact Stephen was soon to be martyred.
From time to time we will need committees like this to deal with our own specific issues, maybe the building currently, or other disagreements that are rattling around fall into this category now. We ought to be bold enough to do as the infant church did and appoint respected Christians to deal with issues and allow the elders to pray, teach and preach as they are appointed to do. They must devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word as did the apostles.

The wise decision of the apostles met with the approval of the church and so the went and made their decision.

The committee:
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.

Look at the men chosen, Stephen was a wonderful example; he was a man who was full of faith and the Holy Spirit. The other six men were also fully acceptable to the church and to the apostles. They were then set apart by the apostles on behalf of the church they were released for the task of reconciliation. Interestingly they were all men with Greek names which in turn displays the grace and wisdom of the whole church in their choice. They were then trusted to sort out an unfair situation.
Their Christian credentials were of more importance than their national background. This must always be the case, we do not want anyone appointed by the church because of who they are! Church history is littered with disasters caused by dynasties in the church. We recently considered the dynasty of Annas as High Priest in New Testament days and the terrible consequences caused by his family over many years. The church does not need to follow suit, when we appoint leaders of any sort they must be appointed for their Christian character and suitability as were the seven!
The result of this for us will then be as is recorded in verse 7: the church will be blessed. For the church then it was an increase in numbers with even some priests being saved. For us it is at present unknown, it would be lovely to think that it might be conversions and growth but that is all in the Lord's hands. He just expects us to be wise and faithful. When we are then the devil has not been successful in his quest to cause problems from within.
Are you grumbling? Speak to the right person and not to everybody. Problems cannot be dealt with swiftly if the last people to hear of them are the leaders. Do not let the devil get a foothold in our fellowship through grumblings, let us be open and honest in all things.
Do you support the church in the decisions that we make? The elders and deacons need your prayers that we might be wise in all of our decisions. Do you pray for us?

The devil did not succeed on this occasion and so next week we will discover that he goes back to square one with his persecution of the church. We will be considering the ministry of Stephen and how a man of faith stands for gospel truth.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Acts part 10: The problem with success.

Building the right foundation part 10

Acts 5:12-42.

Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon's Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns round Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.
Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council and all the senate of the people of Israel and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honour by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name. And every day,in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

English Standard Version Anglicised

This passage denotes the beginning of a second wave of persecution for the church. As with all opposition the resulting persecution progressively gets worse. In the first wave Peter and John were imprisoned overnight and instructed not to speak in the name of Jesus again. Peter's response was that they were to obey God rather than man on this issue and that they were compelled in spirit to speak of Jesus as Messiah. As you can imagine that did not go down too well with the ruthless men who made up the council. We have to remember that these were the very men that had orchestrated the arrest, mock trial and death of the Lord Jesus Christ and so for the Apostles to be preaching in His name was too much for them to bear.
Their problem was how do they stop what has now become a very successful movement?
In and around Jerusalem there were by now many thousands of Christians and the church was growing at a phenomenal rate, it was also being authenticated by remarkable signs and wonders. The High Priest of the day and his liberal theologian friends the Sadduccees were full of jealousy and had to do something about it. Therefore they persecuted the Apostles in the hope that fear might stem the tide of this new religious movement. Little did they know that they would prove something that many years later was recognised to be a fact:
Persecution promotes church growth.
Why that should be the case is beyond human logic but history proves it to be the case. My Romanian Pastor friend often says that he prays for the communists to come back because their persecution of the church had two effects: firstly it kept the faith of the church pure and secondly it caused people to call on the name of the Lord and to be saved. We will see how this is proven as we continue in our studies of Acts.

Today we will consider the effect that this wave of persecution had on the infant church and we will learn from them that opposition is not necessarily a bad thing.

As the apostles continued to preach boldly, the Holy Spirit worked miraculously by saving more people than ever and the church grew phenomenally! Conversion is the greatest miracle that ever takes place because it is the regeneration of sinful and dead spiritual life into a new life that is wholly acceptable to God. Upon conversion the impossible has taken place and the recipient can now come into the presence of Almighty God when previously he was barred by the offence that sin is to God. There were also signs of healing and deliverance given to prove that what was happening was not of man but a movement of God. Therefore even the shadow of Peter was believed to have healing qualities.
What an a mazing way that God had chosen to herald the church as the people of God.
Israel had now been replaced by the church as the people through whom God would glorify His name and will bring sinners into fellowship with Himself.

The religious leaders were sore at this but nowhere near as threatened as was Satan whose bidding they were willingly carrying out. The devil has no new tricks up his sleeve and so we can learn from this example that when the church becomes effective he will make sure that it's leaders will be under attack. Either from outside in the form of persecution as in this case or from within by those whom Jesus refers to as wolves dressed up as sheep. The effect is the same, the devil will do whatever he thinks is necessary and effective to prevent the gospel from being preached.
From the passage we see that the leaders had seized their opportunity and the apostles were in prison. Possibly this time Luke is referring to all of the apostles!
During that night:
Enter an angel of the Lord:
Immediately things are about to change, the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison and released the apostles. Before he secures the prison again there is an instruction for the apostles: they are to return to the Temple and are to speak of Jesus. They are to enter back into the lion's den. Remember when they were previously imprisoned and released Peter and John had prayed for boldness to continue preaching in the name of Jesus. Now the angel of the Lord was sending them on their way to do just that. For the apostles difficulties would be an ongoing situation for the rest of their lives for which they would need boldness.
The Temple was a hotbed of liberal theology where the priests being of Sadducee persuasion did not believe in angels, spirits, God's Holy Spirit, the resurrection, the after life, hell or heaven etc. Why such people become religious leaders completely confuses me but the same people are in much of the seen church of today. It was back into this environment that the angel of the Lord sent the apostles upon their release from prison. They were told to preach all that the leaders disbelieved and so they did.
Their mandate that day is no different to ours today we are still under the directives of the great commission just as they were at that time. We are equally called to be bold witnesses to an unbelieving world around us. They were to begin in Jerusalem and we are to begin in Callington. We must pray for boldness to speak of Jesus just where we are and then just as the apostles were, we are to obey God's directives and go and speak boldly of Jesus to an unbelieving people.

All of this of course turned the authorities into turmoil. Out of fear for their lives the leaders gently brought back the apostles to be tried before the council. The High Priest told them that they had disobeyed him and had spoken of Jesus against his express command. That was just what Peter needed in order for him to speak out. He reminded the council of their guilt in killing Jesus and spoke of Him now being in heaven as Saviour by whom repentance and forgiveness is given. Along with the Holy Spirit of God the apostles were witnesses to these facts! This ultimately made the High Priest and his cronies furious. They had been accused and their theology attacked and so they wanted to kill the apostles just as they had Jesus. It is amazing that those with liberal views of theology are less tolerant than any when their theological position is exposed. Death would have been a reality if it had not been for the entrance of:

The moderator:
Sadducees and Pharisees are often lumped together and often did join together against a common enemy but they could not be further apart in theology. What the Sadduccees disbelieved the Pharisees wholeheartedly embraced. They were what we might term uncomfortable bed-fellows. As the council were contemplating mass murder the Pharisee Gamaliel speaks words of wisdom; saying “let them be!!!”
This is the same Gamaliel who Saul of Tarsus had learned his bible truth from. Gamaliel was known to be a compassionate man and full of wisdom; we see this clearly in how he handled the council on that day. He reminded them of other cases where previously there had been religious uprisings that had come to nothing because they had been born in the heart of man. This new religious movement would come to nothing if it were of man but if it were of God, for them to attack it was tantamount to attacking God.
Enough said!
Advice taken!
The council agree to release the apostles but not before giving them a good thrashing and telling them to stop speaking in the name of Jesus.

Persecution as we said earlier has an amazing effect on the believer. The apostles went from there rejoicing!
Who would have believed that?
The apostles rejoiced because they had been counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus just as He had said at the beginning of His ministry. Remember the last of the Beatitudes? Matthew 5:10-12.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

They rejoiced and were glad and heaven was their reward. They went on their way evangelising even more fervently. As well as being witnesses in the temple they knocked on people's doors to tell of Jesus.

They never ceased preaching and teaching!
Persecution never did and never will work. The devil does not seem to have got that idea yet that the church always grows through persecution.
But we must be aware:

There was another and far more subtle attack on it's way. This is a big one that has a massive effect upon the church and causes us to stumble far more easily. It is mumblings amongst believers which we will address next time.