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Archive for the 'Church Begins' Category

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10. Church Begins - Final Journey Completed

Acts 27v39 - 28v30

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Acts 27v39 - 28v6 When it was day, they didn't recognize the land, but they noticed a certain bay with a beach, and they decided to try to drive the ship onto it.  Casting off the anchors, they left them in the sea, at the same time untying the rudder ropes. Hoisting up the foresail to the wind, they made for the beach.  But coming to a place where two seas met, they ran the vessel aground. The bow struck and remained immovable, but the stern began to break up by the violence of the waves.

The soldiers' counsel was to kill the prisoners, so that none of them would swim out and escape. But the centurion, desiring to save Paul, stopped them from their purpose, and commanded that those who could swim should throw themselves overboard first to go toward the land; and the rest should follow, some on planks, and some on other things from the ship. So it happened that they all escaped safely to the land.

When we had escaped, then they learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us uncommon kindness; for they kindled a fire, and received us all, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said one to another, "No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped from the sea, yet Justice has not allowed to live." However he shook off the creature into the fire, and wasn't harmed.  But they expected that he would have swollen or fallen down dead suddenly, but when they watched for a long time and saw nothing bad happen to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.

Along the journey, eventually the ship arrived at Malta.  Everybody was safe and secure, but tired and bedraggled (Acts 27v39-44). The Roman centurion did not want to kill the prisoners he was guarding, because he wanted to keep Paul alive (Acts 27v24, 43). This group of people stayed in Malta for three months and all we know of their stay in Malta, is two quite remarkable events.

1. Malta

The snake on the beach. The local Maltese people were hospitable to them.  Immediately, the Maltese people built a fire on the beach for the weary travellers. Paul had gathered some of the wood for the fire, and when he put the wood on the fire, a snake was driven out by the heat, and fastened itself onto his hand (Acts 28v3). At this point, because of their superstitions, the Maltese thought Paul was a murderer and trying to run from justice. Paul did not suffer however, and the Maltese changed their minds about Paul. He went from being a murderer, to 'a god' (Acts 28v6). God was glorified yet again through this event, and Paul no doubt would have been horrified at being called a 'god', just as he was at Lystra years before (Acts 14v11-18). This shows that God gives grace to the humble, and Paul was indeed a humble man.

The healing of the sick. The other event we hear about is about Publius.  Publius was the Maltese leader.  He entertained the ship's company, and Paul healed Publius' father and the rest of the island came and were cured. Salvation by the grace of God was preached, and Paul was honoured in many ways. We are not told if any Maltese became believers at this point.

2. Approaching Rome

After three months in Malta, they sailed on towards Italy. They landed at Puteoli and Paul stayed there a week with some fellow believers, who had come as far as forty miles to meet him Paul thanked God for them and was encouraged by God through them (Acts 27v24). God's had kept Paul safe, by His power to fulfil his promise to him about standing trial in Rome. Paul had experienced what he had long known to be true, that whatever happens in life, falls within the purpose of God. No storm, no shipwreck, no snake, no Sanhedrin, no riots, no threats could separate him from the love of God or stop God's purpose for him.

Paul arrived in Rome quietly, and settled into ministry, despite his chains, for the next two years. During this time, he seemed to avoid any great dramas with the authorities. The arrival of Paul in Rome, was the fulfilment of the Lord's promise to him in the prison in Jerusalem (Acts 23v11). Paul never forced anything on anyone. Yet he refused to let anyone stop him from proclaiming Jesus as Lord. Paul always told people the gospel with love, honesty, sensitivity and a focus that breathed a personal concern'

Just because people accept an invitation, doesn't always mean they will listen. Paul found this out with the Roman Jews. They listened to him, and then rejected the gospel message. This is the last specific event recorded in Acts. We are left with the picture that preaching the Gospel is hard in a world that is unsympathetic to us. It is also the last instance of a Jewish rejection of Paul's ministry, and from now on he seems to concentrate only on the Gentiles. This is shown in the universal nature of the church today, whereas back in the time of Paul, it was primarily Jewish. It also confirms Jesus' principle that when the message is constantly rejected in one place, to take the message elsewhere (Matthew 10v14). The gospel moves on, seeking the lost wherever they may be found.

3. Mission while under arrest!

For two years Paul was able to preach the gospel in Rome, and all this time he was under house arrest! There are 3 main features of his ministry during this time.

a. He welcomed all who came to see him. His door was always open to all enquirers. If he could not go to them, then he would always welcome those who came to him.

b. He consistently preached the kingdom of God and taught about Jesus. Paul's passion was Jesus, and his message of salvation was the saving grace of Jesus. Christ dominated Paul's life. Paul loved the Lord and constantly lifted Him up before people.

c. Paul preached boldly and without hindrance. Even though Paul's hands were chained, his mouth remained open for Jesus Christ and his gospel. This sums up the book of Acts. Jesus cannot be contained. The gospel cannot be silenced. The salvation of sinners cannot be stopped. The work continues. Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses 'in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth' (Acts 1v8), These words continue for us today as we go into our places of work, study, or our families to tell them of the saving love of Jesus, that his name is the only name given under heaven among men, by whom we will be saved.

The book of Acts does not end with a final statement, but with a story that continues. It seems that God wanted Luke to end the book of Acts with an open and unfinished story. Why? The book of Acts, then, is all about the continuing work of God in and through His people, the church. It is about the unfinished work of faithfulness: faithfulness to reach out (Acts 28v17-22), faithfulness to persevere when people will not listen (Acts 28v23-30), and faithfulness to proclaim Jesus (Acts 28v30,31).  Our faith grabs hold of God's power, and this power strengthens our faith, and we are preserved; it places us within those walls, and sets our souls within the guard of the power of God, which is only left exposed by our own selfish pride and acting in our own strength. Faith is a humble, self-denying grace' making the Christian nothing in himself and everything in God - He and He alone should be our security.

We who are believers, are the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church of the book of Acts. We are to be indebted to the work of Paul and the other Apostles. It would be their desire, for us to continue on the work they left. It would be their desire, to see us, living the gospel of truth in a world that is dying to know of the grace and love of its Saviour, Jesus Christ. We, as Christians in the 21st Century, are part of Acts Chapter 29.  Will we be written as part of the story, or simply be placed on the side? That is the challenge for all of us who believe in Jesus. There is no neat, happy ending we all enjoy.

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9. Church Begins - Final Journey Commences

Acts 27v1-38

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Acts 26v19-32 "Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to them of Damascus, at Jerusalem, and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance.   For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple, and tried to kill me.  Having therefore obtained the help that is from God, I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would happen, how the Christ must suffer, and how, by the resurrection of the dead, he would be first to proclaim light both to these people and to the Gentiles." As he thus made his defence, Festus said with a loud voice, "Paul, you are crazy! Your great learning is driving you insane!" But he said, "I am not crazy, most excellent Festus, but boldly declare words of truth and reasonableness. For the king knows of these things, to whom also I speak freely. For I am persuaded that none of these things is hidden from him, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe." Agrippa said to Paul, "With a little persuasion are you trying to make me a Christian?" Paul said, "I pray to God, that whether with little or with much, not only you, but also all that hear me this day, might become such as I am, except for these bonds."  The king rose up with the governor, and Bernice, and those who sat with them.  When they had withdrawn, they spoke one to another, saying, "This man does nothing worthy of death or of bonds." Agrippa said to Festus, "This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar."

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has spread throughout the Roman Empire, and Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea.  The Jewish leaders wanted Paul tried and executed, and Festus was willing to go along with that idea.  However, Paul, ever guided by the Holy Spirit, appealed directly to Caesar! Paul was a Roman citizen and any Roman citizen had that right!  So after what we call the three missionary journeys, Paul is now on a final journey - to Rome! We jump forward now to Acts 27 to look at this final journey.

Final Journey Begins

Luke records the course of the voyage in detail, and we can feel just how people travelled back in that time. The prisoners were probably put on the boat at Caesarea. They sailed up the coast of Sidon, to the east and north of Cyprus. At Sidon the centurion in charge of Paul, "in kindness...", allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs' (27v3). Now as far as we know, Paul had never visited Sidon although perhaps he had met Sidonese people on his travels. This was to be the last time he would have had the fellowship and family worship of a Christian home and a wider company of believers. Strengthened and encouraged by this group of Christians, Paul was ready for any trouble that lay ahead for him.

After two weeks sailing, they landed at Myra, in what is now southern Turkey. They then changed ships, for one heading towards Italy, and their next stop was Crete. The time of year was now late October, and the weather was quickly getting worse (27v10). The captain and owner of the ship thought that it was wise to seek a new place in which to stay for the winter. Paul foresaw the disaster, and said so. Paul, it must be said, did believe that God was ruler of the winds and waves and would get him to Rome come what may. He was simply stating that it was better to be safe rather than sorry, to arrive in Italy safely in spring rather than not arriving at all. Paul's advice set the scene for the events that happen later on in the voyage in which God once again confirmed Paul's discernment and calling by miracles and mighty works, even if it had no immediate effect on those responsible for the decision to sail on regardless.

The sailors were not fools however. They waited until the weather improved before starting to sail from Crete (27v13). Their optimism was soon blown away by a strong wind, which started to blow them towards Africa. Day after day after day, for two weeks they ran with the wind, hoping that the wind would stop, and at the same time seemingly waiting for the ship to sink. The sailors were probably starting to reflect on their life and commitments, or the lack of commitments. During this time, Paul intervened to encourage their disheartened spirits.

Encouragement

  • A call for faith (27v21-26) - By this time, everybody on board must have been aware that Paul was right in his warning not to sail on. He said they should keep their courage, because no-one would lose their life, even if the ship was damaged beyond repair. But why should they believe this? Because God had sent an angel to assure Paul that he would arrive in Rome, to stand trial before Caesar. Paul had faith in God that it would happen just as he had promised. They should take courage. All people, whether Christian or not, are in the same boat of life. All people share a common life of ups and downs. Godless sailors lived because of godly Paul. Yet it is up to us as Christians to share a message of hope to all those who do not believe. These sailors, even though they were blessed by God to survive this disaster, may not survive the next voyage of disaster, and then they would end up in hell. Regardless of their blessings, they stayed lost if they didn't come to Christ in faith. For Paul, however, to live was Christ and to die was gain (Philippians 1 :21). Whatever trials we face as believers, we must hold fast to the glory of Jesus. The real issue, Paul tells his shipmates, is not whether we live or die, but what will you do with Jesus? Paul spoke of God's promises and his faith in God. He invited them to believe in God, just as he did.
  • A call for unity - stay together (27v27-32) - Their crisis came fourteen days out of Crete. They were about to land at Malta, in conditions that were worse than awful. Some sailors were trying to sneak off in the life-boat. Paul, however, insisted that all hands were necessary if any were to be saved, and the centurion prevented them from escaping.
  • A call for effort - The promise of God, always includes the means to fulfil His promise. God doesn't commend or give His power to the faithful, so that they may be lazy and not plan, when there is a definite reason to be careful. When God makes a promise to us, we must be responsible to receive his promise. God promises to save us, yet it is our responsibility to accept by faith His Son Jesus Christ. Paul always reminded them of God's promise. He urged them to take food so that they would be strong when the time was needed for strength. He once again reminded them of the promise of God. He also witnessed to them, when eating, by giving thanks to God. Paul was a man of a God and a man of action, a man of the Spirit and common-sense, a man who combined spirituality with sanity, faith with works, a man who was heavenly minded and of earthly use.

Christians, should be the most practical people in the world, because the Lord has given us the real truth about the real world and its real needs. How do you respond to the world? Are you like Paul?

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8. Church Begins - Forward in Unity

Acts 15v13-35

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James, the brother of Jesus and writer of the epistle of James, was not an apostle. He delivered the coup-de-grace to the Judaism argument with a direct appeal to the Word of God. God had already spoken on the matter! Quoting Amos 9v11-12, James reminded them that the prophet had declared that 'David's fallen tent' was be restored and that this would involve the in gathering of all the Gentiles who bear the Lord's name' (Acts 15v16-18). This is fulfilled, James says, in all that Peter had described (Acts 15:14). The church of Jesus Christ was all along intended to encompass both Jew and Gentile and, one by one without discrimination, they are brought to the same faith by the same Lord. The gospel is for all nations. This, James showed, was 'the mind of God", in the Scripture'.

1. Deliverance Proposed

The Lord's brother then proposed the motion that was to become the finding of the Jerusalem Council. This consisted of two main parts:

The first was the definitive doctrinal answer to the Judaizers, which stands for all time: 'We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God' (Acts 15v19). This verse is often passed over as a mere introit to the verses that follow, but it ought to be seen as standing on its own. It told the Judaizing party in the gentlest possible way - if they thought through all they had heard - that what they were asking for was not the Lord's will for the church, but was, indeed, even contrary to the gospel of God's free grace in Christ and wonderful doctrine of being put right with God by faith alone. If ever them was a soft answer that would turn away potential anger, this was it. 'We should not make it difficult,' is an example of affirming a basic doctrine in a very practical way. The doctrine had been clearly stated by the previous speakers. There was no need for a bare restatement. There was need, however, to persuade people of its practical significance. And, at the same time, those whose views were being rejected needed to know that they were not being personally rejected, but were still warmly embraced within the fellowship of the Lord's people. They were believers and they had laid their views before the whole church in an orderly manner. Having received the considered judgement of the church, they could be expected to receive it with due submission in the Lord. They were certainly not to be made to feel that they had been foolish or were no longer welcome. This is surely a model for resolving doctrinal and practical controversy today. Too often, church debates degenerate into fights and lead to unnecessary and ungodly division. The maintenance or truth never requires discourtesy or unpleasantness on the part of its advocates, even if those who oppose it are strident and contentious (2 Timothy 2v25). James deftly set the denial of any requirement of legal observances for salvation (the other side of which was the affirmation of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ, in terms of not putting difficulties (that is unbiblical ones) in the way of Gentile converts being received into the membership of the church.

2. Unity Proposed

The second part is a practical four-point proposal (Acts 15v20) designed to foster unity in the church. They proposed asking the Gentile Christians to take particular care to distance themselves from their former manner of life. This was also, no doubt, designed to allay the fears of Jewish Christians, whose sense of what constituted a God honouring lifestyle was formed by the regulations of the law of Moses. They needed to know that Gentile Christians were not adrift from practical godliness as properly defined by God's Word. James therefore addressed specific practical issues, where the teaching of the Scriptures - still confined to the Old Testament - challenged the accepted norms of Gentile behaviour and called for a conscientious application of biblical principles.

2a. Leave Alone

First, they should 'abstain from food polluted by idols' (Daniel 1v8; Malachiv1:7-12). This had been offered at pagan temples as sacrifices to the gods and the surplus sold in the market. The question here was not primarily one of diet - that is dealt with in the third and fourth points - but concerned association with the milieu from which the food had come. Questions of conscience later arose in Corinth on this very point. These were addressed by Paul, who made it clear that while there was no essential problem with eating this meat, there ought to be sensitivity to the tender consciences of those who, having come out of paganism, regarded consuming it as a sinful complicity with paganism (1 Corinthians 8v1-13; 10v14-33). Second, they should abstain from 'sexual immorality' (Leviticus 18; Matthew 5v27-30). The Gentile world, like that of television movies and sitcoms today, treated promiscuous sexual relations as acceptable and part of normal behaviour. This was sin then and it remains sin to this day. Third, they should not eat of 'the meat of strangled animals'. This is a reference to meat from which the blood had not been completely strained (Leviticus 7v22-27).' Lastly, they should eat no 'blood' (Genesis 9v4; Leviticus 17v10-12; 19v26). This was the basis for the preceding point. Blood was symbolic of life and was to be reserved for sacrifice to the Lord, thus underscoring his role as the giver of life. None of these, as John Owen points out, was a new imposition on the practice of the churches.' All were clearly taught in Scripture, even if all but the second were elements of old covenant piety that would eventually pass away when the full revelation of the New Testament was completed. The purpose of reiterating them here was to encourage a discerning sensitivity to practical godliness in a Gentile social-cultural milieu and a Jewish Christian ecclesiastical context. Gentiles were to examine critically their old habits and give no cause to anyone to accuse them of their old sins. They were also encouraged to be graciously accommodating to Jewish dietary sensitivities. For their part, Jewish believers needed to understand that Gentiles were not to be required to observe the Mosaic ceremonial law, now that the Messiah had come and published the gospel of sovereign grace in all its fullness.

The decision was made to adopt James' proposal and send a letter with a deputation to all the churches in 'Antioch, Syria and Cilicia' (Acts 15v22-29). This conveyed the verdict of the council. Today it still vibrates with lively applicability.

2b. Grace Alone

First of all, the men who insisted on circumcision and the law were declared to be 'without the church's authorisation' for their disturbing teaching. This almost unobtrusive dismissal underscores the solidity with which the church knew its doctrine. From the beginning, the apostles clearly taught that salvation was by the free and sovereign grace of God through faith in Christ and not through man's best efforts to keep tile law and impress God with self generated good works. Jerusalem held that line and closed the door to works-righteousness- Good works have a vital place in the Christian life, to be sure. They are, however, not the root, but the fruit of salvation, prepared by God in advance for us to do (Ephesians. 2v10).

2c. Spirit Alone

They emphasised that the decision 'seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to [the church I' (Acts 15v28). Here is the purpose and the role of the church in the guidance and discipline of God's people. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 14v26; 16v13). All decisions in churches, as well as in the individual Christian's life, ought to fulfil this condition. Not only does it tell us what God does with his church, but it defines the goal and prayer of the church. If what we do only seems good to us, without the evident leading of the Spirit, then we are simply not doing the Lord's work.

2d. Standing Alone

The council's four 'requirements' - one permanent (sexual immorality), the others transitional and temporary, highlight the necessity and the blessing of the separated life for Christians: 'You will do well to avoid these things' (Acts 15v29).  Christians must bear a decisive testimony to the society in which they are located - a testimony which shows the righteousness of God before the world. The result in the mission churches was encouragement and continued blessing through the ministries of Judas, Silas Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15v30-35). The burden of Judaistic legalism was lifted. The Gospel of Jesus Christ 's was lifted up before the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit continued to accompany the preaching of the Word with power, so that more and more people were being saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.

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7. Church Begins - Problems Arise

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Acts 15:1-4 "Some men came down from Judea and taught the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you can't be saved."  Therefore when Paul and Barnabas had no small discord and discussion with them, they appointed Paul and Barnabas, and some others of them, to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.   They, being sent on their way by the assembly, passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles. They caused great joy to all the brothers.   When they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the assembly and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all things that God had done with them.

At its beginning, the apostolic church was one church under the unitary leadership of the apostles.  It had an expanding eldership, often called presbyters, bishops or overseers.' From earliest days, the church had a simple but well-defined order. Elders and deacons were set apart to their particular tasks, as we saw earlier in Acts 6. Members were received upon profession of faith and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper were administered. Discipline was exercised, in which members who had fallen into sin and remained unrepentant were excluded from the church. The church was never individualistic: that is to say, people did not suddenly decide to 'join' or 'leave' the church, as is too often the case in modern churches. The church was a corporate entity, in which pastoral oversight and spiritual authority were exercised by the leadership.  A leadership raised up by the Lord and set apart according to a church policy mediated by the divinely inspired guidance of the apostles. This did not mean that there was neither controversy nor the threat of disunity. From the beginning, problems arose which needed to be resolved with pastoral, spiritual and judicial authority.

It is therefore no surprise to find, early on in Church history, a question arising about the nature of membership in the church and to see the matter being dealt with through the collective leadership of the church, the apostles and elders, who met together in a deliberative assembly (Acts 15v6).

The problem arose because some men from Judea came to Antioch and promoted the view that circumcision, according to the law of Moses, was necessary for salvation. 'They were opposed by Paul and Barnabas. The church must have been seriously upset by the dispute. There was no final resolution and so help was sought from the church in Jerusalem, still at this point the heartland of the Christian church, from which the problem had come in the first place. Paul, Barnabas and some other believers were reputed to take the case to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

It is impressive to see the orderliness and seemingly good spirit in which they sought to deal with the dispute. This is reflected in the way the news of the conversion of Gentiles was received along their path. The church was one church, united in a glorious obsession with the gospel and the conviction that there is one truth by which the people of God are to be guided and ordered in one, undivided body. Every theological and practical controversy potentially threatens the unity of the church. In this case, the issue was fundamental to the meaning and application of the gospel itself. The intense conservatism of some of the Christian Jews was expressed in an insistence that certain regulations of the Old Testament law be required of non-Jewish converts as prerequisites for their recognition as members of the church of Jesus Christ. This is, of course, the so-called ‘Judaizing controversy', which, notwithstanding the action of the Jerusalem Council, continued to dog the progress of the apostolic church and was to be he target of Paul's epistle to the Galatians. The heart of the matter is the tendency to add to the Word of God in defining who is, or is not, a Christian and thus expand the scope of what makes for a credible profession of faith to take in all sorts of unbiblical rules and requirements. The 'Judaizing' Christians in Antioch did not want to add some new man-made tradition of innovation, but desired to keep certain elements which had been God's will for the Old Testament church.

How could that which was good and holy until Jesus came again, become an improper imposition afterwards? The answer had already been given explicitly and also implicitly in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon Samaritan and Gentile believers (Acts 8v7; Acts 10v45-48). The maintenance of an Old Testament regulation (in this case, circumcision), when it had been replaced by a distinctively New Testament ordinance (baptism), was equivalent to imposing a man-made tradition even though God had originally given it to his people. Why? Because God had made it clear, through the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, that baptism was to be the ordinance of incorporation with his people for the whole New Testament era, until its culmination in the Second Coming of Christ (Matt. 28v19; Acts 2v38). The transition period of the first-generation church of the apostles, however, made sensitive and difficult matter with which to deal. Jewish Christians still attended services in the synagogues and observed the ceremonies at the temple (see Acts 21v26 for an instance of the involving the apostle Paul). Only with the destruction of the Temple in AD70 would the ceremonial aspects of the Old pattern for godliness decisively recede from the practice of church.

On arriving at Jerusalem, the delegates from Antioch were welcomed by 'the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them', This gathering evidently consisted of the leadership (apostles and elders) and many of the membership, including those convened were putting forward the requirement that Gentiles 'must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses' (Acts 15v5-6). This was the context for discussion of the issue.

The Jerusalem Council, as it has been named, was a group of ordained elders together with the apostles, The significance of this council, beyond the immediate decision which was made, lies in the fact that the apostles did not make the decision for the church, as could well have been expected of men of their unique position and gifts, but participated, for the purposes of this decision, as elders with the other elders, albeit as the 'first among equals', It is for this reason that the Jerusalem Council is the great prototype of 'synods and councils', whether congregational or Presbyterian, ever since. Having convened for that purpose, the apostles and elders' engaged in a deliberative discussion of the issue referred to them by the church in Antioch, namely, whether the Judaistic proposition that circumcision and a commitment to keeping Mosaic law were to be required of Gentiles (Acts 15v7). There was free debate and no papering over differences. The apostles let the elders speak before they joined in, thus showing the way for the future, when their uniquely revelatory gifts would be gone,

Furthermore, it is clear, from what is said later, that their goal was to know the mind of the Holy Spirit in the matter (Acts 15v28). The Jerusalem Council is a reminder to the church of Jesus Christ to go back to God's way of seeking the mind of the Spirit on the issues confronting the doctrinal purity and the practical peace of the body of Christ - namely, by God-appointed elders in deliberative assemblies. The way the discussion unfolded in Jerusalem is the most vivid recommendation for God's way to solve the church's challenges,

Peter arose after much discussion, and proceeded to demolish the Judaistic viewpoint with arguments drawn from his own experience of ministry to Gentiles. He first described the conversion of the Gentiles as the work of God (Acts 15v 7-9). It had been God, not himself, who had determined that, through his lips the Gentiles might hear the message of the gospel and believe. It was certain that God had accepted them, because He had given the Holy Spirit to them, just as He had to Jewish believers; and this was proved by the Gentile Christians' faith, which was no different from their own (Acts 15v9). He then rebuked those Jewish Christians who would insist on human works - in this instance, circumcision and the law - as necessary for salvation (Acts 15v10). They should have known better! Their fathers could not bear the 'yoke' of the law. It could not save them. They could not keep it. To suggest that this same yoke is necessary to being recognised as a true believer in Christ was, in effect, to deny their own profession of Christ as their Saviour! Worse still, it was to trying to test God - that is, to challenge God's ability to save lost people by grace through faith in Christ alone!

To make any action, however righteous in itself, an instrument of the justification of a sinner before God, when God has made it plain by precept and actual experience that it is by grace alone through saving faith in Jesus Christ, is to contradict the very essence of the gospel! Faith is in a category all of its own. Faith is not a 'work'. It is, to be sure, the act of the human heart casting itself upon the Lord, but it is pre-eminently the gift of God as Paul later says so that no one can boast (Ephesians. 2v9). Rising to a glorious crescendo, Peter declared emphatically the very heart of the gospel (Acts 15v11). Salvation is by grace alone, both for Jews and Gentiles. Jesus' yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11v30). There is no place for the yoke of a law, which could only condemn us!

The two missionaries, whose labours had largely occasioned the controversy, supported Peter with testimony to the miracles attending the ministry to the Gentiles. These showed that God was working among them, as he had among the Jews. Then, as we shall discover next time, James speaks and the church goes forward in unity! Thank you.

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6. Church Begins - Paul is sent

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Acts 9:10-31 “Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

He said, “Behold, it’s me, Lord.”

9:11 The Lord said to him, “Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judah for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus. For behold, he is praying, 9:12 and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in, and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight.”

9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem. 9:14 Here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”

9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel. 9:16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”

9:17 Ananias departed, and entered into the house. Laying his hands on him, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord, who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me, that you may receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 9:18 Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he received his sight. He arose and was baptized. 9:19 He took food and was strengthened. Saul stayed several days with the disciples who were at Damascus. 9:20 Immediately in the synagogues he proclaimed the Christ, that he is the Son of God. 9:21 All who heard him were amazed, and said, “Isn’t this he who in Jerusalem made havoc of those who called on this name? And he had come here intending to bring them bound before the chief priests!”

9:22 But Saul increased more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived at Damascus, proving that this is the Christ. 9:23 When many days were fulfilled, the Jews conspired together to kill him, 9:24 but their plot became known to Saul. They watched the gates both day and night that they might kill him, 9:25 but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through the wall, lowering him in a basket. 9:26 When Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join himself to the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.9:27 But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 9:28 He was with them entering into Jerusalem, 9:29 preaching boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus. He spoke and disputed against the Hellenists, but they were seeking to kill him. 9:30 When the brothers knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him off to Tarsus. 9:31 So the assemblies throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, and were built up. They were multiplied, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.”

Transformed

From the conversion of Paul, we go to the consequences of his conversion. The first consequence we maybe aware of is that he changed his name: changed from Saul of Tarsus to Paul of Tarsus – we read that in Acts 13! Paul's conversion was a total transformation. His attitudes, character & relationships with God, fellow believers and the unbelieving world were utterly transformed. A changed life is the uultimate proof, that conversion is real and the Holy Spirit is working. Now that through Jesus and his cross, Paul had been put right with God, Paul, as with all believers, enjoyed direct access to the Father, as the Spirit witnessed with his spirit that he was the Father's child (Romans 8:16). Perhaps his prayers were for forgiveness of sins of self-righteousness & cruel persecution of Jesus & the church. And no doubt they contained worship. The mouth that breathed murderous threats against Jesus like a roaring lion, was now breathing prayers & praises to God like bleating lamb. Paul's life was changed from self-righteousness to righteousness through Jesus. The evidence of this was a change in the way he lived his life.

Ananias went to meet Paul, after having been sent by God. No doubt, he had heard of Paul and his persecuting the Church. At the beginning he was hesitant to do this, but in the end he went to Straight Street as told and ministered to Paul. Upon laying hands upon him and identifying with him(v17), calling him brother, and ministering the love of Jesus to this his former enemy, the Holy Spirit entered Paul (v17), and Paul could see again (v18). Paul then ate some food, and spent time with the Damascene disciples. It is amazing really that Paul was accepted. The Jews were confused and astonished by him. For wasn't this the man who was going to kill followers of Jesus. What has happened so dramatically that he has joined them? Whenever he preached to the Jews, they were confused. Paul however did not settle down in Damascus, and according to Galatians 1:17-18 spent 3 years in Arabia. Some people seem to think, that he spent the time with Jesus, to learn from him by revelation his distinctive truths, just as the disciples had spent about 3 years with him while Jesus was on earth. Paul then returned to Damascus and while there, the Jews leaders plotted to kill him. So he escaped with the help of the other believers to Jerusalem.

Sent

Jesus had appointed Paul to be 3 things. A servant of God; a witness for God to the world, and also an apostle engaged in pioneer work to the Gentiles (26:16ff). Jesus confirmed this to Ananias that Paul was a 'chosen instrument', and Ananias passed this onto Paul (v15).

There were also four things about this witness that Paul would do, that can help us as we live to witness for Jesus Christ.

  • His witness was centred on Christ. (v20, 22). His arguments focused on Jesus, and spoke boldly about Him.
  • His witness was powered by the Holy Spirit (17,22)
  • His witness was courageous in Damascus (v27), the synagogues (2,20) and in Jerusalem (28) where the Sanhedrin met. He also debated with the Hellenists (v29)
  • His witness was costly. His life was threatened (v23-24, 29). And we learn even more things from the rest of this book of Acts, and in his letters. His parents possibly disinherited him, was persecuted consistently by fierce opponents & imprisoned, shipwrecked in Cyprus.

Paul and Barnabas

Paul's experience in Damascus repeated itself in Jerusalem. When he tried to join the Apostles and community of Christian believers, since he knew he was one of them, they were afraid and doubted he really was a believer. But this time Barnabas came to the rescue and testified to the others about him and his changed life. The only apostles Paul met were Peter & James (Gal 1: 18-20), and told them how he had seen Jesus, the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had fearlessly preached the name of Jesus. Because of this testimony, he was accepted by them into the community of believers. And in yet another of Luke's summaries, we see the church has now five characteristics –

  • peace (free from outside interference)
  • strength (confirming its position)
  • encouragement (comforted by the Holy Spirit)
  • growth (multiplying numerically)
  • godliness (living in the fear of the Lord.

This was noticed by the Apostle Peter when he wrote in 2 Peter 3v15-16 “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote to you; as also in all of his letters, speaking in them of these things. In those, there are some things that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unsettled twist, as they also do to the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

We have much to be thankful to God for the life of Paul and the witness he was for Jesus Christ at the beginnings of the Church. Most of the book of Acts follows him, on what we call the three missionary journeys and the events that unfold as the Church grows and spreads to the glory of its head, the Lord Jesus Christ.

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5. Church Begins - Paul's Conversion

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Acts 9:1-6 But Saul, still breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest,  and asked for letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he travelled, it happened that he got close to Damascus, and suddenly a light from the sky shone around him. He fell on the earth, and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He said, "Who are you, Lord?"  The Lord said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But rise up, and enter into the city, and you will be told what you must do."  The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the sound, but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened, he saw no one. They led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. He was without sight for three days, and neither ate nor drank.

The conversion of Paul is perhaps the most famous throughout the history of the Church. Luke tells us the story three times. But was Paul's conversion special? Many people say "I have not had a Damascus Road experience". There were, it is true, special events on that day, which make Paul's conversion unique. Let us look together at his conversion experience.

Conversion Experience

The only possible cause for his conversion is the beautiful sovereign grace of God. It was Jesus Christ who decided for him. Each of the 3 previous times Paul is mentioned, Luke mentions him as opposing the church & persecuting the body of believers, most fittingly having witnessed the death of Stephen (Acts 7:58; 8:1,3). Now Luke resumes his story of Paul by saying that he was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples (9:1). Paul had tried to contain the church to Jerusalem, but some had escaped to Damascus. Paul then devised a plan to capture the believers in Damascus. Armed with letters from the High Priest in Jerusalem, he set out for Damascus in a bid to stop the spreading of the Good News. He would arrive in Damascus, a proud and pompous man, bent on ridding the city of its followers of Jesus. Why did Paul hate the believers so much? Because, To his mind at the time, to him a dead Messiah was no Messiah at all and how could the Saviour of the Jews, the Messiah, die on a cross and be cursed by God. No, no. Paul considered it his duty as a man zealous for the law, to eradicate all those who were followers of this man. Luke's description of Paul seems to be like that of a wild animal trying to destroy a flock of sheep, creating havoc & destruction which ever way he turned. And yet, he had not considered the sovereign grace of God. To a man like this there could only be one reason why he changed his mind, and became the most ardent follower of Jesus. He turned from a wolf who destroyed sheep, to become a sheep with the character of a shepherd. It can only be through the sovereign grace of God. So let us look together at Paul's conversion.

Paul and his companions were nearing the end of a weeks' travelling of the 150 mile journey to Damascus from Jerusalem Then suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him (v3), brighter than the sun (26:13). It was so overwhelming that it both blinded him and knocked him over (v8-9), flat on his face before his conqueror. Then a voice cried out "Paul, Paul, why do you persecute me?" And in answer to Paul's subsequent question as to his identity, the voice continues "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Paul must have at once, hooked on to how closely Jesus identifies with His followers, so to persecute them was to persecute Him, that he suddenly realised that Jesus was no longer dead as he supposed, but was alive and all His claims were true. Paul's companions, while hearing the voice, did not see the resurrected Jesus. They took Paul into the city. Instead of arriving there full of pride & bravery, a self confident enemy of Jesus, Paul entered Damascus, humbled and blinded, a prisoner of Jesus. The light he saw was the glory of Jesus, and the voice he heard was the voice of Jesus.  In his letters we discover how Paul views this event: how God arrested him (Philippians 3:12), shone his light upon him (2 Corinthians 4:6), and the mercy of God overflowed upon him (1 Timothy 1:14). And yet, while it was entirely due to the grace of God, that Paul was converted from enemy of the Christ to follower of the Christ, it was not sudden. Yes, the light was sudden, and Christ appeared suddenly, but Jesus had talked to Paul before. The goads, likened Paul to a wild horse needing to broken in, ready to be ridden. The implication is that Jesus was pursuing Paul, prodding and pricking him, and Paul was resisting painfully. But what were the goads that Jesus used to prick Paul of Tarsus? While we are not told specifically what they were, by reading his letters we can gain an insight into what they were.

The Goads

Here are three of the goads used by Jesus on Paul:

a.. His sub-conscious doubts. With his conscious mind, he proclaimed Jesus as an impostor, who had been rejected as the Messiah by his own people, and died under the curse of God on a cross. Yet, Paul would have heard reports about Jesus' teaching & miracles, claims & character, together with the talk that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

b. The testimony of Stephen. Paul had been present at the trial of Stephen and had seen his execution, both the non-resistance while being stoned to death and his face shining like an angel. He had heard Stephen's speech at his trial, his prayer for forgiveness of his executioners and his astonishing claim to have seen Jesus at the right hand of God. There was something about these Christians, that could not be explained to Paul- the divine living power of Jesus in the lives of His followers.

c. The inadequacy of the law to save. Paul claimed to be faultless i e ­that is his public life.  In private however, he knew that his thoughts & attitudes were not clean for example his sin of covetousness. Therefore he had no inner power or peace, and it was the goads of Jesus. His conversion was a sudden climax, to a long drawn out process with Jesus having pursued him.

And yet while his conversion was not sudden, it was not forced upon him. Indeed, forcing him to the ground blind, he did not change his character and turn him into a robot.   And when Jesus asked the questions, Paul did not have to answer the questions of Jesus. Paul's conversion, while not sudden or compulsive, was due entirely to the gracious pursuit of Jesus. Not everybody has sudden flashes of light and voices that say his name. No-one else has seen the historical fact of the Jesus' resurrected body and a call to be an apostle. Yet there are similarities with us. To be converted, we did not & do not need those things to happen, anymore than we have to travel to the same spot Paul was at on the road to Damascus. We must experience a personal encounter with Jesus, surrendering to Him our will in faith, and receive his order to serve Him.    Just as Jesus Christ has pursued all people everywhere, over the past 2000 years, to return into a dynamic relationship with Him.  Just as He did me and I handed my life over to Him. Millions of other people have also done that down through the centuries.  My final question to you is - have you?

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4.  Church Begins - Let's Get Organized

Today we go back to the beginning of Acts 6.  So far in the book of Acts, we can see that the Church has come under attack by the world (through persecution) and satan (through deceit & moral compromise).

A new crisis has appeared.  Unable to destroy the church by way of persecution and deceit, satan now tries to create a split in the church by getting believers to argue and fight with each other.  If satan had succeeded in creating an implosion within this church, the only church in existence at the time, then the effects could have been devastating.  I have had people tell me they want a church without any form of organizational structure.  If a church has no organizational and leadership structure then it will soon have chaos instead of harmony, and will collapse rather than grow.  Of course, some leaders are corrupt or make wrong decisions as we have seen already, but Godly leaders will not be corrupt and as we shall see, make decisions that are wise and based on prayer and spiritual insights.

So, what was the problem, what was the solution and what happened after it was resolved?

The Problem! (Actsv1)

Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, a complaint arose from the Hellenists against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily service.

  • Good news - they were growing, but this had caused a problem!
  • Bad news - Some widows were not being cared for!

Hebraic Jews had always lived in the then nation of Israel, spoke mainly Aramaic and some Hebraic.  They would have been well used to life in a Jewish society, the Temple and avoiding those who were not Jews: the Gentiles..

Grecian or Hellenestic Jews were part of the Jewish Diaspora, born elsewhere within the known world and had returned to Jerusalem.  These mainly spoke Greek, and were well used to working with Gentiles.

We know that widows were and are important to God, because justice is important to God.  God is a God of justice and mercy.  In the Old Testament, under the Law of Moses, God commanded provision for those who were widows, oppressed or uncared for.  The Apostles would have known about God caring for the widows and in Jesus teaching about justice for the poor and the oppressed.  We know this because earlier in Acts 2 and 4, people were selling and sharing possessions and ensuring that people within the Christian community were being looked after and cared for.  This included making sure that everyone got fed, particularly those who had no family to care for them.  Somehow, unintentional or not, this group of widows were missing out.

What then happened?

The Solution! (Actsv2-6)

The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, "It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables.  Therefore select from among you, brothers, seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.  But we will continue steadfastly in prayer and in the ministry of the word." These words pleased the whole multitude. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch; whom they set before the apostles. When they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.

Three things about the solution

Transformation of the Apostles - James, Peter & John particularly (v2)

Its not stated here, but a transformation had taken place! Only a few short time ago, the disciples of Jesus had refused to wash feet as an act of service (Peter); some had wanted positions of power and greatness (James & John).  Their old nature must have started asking questions and prompting them to react negatively.  The world has attacked the church, satan has attacked the church, and now satan would have been using the Apostles old nature to attack the church.  But - as they are transformed by the indwelling Holy Spirit and now have a new nature, the nature of Jesus Christ, they react much more righteously and judiciously.

All together now! (v2-5)

Notice they gathered all the believers together for a church meeting.  The gave their opinion or judgment if you like, that their ministry or time would be better spent doing what God had called them to do - to be leaders of the Church, praying, preaching, evangelizing and discerning how best to apply the 3 years of teaching that they had had when travelling with Jesus Christ before His ascension.  Their time, rightly so, was best spent doing that, for that was their ministry of service.  But other people in the church gathering, who had a ministry of service and overseeing the food distribution, could spend their time doing that!  So what of these seven men with Greek names? They were elected by the whole church, both Grecian and Hebraic, to perform this duty. They may already have been doing it, but now were being set apart especially for this role.  These men were controlled by the Holy Spirit and were wise.  They were chosen to give relief to the leadership so that the Word of God and prayer would not be hindered.

Commissioning (v6)

Interestingly enough, the word diakonia is translated here as ministry.  Another way to translate it is as deacons.  But, they were not deacons in the way the Paul uses the word as part of a church government in 1 Timothy 3.  Rather they were deacons, set apart for this specific task - it was their ministry.  It may well have been from here, that Paul developed what some parts of the universal church understands of the role of deacons.  So these seven men, were prototypes as it were, for the Paul-ine idea of deacons.

Note also that the Apostles didn't say their work was more important than serving.  They were just following what God had called them to do, just as God had called these seven men to take responsibility for providing food for the widows. So they were commissioned by God, by the laying on of hands and set apart to perform it.  We know only of Steven and Phillip and that they continued doing other ministries as well as this.

The Result! (v7)

The word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly. A great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.

The result was growth!  Growth and witness may well see the conversion of former enemies. Growth and witness may well see reasoning and transformation.

Now that the Apostles had time for their dedicated and unique ministry, all the widows could be fed, and all believers able to participate within the life of the church.  Not only that, Stephen was instrumental in reaching the Apostle Paul (Acts 7v58). Philip was instrumental in reaching the city of Samaria and won over for Jesus Christ (Acts 8v4-25 ), the Ethiopian Eunuch who would have then taken the gospel to Africa. (Acts 8v26-40 )

This growth was where the word of God increased in its effectiveness in the lives of those unbelievers who would listen to the gospel.  This growth was not merely addition but multiplication! It was explosive!  So explosive that even former enemies were becoming converts! Sadducees were Jewish believers who didn't believe in a bodily resurrection - yet they came to faith and started to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It's not hard to imagine that some of those Priests coming to faith in Jesus Christ were former persecutors of the Church!  They were watching the church to see how best to attack and debate them. Yet found that they were joining the church, rather than continuing to oppose it. The church was preaching one thing and acting upon it.  There was no hypocrisy within the church. The church was transparent - it lived as it believed.  The church was seen as transformative and servant-like.  While the Church continued to reason with others about the validity of Jesus Christ's claims to be the Messiah, it would have not been effective if lives were not being transformed.  If lives were not being changed, then no amount of reasoning alone would have seen the growth in numbers being added to the Church.  Just as transformation and change alone would not have been the catalyst for growth, without the reasoning behind it.

Transformation

The early Church was a radical community of believers, growing quickly.  At Pentecost, the church community began when the Holy Spirit filled the Disciples (Acts 2v4). The hallmarks of this community were commitment and transformation. This community was radical. It was where people's lives were being changed as the Holy Spirit filled them. Instead of being a withdrawn people filled with fear of retribution from the Roman government and Jewish leaders, they became a people filled with boldness and joy. This church in Jerusalem grew by being a radical community imbued with radical individuals engaging with others and serving. It was a church where every member was asked and expected to play some role, in the life of the church.  .

The Christian life is to be dynamic and active.  As we have seen the word "deacon" here denotes ministry.  Ministry is any service for Jesus Christ. When you serve as God's deacon in this way, God's honour is released.  That's why the embryonic Church in Jerusalem grew and flourished.  This is done because service shows the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ to those being served and to those watching.  That is to be our motive for service. Serving and ministry should never to be about what you and I can get out of it.  When that is the motive, God is not glorified. God's glory and supremacy is our goal as Christians.  Spiritual growth comes from serving rather than being served.  This is because what ever is given in service of God and others, faith grows and Jesus Christ gives back even more.  Jesus speaking in Matthew 25v15-30 tells of the rewards for faithful service and the penalties for being faithless.

Serving others is a sign that you are trusting God and having faith in God.  Serving God and others is the mark of a spiritually maturity and through service, the greatest servant of all, is reflected: Jesus Christ, who came to serve and give his very life for others (Mark 10v45).  As Christians, we are to be as Jesus Christ (Romans 8v28; Philippians 2v5) and to serve.  Yet if we are honest, we sometimes feel incapable, just as Moses did (Exodus 3).  An excellent example to follow is that of the deacon Stephen.

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3. Church Begins - Persecution

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The world was changing, particularly for the Jewish people.  They were still under the rule of the odious Romans, in the land God had given them.  For centuries they had been expectant of a Messiah, a King, to rise up and rid them of the Roman oppressors.  When the Messiah, Jesus Christ, did come - they missed Him.  They had misunderstood what the Messiah was to do.  The Messiah was not to lead a political revolution as they thought, but rather lead a spiritual revolution, bring people back into relationship with God.  The worldview of the Jewish people needed to be changed.  When worldviews need wholesale change of focus, problems arise.  The embryonic church, followers of Jesus Christ the Messiah, was soon to feel pressure to change back.

Its not long into the book of Acts, and therefore the history of the church, that persecution arises.  We see the first stages of this persecution in Acts 4v1-4.

"As they spoke to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came to them, being upset because they taught the people and proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. They laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was now evening. "

However somewhat surprisingly we then read that "But many of those who heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to be about five thousand."

Then later on in chapter 5v17-18, 27-33, we read"But the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy, and laid hands on the apostles, and put them in public custody." "Then the captain went with the officers, and brought them without violence, for they were afraid that the people might stone them.

When they had brought them, they set them before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "Didn't we strictly command you not to teach in this name? Behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man's blood on us."

But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed, hanging him on a tree.  God exalted him with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins.  We are His witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."  But they, when they heard this, were cut to the heart, and determined to kill them."

Later on in that chapter we read "They agreed with him. Summoning the apostles, they beat them and commanded them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. They therefore departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Jesus' name.   Every day, in the temple and at home, they never stopped teaching and preaching Jesus, the Christ."

Then at the beginning of chapter 6 we read about the first Christian martyr, Stephen.  Stephen we read in Acts 6v8 was "full of faith and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. But some of those who were of the synagogue called "The Libertines," and of the Cyrenians, of the Alexandrians, and of those of Cilicia and Asia arose, disputing with Stephen. They weren't able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.   Then they secretly induced men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God."   They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes, and came against him and seized him, and brought him in to the council,   and set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops speaking blasphemous words against this holy place and the law.   For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us."   All who sat in the council, fastening their eyes on him, saw his face like it was the face of an angel." Then after reminding them of some of what the Old Testament says, Stephen concludes "You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit! As your fathers did, so you do. Which of the prophets didn't your fathers persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, of whom you have now become betrayers and murderers.   You received the law as it was ordained by angels, and didn't keep it!"

Now when they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.  But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,  and said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"

But they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed at him with one accord.  They threw him out of the city, and stoned him. The witnesses placed their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.  They stoned Stephen as he called out, saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!"   He kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, don't hold this sin against them!" When he had said this, he fell asleep.

So there was Stephen, filled and controlled by the Holy Spirit, with an angelic look on his face.  We see his love and faith put into practise when he exclaimed "don't hold this sin against them!"

Stephen had reminded them that God did not dwell in buildings made from stone, as in the Temple.  For had not God also been with his servants in various places, such as Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt?  He reminded them also of how the Jews had always rejected God's messengers and now finally, they had killed God's Son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  He also reminded them that what made somebody a person after God's own heart was not the physical circumcision but a circumcision of the heart and soul.  It was a spiritual revolution that occurred when a people were in relationship with the Living God, not just the outward appearance.

We see in Stephen's final words, the reaction of a man full of faith and filled with the Spirit undergoing pressure.  Stoning is an awful and excruciating way to die.  While Jesus had prayed to the Father in his dying moments, Stephen prayed to - Jesus!  It was not so long ago, that Jesus was walking the earth, indeed on these very stones. Yet, we already find prayers being made to Him.  Stephen, sees Jesus in all his magnificent, glorious and heavenly majesty, and can only cry out to Him in such a way!  Then finally he asks Jesus to forgive those who have killed him.  Amazing isn't it? I wonder how you and I would act under the same conditions.  Would we ask why and whinge and grumble and complain?

Finally, I wonder if you notice one other name in that Bible passage. The name of Saul.  He led systematic persecution of these Christians, and yet as we shall find out, will play a major role in the development of the church and of Christian thinking.  For as the church father, Augustine comments "If Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have had Paul!"

Despite this persecution, the church continues to grow.  When ever and where ever the church has endured persecution for their belief in Jesus Christ, growth has always occurred.  There are places in this world, where it is illegal to be a Christian.  Let us pray for our brothers and sisters that have to endure all kinds of hardships for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Yet amazingly, these churches are growing numerically, just as we have seen occur in the New Testament.  If the New Testament church had known that Jesus did not rise from the dead physically, would the church have grown like it has over 2000 years?  Would people like Stephen, have knowingly died, or undergone systematic persecution, for a known lie or mistruth?  The existence of the church, is the greatest physical proof of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The church - nothing will stop its growth and nothing will stop that glorious day when Jesus Christ comes again to collect his followers, his bride - the church.

But for our study next time, it will be how the church needed to be organized, in order to facilitate this growth, and that means going back to Chapter 6.

Thank you.

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2. Church Begins - Power & passion

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1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth."

1:12-14 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mountain called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. When they had come in, they went up into the upper room, where they were staying; that is Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord continued steadfastly in prayer and supplication, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Acts 2:1-2  Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all with one accord in one place.   Suddenly there came from the sky a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

As we saw last time, Jesus has ascended back to the right hand of the Father.  The 12 apostles are now back in Jerusalem and waiting.  Waiting for the Holy Spirit to come.  The Holy Spirit who indwells members of the early church.  The Holy Spirit who empowers and transforms them!  Remember Peter? Remember how just a few days earlier he had rejected Jesus Christ and openly defied Him by trying to stop Jesus going to the cross.  This Peter who was dejected and defeated.  In the early chapters of Acts, we see the disciples transformed.  Lets concentrate on Peter for a good example of this.  This is now a new Peter, transformed by the indwelling Holy Spirit, who speaks with the authority Jesus gave the disciples.

This Peter, given impetus by the Holy Spirit, who preaches a sermon and 3000 people are added to the church in one day (Acts 2v41). This Peter, who when passing by a man who couldn't walk, told him to get up and walk - and he did (Acts 3v1-11)!  Peter was allowing himself to be controlled by the Holy Spirit and doing some of the things that were synonymous with Jesus' earthly ministry.   What is the difference between this Peter and the Peter before Jesus' resurrection?  It was only the Holy Spirit and the difference He makes to Peter.  Peter, by submitting himself to the authority and power of the Holy Spirit, was allowing the Holy Spirit to control him and guide him.  This Peter, who we know from the Gospel accounts, had no self-control, yet now had self-control because he submitted to the Holy Spirit.  The greatest evidence of the Holy Spirit living inside any of us, is the transformation of the individual into the image of Jesus - as demonstrated here in Peter.

This Peter who not only allowed the Holy Spirit's power to heal people but also administered church discipline as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5v10).  But it wasn't just Peter who was empowered.  As Acts 5v12-16 shows us, all the disciples, not just the twelve apostles, filled and controlled by the Holy Spirit, were able to do healings and other signs and wonders.  The Holy Spirit, living inside and empowering all believers for service of Jesus Christ, not just the 12 apostles.

All of this power delivers their passion for Jesus Christ and making Him, and Him alone, known.  The early church was dynamic and seen to be exercising the authority of Jesus Christ.  This was done by preaching the good news about him being the long waited for Messiah.  Exercising His authority, by submitting themselves to Him and relying totally on the Holy Spirit alone.

This power and passion however, had a cost.  The early church endured persecution from the Jewish authorities, keen to exercise authoritarian rule.  The early church persecuted for being Christian and preaching Jesus as the Messiah.  What was the result of this persecution?  Did persecution stop the church growing?  That is for next time!   In preparation for that, you might like to read Acts 7 & 8.

So finally, remember this.  The greatest evidence for the power of the Holy Spirit is not by way of signs and wonders and healings or tongues or other miracles.  The greatest evidence that you have the Holy Spirit living inside you, controlling you and of you being submitted to Him is your being continually transformed into the very image of Jesus Christ.  Transformed by allowing yourself to be so intimate with Jesus Christ that people will notice you have changed and will ask you why!  Being filled with the Spirit, is allowing yourself to be continually controlled by Him and exercising His will, power and authority.  That is one of the reasons the early church grew phenomenally and why the church is still here 2000 years later.  The Pharisees and Sadducees are long gone.  The Roman Empire collapsed. But... But... But... Jesus' church still stands, is still growing, and will one day be joined with Jesus in eternity, to the praise, honour and glory of Him who will return!

Thank you.

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1. Church begins - Catalyst

Jesus' resurrection is the catalyst for the mission of the church, beginning with the disciples and throughout history.  Indeed, the growth and spread of the church, is a proof of the historical fact of Jesus' physical resurrection or rising from the dead.  Having been raised from the dead, Jesus' mission to earth is coming to an end and shortly He will be returning to the right hand of the Father. Before He does so though, He has some more words to say to His disciples.  Lets read Acts 1v1-12 for what happened between His resurrection and ascension.

The first book I wrote, Theophilus, concerned all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day in which he was received up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To these he also showed himself alive after he suffered, by many proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking about God's Kingdom. Being assembled together with them, he commanded them, "Don't depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which you heard from me. For John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now."

Therefore when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?"

He said to them, "It isn't for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set within his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth."

When he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. While they were looking steadfastly into the sky as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white clothing, who also said, "You men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who was received up from you into the sky will come back in the same way as you saw him going into the sky."

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mountain called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away.

Jesus' Authority

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' authority is a major theme. Where Matthew records Jesus doing miracles, this is to highlight Jesus authority in action and not just merely in words. Matthew records Jesus' authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9v6) and He imparted authority to His disciples for a short time when they went on a mission in Matthew 10. Jesus has authority (Matthew 28v18) over all things, all people, all circumstances and happenings. Jesus has authority over all spiritual beings, whether angels or demons. Jesus has authority over all nations, governments and rulers. Jesus has authority over all earthly and spiritual authorities. Jesus has the authority. This means regardless of what ever the Christian Disciple faces, Jesus is in control. Therefore, as Christian Disciples, we can obey him without fear of retribution from those who would seek to harm us. We can obey Him regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in. It is a great comfort to know, that He is in control of everything!! Through His death on the cross and His rising from the dead, Jesus has conquered all enemies.

Now people sometimes confuse authority with authoritarian. Authoritarian means severe, rigidity and a dictator. None of these apply to Jesus. We have been given a free will, but as His disciples, we should choose to exercise our free will to obey Him and live a life worthy of Him. As the Christian depends on Jesus' authority, the Christian Disciple gains wisdom, guidance, and power.

You Go

If Jesus had not risen from the dead, then the disciples would not have had a story to tell. But Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, and the early church exploded numerically as the twelve disciples exercised Jesus' authority and His power. We read about the growth of the early church in the Book of Acts.

Christianity is a faith whereby all Christian Disciples are to tell others of the goodness of God. Indeed God Himself is a missionary God.  Ever since Genesis 3 and the fall of man, God has been on a mission to bring and call people back to Himself. That was the purpose of the nation of Israel, to be a light to all nations of the goodness and glory of God! That was purpose when God, who is outside of time and space, entered human history taking on human flesh and restricted Himself in a human body as the man we know as Jesus Christ. Jesus whole mission was one of calling people back to life in God. As followers of Jesus Christ, all Christian Disciples are to evangelize. Evangelism is showing and telling others of God's message of reconciliation to all people of all time. It is not forcing people to adopt Church standards (1 Corinthians 5v12) and nor is it simply a message of join the church as a symbol of good works (Ephesians 2vv8-10).

Why evangelize?

The prime motivation for evangelism is out of gratitude for what God has done, in that we love because He loved us first. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5v14, "For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died." As His servants we are to tell and live of God's reconciling message

As I said before, we are all to do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4v5). In these last words of Matthew's Gospel, all Christian Disciples are to make disciples throughout the whole earth! Making disciples is not just evangelism but ensuring that guidance and care is given to new Christian disciples. How is this achieved? How can the Christian Disciple exhibit Jesus' authority and power in evangelism? Who gives the impetus for Christian Disciples? That is part of the role of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus said would come once He had ascended back to the right hand of God the Father.

Jesus Ascends

Mark 16:14-19, Luke 24:50-51 and Acts 1v1-12, we read about Jesus physically ascending into the heavens.  He is returning, as He said he would do, to the right hand of the Father.  During their last discussion with Jesus, the disciples were still expecting him to lead a revolution against the Romans (Acts 1v6).  Despite all Jesus had said to them in the previous 3 years, they still did not understand that Jesus had come to lead a spiritual kingdom and not a political kingdom.  Hence He tells them to go back to Jerusalem, with for the Holy Spirit and then go tell others the Good News about Him!  And even after Jesus had vanished into the clouds, the disciples still gathered around looking into the sky for Him to return!  So two angels came and said  "You men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who was received up from you into the sky will come back in the same way as you saw him going into the sky." (Acts 1v11)  From there the disciples returned to Jerusalem and waited.  They didn't have to wait long, 10 days, until the Holy Spirit came, filled them and started living with them.

The Holy Spirit is coming

This is in fulfilment of Ezekiel 36v27 "And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." where Almighty and All-powerful God will indwell those who follow Him. Throughout His ministry Jesus had talked about how after He was to depart, and that the Holy Spirit would come (John 15v26).

We know from the other writings in the New Testament who the Holy Spirit is and what His ministry is.

The Holy Spirit is spoken of as God (1 Corinthians 3v16). The attributes of God are ascribed to the Holy Spirit life (Romans 8v2), truth (John 16v13) and love (Romans 15v30).

The Holy Spirit is also a Person and is always referred to as ‘He' in the New Testament (John 16v14). He relates to us as a person for He is comforter, guide and teacher (John 14). He can be blasphemed against and be grieved (Ephesians 4v30), and wherever the Holy Spirit is, the Father and Son are also present because they are one. (John 14v18-23).

Throughout the Book of Acts and in the other New Testament writings we discover more about the Holy Spirit.  We see that His prime role to to glorify Jesus Christ the Son of God is praised and glorified (John 16v13-14). He will testify for Jesus Christ (John 15v26). He will witness for Jesus Christ (Acts 1v8).  The Holy Spirit is involved with ministering to members of the church, as Jesus would be to us if He were here.   The Holy Spirit declares God's Word, interpreting and illuminating it.  He convicts of sin, transforms, indwells, fills, baptizes and seals the believer.  With all this, the Holy Spirit also equips for service. God is at work in His body the church, to will and to act accordingly to his purpose (Phil. 2v13), to be my witnesses (Acts 1v8). This is evident in the book of Acts and the other New Testament writings.

How is the Spirit seen? The Spirit's work is in evidence, where people's lives become more holy and more like Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 12v3; 2 Corinthians 13v7).  Sometimes the Holy Spirit works also in powerful ways, with miracles.  But He also equips Christian Disciples for service, through the giving of spiritual gifts. Not just the so called more spectacular gifts of healing, miracles etc but also gifts such as mercy, generosity, helps and service.

We see in the rest of the Book of Acts, how the Holy Spirit empowered the early church and because of the impetus He gave them, the church is still growing and expanding throughout the world 2000 years later.  In this series of studies in Acts, we will look at some of the key events in the life of the New Testament church, as recorded by Luke in the Book of Acts.

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