The Students

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Last week, Pastor Zane told us about the meeting that took place between Paul and Silas and the people in the synagogue at Thessalonica. Paul and Silas stayed there three sabbaths and gave powerful messages about the suffering of Christ, about His death, burial, and glorious resurrection. The long awaited Messiah had come! The Bible tells us, “And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.” The Jews became jealous of these conversions and as we have seen before, a mob is formed and the attacks commenced. The Jews couldn’t find Paul so they dragged Jason before the city authorities and after Jason pinky swore that Paul wasn’t there, they let him go. This morning, we’ll pick up the story and see what happens to our missionary heroes.

Take a look at our passage today in Acts 17:10-15.

We begin with the next city. Paul and Silas narrowly escape another mob and leave Thessalonica under the cover of darkness. As is often the case in Acts, we lose a sense of time because we pick up with them leaving at night and then arriving in Berea. I imagine we think about this like going from St. Marys to Kingsland. It was about a three day walk from Thessalonica to Berea. Luke leaves out the details of the journey including where they stopped for the night, where they ate, and what they did along the way. Berea is on the eastern slope of Mt. Vernon in the Olympian mountains. It is located in a fairly remote area and was a city of some prominence having been one of the four capitals of Macedonia. Paul and Silas arrive and as is their custom, they go directly to the synagogue.

I love how Luke describes these people from Berea. Remember Paul just left Thessalonica where many people decided to follow Jesus. Thessalonica was the location of the church that Paul sent two letters to that are so important, they’re included in Scripture. But the Bereans Luke describes as, “More noble-minded than those in Thessalonica.” We need to be careful when we look at the words here. You could easily draw the conclusion that the Thessalonians weren’t noble, but that’s not what Luke says. Noble in this context means a willingness to learn and evaluate something fairly. It’s the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. You’ve likely heard both of those terms from the pulpit here at Three Rivers. One term is very healthy and one is very damaging. One term is biblical and one is not. One term demonstrates a willingness to learn, one does not. One term will foster growth; one term will stifle growth. The Bereans demonstrated one term. Let me be crystal clear on something. Bible study is hard work. There are no shortcuts. Even if you paid close attention to every sermon you heard, every Sunday School lesson you heard, every small group you attended, you will never get what you need to have a healthy relationship with Jesus. You will not be equipped in the manner necessary to prepare you for the challenges of life.

What makes the Bereans noble? “They received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” If you have spent any length of time in an evangelical church, you’ve heard of the Bereans. They are often referred to as an example of what each person should be like. I will echo those statements about the Bereans. There were several things they did that should be emulated. First, “they received the word.” They were attentive. They weren’t thinking about lunch, or about grocery lists, or laundry, or how they have it worse than their neighbors. They heard what Paul was saying and they were listening. They weren’t simply sitting there taking credit for being present. There are people that take great pleasure in being at church, but don’t participate in the things that make the church the church, they’re simply in the building.

Second, they did this, “with great eagerness.” Not just with eagerness, that would be encouraging enough, but these Bereans received the word, “with great eagerness.” It is very exciting to be preaching or teaching God’s word and see the faces of the people in front of you. There are times you look out and the people are on the edge of their seats, they can’t wait to hear what comes next. They’re hanging on the Word of God.

Third, and always very important, the Bereans, “Examined the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” The Bereans did not take what Paul said with blind faith. They didn’t conclude that since Paul said something, it must be true. I always cringe when someone tells me, my pastor says, or my Sunday School teacher says, or some famous pastor says. I want to know what the Bible says and I want you to know what the Bible says. I find it shocking the people that stand on the authority of John MacArthur, David Platt, James MacDonald, Chuck Swindoll, or a host of other people. I’m not saying don’t read these guys or listen to them but filter it through the lens of Scripture. Too often, people in the church are not willing to apply due diligence to their Bible study, diligence they’ll apply to other areas of their life. They want it easy, they want it fast, they want it efficiently, they want it cheap, but it takes hard work to mine the depths of God’s Word and you’ll never reach the bottom. At the risk of offending you, many people in the church have a casual walk of faith and limited knowledge of the Bible and much of that comes from word of mouth or tradition. That’s why you see and hear arguments from professing believers about topics such as the inerrancy of Scripture, biblical marriage, judgment of sin, sanctity of human life, and sexuality. We have parents in the church more interested in dance, t-ball, and soccer than we do in Sunday School, children’s church, or AWANA. The believers from Berea did not take what Paul said at faceAWAN value. The word examine, as it is used here, is an incredible word. It means try to learn the truth of something by the process of careful study, evaluation, and judgment. It means to investigate. This is what the Bereans did: they dug into the Scriptures every single day to make sure that what Paul was saying lined up with the standard of truth.

The Bible must be studied properly. In historic context. With the meaning intended by God through the human authors as inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Bible cannot have multiple meanings for various passages of Scripture. For example, you have some people that talk about God’s blessings. Their teaching is that God’s favor is on you if you have everything you want: multi-million-dollar homes, airplanes, successful TV programs, stadium events, or good health. If you don’t have all of that, there is something wrong with you. We have other people in the church think that if something bad happens in their life, Satan is attacking them or they’re being persecuted. Still others want prayer for their kids for an upcoming test or sports event, or something else like that. These examples are examples I have observed myself. They only apply here in the United States. The idea of a multi-million-dollar home for a believer in a small village of Romania, Brazil, or Paraguay is non-sensical. For many believers in the world, their daily prayer is for food or to withstand the physical punishment of their faith and still glorify God. You see, we can’t rewrite the Bible to fit the American dream yet that’s what we seem to do with regularity. The Bible can have only one meaning. Many applications. The application of the principles of Scripture can look different in different cultures and in different families, but when the Bible says, “Abstain from sexual immorality,” that’s exactly what it means.

Here’s the reality. Paul was in the synagogue at Berea. His message was likely similar to what he preached in v. 3 when he was in Thessalonica. What did he preach there? The same message he preached everywhere: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus who is the Messiah. He preached the good news that is called the gospel. What happened? The same thing that has been happening since humanity began: “Many of them believed.” “Them” refers to the noble-minded Bereans. When the truth of the gospel is presented, people have a choice. You can choose to accept Jesus as Messiah by grace through faith or you can continue in your sin. Many Bereans believed, but also, “a number of prominent Greek women and men.” Prominent means important or having special prestige or honor. Those prominent people are unnamed, but we know what happens when people of influence turn to God. You can see what happens to nations when their leaders follow God. You can also see what happens when people of influence do not follow God. Paul enjoyed great success in Berea, but the joy, peace, and tranquility were short lived. “But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there as well, agitating and stirring up the crowds.” Will the opposition ever stop? As long as we continue to zealously pursue Christ and actively participate in the mission of the church, expect opposition to be there. The Jews stirred the pot and got the crowds agitated to the point that Paul needed to head on out to continue the mission that God had appointed him to. The brethren in Berea, “sent Paul out to go as far as the sea.” They got Paul safely out, but “Silas and Timothy remained there” in Berea. The Jews viewed Paul as the primary opposition to their way of life and they wanted to stop him. Don’t underestimate the importance of Silas and Timothy. Even though Paul has the primary role, don’t think that Silas and Timothy just hung out and carried Paul’s luggage and washed his feet. “Now those who escorted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they left.” Paul is escorted from Berea to the sea which is about 20 miles. Then from the sea to Athens is another 250 miles or so. This is sort of an undefined conclusion. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly how Paul got to Athens. All we know for sure is that Silas and Timothy join Paul some time later.

It seems that trouble follows Paul everywhere he goes. Trouble in our life often causes us to wonder, but for Paul, we don’t get that idea. We don’t see him waiver or doubt. He seems focused on the mission given him. What about us? Do we seem to waiver depending on the circumstances of life? Are we intent to accomplish the mission God has put before us regardless of the circumstances? Are we diligent to seek out the truth of Scripture for ourselves or do we think somehow, we are exempt from the hard work of truth seeking? What will happen to Silas and Timothy? What about Paul? Join us next week as we continue looking into the incredible journey of Paul and his companions.

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The Opposition

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Last week, Pastor Mike told us that a large number of Jews and Gentiles responded to the Gospel message Paul preached in Iconium. But there were some unbelieving Jews that stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against Paul and his colleagues. Paul’s preaching divided the city with some supporting the Jews and some supporting the apostles. A plot was formed to stone our dear brothers and they fled for their lives, but they continued to preach the Gospel. This morning, our missionaries end up in Lystra and we pick up the story with Paul preaching the truth.

Our passage today comes from Acts 14:8-20. Grab your Bible and take a look at it.

The stage is set and the narrative picks up with Paul already in Lystra. We don’t see him entering the synagogue which leads many to conclude there was no synagogue in this Roman colony. Paul encounters a man that is described three ways. He, “had no strength in his feet.” He was, “lame from his mother’s womb.” He, “had never walked.” Just to make sure we all understand: this man never enjoyed getting from one place to another on his own. He relied on other people to help him. The man is sitting somewhere that he can hear Paul speaking, but we don’t know the setting in which this takes place. At some point, Paul looks out into the crowd and locks eyes with the man. The man was listening, he was paying attention to what Paul was saying. As Paul is gazing into the man’s eyes, he recognizes the lame man’s faith.

We throw that word around a lot in the church. Faith is belief to the extent of complete trust and reliance. We put our faith in many things. The government. Teachers, coaches, schools, police officers, doctors, the military, cars, and other people. We find it so easy to trust these people; we find it easy to trust organizations and businesses. Is our faith as strong when it comes to God as it is with our kid’s coaches and teachers? I’m not saying don’t trust these folks, but I think we often have blind faith in these people. I think it’s safe to paint with a broad brush and say in most cases, coaches and teachers and police officers and government officials can be trusted. We’ve got many teachers right here as part of our faith family and I assure you, they love your kids and have their best interests in mind.

Does our faith in God compare with our faith in humans? I think of all the times I’ve counseled with people that have been hurt by others. Relationships that have gone awry. Family members estranged refusing to talk with one another. Unresolved anger and bitterness in the workplace. Friends gossiping about friends. Time and time again, people let us down that rightfully causes us to mistrust others, but often we find ourselves drawn back into those painful situations. God has never been involved in a scandal. We don’t have anywhere in recorded history where He does not do what He says He will do. We have nowhere written where God acts based on impulse or whim. Why do we find it easy to trust others and so difficult to trust God?

Whatever Paul was saying resonated with this lame man and Paul recognized his, “faith to be made well.” This is the third time in Acts that we see lameness healed. Remember the lame man in Chapter 3 that was laid at the Gate Beautiful that was healed by Peter. Then there was Aeneas that had been paralyzed for eight years in Chapter 9 that was healed by Peter. The result for all three is the same: Paul says, “Stand upright to your feet.” The man, “leaped up and began to walk.” Do you find it curious that he didn’t have to learn to walk. No shakiness, no tentative steps, no falling down, no trying to catch his balance, he miraculously, “leaped up and began to walk.” The response of the people in Lystra differs dramatically from the healings I just mentioned. In Chapter 3, the people, “Were filled with wonder and amazement.” (Acts 3:10) In Chapter 9, the people, “Turned to the Lord.” (Acts 9:35) But here in Lystra, “they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” Get the picture in your mind. The lame man is healed and the people raised their voices and began shouting. I’m sure there were looks of amazement, shock, awe, and wonder. They shout out in their native language, but there’s just one problem with that. Paul and Barnabas don’t speak Lycaonian. They didn’t know what was being said.

The people called, “Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.” Zeus is the legendary Greek god of the universe, ruler of the skies and the earth. The Greeks considered him the god of all natural phenomena; the personification of the laws of nature; the ruler of all things and the father of all gods. He had a Roman equivalent named Jupiter. Hermes was Zeus’ attendant and spokesman. Legend has it that he was the son of Zeus and Maia. His Roman equivalent was known as Mercury, the fleet of foot protector of travelers, thieves, and athletes that was able to move freely between the land of mortal and the land of the gods. Luke doesn’t say, but I bet the people began bowing down to Paul and Barnabas. I’m sure our Apostles thought the people’s response was strange, but they really began to understand when, “The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds.” The people witnessed the miraculous healing of the lame man and concluded that the gods have become like men and are standing right in front of them. The false, pagan priest of the pagan god Zeus comes from the pagan temple just outside the city and wants to offer pagan sacrifices to Paul who the pagan priest thought just had to be Hermes.

This action caused Paul and Barnabas such distress, “They tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” In our day and age, we often treat important people differently than we treat common folk. We tend to fawn over stars and big-time athletes and often are excited just to get a glimpse of someone famous. Paul did not appreciate being treated like this. He and Barnabas tore their robes as a sign of great distress and opposition to this inappropriate demonstration by the people.

In Paul’s mind, everything is clear. He and Barnabas are simply on a journey telling people about Jesus and demonstrating His power as they have opportunity. The people mistakenly think they are gods and begin worshiping them. I can picture Paul waving his arms and screaming, “we’re just men like you, stop this!” Paul explains by saying, we “preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all this is in them.” That’s Paul’s explanation. We’re just guys sharing the message of the Gospel. They worship, “vain things.” Empty worship. Worthless worship. Idolatrous worship of gods who were not gods. Paul goes on to say, “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” This is the first time in Acts that a group of people like this are addressed. They are totally pagan. They believe in many false gods so Paul had to start at the beginning. One fundamental aspect of Christianity is that there is one God. He told them they needed to turn from idols to a singular, living God. Any religion that will transform men into gods is worthless. This principle was likely very strange to these people.

Paul gives three main points in this mini-message. First, God is the Creator of all that lives in the sea and on land. Second, Paul tells them of God’s mercies with past generations. If people wanted to walk away, God allowed it. We’ll see this more clearly in Acts 17:30. There is an indication that people acted in ignorance, but now they should know better. Third, God left proof of who He is. He still provided the rain that allowed food to grow that produced fruitful seasons that the people could be satisfied. This concept would not be foreign to these people of Lystra. There were writers of the day that spoke of divine providence of the gods, but the idea of only one true God would have rocked their world. One God was the source of all things natural; one God was the source of all things from heaven, one God that left proof of His involvement in the world. “Even saying these things, with difficulty they restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.” As he’s speaking, the people are still thinking he and Barnabas are gods. It’s got to be frustrating for Paul. He’s telling them the truth of God, but they’re not picking it up. Paul is building a bridge between the creation and the Creator.   He’s trying to meet these people where they are. He’s trying to bring them to the place where they can know the one true God, but something interrupts his message.

Before Paul could proceed to the next phase of the message, “Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.” The religious left comes again against what God wants to do. Remember the Jews were jealous of the crowds at Pisidian Antioch that wanted to hear from Paul and Barnabas. Just a few weeks ago, we heard Pastor Zane tell us these same Jews, “incited the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.” (Acts 13:50) Last week we saw large numbers of people turning to the Lord such that, “The Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the gentiles and embittered them against the brethren.” (Acts 14:2) The Jews have been pursuing Paul and Barnaba because of the success they’ve had in turning people from a religion to a relationship with Christ. The Jews from Antioch and Iconium won over the crowds and then stone Paul and leave him for dead. This is a mob and they have a mob mentality – even if not everyone participated. The people that just witnessed the miraculous healing of the lame man; the people that just wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas are turned against them and gathered stones. Why Barnabas was not given the same treatment is not known. In a stoning, large boulders, as big as someone can pick up are thrown at the person. Those stones are hurled at Paul and the crowd thinks he’s dead and drag him out of the city. In a miraculous turn of events, “While the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city.”

You cannot stop what God wants to accomplish. You might be able to delay it, but it’s not really a delay because all things work in God’s timing. Paul is stoned to death, but not death. Undeterred, “The next day, he went away with Barnabas to Derbe.” What will become of our missionary heroes? Will they receive the same treatment in Derbe as they did in Lystra? Join us next week as we continue to watch the incredible events of the early church unfold.

Three Promises

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We’ll skip 13:1-12 because that was the passage Pastor Mike was to preach through on Feb. 25th but was away in Tennessee. Last week we enjoyed a wonderful anniversary service so if you’re wondering when we’ll cover those verses, we’ll circle back after Easter. This morning, we’ll look at a history lesson Paul gives in the synagogue.

Take a look at Acts 13:13-25.

Verse 13 says, “Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Pathos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem.” When they arrived in Perga, John Mark decided he’d head back to Jerusalem. Luke leaves out the details about why John Mark left and there has been much speculation. In Chapter 15 we’ll get some insight into the fallout resulting from this so we’ll wait until we get there to talk about John Mark. Luke continues by telling us Paul and his companions went, “on from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch.” Again, Luke leaves out the details of this trip to a different Antioch. To get to Pisidian Antioch from Perga would have been an extremely difficult trip. I want to mention this because we have a tendency to forget the incredibly difficult journeys these biblical people went on in obedience to the Lord. The trip to Pisidian Antioch was about a 100 mile trip, on foot, over the Taurus Mountains on a very desolate route known for its danger. Luke simply says they go there and arrive.

We don’t know the day they arrived, but, “on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down.”We’ll see this pattern over and over again with Paul. His normal course of action is to be in the Synagogue on the Sabbath – even when he is not at home. This synagogue was the center of all the activity in the Jewish community. Back in the olden days, you’d have a church in the center of town and everything revolved around church on Sunday. Paul and his companions arrive and find their seats. The order of service in your typical synagogue followed the same pattern from week to week. Just like at 3RC, we typically have the same routine week after week – it’s not good or bad, or right or wrong, it’s what works for us. The synagogue was a bit more rigid. The service was generally divided into six parts and depending on who was there, some parts might not be done. One of the standard parts was the reading from the Law and the Prophets. So, “After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, “Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.” It’s kind of comical to ask a preacher of God’s Word if they have anything to say. Probably all the pastors here have had this happen when visiting a church out of town. Somehow word gets to the pastor that a visiting pastor is in the congregation and they might be invited to say something or offer a prayer. We don’t know the specifics, but Paul and his companions are invited to speak to the synagogue.

Paul delivers a message that focuses on three main promises. Notice immediately that he speaks to two groups: men of Israel and those that fear God. You’ll see some pointed remarks directed at each group as we read through the text. The first part is the promise God made to Israel. Look at vs. 16b-25. I want to highlight a couple of points. Notice that God chose the fathers of Israel and it was through His hand that they were delivered from Egyptian bondage. During the exodus from Egypt, the people were generally belly-achers, complainers, disobedient and just plain awful and because of this, God determined not to let any of them in the promised land. “For a period of 40 years,” Paul says, God “put up with them in the wilderness.” Paul reminded them how God destroyed the seven nations of the Hittites, the Gergashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. It was a battle of epic proportions and God was their deliverer. Then God distributed the land to the twelve tribes. Then after the land was distributed which took 450 years, God gave them judges until Samuel the Prophet came along. The people asked for a king and God gave them Saul. Saul lasted 40 years until David, a man after God’s own heart, ascended to the throne. Fast forward through the lineage of Jesus and Paul says, “According to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus.” John the Baptizer proclaimed that Jesus was coming and a baptism of repentance was available to all the people of Israel. John described Jesus as a man he wasn’t fit to untie His sandals. A quick history review from the Exodus to Jesus just as God promised Israel.

Paul’s second part reveals God’s promise fulfilled by Christ. Paul starts out again speaking to the two groups he calls, “Sons of Abraham’s family, and those among you who fear God.” “The message of this salvation has been sent.” He just said in v. 23, “According to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus.” Paul is systematically setting up what God has done in the history of Israel. God has demonstrated his mercy to Israel from Abraham to David. And don’t forget the promise made by Nathan to David in 2 Sam. 7:16, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” Don’t forget Matt. 1:1 where Jesus is called, “the son of David.” These facts are really important because of what Paul says next.

Look at what Luke says in vs. 27-31. This is the Gospel message and should be familiar to you if you’re a believer. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yes, the people killed Jesus out of ignorance as Acts 3:17 says, but those acts of ignorance fulfilled the prophecies that Messiah must suffer and die. What’s even more crazy is that Paul is talking to the people that should have recognized Jesus because they read about Him every week in the synagogue. If this section sounds familiar to you, it’s essentially the same message Peter preached in Acts 5. The Gospel message is still sufficient to accomplish salvation without adding to it or trying to make it more attractive. When you add or subtract or otherwise alter the Gospel, it’s not the Gospel. After Jesus was resurrected, Paul reminds the people what happened next. Jesus walked among the people and those people are now His witnesses throughout the land. Notice the lack of a personal pronoun from Paul. He’s putting everything on those that should have recognized Jesus. Paul zeroes in on the critical aspect of the Gospel – the resurrection. Look at vs. 32-37. The good news of the Gospel hinges on the resurrection. Paul quotes from Ps. 2:7, Is. 55:3, and Ps. 16:10. Anyone can die, but being raised from the dead is another matter. Predicting a resurrection is something altogether impossible. And that’s what we have in Jesus. Our faith hinges on the resurrection. Paul devoted 1 Cor. 15 to the resurrection and concluded in vs. 16-19, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” If Christ was not raised, we have no hope and this life is all there is, but I submit to you, that’s just not true.

The final part of Paul’s message is an invitation to accept the promise. Read vs. 38-41. Paul recaps what is available if they’ll take the step of belief. Forgiveness of sin is proclaimed. Through Christ, “everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.” He even provides a warning that they would never believe what he is saying even though he is describing it to them. Remember Paul is in the synagogue speaking to the men of Israel and those who fear God. How many times have you shared something with someone even though you really believed they wouldn’t listen? You still do what’s necessary and trust the Holy Spirit will work in them. You don’t give up and you take every opportunity the Lord provides to share the life changing truth with people. You remain consistent and authentic in your walk of faith knowing that it makes a difference. You go back time and time again hoping and praying they’ll still listen.

Paul took the opportunity to share the truth with these people in the synagogue. He reminded them of the promise God made to Israel. He took them from Moses in Egypt to the exodus, to the division of the land to Saul to David. he shared how the promise of God was fulfilled in Jesus. The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is the good news they needed to hear – the message of salvation. He invited them to accept the promise that afforded forgiveness that could never be found in the Law of Moses. Something pretty exciting happened in vs. 42-43. The people were intrigued and wanted to hear more so Paul and Barnabas were invited back the following Sabbath day. Many of the Jews and proselytes – those that converted to Judaism, followed after Paul and Barnabas and they were urged to continue in the grace of God. Not saved, but on the path. What’s next for Paul and Barnabas? What will come of their next meeting in the synagogue? Good questions that will be answered if you join us next week.

The Preparation

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Last week, Pastor Zane introduced us to Cornelius. Cornelius was a devout, praying man that had a vision. God told Cornelius to send for Peter who was staying 

with Simon the Tanner in Joppa. The same time Cornelius was having a vision, Peter fell into a trance and was given a vision. They sky opened up to him and it was revealed that what had been unclean and unholy was no longer unclean and unholy. The dietary restrictions had been lifted, but the meaning was far deeper than that. This morning, we’ll see how Peter responds to this incredible revelation.

I hope you grab your Bible and read our text for today found in Acts 10:17-33.

One of the biggest church killers is the phrase, “We’ve never done it that way.” Since the dawn of humanity, people all across the globe have uttered those six words. That phrase has stifled fresh ideas, innovative methods, and new technology along with a host of other things that could impact eternity. While not always, the phrase it typically uttered by people who have been around a while, who feel vested in a church, and who feel a sense of ownership. They’re content with the status quo no matter how out of touch it may be. Early in my vocational ministry, I was being interviewed by a church just like this.          For Peter, this is what is happening. Change has come and he cannot process it.

Luke says, “Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate; and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there.” (Acts 10:17-18) Remember, Cornelius was told in a vision to send men to Joppa to find Peter. Cornelius briefed his men on why they were going and the importance of the mission. We don’t know much about these three men, but we find them at Simon’s door asking if Peter is there.  Just an interesting note, the phrase, “had been sent” comes from the same root word where we get our word apostle. As the men are asking about Peter, the Spirit reveals to him that three men are looking for him. You might task, why all the vision and dream stuff? In Acts 2:17, Luke quoted the prophet Joel that said, “And that it shall be in the last days, God says, that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Joel 2:28) Remember, the people we’re looking at did not have what you are currently holding in your hands. They were living out the New Testament and relied on the leading of the Holy Spirit and the leading of the Apostles without being able to line it up with Scripture in the manner we can.

Peter is contemplating what this vision could mean when he is interrupted by the Spirit of God telling him to go downstairs and go with the men who are there. Peter was to go, “without misgivings.” That literally means doubting nothing. God even qualifies that by saying, “For I have sent them Myself.” Peter goes downstairs and without introduction says, “Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?” It’s a fair question and one you would ask to any stranger that comes to your door. What can I do for you? What do you want? Can I help you? Now a days, you might not even open the door to someone you don’t know. The men answer Peter by telling him. “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well-spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you.” They provide Cornelius’ credentials. By society’s standards, and it seems by God’s standards, Cornelius is someone. Devout. Righteous. He and his family were God-fearing. He was a prayer warrior. He gave alms. He was well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews – he had a good reputation. His private life lined up with his public life. This guy was the complete package. Too often, our life outside of church is markedly different than our life inside. If you’re considered for leadership here at 3RC, don’t be surprised if we ask for references. There are far too many people in  leadership who do not consistently demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit. We’re looking for people that are authentic. We’re looking for people that are growing, but haven’t arrived. We’re looking for people that want to be righteous, not right. People that are prayerful, not powerful. People that are committed, not contentious. Cornelius was that kind of guy.

His men tell Peter of their mission and that confirms what the Spirit had revealed to Peter. Peter is given instructions to go with the men to Cornelius’ house. So here we have an impasse of faith. What do you do with what God clearly tells you to do? In this case we have an angel of God telling Cornelius what to do, the voice of God speaking to Peter in a vision, and the Spirit of God telling Peter what to do. Nothing is left to chance, variables are removed; there are no what ifs or if onlys. Will you walk through the door opened by God? Will you go down the path God illuminates? Will you walk by faith? Would Peter hesitate and if so, why? Peter had a choice. Obedience or disobedience. 2000 years later, we face the same choice each and every day.

We move from we’ve never done it that way, to let’s walk down this new path that we’re not sure where it’ll take us. Peter is beginning to understand the vision because he doesn’t slam the door in the face of the three sent by Cornelius. Peter, “Invited them in and gave them lodging.” That’s pretty funny considering it wasn’t his house. Sure, come on in, we’ve got plenty of room. After a night’s rest, Peter, “Got up and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him.” Peter leaves with the three men sent by Cornelius with some believers from Joppa and they head off to Caesarea. It was a long walk. Caesarea is about 30 miles from Joppa and, “On the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them and had called his relatives and close friends.” Get the picture in your mind. Cornelius has a vision to get Peter and then sends men to get Peter. While all that walking is going on, Cornelius begins to gather his family and friends to hear from Peter. He is confident that Peter will come with his men.

Verse 25 says, “When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him.” Don’t think too ill of Cornelius. He had been told in a vision to send for Peter. Did Cornelius know exactly who Peter was? Had Peter’s reputation preceded him? Peter quickly corrects Cornelius and says, “Stand up; I too am just a man.” Of course, it’s wrong to worship a man. We would never do that. I find it interesting how star struck we get these days. From athletes to singers; from actors to musicians and even politicians. How many people would stand in line to meet Tua Tagovailoa? That starriness has even crossed into the church. Pastors that you don’t have access to. I have a friend in ministry on staff at a very large church. I asked him of his interaction with the pastor and he told me that he had met him a couple of times. Paul told us in Rom. 12:3 not to think too highly of ourselves. So, Peter walks in and sees the place packed with people. The people are not like Peter or the other apostles. Look at vs. 28-29. Peter’s vision about the sheet is becoming clearer as he remembers God’s words: “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (Acts 10:15) Peter is standing in the midst of a house full of Gentiles. I came like you asked me to, I didn’t object, so tell me what I’m doing here.

Cornelius gives Peter his message. I don’t get any impatience in Peter’s tone; I don’t think he’s all huffy. Why am I here, Peter asks. Cornelius gives it to him straight. It’s found in vs. 30-33. Cornelius recaps the incredible vision he had. Remember that Cornelius is a God-fearing, devout, giving, praying Gentile of some importance in Caesarea. Peter is all those same things that Cornelius is, but is a Jew. The fuzziness of the vision Peter had about the sheet is becoming clearer and clearer with each passing moment. Peter’s vision involved animals of all kinds: “four footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air.” It’s been four days since Cornelius’ vision and it’s the third time we’ve heard about it in these 33 verses in Chapter 10. One of the tools in Bible study is noting repetition. Any time Scripture repeats itself to this extent, we really need to take notice. While the vision is becoming clearer, Peter still does not know the specific reasons behind this visit. However, one thing is crystal clear: God has orchestrated this visit between Cornelius and his family and friends with Peter. Cornelius finishes by saying, “We are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”

Things are spinning in Peter’s mind. He’s been in front of crowds before so the people staring back at him are no big deal. He’s been in pressure situations before: dragged before the religious leaders of the day, he’s healed the lame, raised the dead, led by the Spirit, heard from God. All in a day in the life of a servant. But this? This is different. He’s in a room full of people that talk differently, look differently, eat differently, have different backgrounds and as he listens to Cornelius’ reasons for bringing him there, the light bulb goes off. You’ll have to wait to find out what happens next.

What about the Change?

You can watch the message here.

Last week, Pastor Mark introduced us to Ananias. The Lord told Ananias to get ready to receive a new Christian named Saul. Ananias protested reminding the Lord that Saul was a known persecutor of the church. God told Ananias that Saul was a chosen instrument and that He needed to show Saul how much he was to suffer for the name of Jesus. This morning, we’ll see how Ananias responds to God’s command.

I encourage you to read Acts 9:17-22.

The first thing we see is that Ananias does as instructed. Notice that Ananias does not offer alternative plans. He doesn’t bargain with the Lord. He doesn’t spend time in prayer, or speak with his friends, or fast, or put a poll on Facebook. We have so many examples in Scripture where people immediately obey what the Lord has told them to do so why do we find it so difficult to be obedient? Do we really comprehend Jeremiah’s words in Jer. 29:11 when God says, “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” Sometimes we’re expected to do things that don’t make sense to us, things that cannot be explained; things where we must exercise faith. Don’t be scared of God’s will.

Put yourself in Ananias’s position. He’s told in a vision to make nice with a guy that has been persecuting the church. Saul’s reputation precedes him. Saul is known throughout the area as a guy that is on the offensive against the church. It’s not that he’s saying mean things – he’s murdering or has his hands in the death and imprisonment of believers. So, for Ananias to put aside what he knows about Saul is pretty significant. Ananias obeyed the Lord even when it made no sense to him. “Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying hands on him says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Ananias calls him “Brother Saul.” We know from reading the Scripture that Saul was not a biological brother. This is a reference to being related through the blood of Christ so something also happened in Ananias’s heart to greet Saul so warmly. Ananias was given two jobs for this first encounter with the infamous Saul of Tarsus. First, Ananias tells Saul that it’s the Lord Jesus, the same Lord Jesus that he had been persecuting, that sent him to get Saul his sight back. We know from 9:8 that even though Saul could open his eyes, he could not see. Now that’s a scary endeavor. When Ananias laid his hands on Saul, “immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight.” We don’t know what those scales were or how they worked other than the Lord put them there to help Saul recognize exactly who Jesus was.

Second, Saul, “got up and was baptized.” When we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, we see that baptism is an outward demonstration of a changed heart. We saw it with the Ethiopian eunuch and it’s the pattern that has been established in Acts. Maybe you’re thinking, hold on, what about Simon? Simon was baptized in 8:13, but Peter told him in 8:21 that he has, “no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.” Peter went on to tell Simon that he was, “in the bondage of iniquity.” Instead of repenting as Peter told him to do in 8:22, Simon asked them to pray that he would escape judgment in 8:24. Simon was not a true convert. We know that Saul was a true convert because of what follows. Right after being baptized, Saul, “took food and was strengthened.” He had not eaten for the three days he was without sight.

Here’s some proof of a life transformed. God really can change people. Often in the church, we want to hear stories of how God snatched people out of the gutter, how He redeemed someone from drugs, alcohol, and wild living. It’s a big draw to have someone from the absolute worst of society share how God saved them. Of course, we should all rejoice in being saved from the bondage of sin, but often times, those stories of deliverance from great sin leave people longing for a more “powerful” testimony. I have said it before and I will say it again. God gets more glory from a life of obedience than He does from a life of sin. Let’s take a quick look at something this man we’re looking at wrote. Read what Paul had to say about this in Rom. 6:1-7.

So, let’s take a look at what happened to Saul right after he was made new. Look at the rest of v. 19. “Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus.” We’ll see from Acts 22:3 that Saul studied under the Pharisee Gamaliel so he would know the Old Testament. He spent several days with the disciples perhaps receiving some specialized instruction in his new found faith. V. 20 says, “and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” This is vitally important and one of the reasons Saul had been in such opposition to what the apostles were teaching. The apostles were dragged into jail twice for doing what Saul is now doing. Stephen was killed for what Saul is now doing. Saul is proclaiming that Jesus is God which was defined as blasphemy by the religious crowd. This is quite the turnaround from what people knew about Saul. He’s going into the synagogues of Damascus and telling people that Jesus is God. That’s where there are people – remember the synagogue played a key role in the life of a Jew. He went into the synagogue and freaked out the people.

You remember in the 1843 Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge was a miserly man who had disdain for all things good. When wished Merry Christmas by his nephew, Scrooge replied, “Bah, humbug.” Scrooge’s nephew says, “Christmas a humbug, uncle! You don’t mean that, I am sure.” Humbug means fraud or hoax so Scrooge was saying Christmas was a hoax. I quote from Dickens’ the words of Scrooge: “What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas-time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books, and having every item in ‘em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

Everyone is probably familiar with Scrooge and when the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future visit him, he has a change of heart. A complete turn around and the people are shocked and amazed. This is what I envision to be the response of the people of Damascus. “All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” Every single person that heard Saul speak was amazed. Amazed here means so astounded as to be practically overwhelmed. The people knew about Saul; he had a reputation and Christians were probably warned about him. They knew he was a destroyer; they knew he imprisoned believers; they likely knew he was at the stoning of Stephen; they knew he would stop at nothing; they knew he was on his way to Damascus with the authority from the chief priests to haul them off to Jerusalem in chains so for Saul to have a turn around to the extent that he declared that Jesus is the Son of God was nothing short of miraculous. I’m sure the people were skeptical, I’m sure they were guarded, I’m sure they had their doubts just like Ananias did, but one thing is for sure: they were they were completely shocked.

Here’s some more proof. While the people sat around talking about Saul and how incredible the current events were, “Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.” There are two really cool things in this verse. First, Saul grew stronger and stronger. How that took place, we can only imagine. Perhaps it was the Lord speaking to him, maybe the disciples shared some things they had picked up the previous few years as they walked with Jesus, maybe Saul saw the confidence people had in Jesus; we just don’t know. Second, he confounded the Jews in Damascus. Confound means confuse, cause astonishment as to bewilder and dismay. The Jews were befuddled. These are still the Jews that rejected Jesus as Messiah. They were confused because Saul was preaching what he had previously condemned as blasphemy. Finally, Saul confounded the Jews because he proved that Jesus is the Christ. Now that’s a pretty huge statement. Saul was able to defend what he now believed. What he previously rejected, he now embraced. What had been defined as blasphemy, now brought hope. What he had attacked, he now articulated. What he had condemned, he now communicated. Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ. Christ is the New Testament designation of the Old Testament Messiah. He is the sacrificial Lamb of God that cleansed humanity from sin. Jesus is the anointed one as prophesied in 1 Sam. 2:10 and Ps. 2:2. Jesus is the mediator, the advocate, the redeemer, the reconciler, the Holy One, the everlasting God, the all knowing God, the all seeing God. He is our strength, our Creator, our comfort, our confidence. He is our banner, our shepherd, our great High Priest, our provider, our healer, our help. As John so beautifully wrote, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” (Jo. 20:30-31) This is what Saul proved. No refuting, no doubt, no shame. This is Jesus who is the Christ, the strong Son of the living God.

Saul is miraculously saved and the outward demonstration of that transformation is a complete 180. What will happen to him? Will he suffer persecution like the apostles? How much will he suffer? Will the religious crowds seek to silence him? Join us next week at we continue to look at the former Christian killer turned Christian convert.

Redirection

Last week, Pastor Mike told us the apostles continued their work in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God was moving there and Simon, that misguided magician, believed in the power of God and was baptized and went with Phillip. Simon was continually amazed by what he saw, but thought he could purchase the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter rebuked Simon and encouraged him to repent of what was in his heart. We left with Simon asking Pete to pray for him not grasping the power of God. This morning, we’ll see what happens when you’re sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

I hope you’ll take the time to look at Acts 8:25-40.

We start with a Holy Spirit detour. How many of you are planners? Don’t you just hate it when you have everything all planned out and then something happens that causes you to change plans? Like Hurricane Irma? She messed up a lot of people’s plans. I had a haircut scheduled for the Wednesday after and it was cancelled. For many of us, Irma brought minor inconveniences, but for a lot of people in the Caribbean Islands and in south Florida, their lives were changed forever. I think we have all experienced the curve balls of life, but what about when the Holy Spirit redirects you? Acts 8:25 says, “So, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.” The apostles were working their way back to Jerusalem and were sharing the truth of the Gospel as they went. There was no exclusivity in the message; it was available and applicable to all who would listen. Phillip began his ministry to the Samaritans in 8:5 and that mission was very fruitful.

Sometimes the best laid plans are changed. Remember Samaria is in the northern kingdom and the apostles are going back to Jerusalem. “But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, “Get up and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.)” Instead of going to Jerusalem with the apostles, Philip is singled out for an individual mission. How do you respond when God changes your plan? Understand there’s a difference between God’s plan and your plan. Herein lies a real danger when you go around playing the “God is leading me card” to justify your scatterbrained plans. I know some people that God seems to be toying with. He tells them to do one thing, then He changes it a week later, only to change it again, and again. My God is not wishy washy.

I love how Philip responds to this change of plans. Luke tells us that Philip, “Got up and went.” Obedience. Nike faith. He just did it. I know what you’re thinking because I’ve heard it before: “If God would tell me things, if He’d speak to me then I’d do it.” God tells us to do things all the time that we ignore. Honor your mother and father. Give generously and sacrificially to the work of the Lord. Study your Bible. Share your faith, love people, pray for those in authority. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church. Be holy, be honest, be trustworthy. You see, God tells us a lot of things that we ignore or dismiss.        For most of us, a simple life of obedience is what God desires. There are people that God has called to a national or international platform to share the truth of Christ, but for most of us, loving God, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and living a life of obedience brings Him honor and glory and has God saying well done. So, Philip gets up and goes where God told him to go. Notice that there is no plan of action that the Spirit lays out, no guidance, no inkling of what God had in store for Philip – he is simply told to go. Philip heads down the desert road, the road that leads to Egypt.

As God’s timing would have it, Philip comes face to face with a guy that, “was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship, and he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah.” Really get this in your mind. Philip is walking where God wanted him to go and because of his immediate obedience, he meets a man that is coming from Jerusalem where he worshiped. Luke gives us some pretty good details about this man. He was Ethiopian – a Gentile. He was a eunuch. In biblical days, slaves were sometimes castrated as young boys and then used as keepers of harems and the treasury. One Bible scholar says that eunuchs were particularly trustworthy and that’s why they were often put in charge of the treasury. This practice became so widespread that the term eunuch and treasurer became synonymous. I share this because it is likely this man is a physical eunuch because both terms are used. That’s important because the man had just come from Jerusalem where he worshiped so he was probably a convert to Judaism. Deut. 23:1 says, “No one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”  He would have worshiped at the court of the Gentiles and not in the temple. This man is an official of Candace who is queen of the Ethiopians. Candace is to Ethiopia as Pharaoh is to Egypt. Candace is her title, not her name. This guy is in charge of all the queen’s treasure. He’s sitting in his chariot reading from the book of Isaiah.       So now you’re caught up on this Ethiopian eunuch.

“Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” Philip does and asks the guy, “Do you understand what you are reading.” Philip’s not being mean. In fact, the eunuch says, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me.” This is critical and I don’t want you to miss this. This man is reading Scripture through the lens of someone that does not understand Jesus, that has not embraced Messiah. He needs someone whose eyes have been opened to the truth to explain Scripture to him. 1 Cor. 2:14 says, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”

So what’s the point? The eunuch is reading from Is. 53:7-8. We know this passage is talking about the Messiah, but put yourself in the eunuch’s place. He does not understand the passage. It’s confusing to him. He knows what it says, but not who Isaiah is talking about. I can picture the excitement building in Philip and he is probably praying and asking that the Lord would give him the right words to say. So, he asks Philip, “Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?” And there it is. The purpose for God sending Philip down this long and dusty road. Acts 8:35 says, “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him.” Philip didn’t say, “Well Bub, here’s a pamphlet that will explain it.” He didn’t say, “I’ve got a great book that will help you.” He didn’t say, “Let me call Peter, he can explain this stuff really well.” He didn’t say, “Come back to Jerusalem, my small group is awesome and you can get your questions answered there.” Why am I telling you what Philip didn’t say? Because those are the things I hear people say in response to someone that is asking questions about Jesus. If you are a believer in the Messiah, you have the answers to the questions people are asking. So, you better be studied up, prayed up, and ready to tell people why you have hope. Don’t outsource your faith.

Philip opens his mouth and speaks on behalf of Jesus who is the Messiah. The Scripture the eunuch read from was the starting off point. “Beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him.” What did Philip say in response to that question? Philip must have presented the Gospel in a way the eunuch understood. He must have covered sin and its penalty. He must have shared the virgin birth of Christ and why that’s important. He must have shared about the sinless life of Christ and how the sacrifice of Christ atoned for sin. Keep in mind that the eunuch was coming from the temple so he would understand sacrifice and atonement. Philip must have shared about Christ’s crucifixion, His shed blood, and His death. I’m certain he shared about Christ being in the tomb for three days and then being miraculously resurrected in fulfillment of the Scriptures. He must have shared about Christ walking the earth for 40 days before ascending to heaven. He must have shared all about what Christ had done in him and in his friends. He must have shared about the picture of baptism. How can I come to that conclusion? After a while, “the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” The eunuch understood; he got it and wanted to have what Philip had. You may or may not have v. 37 in your Bible. It does not appear in early manuscripts of Acts. It was probably added by a scribe at some point during copying to bring a conclusion to the eunuch’s conversion. With or without v. 37, the conclusion is the same. The eunuch heard the truth and responded to it. He wanted to be baptized as sign of his conversion.

The story takes a shocking turn here. The eunuch stops the chariot and he and Philip go down into the water where he is baptized. Like other places in the New Testament, baptism is by immersion. They come up out of the water and, “The Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing.” Standing there dripping wet, Philip disappears right before the eunuch’s eyes. One second, Philip is there, and literally the next second he is not. That would freak people out today, but the eunuch? He went on his way rejoicing. “But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities until he came to Caesarea.” Philip landed about 37 miles away and continued what he knew to do and that is preach the Gospel.

Philip surrendered to an unknown mission. God changed his plans to go back to Jerusalem and he was obedient. Because of his obedience, the Ethiopian eunuch was miraculously saved and became the first foreign convert in Scripture. The seed of the Gospel is carried to Africa. Philip’s ministry is really incredible. He began evangelizing the Samarians – a half-bred people despised by Jews. He shares with the crowds in Samaria and they responded. On the desert road, we see Philip engaged in personal evangelism – one on one. The message he shared was identical. The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ – the good news of the Gospel. The expected response was the same: believe and be baptized. In all cases, the response to the Gospel brought joy and it should be the same for us today.

The Persecution

Last week, Pastor Zane told us that Stephen was murdered for his faith at the hands of the people, yet he remained full of faith. Christlike to the end, he prayed forgiveness for the actions of the ignorant people. We see one man’s life ending and we were introduced to a young man named Saul whose story was just beginning. This morning, we’ll see what happens when a man full of self-righteousness and misaligned zeal goes on the offensive.

Take a couple of minutes and read Acts 8:1-8.

In Georgia, you can be charged with a crime simply because you knew it was going on. You can ask my buddy, Pastor Zane, for details because that’s what happened when he was convicted. We have Saul being in, “Hearty agreement with putting him to death.” The Council, led by the high priest, found Stephen guilty of the crimes to which he was falsely accused and drove him out of the city where he was stoned to death. While Saul agreed with putting Stephen to death, it had a profound effect on him as we’ll see later in Acts. This martyrdom of Stephen ushered in widespread attacks against Christians living in Jerusalem. “And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” When we read Scripture, we tend to think in periods of time, but all that we have been looking at the last several weeks occurred over a two-day period.

Stephen’s dead body was still warm when Satan went on the offensive against God’s holy plan for humanity. Every believer in Messiah was driven from the place most of them likely had lived their entire lives, and fled to places unfamiliar to them. They literally ran for their lives. Believers were scattered in the regions of Judea and in Samaria. Scattered mean to sow throughout. Now that’s pretty interesting. It’s the same word used when scattering seed. What happens when you scatter seed? It grows. The seed of the gospel left Jerusalem just as Jesus commanded in Matt. 28:19-20. But, the apostles remained in Jerusalem and we’ll see them mentioned again several times in Acts. Stephen is dead and, “Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentations over him.” This is not some misplaced parenthetical thought. These men took a real chance burying Stephen. Jewish law prohibited funerals for convicted criminals and Stephen was convicted of blasphemy and speaking against the temple and against the Law. They buried him, cried and wept loudly and beat their breasts.

It goes from bad to worse for believers. Saul, “Began ravaging the church, entering house after house, dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.” Ravage comes from the same word that is used to describe what lions, and tigers, and bears do to their prey. He was vicious in his attacks against believers. He burst into houses and was an equal opportunity destroyer dragging men and women out. Saul would stop at nothing. How he put them in prison, we don’t know, but remember how many people turned to Christ in the first six chapters. There were thousands in Jerusalem and just because Luke says they were scattered doesn’t mean that everyone got out safely. Imagine sitting down for a meal or to unwind and the door to your house is kicked in and before you can react, a man grabs you and literally drags you out. Don’t think Saul was by himself in this, there had to be others that were working with him to bring such widespread destruction on the church.

The narrative takes a startling turn here. In v. 4, Luke says, “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” Do not read this verse lightly. Understand what is going on. Family members, loved ones, friends, people they knew had been dragged off to prison or worse, and yet they preached the word. How can these believers, who are suffering such hardship, continue on the mission before them? I think it’s not only a fair question, but a stark contrast to how we react to adversity today. One of the seven men that the apostles chose to relieve them of the responsibility to feed the widows had been falsely accused, wrongfully convicted, and was stoned to death. These new believers who were forcefully driven from their homes fleeing for their lives went on doing the very thing that got Stephen killed. How can these things be? The only conclusion I can draw is that they truly believed that Jesus was the Messiah, that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of old, that Jesus was Emmanuel meaning God with us, that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for sin, that new life is found in Christ, that all hope is found in Christ, that Jesus is the avenue to reconcile a sinful people to a holy and perfect God. It seems to me that they genuinely loved the Lord and that love moved them to action – to tell other people about Jesus. It’s not enough to say you love Jesus. If there is no action, then your love is just words. You love your children? You work a job to support them, to provide a place to live, food on the table, clothes on their back. You scrimp and save to give your kids a chance for a better life than you had. All this is motivated by your love for them. You say you love Jesus, but why don’t you share what Jesus has done for you with people that may not know anything more than we celebrate His birth on December 25th?

These believers are scattered throughout the land and they preached the word. Luke calls out Philip who was one of the seven mentioned in Acts 6:5 as, “Being full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Verse 5 says, “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them.” Samaria was the region northwest of Jerusalem and that’s where Philip ended up. The them refers to the people in the city. Philip took to heart the message that he heard and saw and wanted to share that with others. So, he begins by, “proclaiming Christ.” The Samaritans were largely considered half breeds by the Jews so they were neither Jew nor Gentile. Samaritan lineage goes back to the northern tribes of Israel when God divided the land to each tribe. The northern tribes were known as Israel and the southern tribes were Judah. Israel was taken captive by Assyria in 722 B.C., but not all the people were taken captive. Those that were still in the land intermarried with the native population and did things that were detestable to God like installing their own version of the high priest to conduct worship in the temples they built in the high places. Idolatry was widespread in Samaria. So, for Philip to begin ministry there is pretty incredible, but it wasn’t the first time a Samaritan would be shown the love of Christ. Remember the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well?

Let’s take a quick look at Jo. 4:5-26. This is the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. V. 20 gives us some insight into the misguided notions the Samaritans have. She tells Jesus that her fathers worshiped on Mt. Gerizim, but the Jews say you have to worship at Jerusalem. Jesus then gives her the bombshell that there is coming a time that worship will not occur at a place. She tells Jesus that her people are looking for Messiah who is called Christ, but she doesn’t know that she is talking to the Messiah until Jesus reveals it. Jesus had to clear up some wrong teaching the woman received at some point. So, we fast forward to a time when all that Jesus said has been fulfilled. Remember that Philip is “proclaiming Christ” and for all the misunderstanding and idolatry in Samaria, the message Philip shared was exactly what was needed in that area. Luke says, “The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed.” The crowds paid attention to Philip and the message that he preached was confirmed by corresponding signs. Demons were cast out, the paralyzed and the lame were healed. Don’t put the cart before the horse here though. The gospel was preached and that’s what the people responded to. Miracles are great and awesome and they can provide a draw to the truth of Jesus, but they do not take the place of genuine faith in Christ. The miracles are not the point of this story – the gospel is the point of the story.

The conclusion: “There was much rejoicing in that city.” The gospel is the great cycle breaker. The unclean are made clean under Christ. The lame are healed under Christ. Half-breeds are adopted by God. People of questionable backgrounds are made new. Racism eliminated; hatred replaced by love. I believe it can still happen today. There was much rejoicing just as was promised in Lk. 2:10 when, “The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.”

The good news really is for all people. It seems that the Samaritan people were ready to hear the life changing news of the gospel. Believe it or not, there are still people today that are waiting for the message. Be like Philip. Even in the midst of persecution and suffering, he proclaimed the Christ.