Last week we ended things on a cliffhanger. God was allowing a terrible unfair injustice in Stephen’s death to happen without any apparent consequences for the people who perpetuated it. Why would He do that? Why does He allow the hard times we face in our own lives to happen the way they do? This week offers not so much an answer as an invitation to a bigger perspective. Let’s talk about it together.
Overcoming the World
Can I safely assume that everyone here has seen or at least knows the basic plot outline of the original Star Wars movie? I’m not sure if George Lucas had his vision completely laid out when he made the first film, but it was released as entry number four of a nine-part series. Who starts a 9-part series with episode number 4? George Lucas apparently. And, it’s has made him a very rich man, so there you go. Now, sure, episodes 1, 2, and 3 are all pretty much abominations (especially episode 1), but maybe that’s why he started with episode 4. Who knows?
In any event, the real climax of the first film comes when Sir Alec’s Guinness’s iconic Obi Wan Kenobi retracts his lightsaber in his duel with Darth Vader himself, and allows Vader to strike him down. For the film’s first audience, that moment had to be heart-stopping. Here was young Luke Skywalker’s Jedi mentor, the man who had sworn to protect him and then led him on a journey across the galaxy to confront the evil of the Empire only to allow himself to be killed by that monster. Why would he do that? Why would Lucas allow this awful thing to happen? Why not rewrite the story to keep him around long enough to train Luke fully as a Jedi in order to make sure he was totally equipped to face down the evil of the Empire and the Sith? (The quick answer is that then he wouldn’t have gone to meet up with Yoda which would mean Disney wouldn’t be able to make the mint they are currently making off of Baby Yoda merchandise from their hit series The Mandalorian, but that probably wasn’t on Lucas’ mind in 1977…)
As far as Luke and the rest of the Rebels were concerned, Obi Wan’s death was a tragedy of epic proportions and there really wasn’t any other way to see it. Of course, we know now that there was something bigger going on. It was still a tragedy, but it allowed for some things to happen that would not have happened without it. You see, sometimes things that seem terrible in a moment happen with a bigger picture in mind.
We kind of left things hanging last week, didn’t we? I believe I heard at least one audible gasp of exasperation when I said the second answer to the question of why God sometimes leaves things in a state of unfairness was to come back this week. I’m glad you did because as we continue in the seventh part of our series, Telling Our Story, walking through the story of the first church as reported by Luke in the book of Acts, we are indeed going to explore the answer to the question more fully together. But that’s not where things start in chapter 8.
The story of the first church is really a gripping one, isn’t it? It was not all peaches and cream and smiling, happy people holding hands like a children’s Bible might present it to be. It was gritty and dangerous and hard. There was much joy and gladness because those always accompany kingdom work, but that should not give us leave to frame it as any kind of easy. And then Stephen was murdered.
As we talked about, this would have taken all the wind out of their sails. Now it was real in a way it hadn’t been before. They were confident before. Now that confidence was dashed. But it wasn’t just the church that was rocked by Stephen’s death. When the Jewish authorities led an angry mob to lynch him and the Roman authorities didn’t respond—and God didn’t strike any of them down—they let loose all the frustration they had been holding back for months in a torrent of rage.
Listen as Luke describes the immediate aftermath of Stephen’s death in Acts 8:1: “Saul agreed with putting him to death.” Now, why does that matter? We don’t even know who Saul is at this point in the story beyond being the young man who held the coats of the men who participated in Stephen’s stoning. Who cares if he agreed with putting Stephen to death? Well, in literary terms, this is called foreshadowing. We obviously know who Saul will become, but here Luke establishes a couple of important things. Saul was fully committed to the cause of the Jewish leaders and against the church. He was committed to the point that he was willing to overlook the blatant violations of the Law that culminated in this innocent man’s death. He was a radical for the cause of the pure Jewish faith. Putting Stephen to death was a good thing as far as Saul was concerned.
And like I said, when Stephen died, the plug was pulled. “On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land…” In other words, as far as the church was concerned, things went from bad to worse. Much worse. We don’t know if or how many others were rounded up in this, but it was bad. It was bad enough that believers had to flee the city. And think about that for a minute. Not all of the 3,000 baptized on Pentecost or the 2,000 baptized a few days later or the untold hundreds or thousands that had been converted since had remained in the city, but you have to think a majority of them had. This would have been chaos on a scale that’s frankly modern. Thousands of people fled the city. Whole families left with all of their economic contributions. They fled to the towns around the city and in the region. But if they remained at all close to the city, they were in danger. They were in danger because of this Saul character. Stephen may have gotten his burial, but Saul wasn’t content to leave things alone there. He wanted to take down the whole movement. Verse 3: “Saul, however, was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison.”
And where is Jesus for all of this? Where is His concern for the advancement of His kingdom? Where is His promise to be with His people? Once again, we are at the point of asking how this grossly unfair situation could be allowed by God to unfold in the chaos we see. Stick with me. The story isn’t over. Remember The Empire Strikes Back? That was one defeat after another for the rebellion and ended in disaster—Luke down a hand, Han Solo frozen in carbonite, and the rebellion traitorously sold out to the Empire. The church here was living its own Empire Strikes Back moment. But Saul was coming so they had to leave. What could they do?
Verse 4: “So those who were scattered went on their way…” defeated and wondering why they had signed up for the movement in the first place. You had to have the powers of the apostles if you really wanted to succeed in any of this. Except that’s not what it says there, is it? You’ve got to read your Bibles and even bring them with you so you can check the preacher on occasion. “So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the word.”
Wait, what? Didn’t they know they were defeated? They had lost. They had been expelled from Jerusalem, their base of operations. They were being hunted like criminals by a radically committed foe in Saul. There’s just one problem with that mindset: they were following the guy who came back from the dead. If He said to make disciples as you are going, they were going to do that even if their going happened to be fast and with someone biting at their heels the whole time. So they went on their way preaching the word.
And just where did they go? Well, do you remember the original commission Jesus gave the apostles before He left the scene back in chapter 1? They were to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. So far, they had fairly well conquered Jerusalem. But they hadn’t gone anywhere else. Instead, they were settling in for what appeared to be the long haul. They were experiencing fantastic success in Jerusalem itself, but Jesus hadn’t told them to establish a base of operations and worry about going on to the next place later. Well, if you were looking at your own Bible with me back when I was reading v. 1, you may have noticed that I left off the end of the verse. When the persecution broke out in Jerusalem, all but the apostles were scattered through the land of Judea and Samaria. In other words, they finally started going to all the places Jesus had told them go. And they went on their way preaching the word.
Do you know what happens when the word gets preached? People come to faith. Lives are transformed. The kingdom advances. And that’s exactly what happened. Luke goes on from here to tell us about Philip—another of that original group of deacons raised up back in chapter 6. Philip went to Samaria and started preaching in a town there. We see this now in v. 5: “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds were all paying attention to what Philip said, as they listened and saw the signs he was performing. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed, and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.”
The Gospel broke out in this town just like it had in Jerusalem. Philip created enough of a stir there with his preaching—preaching that would have never happened had events in Jerusalem, including Stephen’s death, not happened the way they did—that Peter and John themselves went down to investigate and then give it their blessing when they made sure everything was on the right track. And when they had spent some time working in this village they went to the next village. Then the next. Then the next. And the Gospel continued to advance throughout the region of Samaria.
Philip himself was called to leave this successful mission that he had started and go out into the wilderness and wait. It was a move that made absolutely no sense at all from any human perspective. But God’s people were on the move and He was directing their paths in the ways He knew were going to advance His kingdom the furthest and fastest. Those ways don’t always make a lot of sense to us. But then an Ethiopian official came riding by on his chariot reading from the prophet Isaiah and specifically the passage all about the suffering servant whom the disciples now understood to be Jesus. Philip didn’t even have to try. All he said was “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The Ethiopian official threw open the doors to the Gospel then all by himself. Philip simply went where God sent him and was faithful there. And then, when this opportunity was where he could leave it, he went on to the next place God called him.
Now, this part of the story of the first church is usually treated all by itself to show their success in advancing the Gospel into new and unfamiliar places. And that is indeed what we see. No question about that. The disciples were faithful in all the places they went to proclaim the message of salvation and a people who were hungry for truth and hope and the promise of a life better than the one the gods of the day promised lapped it up eagerly. It was really incredible and a powerful example for us to follow today. But context matters. In this case and given where we were last week it matters a lot. It’s wonderful the disciples were so faithful to the call and command of Christ, but what put them in such a place to see the church continue to advance like this?
Stephen’s death. It was Stephen’s death and the persecution that followed which sent the believers fleeing Jerusalem into the Judean and Samarian countryside for safety. So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the word. But for the hard times they faced, the unfair hard times God allowed them to experience including the death of one of their brightest stars, this wouldn’t have happened. Hard times are never easy. They are often confusing. They leave us wondering where God is and whether He has perhaps forgotten about us. They can derail great Gospel work. But if we will lean into Him and remain faithful to the command we have been given, they can also be a catalyst for great growth. Hard times can lead to great growth.
So, what does this mean for us? Do we even need to ask? Hard times are kind of the name of the game lately, aren’t they? We don’t have to go any further than the elephant in the room to be convinced of this. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic that in this country alone continues to see an average of more than 50,000 diagnosed and 1,000 die every single day even as we are trying to move forward like things are back to normal. Tomorrow our schools are going to open back up again. Prayerfully that’ll last, but there are few in the know who expect things to remain like they’ll be tomorrow for long. While there will no doubt be many complaints, there will be few surprised if schools switch to all virtual in a few weeks. The stress on parents and children both—to say nothing of the courageous staff and teachers in the schools—will be intense. And then there’s the continuing economic strain and racial tensions and nationwide rioting and what is perhaps the most violently divisive election this country as ever faced. Hard times are just the name of the game these days. Yet hard times can lead to great growth.
This past week I had the opportunity to participate in a Zoom call with folks from all over the country joining to pray for the nation. Leading the event was Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, CA, and the author of The Purpose-Driven Life. Before leading the group in prayer, Warren talked about not just the challenges, but the opportunities of the season we are in. He said that as dozens of food banks have closed in Southern California, they’ve created a nearly equal number of pop-up food banks from which they’ve given away hundreds of thousands of pounds of food. Their church has become the single largest food bank in Southern California. Along the way, they’ve shared the Gospel with the people they’ve served. The result? Ten thousand people have given their lives to Christ who may not have done so in any other way. Warren himself has baptized 1,000 of them so far. Hard times can lead to great growth. No one would wish for this kind of season to fall on us again. This has been terrible in so many ways. But there are 10,000 people who will be in the kingdom of God because of it who may not have gotten there without it. Hard times can lead to great growth.
How about us? Now, we’re operating on an entirely different scale than Saddleback does. Their church is one-third the size of the whole of Stanly County. But God didn’t make us to operate on that kind of scale. He made us to be us. He made us to have the impact He designed us to have here in Oakboro. And we are. Did you know that by the end of the month we will have been the point for the distribution of 20,000 lbs. of food in Oakboro? That’s in addition to our monthly Meals on Mission team which is serving nearly 50 families each month and is actively recruiting other churches to join us in making an impact on a truly vulnerable part of our community. As school starts back up tomorrow, we are actively exploring how we can help families who do not have access to reliable, fast internet be able to gain access to the tools they need to participate in school virtually. Our initial announcement of that was seen by more than 1,000 people and word is spreading among local schools that we are the church where you can get help if you need it. All of this is positioning us to have a voice for the Gospel in our community that I, for one, believe will lead to transformed lives.
We are living in hard times, but hard times can lead to great growth. And listen: God’s not done. He’s just getting started. The church is growing into this season of pandemic just like it has in every pandemic across the last 2,000 years, because where a broken world looks out for itself, the church serves selflessly in the name of Jesus. And that grows the kingdom. Hard times are no fun, but hard times can lead to great growth. Sometimes that growth comes from places we don’t even expect. More on that next week. For now, my challenge to you is this: How can you be a part of the great growth of the kingdom of God in this hard season? How can we do more to advance the kingdom and see lives transformed by the power of the Gospel proclaimed with boldness? Hard times can lead to great growth. Let’s be a part of it together.