When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night, to kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down over the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists; but they were seeking to kill him. And when the brethren knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him off to Tarsus. So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied. Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints that lived at Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years and was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, "Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed." And immediately he rose. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord. Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. In those days she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him entreating him, "Please come to us without delay." So Peter rose and went with them. And when he had come, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing tunics and other garments which Dorcas made while she was with them. But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body he said, "Tabitha, rise." And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. And he gave her his hand and lifted her up. Then calling the saints and widows he presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.
I want you to be encouraged this morning by the truth from this text that Jesus turns things around. I want you to feel a kind of open-ended expectancy about the world and about American society and about your work and your family and your personal life—that Jesus turns things around. Believing in the living, free, sovereign, loving Lord of the book of Acts means living with the possibility and even the likelihood that bad situations are going to turn around, perhaps when you least expect it.
The Devastating Feeling of Fatalism
One of the most devastating feelings in the Christian life is fatalism—the feeling that this is the way it is going to be forever and nothing is going to change it and that's that. This is the way I am; this is the way the my spouse is; this is the way my kids are; this is the way work is (or no work); this is the way our small group is; this is the way society is—and that's that. It's been this way for so long; it's just not going to change. It will go on this way forever and probably get worse and that's that.
But one of the messages of the book of Acts is that this is emphatically not true. Jesus Christ is not dead and he is not distant and he is not silent and he is not weak and he is not uninterested in the world and the progress of his mission and in your life. He is alive and what he began to do in his earthly life he is continuing to do. He is full of surprises for churches and for nations and for families, and for individual people.
Persecution Breaks Out Against the Early Church
The broad persecution of the church in the book of Acts began back in Acts 8:1 after the death of Stephen: "And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria . . . (v. 3) But Saul laid waste the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison."
And that is the way it was for some time. Imagine yourself in that early church with no legal protection and all the power structures are indifferent or hostile to you. Would you not be tempted to murmur and feel fatalistic. The Romans (like Pilate) are against us, the Jewish council (the Sanhedrin) is against us, the priests are against us and they even give authorized letters to have us imprisoned and killed. This is the way it will be for a long time. Nothing is going to change this. Nothing is going to turn this around. The momentum is too great. The powers of evil are too entrenched. There won't be any peace for the church for a long, long time, if ever.
That's the way we tend to be, except for a few chronically faith-filled hopers among us. But that is emphatically not the way we have to be—or should be. Because Jesus is alive and he turns things around. He is full of surprises. He is not locked into any fatalistic pattern of continuity. He is infinitely creative and infinitely resourceful. And he dislikes very much coming across as boringly predictable.
A Sudden and Remarkable Reversal
So suddenly, out of the blue, he takes the key player in the persecution of his people and turns him totally around on the Damascus road. The Saul who was breathing out threats and murders against Christians doesn't just drop dead—which would have been a big enough reversal for the enemy—he gets converted to Christianity. And not just converted, but wildly converted, beyond anybody's imagination. So converted that he turns totally around—from being the worst enemy of Christianity to the strongest advocate and most powerful missionary for Christianity.
Luke drives this home by showing the persecutor becoming the persecuted. First, in verse 23 Luke tells us that the Jews in Damascus plotted to kill him. The hunter becomes the hunted. And he escapes (v. 25) in a basket through the wall. Second, in verse 29 Luke tells us that the Hellenists in Jerusalem were seeking to kill Saul. The hunter becomes the hunted. And he escapes by taking a ship to Tarsus.
And the upshot of this amazing turn around? Verse 31: "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up."
Nobody would have dreamed it could happen—and happen so suddenly. Persecution, violence, conspiracy, suspicion, scattering—and then suddenly, out of the blue, Jesus turns things around. That's the way he is and that is the way we should think about life.
God Is Turning Things Around All Over the World
He is the same today as he was then. He is surprising people and nations all over the world. He is alive and he is turning things around.
It's almost trite now to talk about the lightning speed of change in the Soviet Union with independent states and desire for democracy and openness to Christianity. It just makes me want to shout in rebuke when I hear prophets of gloom and doom for the cause of the gospel and righteousness—"How do you know? What kind of sociological fatalism gives you the authority to say that such and such a nation will be closed to the gospel in the year 2000 or that such and such a people group will be unreceptive!"
Last year I told Wally Eshenaur that I was praying for Jesus to turn things around in Mongolia and Albania and North Korea and break them open. He said don't forget Ethiopia, the Soviet satellite in East Africa. For eight years the church had to be underground. The civil war made life tenuous and our BGC missionaries had to come home. But then suddenly in the last months, out of the blue, glasnost spilled over to Ethiopia from the USSR. The turnaround has been incredible. Churches are open. Hymns are being sung. The Bible is read out loud. Two weeks after religious freedom returned, crowds of 18,000 were gathering to hear the gospel. Jesus, from his headquarters in heaven, had simply said, "Watch this, all you missions pessimists. I have a surprise for you."
I just got a postcard from Kurt Bowerman Friday who had had lunch with Bill Bright on Monday where he learned that the first showing of the Jesus Film in Mongolia will be January 11 and the first showing in Albania will be December 14. And I just got a letter from Greg Livingstone, the Director of Frontiers, yesterday in which he said, "My own heart is so much in awe at what God is doing, I can hardly sit down." He had recently been to Tirana, Albania, and joined in street meetings where 300 Albanians would gather and stay for hours asking questions. 70% were Muslims and 200 have decided to follow Christ of which 43 have already been baptized.
And listen to this paragraph.
Roger Malstead from our International Headquarters here just returned from Bulgaria, where perhaps 1,000 Muslim Turks have happily turned to Christ and worship in, I believe, 8 different gatherings . . . absolutely nothing like this has ever happened amongst Muslims in this area before . . . what is God doing?
And the answer is: he is doing the same thing he was in the book of Acts. He's turning things around. He's reversing the course of human events. It is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart. Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Corinthians 1:19–20).
Shattering the Pride of Human Predictions
There is a pride in the predictions of human beings based on human calculations of human knowledge about human factors. There is a pride in such predictions that God does not like—even when made by Christians! It is a practical atheism. It does not reckon with the living Lord of the universe who turns things around—out of the blue!
But the book of Acts is written to encourage us again and again that the Jesus who began to do and to teach on earth is now alive with omnipotent power and continues to do what he began to do and teach what he began to teach. He is turning things around all over the world—from huge political upheavals to personal periods of gloom and discouragement.
The point of the book of Acts—the point of the kingdom of God, the point of the Christian life—is that Jesus is alive and in charge of the world and that he butts in and changes things. He does not like fatalistic attitudes. He does not like pessimistic cyclical views of history or personal life or family life—views that say: things just go in circles; they don't get anywhere. The yo-yo of fate never comes off its string and sails in some wonderfully unexpected arc through the sky.
But it does! The world is not a machine. It's a drama. And there is a live author-director, named Jesus, who can and does jump on the set anytime he wants to and boggle the minds of the actors who think they know the script. I want to encourage you this morning that Jesus is alive and that he turns things around. I want you to have a kind of open-ended expectancy to your life because Jesus is alive.
So verse 31 says that the church had peace and was built up. Jesus turned Paul the persecutor around. And then he sent him away to Tarsus. And then he stopped the persecution and turned it into peace.
Jesus Turns Things Around and People Turn to Him
But during the time of peace Jesus did not stop being the Lord of surprises. He did not stop turning things around. Luke gives us two stories about the ministry of Peter to show us how Jesus was still breaking in out of the blue to turn things around.
In verse 32 Peter goes down to Lydda, northwest of Jerusalem, and finds a paralyzed man named Aeneas. In verse 34 he says to him, "Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you." And Jesus breaks into the drama of Aeneas' life and turns everything around. He heals him.
Then in verse 39 Peter goes from Lydda down to Joppa on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea where a disciple named Tabitha had just died. In verse 40 Peter puts all her friends outside and kneels down and prays. Prayer is the expression of faith that Jesus is alive and turns thing around in this life.
With the answer to his prayer in his heart, Peter turns to the body and says, "Tabitha, rise." And Jesus steps into the drama of Tabitha's life and turns death around. And she lives.
And just like today in the USSR and Ethiopia and Albania and Mongolia when God dramatically turns things around, people turn to the Lord. Verse 35: "And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw [Aeneas healed], and they turned to the Lord." Verse 42 "And [Tabitha's return to life] became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord." Jesus turns things around so that people will turn to him!
Jesus Is Just as Alive and Active Today
Now my own conviction is that Jesus is just as much alive today as in the book of Acts and that he means to do a lot more things like that today than we are willing to see or receive. He has surprises in store for this world and for your life and ministry that you have never dreamed.
What Then Should We Do?
There are so many things I could say about our plodding, unexpectant ruts and routine of religious life. But let's just stick with the text, and close with verse 31b. "And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit [the church] was multiplied."
The atmosphere in which Jesus broke in and turned things around and caused many people to turn to the Lord and multiplied the church was an atmosphere of godly fear and spiritual comfort.
They seem almost opposites: fear and comfort. But they are not opposites.
The Fear of the Lord
The fear of the Lord is that sense of awe that the Lord God is infinitely holy and infinitely powerful and may not be trifled with. He is free to break in with indescribable, heart-stopping suddenness and power whenever and wherever he pleases.
The fear of the Lord is what the disciples felt when Jesus had stilled the storm and when Ananias and Sapphira had dropped dead. You do not make light of this God. You do not dally with him or take his name in jest or treat him as marginal or negligible in life. He is living and powerful and unstoppable and infinitely holy and wills the glory of his Father with white hot passion. You humble yourself, as Peter says, under his mighty hand. That was the atmosphere of the early church in which Jesus broke in with healing power and turned around sickness and death itself.
The Comfort of the Holy Spirit
And the other feature of this early church where Jesus broke in with such power was that they walked in the comfort of the Holy Spirit (v. 31).
Maybe the best picture for us to have of the Christian life where Jesus breaks in with power to turn things around is the picture of flying in the eye of a hurricane. A hurricane is a tropical cyclone with winds above 75 miles an hour that builds to tremendous force and can destroy almost anything in its way. It is a frightening thing to stand in the way of a hurricane. But the Columbia Encyclopedia says, "By contrast the hurricane eye is almost calm, experiences little or no precipitation, and is often exposed to blue sky."
So when Luke says (in verse 31) the church walked in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, I picture them flying in the eye of a hurricane of divine power. There is calm and peace within and the blue sky of hope overhead. And there is the fearsome power of the wind swirling all around.
What then should we do? Rest in the eye of his love and care, tremble at the wind of his holy power, and be on the alert in your life and in the world for utterly amazing inbreakings of his might to turn things around. Let there be in your life an open-ended expectancy that Jesus is going to act. He is going to turn things around. And when he does prepare to reap.