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Tag: Acts

The Martyr of Stephen

Through the summer we’ve been working our way through the book of Acts – although recently, we’ve had some special speakers bring the Sunday morning message, and so it’s been a couple weeks since since we last left off.

But today we are getting back to Acts and we’re picking up the story in Acts chapter 6. We started this chapter three weeks ago and at that time, we looked at one of the first major leadership challenges faced by the church. If you were with us then, you’ll recall that as the early church grew by leaps and bounds, the pressures and demands on the Apostles grew as well – threatening to distract and derail them from preaching the Gospel – which of course, was the one, most important thing they had to do!

So to deal with this, the Apostles called for a meeting of the entire church and through some God-given wisdom, suggested that they appoint seven men to be deacons – men who would serve the church in an administrative role so that the needs of the church would be met – freeing the apostles to spend their time preaching the Word of God.

Everyone in the church agreed that this was a great idea and so they selected seven men who were well-respected, full of the Holy Spirit, and full of wisdom – and they appointed them to serve the church.

One of these men was a man named Stephen and it’s around him that our story revolves today. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. Even though Stephen is a main character – our story continues to revolve around Christ. Although this book is called the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ – every story centers on the person of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit – and that’s exactly what we’re going to see today.

So if you have your Bibles, let’s turn to Acts chapter 6, starting today at verse 8.

8 Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. 9 But one day some men from the Synagogue of Freed Slaves, as it was called, started to debate with him. They were Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia. 10 None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.

Acts 6:8-10

Now it’s interesting – and I pointed this out briefly in the last message – that although Stephen was appointed to serve the church in an administrative role (specifically, to oversee the daily distribution of food to those in need), here we see him doing some amazing miracles among the people – and he was very actively engaged in sharing the message of Christ with non-believers. These are normally the things that we see the Apostles doing – but here we see Stephen doing them as well. And this is a great reminder that anyone and everyone can be used by God in some incredible ways. It doesn’t matter what your ‘official’ role or title is – if you’ve surrendered your life to God, God can do amazing things through you!

In this case, Stephen was doing miracles and sharing the Gospel with his fellow Jews. You’ll remember from our last message how there were two groups of Jews in Jerusalem at this time – there were Hebrew speaking Jews who where native-born Israelites (born & raised within the borders of Israel itself) – and there were Greek-speaking Jews who had been born and raised in other parts of the world, but who had now returned to live in Jerusalem.

Based on his Greek name, Stephen is very likely one of those Greek-speaking Jews who had come to live in Jerusalem – as were these other Jews who were debating with him. It’s even possible that Stephen was a member of the Synagogue of the Freed Slaves where he was debating with these other Jews.

This synagogue would have been one of the synagogues that had been started by Greek-speaking Jews who had at one time been slaves somewhere in the Roman Empire, but had since been freed and had come to Jerusalem. So maybe Stephen was part of that group? We don’t really know.

But what we do know, is that, like many Jews in Jerusalem, these men were not eager to embrace the message of the Gospel. And so as Stephen shared the Good News of Jesus Christ, these men began to debate with him – trying to argue against his claims that Jesus was the resurrected Son of God! But as we see in verse 10 – None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.

And that is such a huge encouragement and reminder for us as we try to share the Gospel with the people around us!

It’s not our eloquent delivery or clever words that’s going to convince people to put their faith in Jesus Christ – but rather, it’s the wisdom of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that’s going to make the difference. 

I know many Christians are terrified at the thought to trying to share the Gospel with someone. What if we muddle our words or say the wrong thing? What if they ask us questions that we can’t answer? What if we end up looking like a fool and only reinforce their beliefs that we’re a religious nut job?

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Carrying Out Your God-Given Ministry

For the last several weeks, we’ve been going through the book of Acts – following the growth and development of the early church. 

As the Apostles boldly share their testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and call people to put their faith in Him for Salvation, the Holy Spirit has been at work, and crowds of people have been responding to the Gospel. The church has been growing tremendously!

But of course, with rapid growth comes growing pains – and we’ve seen a few examples of that already.

  • We’ve seen Ananias and Sapphira being put to death by the Lord after lying to the Holy Spirit.
  • We’ve seen the Apostles being thrown into prison – and then rescued by an angel who simply opened the doors and led them out.
  • We’ve seen the religious leaders command that Apostles stop preaching in the name of Jesus –  even flogging them as a warning – but the Apostles insisted that they would continue  obeying God rather than man!

And thus far, all of these growing pains have not stopped the tremendous growth of the church. But today in our passage, the church is going to face perhaps their greatest threat yet. This particular ‘growing pain’ not only has the potential to destroy or at least seriously damage the unity of the church, which is the hallmark of the followers of Christ – but it also has the potential to prevent the Apostles from faithfully preaching the Good News.

And by the way, the threats to the church that we’re going to read about here in Acts chapter 6 are equally present us for today, and so I think this will be a very relevant passage for us!

Our passage today is in Acts chapter 6 – and we’re just going to start by just reading the very first verse. It reads like this:

But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.

Acts 6:1

Now right off the bat there are a couple of things that we should clarify.

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God’s Prevailing Purposes

Last Sunday, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, gave us a snapshot of life in the early church. And he gave us two contrasting examples of both the good and the bad.

First of all, Luke told us about a man named Joseph – otherwise known as Barnabas – the Son of Encouragement. Filled with the Holy Spirit and motivated by love for the church, he sold a field he owned and gave the money to the apostles to give to the needy within the church. This was a great example of the generosity and care for each other that was common within the church in those early days!

But in contrast to Barnabas, Luke then goes on to tell us about another couple – Ananias and Sapphira.  With hearts filled by Satan and motivated by pride – they also sold some land and gave the money to the apostles. However, they kept some of the money for themselves and decided to lie about it to the Apostles (and really, to the Holy Spirit) – claiming that they had given everything, when in fact, they had not. For their deception and as a strong warning to the rest of the church, the Lord stuck them both death.

Their sudden and dramatic deaths would have been quite a shock to the church, I’m sure! In fact, verse 11 tells us that…

11 Great fear gripped the entire church and everyone else who heard what had happened.

Acts 5:11

And that verse kinda sets the stage for the rest of the chapter. As we finish up Acts chapter 5 today, we’re going to see that God continues to do some amazing things in and through the church, and people just don’t know what to make of it all!

Are these followers of Jesus good or bad? Are they doing these amazing things with trickery and slight of hand or is God really behind it all? And perhaps most importantly, is their message of faith in Jesus merely empty ramblings, or is it really the Gospel truth?

Those are the questions that everyone was asking, and those are the questions that Luke wants you to consider as well!

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Contrasting Characters in the Early Church

This morning we are continuing our look at the book of Acts – specifically we will be looking at the last few verses of chapter 4 and the first few verses of chapter 5. Last week Mike took us through the bulk of Acts 4 as Peter & John boldly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus Christ as they stood on trial before the temple authorities. They had earlier been arrested after healing a lame man and preaching to the crowds that Jesus was the Messiah who had been raised from the dead.

Well, the religious authorities at the temple didn’t appreciate that kind of preaching, and so, upon being released from prison, Peter & John were strongly warned to never to preach again in the name of Jesus – but of course, the apostles stated quite emphatically that they could never stop speaking about what they had seen and heard. In fact, as soon as they were released, they met together with the rest of the church to pray for even more boldness in sharing the Gospel.

And of course, God was quite happy to answer their prayers. In fact, the last verse of that passage says this:

31 After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness. Acts 4:31

Undeterred by the threats of the authorities and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples faithfully continued to carry out the mission they had been given by Jesus Himself – to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.

And of course, as they did that, the church grew by leaps and bounds. Back in verse 4, Luke gives us a numbers update and he says….

“…the number of men who believed now totaled about 5,000.” Luke 4:4

5000 men had put their faith in Jesus in just a short time – in probably just a matter of days or weeks. And that’s just the men. There were undoubtedly women and children as well, so the total number of those in the church could have been around 10,000 or more by now. What a church! And even more amazing is how Luke describes this enormous group of people… Look at what he says in verse 32:

32 All the believers were united in heart and mind.

Acts 4:32a

Now that is an amazing statement! All the believers – some 5 to 10,000 of them – were all united in heart and mind. That’s almost hard to believe!

Most of us know from experience how hard it is to get people on the same page – whether you’re trying to do something as a team at work or as group of kids for a class project or even just trying to decide what movie to watch as a family – it is a rare thing that people are united in heart and mind!

But that’s exactly what God intends for his church. In fact, this is exactly what Jesus prayed for when He prayed for his disciples back at the last supper. If you remember from John chapter 17, Jesus said:

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Faith in the Name of Jesus

This morning we continue our look at the book of Acts – specifically today we are in Acts chapter 3. And if you haven’t been with us for the last two chapters, there are basically three key things that have happened in the story so far:

  1. After his resurrection, Jesus ascended to Heaven and commissioned his disciples to be his witnesses throughout the world.
  2. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell his disciples and every believer – just as he had promised earlier – empowering them to boldly share about Christ where ever they went.
  3. As the disciples shared the message of Christ, more & more people accepted their message, trusted in Jesus, and the early church began to take shape.

In fact, when we last left off, the church had just exploded in growth as 3000 people were added to the church as the result of Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost. Acts chapter 2 describes it like this:

41 Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.

42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

43 A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. 44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had.

Acts 2:41-44

Now when we went through this passage in chapter 2 a couple weeks ago, we talked mostly about how the believers were devoted to God and devoted to each other. But we didn’t really spend much time on verse 43, which says “A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders.” But this, too, is an important verse.

This verse points out how God affirmed the Apostles’ message & authority by enabling them to perform miraculous signs and wonders – very much like the signs and wonders that Jesus performed during his ministry on earth or even like the prophets of old – such as Moses, Elisha and Elijah.

These signs and wonders not only gave credibility to their message – but it also provided for them many opportunities to share their message with the people who witnessed these amazing miracles!

And that’s what we’re going to see today. Today, chapter 3 gives us a specific example of the signs and wonders that Peter & John were performing and how they used that as an opportunity to preach about Christ.

So we are going to start in Acts chapter 3, verse 1.

Peter and John went to the Temple one afternoon to take part in the three o’clock prayer service. 2 As they approached the Temple, a man lame from birth was being carried in. Each day he was put beside the Temple gate, the one called the Beautiful Gate, so he could beg from the people going into the Temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for some money. Acts 3:1-3

And we’ll pause here for a minute. So far, this is a pretty normal day for everyone involved.

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To Be His Witnesses

This morning I’m excited to begin preaching through a new book of the Bible. 

As most of you know, for the last four months we have been working through a sermon series following the life and ministry of Jesus Christ from birth to resurrection – from Christmas to Easter.

And of course, if you were with us two weeks ago on Easter Sunday, you’ll recall how we concluded that series by reading through the details of Christ’s resurrection, his appearance to his disciples, and finally, His ascension back into heaven.

However, while those events did conclude the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, they certainly did not conclude the work of Jesus Christ here on earth.

Jesus would continue to accomplish the Father’s will through the power of the Holy Spirit working through the disciples and the many others who would eventually come to faith over the next many years. Or to put it another way, Jesus would continue to bring about the kingdom of God working through his redeemed people – the Church.

And that’s what I want us to look at for the next little while. Specifically, I want us to read through the book of Acts.

Now most of you probably know this already, but the book of Acts is actually the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Luke, who happened to be a doctor and a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, wrote both of these two books as a carefully researched account of the events surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus.

We see that right in the opening lines of Luke chapter 1. Luke begins that book by saying:

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. 2 They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. 3 Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write an accurate account for you, most honorable Theophilus, 4 so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.

Luke 1:1-4

So here we see that the author Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke as a careful, historic account of the life & ministry of Jesus Christ – written for sake of this fellow Theophilus – so that he could be certain of the truth he was taught!

Then after writing this first book, Luke went on to write a second book – again for this same fellow Theophilus as a continuation of that story. Take a look at the opening lines of the book of Acts. It begins like this:

 In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach 2  until the day he was taken up to heaven… Acts 1:1-2a

So just from those few opening words, we can see that the book of Acts is very clearly a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. It’s a continuation of the story. And actually, even though the traditional title of the book is “The Acts of the Apostles” – it’s probably more accurate to call it “The continued Acts of Jesus” because it really is a continuation of all that Jesus began to do! 

While the stories in the book of Acts certainly feature several of the Apostles, Jesus is the one key figure throughout! It’s all about what Jesus continued to do and teach through the Apostles and through the early church!

So while the Gospels tell us what Jesus began to do and teach – the book of Acts tell us what Jesus continued to do and teach – primarily through the work of the Holy Spirit.

And even beyond the book of Acts, Jesus continues to “do and teach” through the Holy Spirit even today!

While Jesus may not be physically present among us as he was 2000 years ago, He is still very alive and is very much at work in and through our lives – and that’s really what the book of Acts is all about. It’s how Jesus continued to bring about the Kingdom of God – working through the Apostles and all those who would eventually trust in Christ – empowering them by His Holy Spirit – just like what He continues to do even today!

And I think that’s partly why I’m so excited to go through this book with you over the next few months! We might find it difficult to relate to the some of the Gospel stories because we don’t have a physical Jesus walking and talking with us – we can’t watch him walk on water or see him touch the eyes of a blind man. But yet, we can have the exact same experience as those early disciples in Acts! 

We can be filled with the Holy Spirit – empowered by God to boldly share about Christ and his kingdom! What Jesus did through those early disciples back then is exactly what he wants to do through us today!

So I’m totally excited to see what we can learn from this book over the next little while – and I trust that God will use this time to shape us and direct us and to show us how we can join Him in what he is already doing in our little town of Penhold!

Let’s begin.

Acts chapter 1, starting at verse 1:

In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit. 3 During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God.    Acts 1:1-3

Let’s pause here for a minute. When you read through the resurrection story from the Gospel of Luke, you might conclude that Jesus rose from the grave, appeared to the disciples, and then ascended into heaven all on the same day. We read through Luke 24 on Easter Sunday, and that’s kinda how it all reads. But that account is really just concise summary of what happened over the course of several weeks.

We know that because here in Acts, Luke clarifies that there was 40 days between Christ’s resurrection and his ascension into heaven. And during that time, he appeared to the apostles several times and proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive! It wasn’t just appearing to those guys on the road to Emmaus or to the disciples in the upper room. Jesus appeared to many different people at many different times.

In fact, in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul states that Christ appeared to over 500 people during that time. He writes:

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. 4 He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. 5 He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. 6 After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.

1 Corinthians 15:3b-8

The point that both Paul and Luke are making here, is that there were many witness who personally saw the resurrected Jesus over a period of many days! It was not just one or two people who imagined seeing Jesus or had a dream that He was alive. But rather, many people saw and talked with him on many occasions – and as Luke says, Jesus proved to them in many ways that He was actually alive!

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