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"A Study in Contrasts"


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          This week, we return to our series of messages from the book of Acts.  As we begin chapter eight this morning, we are still in the second section of the book.  As we said a few weeks ago, in the first section of the book, the author (Luke) places his focus on what Christ is doing through the apostles in and around Jerusalem.  In this second section, we see the gospel progressing out beyond Jerusalem and Luke shifts his focus from the apostles to two Grecian Jews, Stephen and Philip.  As we saw in chapter six, they were originally part of the group of seven men chosen to minister to the Grecian Jewish widows who were going hungry.  They may have started out ministering to people’s material or physical needs, but we see in chapters seven and eight that they were quickly enlisted to minister the Word of God. 

The ministry in this section takes place not in Jerusalem, but in Judea and Samaria.  Luke wants us to see that the gospel is progressing just as Jesus commissioned the apostles in Acts 1:8.  The apostles were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem; then to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  As we examine this section this morning, we also witness the progression of the level of opposition the gospel brings.  In chapter four, the apostles receive a warning.  In chapter five, they receive a flogging and in seven, Stephen is martyred.[1]  Here in chapter eight, we see the beginning of full blown, organized persecution. 

          Let’s read the first eight verses of chapter eight.  The chapter begins with Luke mentioning the event that triggers this persecution—the execution of Stephen.   Luke again mentions the man who was the leader of this Jewish opposition to the gospel--Saul of Tarsus.  Luke writes, “1 And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. 4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city.”

          As we see the progress of the gospel here, Luke wants us to see several interesting contrasts that he highlights in the text.  My prayer is that God will use these contrasts and the lessons they teach to grow us in our passion for him and the gospel.  The first contrast relates to the devotion of those who serve the gospel versus those who oppose the gospel.  This is probably not the most important of the contrasts Luke exposes here, but it’s the most obvious one.  Notice the two very different elements Luke mentions here beginning with verse two.  He writes, “Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.  But Saul was ravaging the church…”  Clearly, Luke wants us to see the contrast between those he calls “devout men” and Saul.  We saw in verse one that Saul approved of the execution of Stephen.  In fact, he assisted in it by guarding the garments of those who did the actual stoning.  Luke notes that this young man Saul continued opposing the gospel by “ravaging the church.”  In violent contrast to Saul, these unnamed “devout men” not only did not approve of Stephen’s execution, they take significant risks to mourn his death.

          According to rabbinic law, if a man was executed, he was to be buried, but no formal lamentation was to be given him.  If the Jewish leadership had sentenced a person to death, then that person certainly wasn’t worthy of formal lamentation.  That kind of mourning would be seen as undermining the leadership.  When Luke writes that these men “made great lamentation” over Stephen, that doesn’t simply mean that they cried on the way home from his funeral.  This speaks of a formal period of public lamentation marked by weeping and beating one’s breast[2]—like what the Jews did for Moses in Deuteronomy 34.  Verse eight says, “8 And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.”  This public display of grief would last anywhere from 30 to 70 days.  When Luke says these were “devout men,” part of their devotion to Christ was seen in their willingness to risk breaking rabbinic law and openly identifying themselves with Stephen, a man the Jewish authorities considered a blasphemer.

          The contrast Luke wants us to see is clear—While Saul helps bring about Stephen’s death, these devout men were openly grieving his death. To Saul, Stephen is a blasphemous criminal worthy of the most severe penalty, while the believers love Stephen and admire him even to the risk of their own safety.  We see this radical difference in perception toward God’s leaders throughout redemptive history. Some Jews loved the prophets, but most hated them and wanted them dead.  Jesus is the great example of this kind of leader who evokes such radically differing responses.  Moses too was hated by many Jews during his lifetime.  This is also seen in church history of nearly everyone who made a significant impact for God. The great reformer Martin Luther was regarded by the pope as a wild boar running loose in the vineyard of the church.  Men and women God uses significantly always incite this kind of radically differing response because there is light and darkness in and out of the church.  Those in the light are drawn to the light while those in darkness are repelled by it.

          Another example of this contrast is seen in the two men Luke mentions by name, each of whom believed with equal passion that they were ministering for God.  We must remember that both Saul and Philip were very devoted to God and both thought they were serving him. We know from chapter nine that Saul was working under the orders of the Jewish high priest.  After he was converted, Paul writes about his “ministry” to destroy the church in several places.  Listen for his devotion to his ministry—his passion burned white hot during this time.  He says in Acts 22:4, “4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women,” Several verses later he says, “…in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you.  

Saul went into the synagogues where the believers met to worship and pray and broke up one church meeting after another, hauling believers to prison and beating them.  In Acts 26: 10 he remembers, “……in Jerusalem.  I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them.  In Galatians 1:13 he says, “13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” Finally, in First Timothy 1:13, he says of himself, “…formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,”

          Saul zealously worked to destroy the church because while he was doing it he genuinely believed that this new “Jesus sect” was blasphemous.  He saw them growing like wildfire in their passion to tell his fellow Jews about their crucified and resurrected Savior.  In his mind, this group was a very serious threat to God’s Law, the temple, and God’s chosen people. He did what he did because he earnestly believed he was serving God. Later, after he met Jesus, he realized he had “…acted ignorantly in unbelief.”  Contrast Saul’s expression of devotion with Philip.  Verse five begins, “5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.” Again, you could not imagine a more profound contrast in ministries as it relates to the church.  Paul ravaged the church in his attempts to destroy it.  He hauled off, not just men, but also the women, which meant that he left young children without parents.  He beat people, locked them up and voted to execute them.  Saul was an absolute wrecking machine.  Philip on the other hand, preached the gospel and where Saul sought to destroy, Philip sought to build and grow.  He ministered healing and deliverance to the people.  Saul drove saints out of their homes.  Philip drove demons out of saints.  Luke wants us to see this contrast.

          One lesson here for us is--ministries and leaders must not be evaluated on the basis of their zeal or how compelling their leaders are, but on the basis of their conformity to Christ.  The most obvious example of this is outside the church.  Radical Islam is filled with people who are as sincere as any Christian missionary. They genuinely, truly believe that blowing up innocent people who they think are infidels is the will of God.  But zeal does not equate to truth.  These people are deceived and we must send an army of modern-day Philips to tell them the truth of the gospel.  We must also be on guard against this in the church.  Often, we can see someone who is gifted and who is also zealous about Jesus and assume they must be right.  We are easily drawn to compelling figures who are totally committed but church history is filled with gifted, personally charismatic people who attract a following of undiscerning people who end up totally ship-wrecked. 

          Jesus warns the church about this in Matthew 24:24. “24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.  If possible, even those who belong to God can be deceived which means that we must work hard to know God’s word so as to be able to discern truth from error.  As our minds are renewed with truth, we will find that we are less and less impressed with the outward packaging and passion and more concerned with whether what the person or ministry is saying conforms to Christ and his Word because there is and always will be in this fallen world both Saul’s and Philips.  Philip’s ministry will bring great blessing, but the Sauls of this world can bring an eternal curse.  We must know the difference.

          We see a second contrast in this text in the way God relates to one group of people versus another.   Luke shows us two very different and distinct people groups in this text.  One is the Jewish population centered in Jerusalem.  The other is this group of Samaritans in this unnamed city in Samaria where Philip finds such fruitful ministry.  The history and reputation of these two groups could hardly be more different.  Jerusalem was the city of David—the city of God in some sense.  It was the exalted city of Judaism and became synonymous with the people of God.  In Jerusalem was the temple—that sacred spot where God had dwelt among his people.  Jerusalem is where the nation migrated several times a year to hold their major religious festivals.  Jerusalem was simply the cultural heart and soul of Judaism.  Samaria on the other hand, was so hated that the idea of even evangelizing Samaritans would have been considered a complete waste of time by most of the Jews of this time.  The Jews hated the Samaritans.  You may remember from the gospels that most Jews wouldn’t even walk through Samaria, but walked around it.  The Samaritans were despised as belonging to a false cult religion that claimed to be faithful to God but wasn’t.  They worshipped at the wrong temple and were half breeds.  Scholars tell us that a Jew would just as soon have eaten pork as eat with a Samaritan.[3]

          And yet, in Acts Luke takes those popular conceptions of these two people groups and turns them on their head.  He portrays Samaria in a very positive light.  Here is where God is now at work.  God was doing signs and wonders among these “half-breeds.”  Philip is finding incredibly open doors to the gospel here according to verse six.  Luke writes, “And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.”   Its harvest time in Samaria!  Verse eight says of this unspecified Samaritan city, “…there was much joy in that city” What a contrast with Jerusalem during this time.   Jerusalem, after initially showing enthusiasm for the gospel, had by this time largely rejected it.  Luke tells us the apostles remained in Jerusalem evidently because it still provided the logical headquarters for the church, but Acts has very little else to say about any vibrant spiritual activity occurring in and around Jerusalem.  By this time, the significant time of harvest that Jerusalem had briefly known was over.  God’s focus had now shifted and beginning in this chapter, Jerusalem emerges as the main source of the growing opposition against the church.  Saul was based out of Jerusalem and the Sanhedrin.  Those believers in the city who did remain were mostly Palestinian Jews because most of the Grecian or Hellenistic Jews are now scattering to the four winds. 

          We mustn’t miss this ironic contrast that Luke wants us to see.  Jerusalem, the exalted city has now become the seat of spiritual opposition for God’s people while Samaria, the despised region, has become a fruitful mission field. In Jerusalem, the gospel is more and more rejected and opposed, while in Samaria, the people listen to it in rapt attention.  While Jerusalem is purging itself of many of its believers, Samaria is welcoming missionaries, becoming a fertile harvest field for Christ.  Jerusalem was now a city filled with believers fleeing for their lives in fear and terror, while Samaria was filled with great joy.  The lessons here are manifold.  One—as it relates to Jerusalem is no group of people are assured of God’s perpetual blessing.  The Jews in Jerusalem largely rejected Jesus; so after the brief season of harvest in the opening chapters of Acts, God moved on.  Though Paul later went to the Jew first and then the Greek with the gospel, God will not waste his precious spiritual resources on a group of people who have so routinely rejected him, no matter how impressive their spiritual resume is.  The message for us is simple--if God will reject a closed Jerusalem in favor of an open Samaria in spite of Jerusalem’s impressive spiritual credentials, he will surely reject North America for other peoples as we as a nation continue to reject him.  In Revelation chapters two and three, we see seven churches and only five were faithful.  Jesus promised to remove his lampstand from the unfaithful churches if they did not repent.  Church history tells us that all of those churches eventually disappeared and now Islam is the dominant religion in those areas.

          From the perspective of world missions, this shift has already occurred to some degree in America.  America is simply not the place where God is doing his most powerful work now and hasn’t been for some time. The church in North America is barely holding its own and is just keeping up with the population growth.  The South Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America is now shrinking in size.  Contrast that with Indonesia, where the church has grown 1000 percent in the last 40 years or Africa, where 20,000 people come to Christ every day or South Korea, where the church in the last century has gone from non-existent to now representing 30% of the population.[4]  India is also exploding with the gospel in certain areas.  These are the modern day Samarias and the U.S.—if we continue to reject God by our idolatrous living—if the church will not stop conforming to an increasingly godless culture, the U.S. will quickly find itself to be a modern-day Jerusalem.  All the more reason for us to pray daily for God to pour out his mercy on our land and visit his church with a revival that will renew her and allow for yet one more season of harvest.  God is doing most of his most dramatic work in other areas of the globe and we can have no assurance that America will not suffer the same fate as other places where God was once active, but now has moved on to other areas in terms of significant growth. 

          A final contrast in the text relates to the purposes of God for the persecution versus the purposes of the persecutors.  The purpose of Saul and those who doubtless joined him in his opposition to the church was simple—destroy the infant church before it could become fully established and vital as a movement.  They failed dismally—it was a hopeless quest as Saul soon discovered.  Luke shows us that God had a very different purpose for the persecution.  Namely, to spread the gospel outside Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.  Under God’s sovereign power, he uses the persecution of Saul and the Jewish leaders to spread and grow the church.  Luke says in verse one.  1  And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”   The church at this point was like a fuzzy dandelion filled with seeds waiting to be spread.  God used the persecution of the church by Saul like the wind to disperse those seeds so the church could be planted in Judea and Samaria.  We know that from verse four. “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”

          Those who were scattered didn’t assume only Jews in Jerusalem needed the gospel.  They shared the Word with the people in Samaria, just as they had shared Christ in Jerusalem.  The persecution in and of itself was a terrible thing.  Families were separated, people were beaten and killed and dislocated.  But in the midst of this, God uses it for his sovereign purposes.  God does this all the time—uses bad things to accomplish his good purposes.  We see this in the Old Testament many times; perhaps the most famous is the case of Joseph.  His brothers sinned against him as they sold him into slavery, but God used that to preserve the nation of Israel during the famine as Joseph managed that crisis.  Joseph summarized this work of God in Genesis 50:20 when he told his brothers, “20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.

          God does this kind of thing all the time because he is a redeeming God.  That is—he takes bad things and makes them into good things.  Because he is sovereign and bigger than any circumstance, he can take anything and make it into a good thing.  In fact, he took the greatest travesty in human history and transformed it into the greatest blessing in human history.  He did that in the crucifixion of Jesus.  The only innocent man in history—the only man in history not deserving death is executed in the most vile abuse of justice in history and yet, God planned it that way so as to bring about redemption of lost people.  Jesus died and through his death, he took the penalty upon himself that we deserved.  He came not to judge, but to bear the judgment of God and through his payment of our sin penalty; we can know God and eternal joy.

          The lesson for us is simply—no matter what happens in our lives, God can redeem it for his sovereign purposes and our good. This is so comforting in a fallen world when bad things so often happen to us, many of them self-inflicted.  I would have very little hope in this world if I didn’t believe that God delights to make blessing come out of disaster.  I was reminded this week of Joni Eareckson Tada’s story.  At the time she broke her neck in a diving accident as a teenager, she thought her life was over.  Yet in the decades since the accident, she has seen God redeem it thousands of times over, to the point where she believes that it was a good thing for her to be confined to a wheel chair for life and she now thanks God for it.  Imagine all the good that has come from her disability.  All the encouragement through her books on suffering—all the ministry she has done that as a healthy person she could never have been able to do.

          In life, bad things happen.  Perhaps bad things have happened to you and perhaps the bad is right now much more plainly seen than the good.  Be encouraged because God redeems things—he makes all things—especially bad things work for good.  Do we believe that?  In the first century, God caused a persecution intended to destroy the church to spread and grow the church.  I don’t want to diminish the bad and painful things that have happened in your life and as believers we are called to weep with those who weep.  But the fact remains that God has a good plan for the bad things in your life and he is working out that plan even as we sit here today.  Trust him and begin to look for his redemption.  We must have confidence that he will do that because that is who he is—a redeeming God who shows his supremacy by taking things that to us appear to be unredeemable and bringing far more good out of them than bad.  For God not to redeem bad things into good things would be to deny himself and the Bible says he simply can’t do that!  We are simply called to believe that and ask him to give us eyes to see his redemption.

          May God give all of us the grace to see with his eyes and to learn the lessons from these contrasts for his glory and our joy.

[1] Bock, Luke, p. 317-318.

[2] Bock, Luke, p. 319.

[3] Bock, Luke, p. 324.

[4] World Christian Growth Statistics (The Prayer Foundation).


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