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God’s power for God’s purpose: A church on the move

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Topical Scripture: Acts 8

Think back to your personal conversion experience. What was the setting? Who was involved? Were your parents engaged? A Sunday school teacher, perhaps? Your pastor? A spiritual friend? Who then would have predicted that you would be teaching your class this weekend? Would you?

I became a Christian while sitting on a metal folding chair in the living room of a house down Beechnut Street from College Park Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. At the time, I would have been voted least likely to write this Sunday school lesson. My parents’ patience was tested daily by my childhood. Conduct slips sent home were a daily occurrence. Five of my six elementary school teachers quit the year they had me—perhaps that’s a trend. Every time I open the word of God to speak or write, I am reminded that the Lord has a wonderful sense of humor. And the ability to hit straight licks with crooked sticks.

This week, imagine all God might do with your faithfulness. We so often limit God by our limited faith. We struggle to believe that he could actually use us to do something eternal, spiritual, or miraculous. We’ll learn this week that he will use any who will be used. And that he can do far more with us than we imagine.

When Bill Parcells became the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, his first speech to his new players included this statement: “Raise your expectations.” They expected to lose. He expected to win, to do more than they thought possible. Eventually, so did they.

So can we.

Bloom where you’re planted (vs. 1-8)

Have you ever been frustrated by your spiritual circumstances? Maybe you’re at such a place today. You want to serve your Lord, but it seems that your opportunities are limited. People don’t seem receptive. Your gifts and abilities go unrecognized. Life is preventing your ministry. We’ve all been there, and we’ll all have days when we return to that place of self-doubt and discouragement.

Such was the scene as our text opens. Stephen has been martyred, the first but not the last. A “great” (mega) persecution “broke out” (a word often used for a disease or plague which “breaks out” in the population) against the church at Jerusalem (v. 1a). “Against” means “in opposition to, as an adversary.” The church has assaulted the gates of hell (cf. Matthew 16:18), and now they’re fighting back. The enemy has tried to decapitate the Christian movement by threatening its leaders; he has sought to sow seeds of discord and division; he has achieved the execution of one of the church’s godliest leaders. Now a full-scale war begins.

As a result, “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (v. 1b). “Scattered” means “to be thrown about,” a word used to describe a sower who “scatters” his seed. We picture them thrown into the winds and landing wherever they are taken. The church buried Stephen and mourned his death (v. 2), while Saul began his murderous rampage against their members (v. 3).

Luke says that Saul “began to destroy” the church, words used for tearing down a building. At this time in history, of course, the church had no buildings. The church was and is its people. And so Saul went “from house to house,” where the first believers lived and worshiped. He “dragged off men and women,” persecuting both with equal severity. He “put them in prison,” not so they would be punished by incarceration (such was not the purpose of first-century Roman prisons), but so they could be tried and executed as blaspheming criminals and rebels.

Later Paul recounted his rampage against the church this way: “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (Acts 22:4). It appears that the future of the Christian movement is bleak at best. No one is safe. All are at risk. Who will want to join such a faith? What optimism could these believers hold for their future? How many were certain that their church would achieve global or eternal significance now?

Step into their lives. You’ve been a Christian for only a few months; no one has been for more than three years. You have no New Testament, and no church except at Jerusalem. Now the Empire is after you; Saul is trying to find you; you don’t have your apostles, your pastors, any more. They’re back in Jerusalem, but you’re gone. You have no home, no job, no church and no leaders. Is this new movement dead?

As it turns out, what the enemy meant for evil, God used for good. He always does.

The “scattered” Christians “preached the word wherever they went” (v. 4). Running for their lives, fleeing the mighty Empire, they were still faithful to their call and God. Note that none were “apostles”; the leaders of the church stayed in Jerusalem to face persecution and continue their ministries there (v. 1). But all “preached” (the Greek word means simply “to proclaim”). Ordination and license are not required. Every time you teach the Scriptures, you are “preaching” God’s word. Every time you share your faith, or speak a spiritual word, you are preaching. And God is pleased.

These preached “wherever they went.” They assumed their new circumstances to be no surprise to God. They seized the moment, the opportunity presented to them. Philip in particular “went down” to a city in Samaria; the words mean that he traveled downward in elevation from the hills of Jerusalem to the valley of Samaria, not that he traveled south. No self-respecting Jew would do this before Pentecost. The Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the Jews, their faith and culture despised and avoided. But now the universal love of God lives in Philip’s heart. And soon in the hearts of those he served.

The people of this Samaritan city “heard” his message and “saw” the miraculous signs performed by God through his ministry (v. 6a). And so they “paid close attention” (v. 6b; the phrase means to examine with utmost interest and detail) to the gospel he shared. With this result: “With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed” (v. 7). When we attack the gates of hell, they cannot withstand our assault. Imprisoned spirits and bodies were released and healed. And “there was great joy in that city” (v. 8). From “mega” persecution (v. 1) came “mega” joy.

My first year in seminary, I was frustrated. I wasn’t preaching, or working in a church, or doing much of what I called ministry. Then I heard someone say, “Bloom where you’re planted.” Look around. And I did. I was working part-time at the time as a graphic artist and typesetter. In our office I found a colleague whose husband was in a cult; another whose husband was in jail; a third who was a brilliant agnostic; an employer headed for a divorce; customers from every walk of life. A mission field as great as any I’ve ever seen. Right where I was.

Look at the opportunities which surround you. Challenge your class to do the same. Everywhere you look you’ll find people with problems for which you can pray, hurting hearts who need your love, people who need God’s truth and grace through you. Bloom where you’re planted. And you will be surprised at the beauty of the flower God grows through you.

Stay in the Spirit (vs. 9-25)

Jesus had told his followers they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It took the persecution of Acts 8:1 to begin fulfilling the commission of Acts 1:8. In this way God redeemed the suffering of his people, and used the attack of the enemy to further his Kingdom. He never wastes a hurt. But for his Spirit to use us fully, we must first be yielded fully to him, as we will discover next.

Expect light to defeat darkness

The Lord led Philip to this particular Samaritan city for a larger purpose than Philip yet knew. For in this city resided one Simon, a sorcerer who “amazed” (caused the people to wonder with emotional depth and reaction) the entire nation of Samaria (v. 9). “All the people, both high and low” (the wealthy and educated as well as those of the lower classes) considered him to possess divine power and even be the “Great Power” (v. 10, probably a description of one sent by God himself, perhaps even the Messiah). He had “amazed them for a long time” with his magical stunts (v. 11), with no end in sight.

The people were thoroughly deceived, as they will be wherever the gospel has not been preached. Paul would not have been surprised: “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

But when they encountered the truth of God in the preaching and ministry of Philip, the crowds turned from deception to transformation, and were baptized, “both men and women” (v. 12). Note Luke’s persistent interest in women as well as men, for both are equally valuable to the Father (cf. Galatians 3:26-29). Light always defeats darkness (cf. John 1:5). When you speak the word of God in the will of God, the victory of God always comes. Hearts are always turned, souls always saved.

Avoid the sin of Simon

Now comes a problematic part of our text: “Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw” (v. 13). Was this a genuine conversion?

Note that Simon soon offered money to the apostles in his attempt to purchase the divine power with which they ministered (vs. 18-19). Peter replied, “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God” (v. 20). He called the magician to repent and pray for forgiveness (vs. 22), for he was “full of bitterness and captive to sin” (v. 23). Simon asked Peter to pray on his behalf (v. 24), but there is no record that he made such confession and intercession personally.

Some believe that Simon was not genuinely saved, that his “conversion” was only a public show and part of his attempt to seek further spiritual acclaim and reputation among the people. Such is certainly possible; he would not be the last to profess Christ from false motives, to pretend a faith which was not genuine. Adolf Hitler claimed that his Third Reich would advance the cause of Christianity and the Church across Germany and the world, and many church leaders believed him.

Others, myself among them, hold out hope that Simon’s conversion, while immature and conflicted, was genuine. Peter’s reply to his sin was not to call him to salvation per se, but rather to confession and repentance for this specific sin (v. 22). He was “full of bitterness and captive to sin” (v. 23), but he would not be the last Christian to deal with such spiritual disease within a converted heart.

We don’t know enough from the text to decide either way. What we do know is that Simon did not receive Christ and then “lose” his salvation. Once we become the genuine children of God, we will always belong to him (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). We are in his hand, and nothing and no one can take us from him (John 10:28). We will never perish, but “have” eternal life (John 3:16).

Whether Simon was a genuine Christian or not, we may never know. But we do know that genuine Christians can repeat his sin. We can seek God’s power for our ends, trying to “purchase” his favor through our merit and works for our own goals and purposes. How many in your class will come to church this weekend more for what they can “get” than what they can give? How many will evaluate your lesson not so much by whether or not you presented the truth of God as by whether or not they “liked” what you said? It is perennially tempting to make God our servant, a genie in our bottle, the One to whom we turn for help with our lives. He is the Lord of the universe, and he will not be trifled with. He calls us to total surrender and obedience, nothing less.

Seek the Spirit’s work

We’re not finished with controversial texts just yet. The apostles in Jerusalem heard that the Samaritans “had accepted the word of God,” so they sent Peter and John to them (v. 14). The Jerusalem church was seen as the headquarters of the faith, and the means by which a spiritual movement was to be evaluated (cf. Ac. 11:22, 15:6ff.). The Samaritans had been baptized, but “the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them” (v. 16). So Peter and John prayed “that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 15), placed their hands on them, “and they received the Holy Spirit” (v. 17).

Later, after they “testified and proclaimed the word of the Lord,” Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching in many Samaritan villages along the way (v. 25). Clearly the Jewish bias against Samaritans was defeated by the love and Spirit of Jesus.

But what are we to make of the Samaritans’ experience with the Spirit? Does the text indicate that it is possible to accept the word of God and be baptized as believers, but not yet have the Spirit? Must others pray and lay hands on us in order for us to receive the Spirit into our lives? Many believe so. They argue for a “second blessing” by which the Spirit comes to Christians, and claim that if we have not experienced this spiritual event, we do not yet “have” the Spirit. They often look for tongues or other manifesting signs of the Spirit’s presence as indication that the Spirit has indeed come, though no such signs are described in our text. Here the order is: hearing and accepting the gospel, being baptized, and receiving the Spirit.

If the Samaritans’ experience is to be the model and pattern for us all, then what of Cornelius’s experience in Acts 10? “While Peter was still speaking” the gospel, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” and Peter’s associates “were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (vs. 44-45). Here the new converts were heard “speaking in tongues and praising God” (v. 46). Later they were baptized (v. 48). Here the order is: hearing and accepting the gospel, receiving the Spirit, being baptized.

Three options are typically suggested. One: the Samaritans’ experience is normative, and Cornelius’s model the exception. In this interpretation, I still need someone to lay hands on me and pray for me to receive the Spirit, since I have not yet sought such an event.

Two: Cornelius’s experience is normative, and the Samaritans’ experience the exception. Here I “have” the Spirit (though some would wish me to speak in tongues as certification). Those who follow this approach (as does Wiersbe in Be Dynamic) typically see the Samaritan event as part of a transition period in the work of the Spirit, a pattern made more normative with Cornelius.

Note that neither text claims the event it records to be a model for all Christians. Neither prescribes its experiences as mandatory or normative. Luke simply records what happened to these two groups; either may be an exception to God’s typical way of dealing with us today.

Three: the Samaritans were not genuinely converted until Peter and John arrived and preached the word more fully to them. We know that “there was great joy in that city” when the people saw the miracles performed by God through Philip (v. 7), and that “they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of the Jesus Christ” and were baptized (v. 12). They “had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 16). It is possible to accept the Scriptures intellectually and be baptized as a result, without experiencing a genuine conversion. I have known several across the years of my pastoral ministry who fit this precise description.

For me, Romans 8:9 settles the issue: “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” We become Christians by the agency and transforming work of the Spirit. When we “ask Jesus into our hearts,” it is actually the Spirit who takes up residence in our lives: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). The Samaritans could not have been genuinely converted until they received the Spirit, an experience which came through the preaching and intercession of Peter and John.

Whatever our approach to this text, it is important to be reminded that the Spirit of God will enter every heart open to him. When we bloom where we’re planted, using opportunities around us for the gospel, the Spirit will do the rest. He will convict of sin, change hearts, and save souls. Believe that he will do eternal work with your temporal faithfulness, and he will.

Expect God to precede you (vs. 26-40)

The rest of Acts 8 tells the remarkable story of the Ethiopian’s conversion. An angel directed Philip to the road “south” from Jerusalem to Gaza (v. 26). Note that the Greek word for “south” can also mean “noon,” the more likely translation in my opinion. Everyone knew that the road to Gaza was south. God sent him to that road at noon, during the heat of the day, a time when hardly anyone traveled it. It was a “desert” road, sparse and forbidding. We often wonder at the time why God has us where he does.

But he usually shows us: “on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship” (v. 27). This man would be our treasury secretary today, his signature on our currency. His conversion would carry the gospel to the highest reaches of Ethiopian culture and influence.

The Lord had already gone ahead of Philip, as he goes before us. The man had been reading from Isaiah 53, the best text in all of the Old Testament to use in presenting the atoning death and love of the Lord Jesus. Then the man asked Philip to explain the text, making it easy for him to share “the good news about Jesus” (v. 35). The eunuch believed, was baptized, and “went on his way rejoicing” (v. 39). Early tradition identifies him as the first Christian missionary to Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, Philip was led by the Spirit to continue preaching at Azotus, one of the five Philistine cities, close to the Mediterranean coast (v. 40a). Note that the word of the Lord went from Philip to the Samaritans, a people despised by the Jews, and now to the Philistines, their ancient and mortal enemies. From there he “traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea” (v. 40b). This was the Roman port city rebuilt by Herod and named for Caesar. I’ve seen its impressive ruins; it made an excellent base for Philip’s continued ministry (cf. Ac. 21:8-9, where he is still in Caesarea 20 years later with his “four unmarried daughters who prophesied”).

When we follow God, he always goes before us. He will prepare the heart of every person he intends you to reach with his gospel. Every person who will hear you teach this weekend has already been the subject of the Spirit’s ministry. He never leads us except where he has first prepared the way.

Conclusion

There is much to discuss in this week’s text; you will need to seek the Spirit’s guidance as you focus on those sections and materials which are most relevant to your class and their needs. But I would suggest this common thread through the chapter: God can use us more effectively than we believe we can be used.

Facing the severest persecution they have yet known, the first Christians nonetheless “scattered” the seed of the gospel across their part of the world. Philip, Peter and John saw the conversion of a large Samaritan population previously deceived by an entrenched pagan magician. Philip followed the Spirit’s leading and won the most significant convert yet to the gospel, a man already prepared by the Lord to receive Philip’s ministry.

What could God do with you this week, if only you believed that he would? What do you expect God to do?

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