Catalysts of Church Growth

Exegetical Text: Acts 7-9

Adolescence of the Early Church Part II from Cape Alliance Church on Vimeo.

A video recently popped up on my Facebook feed, shared by on old acquaintance of mine from Seattle. It was a decidedly liberal video, which is why I found the title of it quite odd: 5 Ways that America is Already Socialist. Out of curiosity I started to watch it—I didn’t finish, but that’s partially due to it not being interesting—and only got as far as the reasoning that we are socialist because of the labor unions (which they described as a good thing) and their efforts to get “fair”wages along with the weekend. At first, I passed it of as dumb propaganda, which it was, but the more I thought about it more I was amazed at how much has changed politically even over just the simple span of my lifetime.

  1. In elementary school, we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day. I don’t remember doing it after that.
  2. The popular 80s sitcom, Murphy Brown, almost got cancelled because her character got pregnant out of wedlock. Today, Duck Dynasty is ruined as a show because they want to pray on TV.
  3. In high school, we held a Bible study/prayer group that met at school.
  4. There was a section on creation in my high school biology textbook.
  5. Also in high school, we could have faith based discussions and the teacher could allow/participate as long as they didn’t start it.
  6. 2001 brought us the Bush Doctrine, which gave the government the ability to act on the threat of aggression. This led to the US government spying on US citizens by 2006.
  7. In 2010, the Affordable Care Act was signed, effectively giving the government control over our health.
  8. Just a few months ago, the Supreme Court changed the definition of marriage, which has been held since the beginning of history.

This list could go on, but the point is clear: the times, they are a changin. In a relatively short amount of time, the government has significantly increased the amount of control it has over people’s lives, thus reducing the freedom each individual citizen holds. While not all political issues directly coincide with our faith, there are many that do. People point to landmark cases such as Roe vs. Wade or Brown vs. the Board of Education to show that as these rights are taken away, our ability to fully practice our faith is hindered. Just this past week, the gentlemen who played Gimli on the Lord of the Rings, went public on a radio show to talk about how we have lost our moral compass and Christian are the ones who are suffering the most for it. Simply put, the farther this world runs away from God and to lawlessness, the more difficult it is going to be as a Christian.

For contemplation, I ask you to consider this question: is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Privilege of Persecution

Our text today centers around a few stories in the early life of the church, highlighted by three standout examples of Christians that led the “Mountain Dew lifestyle” like I described last week. The point of these stories (Spoiler Alert!) is that God was pushing the expansion of the church outside of Jerusalem and Judea and was prepping the world for the gospel message. Jerusalem and Judea had already been taken by storm and there were many who were living a life devoted to God through Jesus, but the pressure had begun to mount.

We left off last week with Stephen and his appointment with the others to ministry – and the great things the Holy Spirit was doing through him. The high priests and Pharisees and already begun to take notice of him and get upset about Stephen’s ministry. Chapter 6 ends with people falsely accusing Stephen and getting him arrested. The first part of chapter 7 is a beautiful retelling of the gospel story and its relation to the Old Testament; specifically Moses. Like Peter, Stephen was not afraid to tell it like it is. Let’s pick it up in verse 51.

READ Acts 7:51-60

The Jewish officials had finally broken the seal and gotten away with their first documented murder of a Christian. It was at this point that the persecution they had previously been suffering (threats, minor arrests, arguing, some flogging) took a new and drastic turn – due to, at least in part, a guy named Saul. We’ll talk more about him later, but catch this:

READ Acts 8:1-3

In the NASB, they use the word ravage – Saul ravaged the church with this new persecution. These are tough chapters to read and the persecution the early church endured was absolutely horrible, but again I ask the question – was this a good thing or a bad thing for the church? These chapters highlight the lengths that the Jews would go to try and snuff out the gospel, but instead, what do we ultimately read about in these chapters? These three chapters mark the expansion of the gospel and the church outside of Jerusalem and Judea. The doors are opening for the rest of the world! The church, Ekklesia, was now no longer confined to a location or a people; but is now openly spreading throughout the rest of the world!

Chapter 8 talks about Philip and his work in Samaria and with the Ethiopian Eunuch – who was an official of the Queen of Ethiopia. The message was spreading – and it was spreading out of the control of anyone who would try to stop it! The question is, then, what does persecution have to do with church growth? Let’s briefly take a look at larger church history.

The early church was persecuted and also grew like wildfire for the first couple hundred years. Then a huge event happens – Emperor Constantine becomes a Christian and in the beginning of 313, develops the Edict of Milan, which stated that Christians should be allowed to follow their faith without oppression. He also worked a lot to bring a unified theological base to the faith; in essence, establishing an orthodox set of beliefs. He brought about the First Council of Nicea in 325, at which came the Nicene Creed, which is still used in many Christian circles today and sung in songs by popular Christian artists such as Third Day and the late Rich Mullins.

After this happened, while the church continued to grow, the church of the middle ages looked very different from the early church. Complacency and infighting replaced passion and mission. Indulgences became a thing. In essence, Christians got comfortable and received a taste of what it means to be in power. Pretty soon, Christians were forcing people into the faith and opening the doorway for the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.

Christians forgot that God promised persecution for believers (2 Timothy 3:12 – in fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted) and stopped seeing God as the refining fire (Zechariah 13:9 and Jeremiah 9:7). In fact, it wasn’t until the Reformation and the reemergence of persecution (this time, from the Catholic Church) that the really spread and made its way to America and the far east. Today, I think we are seeing another round of persecution beginning on the heels of the last few hundred years of Christian affluence. I see this as important and ultimately good for us Christians because of what it forces us to do – to stop resting on our laurels and actually run the race with perseverance.

Persecution is a refining act that God uses to sanctify us and, through that passion and zeal for Him, spread the gospel message to the remotest ends of the earth. Look at it like this – if you are out for a run in the forest, you may push yourself a bit, but your body will rest when it can. Now imagine a bear chasing you while you run – that’s pushing your body to the extreme. That’s how to run in a Mountain Dew lifestyle.

People with Passion

Persecution is not the only catalyst that God uses to build His Ekklesia, however. The next two stories, chapters 8 and 9, highlight other individuals who absolutely lived that Mountain Dew life with a zeal and a passion that led to many being impacted by the gospel message.

Philip the Evangelist

First we have Philip, who it shows as one that was scattered from Jerusalem due to the ferocity of the persecution. He travels to Samaria and hides, right? No! He preaches in front of crowds and performs miraculous signs of healing and deliverance from demons. In fact, the work of the Holy Spirit was so powerful through Philip that we hear of him being followed by a former magician looking to gain that kind of power for himself. Of course, Simon doesn’t get it and seems to repent at the end.

And angel of the Lord then appears to Philip and leads him south where he runs in to the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip’s simple obedience to go where called and speak when given the opportunity led to many being saved and the advancement of the gospel to another continent. Philip’s circumstances were not easy, as he was one who had been scattered and on the run from persecution, but was he worried about himself? Was he nervous about getting into more trouble? Or was he passionate about his Savior and willing to go to whatever ends for the glory of the Lord?

Obviously, Philip was willing to do whatever God asked of Him, which is why, to date, he is the only one we know of to be teleported (Acts 8:39-40). For those curious, the distance between Gaza and Azotus was about 30 miles. Philip kept going, not stopping at all, but preaching the gospel as he continued on his way. To Philip, it didn’t matter what obstacles were in the way or who was trying to stop him. It did matter, however, to God.

Saul the Persecutor

I find the information we have on the young Saul makes him a perfect juxtaposition to Peter. Of all the negatives Peter had stacked up against him until the Holy Spirit took control, Saul had all of the positives. He was educated, had good lineage, was well liked and respected and an intensity in his personality that commanded fear, or at least extreme personal strength. Saul was a tiger – not afraid of anything and probably needed reined in more than anything else. And, at the point we meet him is actively working against God by persecuting the early church.

Paul said himself later on that God chose the foolish things of the world to same the wise, and God’s saving act for Saul on the road to Damascus certainly looked about as foolish as one could get. God took the world’s leading persecutor of the church and turned him into the world’s foremost evangelist, missionary and theologian…to this day!

READ Acts 9:1-19

A couple of interesting things we see here:

  1. God can reach anybody. God’s calling on a person’s life is not dependent on anything other than what He has planned for them. In 19 verses we see one of the worst persecutors of Christianity become one of its leading evangelists. If God can turn around Saul, then think of what He can do with you!
  2. God’s plan is God’s plan. We have been given the opportunity to accept, but God still wants us to respond. “Who are you, Lord?” Saul, as evil as he was, earnestly was wanting to follow God properly – he was just severely misinformed on how that works. Do you want to be a part of God’s plan? Do you want Him to use you in mighty ways? Do you have the passion to be a world changer in Christ’s name?
  3. Saul gave up everything to follow Christ. His position, money, lineage and fame were, in that instant, a distant memory. Instead, Saul took on suffering and a Mountain Dew life for Christ.

Saul’s Ministry Credentials

READ Acts 9:19-31

It is here where, on some levels, I really start to relate to Saul. His passion and zeal was not a good fit for those at “home” and this new convert to the faith all of a sudden had become a catalyst in the early church for major change. The Pharisees now hated him and wanted him dead, and the believers didn’t trust him. So what did he do? Did he fly under the radar? Did he lay low for a few months or years? Did he go to Bible College and earn a degree? No – he simply started preaching. We can look back today and see the wisdom from his writings that came straight from God and that Saul was specifically chosen by God to be a mouthpiece, but imagine being back then and seeing this guy—loud and obnoxious—come and take charge of everything, throw his weight around, argue and get in everyone’s faces. Would Saul be welcomed here, today?

Saul’s credentials were the result of a direct appointment from God. He acted from his calling and the Holy Spirit that resided fully in him. He took his loud and obnoxious personality and used it for kingdom glory. If the Holy Spirit indwelling Peter gave him a spiritual confidence, it made Saul BOLD. It gave him a vigor and a restlessness that would not stop. Saul cared about nothing else than seeing everyone come to Christ and traveled all around the known world to make that happen. He wanted to see Christ come back in his day!

The Return of Christ

That’s really the question posed here today. How much do you want to see the mission accomplished? What is the completion of God’s mission mean to you? Does it mean enough to willingly risk persecution and hatred? Is it enough to sacrifice your comfortable life? Is it enough even to get you out of that chair and on to your knees? Do you have the passion to stand up and fight the good fight; run the race with perseverance, and set your eyes firmly on Jesus? How would that look in your life? Plain and simple, friends, this is what our life is about. This is what the Christian life is about. God is calling us to be people of passion who, refined by the fire of persecution, are honored to give our very lives to the gospel. Consider the words of Saul from 1 Thess 1:5-10.

Are you ready to live that Mountain Dew lifestyle?

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