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Acts 8:1-8 // Persecution & Great Joy

“1 Saul agreed with putting him [Stephen] to death.

On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him. 3 Saul, however, was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison.

4 So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds paid attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the signs he was performing. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed, and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.”

Acts 8:1-8

It isn’t unsusal to see strange pairings in the life of the Church. That persecution and joy would be so closely intertwined would be unusual in the world’s eyes and expectations, but we see God working wonder and beauty so often out of pain and unfortunate circumstances. That the death/martyrdom of Stephen would be followed by persecution, anger and hatred that then, in turn, pushed thoe who carried the same Gospel message out into the surrounding areas spurring others to come to know Christ, and salvation through Him, is something straight out of God’s handiwork. He brings good where someone else intends evil. 

Think back to Genesis, when Joseph was sold by his brothers to some Midianite traders because they didn’t want to hear about his dreams anymore. Joseph, sold by his own family into slavery, winds up being in the position to save them from starvation during a terrible famine. And not on ly his own family, but that entire region of the world. What they intended for evil, God used for good. Anger and frustration resulted in joy and thanksgiving.

Think to the next chapter in Israelite history. Moses has been born, floated down the nile, raised in Pharaoh’s household and decides to go out and see how his fellow Israelites are doing. While he is out on a walk, he sees the Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave and Moses kills him, which ultimately results in his flight from Egypt and 40 years as a shepherd. Moses had anger in his heart, he was a murderer. But God used that flight from Egypt to teach him valuable lessons and to get him to a place where he could lead His people out of slavery. What Moses began with evil, God turned into something good.

And so the stories run. God takes the messes of our lives and creates beauty from our ashes, strength form our pain. And so He is glorified. Saul, who watched and apporved of Stephen’s death would later write that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Because when we have nothing to run on, the handiwork of God becomes much more obvious, and all the praise and glory belongs to Him. 

The persecution that began at Stephen’s martyrdom resulted in the spread of the Gospel message, the breaking down of social barriers and the saving of many lives & so persecution led to great joy. Such is the love and concern of God, He doesn’t leave any opportunity untapped. All things point ot Him and His glory, we simply need to remember this and trust Him to move, even in the midst of our pain…especially in the midst of our pain. He’s just that good. He loves us that much. All glory & honor & praise go to Him for His goodness, mercy & grace.

As we GoLove others in His Name, we need to remember all these occasions that He brought good out of bad and how He redeemed our lives from the pit. While we were still dead in our trespasses, God, in HIs perfect timing, sent Christ to be life for us, taking that penalty of sin and death upon Himself so that the beauty of salvation might prevail, and that God might be glorified in both His justice and in HIs love. 

Praise God!

  

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Acts 7:51-60 // Jesus and the story of redemption (pt 6)

“51 You stiff- necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your ancestors did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. 53 You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.”

54 When they heard these things, they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, 56 “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

57 Then they screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. 58 They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They were stoning Stephen as he called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!” And saying this, he fell asleep.”

Acts 7:51-60

This is the end of Stephen’s sermon, but not the end of his witness. A Christian life, well lived, leaves a legacy in the faith…and Stephen did just that. His boldness was not for his own glory, but sparked by the Holy Spirit in Him for the glory of God. His passion for the truth of the Gospel drove him to speak truths that were difficult for people to hear. He obviously didn’t sugar-coat anything, but laid out the raw facts of what had happened between the people and God over the years and their treatment of His one and only annointed, Jesus Christ. 

Their reaction to his message mirrors exactly what he claimed of their fathers & ancestors. Nobody likes being called ‘betrayers & murderers’ but Stephen was speaking firmly and directly to a group of very hard hearts. Soft pedaling around with pretty words and overly kind analogies wouldn’t have made any headway either. This type of direct speech was necessary, even if it was unlikely to garner any results. But there was at least one heart present that would be changed by Christ. Saul’s presence at the martyrdom of Stephen must have replayed in his heart and mind later in life as the Apostle Paul. All the murderous threats, all the beatings and imprisonments that he committed, supposedly in the Name and will of God, culmintaed in acts like this. 

As we GoLove people for the sake of Christ, we must know and realize that we will definitely encounter hearts like hard-pack soil. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t still try to scatter some seed. It’s not easy work to share with resistant hearts, but we are better off taking the time to share the truth at least once with people while we have the opportunity to do so. We have the knowledge, and the faith, and so we also harbor the responsibility and have accountability to God Himself to do so. No Christian is exempt from evangelism. No Christian is given a free-pass out of sharing the truth of the Gospel message, and we cannot pretend that silence is a viable option. in 1 Peter, we are reminded that suffering for the sake of the Gospel is to be counted as an honor. Paul & Silas sang hymns as they were jailed for their faith. Peter and John rejoiced after being flogged because they had been counted worthy of suffering for the Name. 

Stephen’s example is a reminder to us that we are not to hold our lives so dear as to ignore the calling put on them. We are Christians first and foremost. We do not seek comfort, but the salvation of souls. Time is of the essence, opportunites should not be allowed to slip by. As we GoLove, we find that that love does things, it moves and speaks through us & we must absolutely own it as a first priority. A passionless Christian is probably just someone wearing a mask crying, “Lord, Lord.” It’s not a fun thing to say, but the salvation working in us changes us, and someone who claims Christ, but remains unchanged has likely developed a loose allegiance to an idea, desiring a savior, but not submitting to His Lordship. 

Stephen submitted to the uttermost. He wasn’t extraordinary, just first in a long line of devoted hearts. If our discipleship doesn’t bring us to uncomfortable places and times, then we need to seriously reevaluate what we say we believe and come humbly to Christ, ready to submit our whole selves to Him. 

  

Acts 7: 44-50 // Jesus and the story of redemption (pt 5)

“44 Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses commanded him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn received it and with Joshua brought it in when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers, until the days of David. 46 He found favor in God’s sight and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built Him a house. 48 However, the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands, as the prophet says:

“49 Heaven is My throne,

and earth My footstool.

What sort of house will you build for Me?”

says the Lord,

“or what is My resting place?

50 Did not My hand make all these things?”

Acts 7:44-50

God knows our needs. He does not react to our needs or desires. He needs nothing we can offer. Here in Acts 7, Stephen remids the Sanhedrin that the tabernacle and the temple that they are so attached to, so proud of, isn’t something that God needs in order to be worshipped. He doesn’t require an edifice in order to dwell among His people or to receive sacrifices. God has accomodated the human need to have a set place to do things, but He doesn’t need a building in order to be worshipped. The earth is His, and everything in it, so why would He require something extra in order to interact with mankind? God is not deficient in any way, He does not lack or need.

Stephen is saying this to them because the crowd He was addressing was so hung up in their rituals, rites and ceremonies that they had lost sight of the bigger picture. God didn’t need any of those things they were so worked up over. Instead, He instituted them so that we would have what we needed in order to worship Him consistently. That repeated minsunderstanding, about Jesus tearing down the temple, was something that really struck a chord with them. They saw that as a kind of ‘ultimate insult’ against who they were and the honor of God. At the end of chapter 6, this comes up yet again just before Stephen begins his sermon. 

We forget that God doesn’t -need- us in order to be worthy of worship. God doesn’t have human attitudes or issues of selfishness. He isn’t sustained by our singing and sacrifices, and even if there were no church budilings anywhere, God would still be glorified. We spend a lot of time and effort on things that are simply not the ‘main thing’ because we think too small when we think of God. And often when we think of God and His expectations, we are actually thinking about our own wants and needs and desires, rather than what He has actually asked for…

The issues that Stephen was addressing with the men in the Sanhedrin are issues that people still get hung up on today. People reverence a church building or a tradition more than God Himself. They get upset over the decorations on the inside of the church, or the style of music, or how people dress rather than concerning their own hearts with God Himself. The temple didn’t make the people of Israel, and the worship center doesn’t make the church. It is so much more than these basic, physical things. But being small and finite, we forget this and get hung up in the details rather than getting hung up in God. 

As we GoLove people, we need to make sure that we are portraying an accurate picture of who God is, what His expectations are of us, and how we are to properly reverence and worship Him. And that means we have to move beyond what is simply a human need and look to what God really and truly desires of us, not what we think He “needs.” God doesn’t want pews and stained glass. God wants our hearts. 

  

Acts 7:37-43 // Jesus and the story of redemption (pt 4)

“37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, “God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your brothers.” 38 He is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him away, and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron:

“Make us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what’s happened to him.”

41 They even made a calf in those days, offered sacrifice to the idol, and were celebrating what their hands had made. 42 Then God turned away and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:

“House of Israel, did you bring Me offerings and sacrifices

40 years in the wilderness?

43 No, you took up the tent of Moloch

and the star of your god Rephan,

the images that you made to worship.

So I will deport you beyond Babylon!”

Acts 7:37-43

Stephen is really on fire here at this point in his sermon. He is opening old cultural wounds and identifying embarassing things feom their collective history. Some of the religious leaders were behaving as if they had never done anything wrong in their service to God, and they turned a blind eye to the faults and patterns of their ancestors that they themselves were engaged in currently. 

Just like the Israelites rebelled and rejected God in the wilderness, they were now rebelling and rejecting Jesus in exchange for what they wanted to do and how they wanted to worship. They ignored the obvious signs and wonders and truths that He taught and performed and so they remained in their religion that they had crafted for themselves. It had become their idol, just like Molech & Rephan. They hadn’t been worshipping God, but their own system of belief. There may not have been a physical idol, but there doesn’t have to be one. It was simply a rejection of the truth for something homemade & ‘comfortable.’

As we walk with Jesus, we must be mindful to keep our worship focused on Him, on God, and not on a system or a religion that we craft for ourselves. It’s tempting to have a self-crafted religion, pulling bits and pieces from wherever we choose. But we must have our foundation in the truth, being held accountable by the Word of God, not by society or by some personal expectation or desire. Worship that is made for anything other than God Himself, as HE has revelaed Himself, is idolatry and we cannot pretend otherwise. 

We all have patterns of behavior that we fall back into, old comfortable sins, foibles and lies that we hae either scultped on our own or adopted from somewhere else, and we cannot pretend that God is pleased when we slip back into those old ways and habits. We must abide in Him, living & dwelling in His truth & presence. Again, to do otherwise is a misrepresentation of Him to others, and He will not honor those efforts or the lives behinds them. And So, as we GoLove others, we must do so in spirit and in truth, wholly worshipping God, properly, reverently and not in any way that we have devised for ourselves, spiritually compromised and corrupted by sin. 

I’m so thankful for the grace that God offers to us in Christ, because we are incapable of doing everything right all the time. So, even when we do slip up, even when we do begin to sculpt our own little idols, God is always there whispering in our ear, speaking to our hearts, communicating through His Word, ready to bring us back as we humbly repent. A daily dying to self and taking up of our cross is the best way to point our hearts in the right direction as we read His Word, seek Him out in prayer and follow in the rhythms of grace that Jesus taught us.
  

Acts 7:1-8 // Jesus and the story of Redemption (pt 1)

1 “Is this true?” the high priest asked.

2 “Brothers and fathers,” he said, “listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, 3 and said to him:

“Get out of your country

and away from your relatives,

and come to the land

that I will show you.”

4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this land you now live in. 5 He didnt give him an inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, but He promised to give it to him as a possession, and to his descendants after him, even though he was childless. 6 God spoke in this way:

“His descendants would be strangers

in a foreign country,

and they would enslave

and oppress them 400 years.

7 I will judge the nation

that they will serve as slaves, God said.

After this, they will come out

and worship Me in this place.”

8 Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision. After this, he fathered Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; Isaac did the same with Jacob, and Jacob with the 12 patriarchs.”

Acts 7:1-8

There is a lot of trust, faith even, that begins God’s story of redemption through Abram and his future offspring. From the very beginning, faith has been the hinge-point. Abram and his family had to trust God when they left where they were living to begin this new life with Him in the lead. They relocated again after his father died in Haran before settling in Canaan. But even then, Abram lived as a nomad, travelling with his flocks and herds as the seasons changed, in the land God promised to his descendants. Then God promises, along with the land and it’s abundance, a period of oppression and slavery under a foreign thumb. 

What kind of promise is that?

“I’m going to set you and your family here, but first, you are going to be slaves.”

Would you want to listen to that promise? Would you even consider it as an option? Probably not.

But Abram did…and we ask “Why?” 

Because Abram knew that he was dealing with YHWH Elohim, and not some capricious human being or false god.  He wasn’t going to move him around just to mess with him. He wasn’t going to allow his grandchildren and great grandchildren to go into slavery just because He thought it might be fun. YHWH Elohim had a greater plan in mind and Abram believed him. Hebrews tells us that God credited it to him as righteousness. Trust and faith cannot be separated. It would be silly to say otherwise. Trust is part of the definition of faith. And Abram had faith that God’s plan was bigger and better than anything he could ever have divised for himself, and that if there was something difficult to deal with along the way, that God had a greater purpose in mind for it. God didn’t cause the Israelites the pain of their future slavery, He allowed it, and there is a great difference to understand there. 

When Stephen began this sermon to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7, he began with the reminder of suffering and redemption. This element was a common theme through the life and history of the Jewish people. God gave direction, the people listened for a short time, they became apathetic & rebelled, they were faced with the consequences for their sins and upon their repentance, God saved them. 

Over and over again, God saves them. 

And it all began with Abram & the faith he had in God’s ability to make good come from the mess of life. And God would do this within the rhythms of His grace. The constant pulse of His great love, the beating of His heart, would be a comfort to His children all throughout their history with Him & He promised this to Abram form the very beginning. He promised His presence through the good (inheriting lands and the expansion of his family) and through the bad (oppression, slavery and pain.) 

Stephen wanted them to remember in their hearts what they knew in their minds: that God loved them and had a plan that was bigger then them or their own wisdom. God’s plan was deeper, wider and stretched further than the control they were trying to exercise over it, and in turn, Him. Stephen began this first and last sermon trying to get them to recall the faith they were supposed to have in God and in His ability to save His people, and so he told the story of their collective hearts in an attempt to get them to see the role that Jesus played in this great love story. 

AS we try to GoLove people, we need to remember these rhythms of grace as we speak and serve, teach and share with them. We need to take their hearts on the journey that God has mapped out, show them His heart in His dealings with people, and express His concern for the souls of men, His role in seeing justice done and freedom brought into the lives of all of us who are oppressed by sin. Even if it is our first and last ‘sermon,’ it will be totally worth it to speak the love of God to a hurting heart. 

  

Acts 6:8-15 // Using Reason

“8 Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some from what is called the Freedmens Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.

11 Then they persuaded some men to say, “We heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God!” 12 They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; so they came, dragged him off, and took him to the Sanhedrin. 13 They also presented false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop speaking blasphemous words against this holy place and the law. 14 For we heard him say that Jesus, this Nazarene, will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 And all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

Acts 6:8-15

When the Holy Spirit is at work in someone, it should be obvious that there is something greater at work in them and through them than is naturally available to that person, and that is exactly what is happening with Stephen here in Acts chapter six. “Full of grace and power,” “performing signs and wonders,” “having a face like the face of an angel,” these attributes show that Stephen had submitted himself to the work and authority of God. He was being used, alongside of the gifts that God had given to him, preaching, reason/logic/wisdom. He was being wholly used by God, in the ways that God desired to use him. Stephen was not superhuman in his ability to reason, but he became so much more than the sum of his parts when he became a follower of Jesus Christ, when he was baptized and received the Holy Spirit. 

God used Stephen’s natural ability to speak, paired with the wisdom and reasoning that the Holy Spirit had imparted to him, to speak His truth, to communicate His message, and the result was a man of God that was powerful in word and deed. He was so passionate, so well spoken, that the authorities didn’t know what to do with him, and so they employed the same tactics they used on Jesus just a few months earlier. They drummed up false witnesses, threw out libelous accusations and did whatever was necessary to rile up the crowds against him. Oftentimes, we will find that living in the plan and desire of God is going to make us anything but popular with those who oppose His will and desire. The truth that we speak will not go down smoothly, and so they fight back, they press against it, and violence has been a common method that they employ to drown out the truth of the Word of God and to quell the movement of the Holy Spirit of God. 

But we see something distinctive here, and in the coming chapter, from Stephen. Stephen does not lash back at them as the world woudl expect. He speaks from reason, he speaks from knowledge and understanding. He doesn’t fly off the handle. Instead, he becomes even more plain in speaking the truth. The Holy Spirit uses the knowledge that was already planted in his prepared heart and mind, and presents an undeniable argument to this crowd of accusers. 

As Christians, we have all been given ample resource through the Scriptures to have reasonable answers for the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. As Christians, we know that we have the evidence that the world needs to see to help bring their hearts and minds around to the glorious truth found in the Gospel message. But we must engage with it, and internalize it, not just trust in its proximity to us. “Sure, the Bible has answers, I just don’t know what they are or what it says.” is not a valid answer for a mature Christian. We have been given a wealth of information, of reason, an apologetic that cannot be beaten by any argument the world can present to us. But we must engage with the Word, we must examine the Word, we must know the Word in order to be able to use the Word and to be used by the Holy Spirit in defense of our faith.

Too many Western Christians spend too much time watching television & movies, wasting time on the internet, rather than engaging with the Word of God intentionally, daily and growing through it. Many of us are like hammers with no handles. We can drive the nail in, but it takes so much more time and effort to accomplish what needs to be done. Something that should have been a simple task becomes a deep labor because we are not prepared. And from a ministry perspective, so many simple daily problems could be faced and taken care of if more people would just open the Word and take time to digest what they read and find there. If they would just meditate on what is being presented to them by the Holy Spirit, pray for an increased wisdom, and then put that desire into practice, bettering themselves through a thorough examination of the Word. 

Stephen was a powerful voice of Biblical reason in the face of strong adversity, and he passed the test of effectiveness and still today stands as a witness for us. But it wasn’t the might and power of Stephen that won the day, it was the Holy Spirit at work in him that prevailed, and that would keep him strong in these last few moments of his life, given over in service for Christ who saved him. 

As we GoLove, we should desire to become ever more effective witness for Christ, and that must begin with prayer and a thorough examination of the Word.

  

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