Good morning church family! We are entering chapter eight this week in the Acts of the Apostles and will spend two weeks on this chapter. But first, as I usually do, let me recap for you what has been going on. Stephen, one of “the seven” enters into an argument with some men from the Synagogue of the Freedman. They don’t like what he says so they arranged for someone to bear false witness against him. Keep in mind, you shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor, is one of the 10 Commandments, but these men obviously didn’t care. They were supposedly concerned with Mosaic Law as one of the charges brought against Stephen was related to it, but apparently had no care for obeying it, which means they had no care for obeying God’s law.
Thus, they have him arrested. Chapter seven provides insight into what exactly Stephen said to these men and why they became so angry. Stephen simply calls it like it is. He tells the truth. He accuses them of resisting the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives. And then he accuses them of killing the author of all life – Jesus Christ – the Righteous One – thus, no small accusations.
Of course, none of us enjoy being confronted with our sinful behavior. Well-known preacher Charles Spurgeon was quoted as saying, “Many are troubled because the gospel interferes with their sin.” And so too, were these Freedmen. They allowed their discomfort with Stephen’s truth telling to escalate within literally to a point of rage. They became so angry that they drug Stephen out of the city and stoned him. Now this is taking defensiveness to a whole new level! Finally, at the end of last week’s message we discussed the similarities between Stephen and Jesus as they relate to their respective deaths and burials.
Now here is the point in the story where the disciples truly begin to scatter and particularly the Greek disciples. The fact that the apostles were not the focus of the persecution at this time and that it came about immediately after Stephen’s death, suggest that the persecution focused primarily on the Hellenistic Jewish Christians; although the entire church was affected. If you recall, Stephen was a Hellenist. Now let’s move forward and read today’s scripture passages, starting in 8:1-8, and then additionally verses 14-17. I am reading from the New Living Translation.
“A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning). But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.
But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went. Philip, for example, went to the city of Samaria and told the people there about the Messiah. Crowds listened intently to Philip because they were eager to hear this message and see the miraculous signs he did. Many evil spirits were cast out, screaming as they left their victims. And many who had been paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that the people of Samaria had accepted God’s message, they sent Peter and John there. As soon as they arrived, they prayed for these new believers to receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them, for they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John laid their hands upon these believers, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
So we hear about the persecution sweeping over the church and that Saul, as lead persecutor, was going into the homes of people and dragging them out to throw them in jail. Consequently, out of fear many of the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. Thus, we begin to see the fulfillment of the second part of Jesus’ final command identified in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Now we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the disciples went to Samaria. We don’t want to miss this. So why was it such a big deal?
Israel had been divided into three main regions: Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle and Judea in the south. The city of Samaria had been the capitol of the northern kingdom of Israel in the days of the divided kingdom, before it was conquered by Assyria in 722 BC. During that war, the Assyrian king had taken many captives, leaving only the poorest of people in the land and resettling it with foreigners. These foreigners had intermarried with the Jews who were left, and the mixed race became known as Samaritans.
The Samaritans were considered “half-breeds” by the “pure” Jews in the southern kingdom of Judah and the two groups hated each other intensely. But remember, Jesus himself went into Samaria when He met with the woman at the well in John chapter four and He stayed there for two days thereafter. He had commanded His followers to spread the gospel there. And Paul tells us in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Thus, ministry here was a significant step for the church, for it indicated biases had no place in Christianity. God wants all to come to the saving knowledge of His amazing grace. Consequently, persecution had forced the believers out of their homes in Jerusalem, and along with them went the gospel.
Next, we hear about Philip who has already been introduced to us in Acts 6:3 as a person “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” He too had been chosen as one of “the seven” as had Stephen. So obviously, this is not the apostle Philip, but rather Philip the evangelist who was the primary disciple in Samaria. And like Jesus, the apostles, and Stephen, he performed many miraculous signs and wonders including casting out demons.
Philip was also a powerful speaker. On top of his healing ministry, He was preaching successfully to great crowds in Samaria. His message was so well received Peter and John heard about it back in Jerusalem and went to check it out. The Jerusalem church thought it was important to assume the responsibility of inspecting new evangelistic efforts and the communities they produced. I think sometimes we get upset with the UMC district and conference in general, but they hold an important purpose. Authority in general in the church holds an important purpose. I’ve often heard it said if we struggle with authority in general, we most likely struggle under the authority of Christ and obeying Him. Ouch! That’s a big ouch for me!
Keep in mind, up until this point the only Christians were Jews. So not until chapter 10 in this book are the apostles completely convinced that the Holy Spirit is also for half-Jews – the Samaritans, and non-Jews – the Gentiles. When Peter and John arrived in Samaria they discovered that those who had been baptized had not yet received the Holy Spirit. Scholars really aren’t sure why.
I read that many scholars believe God chose to give this dramatic filling of His Spirit as a sign at this special moment in history – the spread of the gospel into Samaria through the powerful and effective preaching of Philip. Normally the Holy Spirit enters into a person’s life at conversion. However, this was a special event. Others speculate that God withheld the Holy Spirit from the Samaritans so the apostles could come and witness that even they were included in the Christian community. Still others wonder if it was God’s plan to ensure that new believers received trustworthy instructors and to connect with God’s chosen apostolic leaders. Whatever the case may be, it will most likely remain a mystery. However, once Peter and John lay hands on the new believers from Samaria they receive the Holy Spirit and His power. Just as you and I have received the Holy Spirit and His power, as well as all believers! The question is what are you doing with the Holy Spirit’s power that resides within you?
I’d like to close by reading a devotion from Max Lucado. You may have heard it before but it is very powerful. It’s called The Cave People from his book A Gentle Thunder (1995).
He came to the world that was his own, but his own people did not accept him. John 1:11
LONG AGO, OR maybe not so long ago, there was a tribe in a dark, cold cavern. The cave dwellers would huddle together and cry against the chill. Loud and long they wailed. It was all they did. It was all they knew to do. The sounds in the cave were mournful, but the people didn’t know it, for they had never known joy. The spirit in the cave was death, but the people didn’t know it, for they had never known life.
But then, one day, they heard a different voice. “I have heard your cries,” it announced. “I have felt your chill and seen your darkness. I have come to help.” The cave people grew quiet. They had never heard this voice. Hope sounded strange to their ears. “How can we know you have come to help?”
“Trust me,” he answered. “I have what you need.” The cave people peered through the darkness at the figure of the stranger. He was stacking something, then stooping and stacking more.
“What are you doing?” one cried, nervous. The stranger didn’t answer. “What are you making?” one shouted even louder. Still no response. “Tell us!” demanded a third. The visitor stood and spoke in the direction of the voices. “I have what you need.” With that he turned to the pile at his feet and lit it. Wood ignited, flames erupted, and light filled the cavern.
The cave people turned away in fear. “Put it out!” they cried. “It hurts to see it.” “Light always hurts before it helps,” he answered. “Step closer. The pain will soon pass.” “Not I,” declared a voice. “Nor I,” agreed a second. “Only a fool would risk exposing his eyes to such light.”
The stranger stood next to the fire. “Would you prefer the darkness? Would you prefer the cold? Don’t consult your fears. Take a step of faith.” For a long time no one spoke. The people hovered in groups covering their eyes. The fire builder stood next to the fire. “It’s warm here,” he invited.
“He’s right,” one from behind him announced. “It’s warmer.” The stranger turned and saw a figure slowly stepping toward the fire. “I can open my eyes now,” she proclaimed. “I can see.” “Come closer,” invited the fire builder. She did. She stepped into the ring of light. “It’s so warm!” She extended her hands and sighed as her chill began to pass.
“Come, everyone! Feel the warmth,” she invited. “Silence, woman!” cried one of the cave dwellers. “Dare you lead us into your folly? Leave us. Leave us and take your light with you.” She turned to the stranger. “Why won’t they come?” “They choose the chill, for though it’s cold, it’s what they know. They’d rather be cold than change.” “And live in the dark?” “And live in the dark.”
The now-warm woman stood silent. Looking first at the dark, then at the man.
“Will you leave the fire?” he asked. She paused, then answered, “I cannot. I cannot bear the cold.” Then she spoke again. “But nor can I bear the thought of my people in darkness.”
“You don’t have to,” he responded, reaching into the fire and removing a stick. “Carry this to your people. Tell them the light is here, and the light is warm. Tell them the light is for all who desire it.” And so she took the small flame and stepped into the shadows.
Are you a light barer? Are you carrying the torch for Christ? Let us pray……
Almighty God You alone are holy and You alone are our Lord! We praise You, worship You and offer up our thanksgiving for Who You are! You are the great physician and the great healer. You mend our broken hearts and souls. Please be with all of our families who are in mourning, who are in crisis, who are healing from physical wounds and problems and who are lonely. May they feel Your presence, peace and love.
Now let us pray the words our Lord and Savior Jesus taught us: Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.Jesus loves you and so do I! Have a great week! Shine His light! Share His love! Spread His joy!