So the title for my talk is “What Has Jerusalem to Do with America? Lessons from the Book of Acts,” and the reason I chose that was because over the last year, my fellow pastors and I at Cities Church have preached through the book of Acts to our people. And as we did, we were repeatedly struck by the relevance of the stories in the book of Acts for Christians in America in the 21st century. Just again and again, we were seeing things that seemed really, really relevant for us.
Recovering Biblical Imagination
There are patterns in these stories that ought to shape and mold the way that we see ourselves and our world. And in fact, I’d suggest that one of the crying needs of the hour in the church is the recovery of a biblical imagination. And all I mean by that, is an imagination that’s been trained to run in biblical ruts, so that the stories of Scripture are the stories that give meaning and help us to interpret ourselves, our churches, our culture, our world.
We want to read our stories in the light of the biblical story. The big story — God’s mission to rescue the world from sin and death through Jesus — and then also all of the smaller stories that he scatters throughout that big story that shed light on our circumstances. And so, this means we want to read the narratives of Scripture as God intended them to be read, authoritative records of God’s works in history. And works that don’t just give us information about the past, about what God did, but that also show us patterns by which God deals with his people and with the outside world.
In other words, we want to, as we read the Bible, take note of the stories that God likes to tell. What are those stories? What are the stories he tells over and over and over again? Because we know that while history may not repeat itself, it does tend to rhyme.
The Characters Within the Story
And so with that, I want us to look at the book of Acts. The book of Acts is one of these smaller stories in the big story. And in fact, within that story of the book of Acts, there’s many smaller stories, more like chapters. And so in the two messages today, I’d like to focus on particularly the story of Jerusalem in the book of Acts. In this first talk, I want to focus on Acts 1–7, the early church in Jerusalem. And in my next one, we’ll look at Paul’s return to Jerusalem in Acts 21–25.
So, if we’re thinking in terms of this story, and I think that the story of Acts 1–7 is a complete chapter in this story, there’s a good transition that happens at the end of chapter seven. If we’re thinking in terms of story, then we need to think in terms of characters. And so, in this section of Acts, we can see four main groups. So, if you have your Bible and you want to turn there in the book of Acts, turn to Acts 2 or so, and we’ll be jumping around. I trust that the story will be relatively familiar to you.
So, four main groups of characters that appear again and again in these first seven chapters:
- There are the apostles — the leaders in the church in Jerusalem.
- There are the believers who constitute that church in Jerusalem — those who have embraced Jesus as the Messiah.
- There are the Jewish crowds — those among whom the apostles are ministering in Jerusalem.
- There’s the Sanhedrin — the Jewish leaders who oppose the new Jesus movement.
Collision of the Apostles and Sanhedrin
And the first seven chapters of Acts follow these four groups as they collide with one another again and again and again. And “collision” is the word for it. Conflict abounds in these chapters, with the apostles and the Jewish leaders publicly colliding three different times: Acts 4:1–22; 5:17–41; 6:8–7:60. And so, for purposes of this message, I’m treating Stephen like an apostle, even though he’s technically not an apostle, but he gets promoted for that brief stint, and so we’ll look at him as well.
Now, so we have these collisions between the apostles and the Sanhedrin again and again, and the cause of these collisions is obvious in the text. The Sanhedrin repeatedly opposes the apostolic message. They oppose the apostolic message. Now, what wasn’t obvious to me before I preached through the book, was that the opposition actually escalates in a very deliberate and intentional way over the course of those seven chapters. And this escalating opposition, I think is one of the key things that we ought to pay attention to as Christians in the 21st century in America, because the same way that the opposition escalates in Acts may give us insight in the way that opposition escalates to us today.
And so, here we can see the kind of escalation I have in mind. We can look at the motive for arresting the apostles. So, the apostles are arrested a number of times, so why are they arrested? We can look at the response to the apostolic defense when they’re called before the council. And third, we can look at the resolution to these very tense collision situations.
So, here’s what I have in mind. Look at Acts 4. In terms of motive, we move from Acts 4, theological annoyance, to Acts 5, envy and jealousy, to Acts 6–7, outright hatred and slander.
So, in the first collision between the Sanhedrin and the apostles, the Sadducees arrest Peter and John because, quote, “[They were] greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). So, they’re greatly annoyed.
Now, why? Well, you all remember the Sadducees, don’t believe in the resurrection. They don’t believe in angels. They’re not looking for a Messiah. So, when a new movement shows up proclaiming a Messiah, the natural response to that message is going to be annoyance. “What a nuisance! Here come some more crazies who believe in a Messiah. And what’s more, these are crazies who think their Messiah died and came back to life.”
So, not only are they looking for a Messiah, but now they’re talking about resurrection. “This is annoying.” “Not again.” “This is going to keep us from the racquetball tournament.” “This is going to keep us from doing all of the important things that the Sanhedrin has to do in Jerusalem.” “This is a nuisance.” So, we begin with theological annoyance. “Who do these guys think they are?”
Envy and Jealousy
But in the second collision, we discover in Acts 5:17 that the Sadducees arrest the apostles because they are filled with jealousy. So again, we have a movement from theological annoyance to envy and jealousy.
Hatred and Slander
And finally, in Acts 6, because they’re unable to withstand Stephen’s wisdom as he’s engaging with him, debating with him, the Sanhedrin stirs up slander and lies against him in order to have a pretense for his arrest (Acts 6:10–14).
So, theological annoyance, envy and jealousy, and then hatred and slander. That’s the motive. So, it’s an escalation. What starts as a nuisance becomes outright, “We’ve got to get him no matter what, even if we have to lie.”
Now, in terms of the Sanhedrin’s response, what kind of escalation do we see? Well, we moved from amazement in Acts 4 after Peter answers their charges. “When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished” (Acts 4:13). So, the first response, first they’re annoyed, “Let’s get these guys, haul them in,” and then amazement, “Who are these guys? Where did they come from? These are uneducated fishermen and look at the way they handle the word of God. How did they know? How did they see? How do they have such insight into the text?”
So, we move from amazement in Acts 4. In Acts 5, we get barely controlled anger. At the end of Acts 5, after the apostles give their response, “When they heard this” — the Sanhedrin heard the apostolic response — “they were enraged and wanted to kill them” (Acts 5:33).
So, earlier it was amazement, “Wow, where do these guys come from?” And now it’s enraged that wants to kill them. And the only reason that they’re not killed is because Gamaliel steps in and calms things down. He says, "Wait, wait, let’s calm down, guys. Let’s not overreact. Let’s calm down." So from amazement to barely controlled anger.
And then in Acts 7, of course, we get uncontrollable rage after Stephen’s speech. Acts 7:54: “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.” So again, anger. And this time, there’s not going to be a Gamaliel to stop it.
So, astonishment at the boldness of the apostles, barely controlled rage at the apostolic stubbornness, and then in the final encounter, Stephen’s sermon sends them into a frenzy of teeth-grinding rage. So again, an escalation, escalation in motive for arresting them, escalation in the response to their testimony. And then finally, how do these stories escalate in terms of the way they’re resolved?
The Sanhedrin’s Resolve
Well, the first one in Acts 4 ends in a verbal warning. The Sanhedrin simply says, "We’re going to tell you, ‘Do not preach anymore in this name. We’re going to let you go. You healed a guy, that’s great. We don’t have anything to charge you with. Get out of here, but don’t preach anymore in the name of Jesus.’” The apostles leave. The next time they’re brought in and Gamaliel talks them down. Now we’re going to get, “Hey, we already told you once not to teach in this name. Now we’re going to tell you again with the added benefit of a beating.” So, now we get a verbal warning to a violent warning.
So, it was a verbal warning in Acts 4 becomes a violent warning in Acts 5, and then of course, Acts 7, how does that situation end? With a murder by mob. The teeth-grinding rage escalates to the point where Stephen sees Jesus standing there, says it out loud, and then they rush upon him and stone him to death. “So, don’t preach in this name anymore.” “Don’t preach in this name anymore, and we’re going to make sure you remember it by beating you,” and then stoning of Stephen.
So, what accounts for this? That was what was striking to me as I read and preached through the book of Acts this last year, is this escalation, theological annoyance, to envy and jealousy, to slander and hatred, and then this amazement, to anger, to uncontrollable rage. What accounts for it? Why does the hostility and violence intensify in this way?
The Cause of Escalation
Well, I think in these early chapters we see two main causes. The first is the phenomenal growth of the church. So, in Acts 1, we begin with this small community of about 120 people. By the end of Acts 2, after Pentecost, that number has jumped to 3,000 souls, with more added every day (Acts 2:47). By Acts 4, the church has grown to include 5,000 men (Acts 4:4). And in Acts 5:14 we’re told that “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.”
So, in light of this growth over a couple of weeks is what we’re talking, just a couple of weeks, we’re going from 120 to more than 5,000 with more added every day In light of this growth, it’s no surprise that the Jewish leaders would move from viewing the apostles as annoying, this theological nuisance that’s just interrupting their day, to being filled with envy and jealousy and hatred. They’re losing their grip on these Jewish crowds, as the ranks of the church swell with people from all over the city.
So, that’s the first cause: Why this escalation? Well, the success of the gospel informing the church. But the second cause, I think is even more significant, and it’s the apostolic boldness. So, not only is the church growing, but the response to the threats from the Sanhedrin is simply boldness on the part of the apostles. It’s that boldness that initially astonished them in Acts 4:13.
Now, what do we mean by boldness? Well, boldness in the Bible — of course, you know this — isn’t machismo, it’s not swagger, and it’s not pounding the pulpit and being angry. The only people who really get angry in these first seven chapters are the Sanhedrin. The apostles are always cool as a cucumber, and yet they’re bold. So, what does boldness mean in these chapters?
I’d suggest that Christian boldness here is courage and clarity about Jesus and sin. Courage and clarity about Jesus and sin. And Jesus and sin is important, both of those elements are important. Look closely, we’ll see this in Acts 5:27–32. This one’s worth looking at. So, this is the second encounter. They’re brought before the Sanhedrin again.
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Now, notice that: “You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (Acts 5:28). What teaching? Well, the teaching about the resurrection of Jesus. The apostles have been preaching the lordship of the risen Christ. God exalted him at his right hand, leader and Savior. That’s what every sermon in Acts is about: God raised Jesus, God exalted Jesus, Jesus is Savior, Jesus is Lord, Jesus forgives sins. There’s no other name by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12). This is the message that the apostles preach again and again in defiance of the Sanhedrin’s threats. They are determined to fill Jerusalem with the good news about who Jesus is and what God has done through him.
But it’s not simply that they boldly and clearly and courageously preach about who Jesus is and what he’s done. They also preach clearly and courageously about sin, and in particular in these chapters, the sin of betraying, rejecting, denying, and murdering Jesus. So, you see it there in Acts 5:28, the Sanhedrin, “You intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. You’re trying to say that we’re guilty. You want to blame us for killing him.” And then notice how Peter responds. “Yeah, you got it. We’re communicating, this is great. That’s exactly right. You killed him by hanging him on a tree.” This was opportunity. “You’re trying to say we’re guilty.” “Oh, no, no, we’re just trying to have a conversation. Open up a dialogue.” No. “You’re right. I’m glad you’re getting the message here. We said it enough times.”
It’s remarkable, it really is. If you read through these chapters, it’s remarkable how often the apostles strike that note. “You killed him by hanging him on a tree.” And they do so in Jerusalem a few months after it happened. This is fresh here in Jerusalem. This just happened. Jesus just got railroaded. And here the apostles come blaming it, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the Sanhedrin. So, it’s a repeated and it’s a central note in the preaching of the apostles, both to crowds and to Jewish leaders.
Just listen to a handful of passages:
This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23)
God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:36)
The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. (Acts 3:13)
By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead — by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders. (Acts 4:10–11)
So, again and again as the apostles preached, they’re not just talking about Jesus and how he’s Lord and he’s risen and he’s reigning and he forgives sins. They’re saying, “You guys killed him.” And the Sanhedrin picks up on this, “I think that they think it’s our fault.” And so, when they haul them before they say, “Look, you guys. I don’t know what you think you’re doing. You’re trying to blame us.” “Yes, you’ve got it. We’re trying to blame you because you’re guilty.”
And this clarity and courage about the particular sin of killing Jesus is just one part of the larger apostolic clarity about all sin and the need to repent. So, in Acts 2:38–40, a very famous passage, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. . . . Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So, just sins in general. Not specific at this point, just sins in general.
Or Acts 3:19: “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins,” all of them, not just that one, all of them, “may be blotted out.”
Or this one, when we preached through, it just came home again and again to me. Acts 3:26 is the end of Peter’s second sermon after healing the man, he says, “God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” God wants to bless you. He wants to bless every one of you. How? He wants to bless every one of you by turning you from your wickedness. Not your neighbor’s wickedness. Not the Sanhedrin’s wickedness, unless you’re talking to the Sanhedrin. And then if it’s them, it’s not the crowd’s wickedness. Don’t talk about the crowd’s wickedness. Your wickedness. God wants to turn every one of you from your wickedness.
This is what Christian boldness does. It clearly and courageously testifies to the resurrection of Jesus and the need to repent, both in general and in the specific ways that we have rebelled against God. Which means, here’s a lesson, in our day we cannot be content as pastors with generic calls to repentance. You have to get specific. You have to be able to say it, and that includes the broader cultural stuff which we can talk about, but it also includes you being so attentive and in tune with where your people are, pastoring with the people, that when you get up and you’re going to preach about sins, you don’t preach about the sins that are out there. You preach about the sins that are in here.
What are these sins? How does God want to bless your people? By turning every one of them from their wickedness. Not the wickedness on TV, their wickedness. Christian boldness does not muddle the message. That’d be confusion, not clarity. And Christian boldness doesn’t muzzle the message. That would be cowardice, not courage. And that kind of boldness, at least in this early part of Acts — that kind of boldness, courage, and clarity about Jesus and sin — leads to the explosive growth of the church, which leads to escalating hostility with these Jewish leaders.
So, having said that, it’s not enough to know that the apostles were bold in the face of threats. I want us to think about where did that boldness come from? The text is going to give it to us, where does this boldness to be able to stand again and again in the dock before these leaders, before these rulers, before the men who have the power to execute you, or at least to railroad you and get you executed by the Romans, where does the courage to stand there and to say, “Yes, you’re hearing us right, we’re blaming you for the death of Jesus.” Where does that come from?
The Source of Christian Boldness: The Holy Spirit
Well, the first and most important source of boldness in these chapters is the Holy Spirit. The apostles are bold because they ask God to make them bold. So you know this passage, I’m sure. Acts 4:29: “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.”
So, we’ve just been threatened. Nobody’s been beaten yet, we’ve just been threatened. “Don’t preach anymore in this name.” We’ve just been threatened. “Lord, look upon that threat and help us to say it again. What they told us not to say anymore, help us to have the courage and the clarity to say it again, to where they don’t miss it. Not to be slippery and technically obey their command, but to maintain our integrity. No, help us to be courageous and clear to say what they say we cannot say."
“And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). But the Holy Spirit doesn’t operate in a vacuum, he uses means. So, the most obvious means in these chapters is, again, that formation of the church. In fact, if you pay attention to the way the narrative moves in this early chapters one to seven, you’ll see that Luke moves between focusing on the internal workings of the church and then focusing on the external workings of the church. There’s this inward and outward, inward and outward, inward and outward movement. And each time we go outward, it gets bigger. So, 120 and then out, 3,000 and then out, 5,000 and then out. So, it’s in and out, but it’s bigger and bigger and bigger. And that bigger and bigger and bigger means hostility, opposition, escalation.
Resilient Community Produces Christian Boldness
Now, I think one of the reasons for this rhythm of inward and outward is to show the kind of community that produces that kind of Christian boldness. So, Christian boldness emerges from resilient communities. What do I mean by resilient? Resilient communities, meaning a community that’s united in one heart and soul around the testimony of the resurrection. This is why, in Acts 2:42–47, and again in Acts 4:32–4:37, we see this focus on how is this community operating?
So, in Acts 2:42, you all know this passage, I’m sure, you’ve probably preached your small group sermons off of it like the rest of us.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:42–47)
Or again, in Acts 4:32:
The full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them. (Acts 4:32–4:34)
And so, again and again, it comes back to this why? Why in the midst of this escalating opposition? Because where does boldness to stand in the face of that opposition come from? It comes from that kind of community, a community that is so committed to one another that there’s this principle: “There will not be any needy people in our church. None.” That’s the commitment we make to one another.
We all, when we have our congregational meetings, look each other in the eye and we say, “It may get really bad. Nobody in here is going needy, nobody.” And if you have that kind of commitment to each other and that’s built around the resurrection of Jesus and the grace of God is upon it, then you go out and you got the Sanhedrin hollering at you, who cares? What are you going to do? Take my stuff. I got a whole bunch of people who are going to take care of me.
Christian boldness emerges out of resilient communities, communities of grace in which believers steward their resources to meet the needs of others. The goods are held in common, not in some kind of quasi-socialistic stupidity, but in the sense that there is this deep and abiding commitment to the proposition that there will be no needy person among us. We will sacrifice our wealth to serve the household of faith. I mock the socialistic thing because if you pay attention to the passage, it’s very clear, it’s voluntary. That’s the whole point. It’s your field, but you sell the field, meet the needs of others. What a great thing is commended in the example of Barnabas.
So, great power in preaching the resurrection leads to great grace in meeting the needs of an internal community, particularly in the church. And then it’s clear in Acts 1–7, generosity doesn’t stop at the doors of the church. It spills the banks of God’s household and meets the needs of those in the surrounding community.
So Christians, us, we’re committed to seeking the good of the city. So, the apostles are out among the people, they’re healing, they’re restoring those who are broken (Acts 3:1–10; 5:12–16).
The Necessity of Holiness in Christian Boldness
And while they’re doing this internal care and this external ministry, it’s clear that another feature that’s essential to having a community that produces Christian boldness, is holiness and integrity.
This is what’s going on. If you want to understand the Ananias and Sapphira, everybody gets freaked out by that. It’s like it’s fine for God to kill people in the Old Testament, but to kill Christians in the New Testament, or professing Christians, everybody gets a little freaked out, especially when you do that sermon on tithing Sunday. Which you could do.
What’s going on in that passage? Well, if you compare it to the previous, it comes right on the heels of the “they had everything in common” and it comes right on the heels of Barnabas as this great example of generosity. He sells a field, lays it at the apostles’ feet, and then you have Ananias and Sapphira saying, “Wow, Barnabas. He’s pretty impressive. Everybody loves Barnabas. Let’s be like Barnabas, but on the cheap. Let’s try to get Barnabas’s reputation without having Barnabas’s generosity and encouragement. And so yeah, we sold it for that much and yeah, we laid it all, all of it. We laid all the money that we got from this sale. And when do we get our award? When do we get our great tither award from the apostles? When do the apostles pat us on the back and bring us up and showcase us like they did Barnabas?”
But you can’t have generosity on the cheap. There’s got to be holiness. There’s got to be integrity. Whenever there’s a genuine work of God, it will not be five minutes before counterfeits show up, aping generosity in order to get fame and renown. That will happen.
Thus, a true community, a gracious community, will be one that is filled with real generosity and sacrifice, and that will be holy and upright and honest. Ananias and Sapphira demonstrate we cannot lie to God and expect him to bless us. He’s not mocked. He’s a consuming fire, and he insists that we live in holy fear before him. So, where does Christian boldness come from? Well, it comes from God the Father, when we ask him for it, “God fill us. Look on their threats and fill us with boldness by the Holy Spirit.” But that Holy Spirit fills us with boldness by gathering of people around the preaching of Jesus, uniting us in one heart, one soul, so that we sacrifice to meet each other’s needs and then we seek the good of the city and live lives of holy and reverent fear.
The Need for Christian Boldness Today
Now, in our day, there’s tremendous pressure to mute and muddle and muzzle biblical teaching about certain sins, especially related to sexuality. No one objects if Christians are motivated by Jesus to end human trafficking. We’ll get awards for that. Or if we want to alleviate poverty or feed the hungry. But if you say, as the Bible does, that men are men and not women, and women are women and not men, and that marriage is and only is a covenantal union between one man and one woman for one lifetime, if you say that, then what will happen? Well, you will annoy some. You’ll be a nuisance and you will enrage others. And sometimes, that rage will be barely controlled. And in the future, who knows? Who knows? If the pattern holds true, who knows?
The biblical teaching about sexuality is at best a nuisance. This strange, outdated opinion held by weirdos. At worst, in the minds of the world, the biblical teaching about sexuality is a bigoted act of hate that calls for coercion and violence. But we don’t have the option to go mute in the one place where the world says we must go mute, any more than the apostles could have stopped saying, “You crucified Jesus.” “Stop telling people that we crucified Jesus.” But you did crucified Jesus.” “Stop telling people that marriage is one man and one woman.” “But it is. That’s just what it is.” We must obey God and not man.
Let me say one thing here. It’s important to say, “Okay, we want to be able to preach faithfully about these issues in the culture.” But in the same way that we cannot encourage radical generosity if we tolerate posers like Ananias and Sapphira. Tracking with me? You can’t say, “Be generous,” if you’ve got people like that and you’re just tolerating them, thinking that’s okay.
In the same way, neither can we faithfully and compellingly resist the sexual revolution in the culture when half the church is neck-deep in sexual foolishness, and father hunger, and unchecked divorce. This is again, the need for that holy and resilient community. It’s impossible. It’s impossible, hear me, to uphold the value of marriage for the common good if our marriages and our families are in shambles.
We can’t magnify the meaning of marriage in the culture if our own homes are being ripped apart by brokenness, and frustration, and bitterness, and futility. In other words, this would be a little bit of a call here for something like church discipline. We can’t go out in the world, we can’t stand before the Sanhedrin and say, “We’re going to say the truth. We’re going to obey God, not man,” if we’re not actually obeying God and not man. If we’re not obeying God in there, then we can’t stand before the Sanhedrin with integrity and say, “We obey God, not man.” That’s hollow. It’s just hollow and empty.
And so, the crying need of the hour, this is what I felt as we preached through this, is for church leaders, that’s us, to embrace our God-given responsibility to lead churches that testify to God’s design for the family, by confronting philandering husbands, adulterous wives, absentee fathers and wandering mothers, and calling them back to what God is calling them to. Offering them the promise of glorious acceptance if they will simply repent and turn from their wickedness. If we don’t have courage to confront our own people, what makes us think we’ll ever have the courage to stand firm in the evil day?
The Strange and Surprising Triumph of the Gospel
So, in these chapters, we’ve seen these characters, apostles with their boldness, this church that’s generous and sacrificial in their giving, these crowds that are needy and desperate need healing. And we’ve seen Jewish leaders with their escalating hostility to this message and this people. This conflict, repeated collisions, rooted in theological annoyance, rooted in jealousy at the growth of this church, and rooted in hatred at the apostolic endurance. So, that’s what we’ve seen. There’s been this conflict and it’s been building and building and building, and then you say, “Okay, if this is what we’re supposed to do, we’re supposed to learn from the patterns of Scripture and get ready for this, how does this story end? This little story? Acts 1–7, how does it end? It’s triumph, right? Glory.”
Well, wait a minute. Doesn’t it end with the stoning of Stephen? Isn’t that what faithfulness gets the church in Jerusalem, is the stoning of Stephen? And doesn’t that execution catalyze a widespread persecution of the church? So much so that if you look in Acts 8 — I want you to see this, how this chapter in the story of God ends — Stephen dies. Saul approved of his execution.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. . . . Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (Acts 8:2–3)
So, this is a great message. This is good way to kick off this conference. Christian boldness in the face of threats, if you stand firm, if we have resilient communities that love one another and love the gospel and we stand firm in the evil day, we obey God, not men, then what happens? This. That’s the story God likes to tell: stoning of Stephen, widespread persecution, church-ravaging Pharisee named Saul.
Here’s the greatest lesson of this story. Watch what happens here. Don’t miss this. Yes, the stoning of Stephen and the persecution of the Jerusalem church is the end of this chapter. It’s also the beginning of another chapter that shows the strange and surprising triumph of the gospel.
The Beginning of Another Chapter
Look in Acts 8:4: “Those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” The same word that had got them in trouble again and again and again in Jerusalem. Now, they get scattered by this church-ravager and they say, “What should we do? I guess we should say the same thing we’ve been saying.” They go about preaching the word, not grumbling about injustice. “How come? We were just trying to do good to people. We were just trying to help them. We were just trying to give them forgiveness of sins and meet their physical needs and their spiritual needs. We were just trying to help them. Why? It’s so unjust, it’s so wrong. What’s happened to us?”
They’re not blaming Steven, which you can imagine. Did he really have to spout off that way? That was a humdinger of an altar call at the end of Acts 7. We’ll talk about that maybe a little more in the next message. But not blaming Steven, that’s me. That’s what I would be doing, grumbling about Steven for bringing this persecution down on everybody. If he could have just kept his mouth shut, maybe been a little bit calmer, maybe we all wouldn’t have lost our homes and lost our jobs and been stuck in Samaria, which I think is like West Texas. I’m from West Texas, I can say that, I’m allowed. It’s the place where God ran out of ideas.
They’re not despairing about Saul’s harassment. Instead, they go about preaching. Now, here’s the point. These people are exiles. They are refugees. They are outcasts from their home, but they are not acting like refugees. They are acting like missionaries. They don’t act like they got kicked out of Jerusalem. They act like they got sent out of Jerusalem, like there was a big commissioning service with great fanfare, and God said, “Go get them, church.”
The martyrdom of Stephen launches the Samaritan mission, which is a mission that Jesus promised at the very beginning of the book of Acts. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem” (Acts 1:8). “We did it. Now what? We get promoted?” Yeah, watch the promotion. Stephen, Saul, mission in Judea, Samaria, to the end of the earth.
“They were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria . . . and proclaimed to them the Christ” (Acts 8:1, 5). The Christian outcasts from Jerusalem preached to these lost outcasts of Samaria, and the Samaritans receive the good news of the kingdom of God. They’re baptized into the name of Jesus. They receive the Holy Spirit. What looked like a massive failure, in Acts 7 it looks like a massive failure, was actually a prelude to success.
What looked like a setback was really a setup. God had plans. God had surprising purposes for the good of his people, and the salvation of the Samaritans, and the conversion of Saul, and the movement of the gospel to the ends of the earth. He had all that planned, and he said, “How am I going to get there? Through the suffering of my people, because of their boldness in the face of opposition.”
The Resilient Story of God
This is God’s way, and this is the lesson we learned in the early chapters of Acts: a powerful preaching of the good news gathers in all of these refugees from the world. Lost and broken, but they gathered in. These refugees are formed by the Holy Spirit into a holy and resilient community that meets needs and sacrifices for others. And this same preaching then threatens the rulers and authorities of this age, and they respond with opposition that escalates in the face of boldness, leading even to persecution and death.
But as Tertullian reminded us: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And this seed always bears fruit. This is the story that God loves to tell over and over and over again from Genesis to Revelation and from Revelation to the present day. God has been striking the same note again and again and again in millions of stories, big and small.
What’s the story? It’s the story that Chesterton said. “Christianity," Chesterton said, “has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave” (The Everlasting Man, 213).
This is the story that must mark us. This is the story that must shape our imagination and expectations in a world full of suffering and trial and persecution. I have no idea the particulars of what that means for us in America in the 21st century. I don’t know what our Samaria will be if it gets really hot and heavy here. It may look something like rural West Virginia. We’re going to get booted from the cities and we’re going to be ministering in the sticks. Some of you’re like, “I’m waiting for you. You’re already there.”
Maybe it’s not even America. Maybe we’re going to be up in Canada, or ends of the earth. I have no idea where the next mission field is. All I know is that when that day comes, if it should come, if the story continues to go like it did here, will we be ready so that when we get kicked out, we go, “Got a new mission. Let’s go, church.”
The lesson that, may God grant us to know it deep down in our bones, in God’s world, is that faithful death, like Steven’s, like the church in Jerusalem, and like the church, may it be in America, always, always, always leads to resurrection.