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The Gospel Breaks Out

Date: Jan. 26, 2014

Author: Michael Mark

Acts 8:1-8

Key Verse: Acts 8:4

“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”

On a Sunday night, around 9pm, October 8, 1871, a fire broke out that grew to become the Great Chicago Fire. There is a legend that the fire was caused by a cow that kicked over a lantern in a barn owned by an Irish family, the O’Leary’s. The legend has since proved to be false, however, the fire did start somehow in the O’Leary barn. The Chicago Fire Academy now stands on the site of the barn, and there is a sculpture that marks the location of where the fire started. It is located not very far from here, near Canal and Taylor streets. If you see the sculpture, you will see the spot where the fire started. The fire started out small, but soon winds blew the fire and it spread to buildings nearby. Eventually it reached the city’s waterworks and destroyed them, so firefighters were forced to give up. The fire blazed a path of destruction from that point out to the lake, and north for about 34 blocks. Imagine seeing a wall of fire that extends from Canal Street, all the way out to the lake, stretching north for around 4 miles. The fires died down when the winds became calm, and about 24 hours later, a light rain began to fall and the fire finally put out on Tuesday morning, October 10, 1871. If you ask me, I believe only God himself stopped that fire. Now, sometimes we compare the spread of the gospel to the spread of a fire. In today’s passage, we will see how the gospel broke out from Jerusalem, and could not be stopped to this day. Persecution broke out and tried to stop the gospel, but it only caused it to be spread out more.

Verse 1 begins, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” “That day” was the day Stephen was martyred. It was a tragic, but historic and momentous day for the church. It was the day the Jews first drew blood from Christian believers, and a great persecution broke out. There had been minor persecutions before: Peter and John were questioned by the Sanhedrin, the leaders of the Jewish people, when they began to powerfully proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On another occasion all 12 apostles were flogged because they refused to stop teaching in Jesus’ name. The Sanhedrin was kept under control by Gamaliel. Gamaliel was a Pharisee, a teacher of the law who was honored by all the people. He advised the Sanhedrin, “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God. (Acts 6:38-39).” These are very wise words from Gamaliel. If their activities are from human origins, they will fail, but if it is from God, they will not be able to be stopped. His speech persuaded the Sanhedrin, so they had the apostles flogged and released them. But now, some time later, they were so overcome with rage after Stephen’s testimony that they killed him. This began the great persecution against the church in Jerusalem.

A few brave and noble souls, godly and devout men, buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him (v.2). This shows us what type of man Stephen was. The Sanhedrin condemned him for being a blasphemer against Moses and against God (Acts 6:11). He was given the death penalty after the trial. In all societies, the death penalty is only reserved for the worst criminal offenders. Here in the US, in some states murder can get you the death penalty. But was Stephen such a criminal? Godly and devout men buried him. These godly men might have been both devout Christians and Jews. If the Bible calls you godly, then you must be godly. These men were devout and righteous men, and they honored Stephen as such. They gave him a proper burial, and they mourned for him. In those times, convicted lawbreakers were forbidden a proper burial by Jewish law (New American Commentary on Acts 8:2), but these men gave Stephen a proper burial. To be mourned for was also an honor. They mourned because they lost a great man. They mourned because they lost a man full of God’s grace and power. They mourned because they lost a man who was full of wisdom, and cared for poor widows. These men put themselves at risk because they opposed the convictions of the Sanhedrin. What we see here is an act of love, honor, respect and courage for a godly man.

In stark contrast, we see the face of the persecution and opposition in verse 3, “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” Saul was the force and leader behind the great persecution. He was a rising young leader of the Jewish people. He was of the people Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin – one of the most beloved of Jacob’s children. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews. Today we’d say, he was a man’s man. He was a Pharisee, and he was a disciple of the best Pharisee in the land, Gamaliel. Remember Gamaliel was the man who said, “Leave these men alone,” and, “you may find yourself fighting against God, and will not be able to stop it.” It seems clear that Saul probably had ambitions of his own. He was zealous, and passionate about what he determined to do. He proved this by persecuting the church, and he did this with all his might. He went from house to house, and forcefully removed men and women from their homes and put them into prison. It didn’t matter if you were a man or a woman, young or old. It didn’t matter that you were an innocent civilian. If you were a believer or a member of the church, he would try to find you and throw you in prison.

Saul wanted to destroy the church, and he states his motivation behind this hatred in Acts 26:9, “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” Saul persecuted the church because he wanted to do everything possible to oppose the name of Jesus. Jesus warned his disciples about this in John 15:18-20, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.” This is the basis for the persecution against Christians going on all over the world, even today. The world hates Jesus, because Jesus convicts the world of sin, so the world does all that it can to oppose him, even though it cannot. As you all are aware, persecution of Christians still happens today. According to an article on the Gospel Coalition blog (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/10/29/9-things-you-should-know-about-persecution-of-christians-in-2013/), Christians are the most persecuted people in the world. Over 60 countries in the world are recognized as dangerous places for Christians to live. In Syria, Christians are being targeted more and more by the anti-government rebels. In Nigeria, in 5 months alone in 2013, more than 14,000 Christians were displaced from their homes (from Persecution.com).

           

As much as the world may try to destroy the church, the church seems to grow even larger through persecution. Even in China, where the government limits and restricts Christian activity, the underground or house church movement may have around 60 million members by conservative estimates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_house_church). Rev. Richard Wurmbrand was a pastor in Romania who was kidnapped in 1948 and put in jail for 8 ½ years. There he was beaten and tortured by the Romanian secret police. When he was released he was told never to preach again, but he went straight back to working with the underground churches. He was arrested again in 3 years, though this time Western countries had pressured Romania to release him. He was released, and soon after he founded Voice of the Martyrs and became the voice for persecuted Christians all over the world (http://www.persecution.com/public/ourfounders.aspx). In these examples, and in this passage, we can see God’s purpose in persecution. There may be other purposes – but we see in this passage one of God’s purposes in persecution: it is used to spread the gospel. In Acts 1:8, Jesus said to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Here in Ch. 8, v.1, all the believers were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Although Saul had tried to destroy the church through persecution, God used it to catapult his people out of Jerusalem to enlarge his kingdom.

What we see next, in this outbreak of persecution, is the outbreak of the gospel. Look at what all those who had been scattered begin to do. Can we all please read v.4 together, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” They began to preach the word! This word they were preaching was the reason they had to flee. This word they were preaching nearly cost them their lives. But here they are preaching the word. Why were they preaching it? Because it was the good news! It was the good news of salvation. They were the light of the world. Just like a city on a hill cannot be hidden, nor should a lamp be put under a bowl, they were to let their light shine before others. Many of them may have seen Jesus himself. Some might have been part of the mob that cried out to crucify him. But when they learned that Jesus had risen from the dead through the witness of the apostles, they believed that he was the Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God. They witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit, saw the mighty acts of the apostles, and received in themselves the forgiveness of their sins. They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. They believed that the Savior had come, they knew it in their hearts, and this was the good news that they shared. When persecution came, they fled for their lives, but the facts of the good news have not changed. So when they reached another town, they proclaimed the good news that the Savior has come.

Notice also that they preached the word wherever they went. This does not mean they got up on a soapbox, took out a megaphone and began shouting indiscriminately at people. It does not say churches were set up where they became the pastors of these churches. Preaching the word means to declare, or share the good news about Jesus Christ. It does not always have to be done in the pulpit. The good news can be shared with others in regular conversation. I have a friend who once told me at lunch that another friend of ours was “preaching” to him. When he explained, he said that the other guy was telling him to try meditation – and explained how it gave him much inner peace and happiness, and that he is happy with himself now. My friend replied to him, “Maybe, but I don’t really have time now.” I thought to myself, you know, that guy was preaching. Even though he wasn’t preaching Christ, he was preaching. And I also thought, I should be preaching Christ in that same way. But preaching can be done in casual conversations. It can also be done using the approach Jesus took with the Samaritan woman, drawing her in step by step. When I worked at a Chinese restaurant, there was a man who tipped me 1 extra dollar for ringing up his Chinese food. I came to really like that guy. Then one day, as he was waiting for his usual order, he has me sit at the table across from him, and asks, “Michael, do you believe in Jesus Christ?” Wow! I thought, because I did, even at that age – but I was glad to have learned that he was a believer too. 2 Tim 4:2 says, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” Be prepared to share the good news, wherever you may meet someone. And I also like the second part of that verse – with great patience and careful instruction. It is known that some Christian groups today like to go and hold demonstrations at other people’s funerals and create a bit of controversy, but Paul tells Timothy to deal with others patiently and carefully.

Now one last point about preaching the word is the content of the message. The contents of what you say is very important. To get an idea of what the early Christians were preaching about – let’s look at what Jesus told the 72 disciples to do when he sent them out to evangelize. In Luke 10:5 he says, “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house…” In Luke 10:8-9 he says, “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” Jesus once told a group of people in Luke 4:43, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” The early Christians preached about the kingdom of God – and at the heart of it all is the Lord and King, our Savior, Jesus Christ. The content of our message must be about Christ, that he is the Lord, he is the Messiah, that he is the Son of God.

Our message should declare the truth about his life, death and resurrection. These events aren’t myths or made-up stories, but we believe they happened, that they really happened. That God himself came in the flesh, walked among us. That he died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, to make peace between God and men, and because of God’s faithful and enduring love for us. That he rose again, declaring and proving once and for all that he is the Son of God. We tell people to repent, because the kingdom of God is coming. Jesus is now seated at the right hand of God, ready to come at any moment to bring in his kingdom – and when he comes again, he will judge the living and the dead. The content of our message should be about Christ and the truth about Christ. Paul says in 1 Cor 1:23, “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” He also says, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).”

Those who were scattered preached Christ wherever they went. They were scattered by the face of persecution, Saul. Now let’s come to see the face of evangelism: Philip. Look at v.5: “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.” Philip, if you remember, was one of the 7 “deacons” chosen by the apostles. He was chosen along with Stephen, and considered as a man who was full of the Spirit and wisdom. He is called “Philip the evangelist” in Acts 21:8. Samaria was a region north of Judea, and it was a place that was despised by most Jews. The capital of Samaria was founded by King Omri, the 6th king of Israel after the nation split. He bought the land from a man named Shemer and named it Samaria. It was later inhabited by King Ahab and Jezebel, who brought Baal worship to the nation. After the Israelites were exiled, those who remained in Samaria intermarried with the Gentiles around them. By this time, Samaria has had a sketchy history with the Jews, who consider them a repulsive people. This was the land that Philip was going into. This is beginning to show that salvation was not only reserved for the Jews. It would show that the playing field is now level, and salvation would be for anyone who would come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

Philip proclaimed this message in Samaria. He proclaimed that the Messiah had come. The Samaritans were looking for the Messiah, who they called “Taheb”, which means “the restorer (from the Handbook on Acts of the Apostles).” Jesus Christ was their restorer. In v.6-7, we see what he did there: “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.” The miracles that Philip performed did not draw attention to himself, but they drew attention to his message. Notice in v.6, that when they saw the signs he performed, they paid close attention to what he said. Sometimes the Bible would note that people were awed and amazed by the signs and wonders – but here we see the Samaritans more eagerly intent on hearing what Philip. The miracles were secondary, the message was primary.

Some people speculate that Jesus was the one who sowed the seed here in Samaria, back in John 4, when he spoke with the Samaritan woman. Many people in the town she was from believed because of her testimony. Jesus had sown the seed, and now Philip is reaping the harvest. They desired to hear what Philip had to say. The message of Philip was also confirmed by the miracles – demons were coming out of people. Those who were paralyzed or lame were healed – without medicine or any type of therapy. These were true miracles to confirm Philip’s message about the Messiah.

Lastly, can we look at v.8 to see what happened, “So there was great joy in that city.” Imagine that – a whole town rejoiced! And it was a great joy! People were being healed from their demon possession. Those who could not move, and those who could not walk were moving and walking again! Family and friends all celebrated together. And above all, there was great joy because the people had believed that their restorer had come. Their Savior, their Messiah has come to them at last! The gospel is the good news of great joy. Our Savior, our Messiah has come to deliver us! We know this because God came in the flesh. Though we were sinners, he did not condemn us. No, instead, he laid down his life for us, and provided a ransom payment for all of our sin. Our sins are paid, our debt is cancelled – that is great news!

Imagine, what if, now, think of your biggest bills. In fact, think of all your bills. Your house bills, your car bills, your school bills, your card bills. Imagine if suddenly – all of that debt was cancelled, all of it forgiven. Would you not be completely full of joy?! Well, sorry to say, you might have to work those bills out for now, for that is your lot in life. But there’s better news. We cannot take our houses or cars or money with us when we come face to face with God. All we have, when we stand before the throne, is our naked bodies and a book recording all that we have done in this life – both good and bad. No money on earth can wipe away those bad records in that book, and you will be punished for every last one of those sins. Now what? What will you ever do?? There’s an answer, and a solution. God has provided for us the blood of Christ to take away every transgression and blot away every sin. If we believe, and put our trust in Jesus, and put our trust in what he has done, namely, dying on the cross for our sins – God will freely, and happily, wipe them all away. This is the good news that should bring great joy. Like the Psalmist, we can sing, “Give thanks got he Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story – those he redeemed from the hand of the foe…they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress…Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind. (Psalm 107:1,2,6,8)”

The kingdom of God is forcefully advancing, from the day the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost in Jerusalem, to the day the gospel broke out to Judea and Samaria, and continues to this very day. One day though, the king will come again. He is up in heaven, the gun is locked and loaded – and he can come again at any day. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Repent, and believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall enter the kingdom of heaven. Repent not, and believe not, then your sins will cost you dearly. For those of you who are assured of your faith, remember then that you are ambassadors of Christ, and ambassadors of the kingdom of God; therefore if I may exhort you: preach the word, wherever you go, preach the word!

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