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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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