The Expansion of the Church

The Expansion of the Church

Acts 5:41-42, 8:1–3, 9:1–22; 1 Corinthians 15:1–10

We’ve been studying the book of Acts to find encouragement and inspiration from the early Church to say bold prayers, be bold ambassadors of Christ, putting ourselves out there, doing what Christ has asked us to do, all as the response with a grateful heart for what Christ has done for us.

The book of Acts begins with the disciples receiving the Great Commission to make disciples of Jesus, teaching them and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These eyewitnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection then are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and go into the streets of Jerusalem and proclaim that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, and that He had been raised from the dead. In just a few short days, over 5,000 men (not counting women and children) embraced the message and now everyone in city knew something unique was happening.

This new movement, though, threatened the very delicate balance of power between Jewish authorities and Roman authorities. Because you see, the Romans left the Jews worship their God, but they needed to keep it down. No distractions or they would no longer be allowed to have their Temple nor their religion.

And now, instead of one dozen people, there are over 10,000+ people running around the streets of Jerusalem saying that Jesus has risen from the dead and that He is the Messiah. Things are changing, and the world would never be the same.

We left off in the story last week when the religious leaders brought Jesus’ apostles before the Sanhedrin, the high counsel, warned them to stop talking about the resurrection and to stop talking about the name that they wouldn’t even say, Jesus. Then to make their point, the apostles were flogged, which meant basically they were beaten almost to death. Then, after being beaten and warned once more not to speak the name of Jesus, here’s what happened.

Acts 5:41-42
41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

To have suffered, to have given up something, to be disfigured because of the name of Jesus is the thing they were most proud of. Jesus gave His life for them, so they rejoiced at the opportunity to give up something so great for Him.

Unlike us today asking how can bad things happen to good people and where is God, they instead stepped out in an incredibly bold way to say, in spite of what you tell us, in spite of what you’ll do to us, we can’t and won’t stop talking about what we’ve seen—this is just too big! And we are following God’s command, not yours.

So as the weeks went on, the church continued to grow. It overflowed outside of Jerusalem into the surrounding areas and things got so big and a little complicated, that they began to develop some structure to the local church. Other leaders began to surface and take on responsibility, and one of those leaders was a man named Stephen.

Stephen was a man full of God’s grace and power, who performed amazing miracles among the people and spoke boldly about his faith. Some men from the synagogue couldn’t stand up to the wisdom and Spirit which Stephen spoke with, so they had him arrested. They paid people to lie about the things Stephen said, and when asked if these accusations were true, Stephen gives a long defense that takes up the whole 7th chapter. He takes his Jewish audience from the Old Testament (which they would have known well) all the way through to current times to prove that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. At the end of his message, the people were so stirred up that they drug him outside the city and stoned him to death. As he was dying, he said, “Jesus receive my spirit and don’t charge them with this sin.”

Stephen was the very first martyr. Once he was killed, and once there was no negative retaliation from the Romans, it empowered the enemies of the Church (starting with the Jewish leaders) to begin a widespread persecution of all those that were speaking in the name of Jesus and embracing Christianity. At this point in the story, Luke introduces us to a character that would begin to unknowingly help spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Acts 8:1-3
Saul was there giving approval of his (Stephen) death (Saul’s name was later changed to Paul). On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

This was a fulfillment of what Jesus said: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” Acts 1:8. Many of the new disciples, the new followers of Jesus, headed for the hills leaving Jerusalem because the persecution was so intense (but God uses everything).

2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

The reason he went from house to house is because that’s where the Christians met. Remember the was no church buildings yet. Saul became known as the number one person who could track down these Christians and was a major character in the persecution period. His goal and mission, thinking he was serving God, was to actually stomp out the entire Church and to put an end to this movement once and for all.

Luke tells us that for three years this went on unchecked. For three years, Saul continued to arrest Christians and put many of them to death. But while he persecuted the Church, the Church actually continued to spread (because God uses everything). Basically, he would kick over the anthill, and the ants would scatter. By persecuting the Church, he actually drove the message of Jesus out further into the countryside and well outside of Judea.

At the end of these three years of unchecked persecution of the Church, something incredible happened that changed everything for Saul and changed everything for the spread of the Gospel.

Acts 9:1-6
1 Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. 2 He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.

At this point in history, Christians were not called Christians. There wasn’t the church in terms of an establishment. Instead, the movement was called the Way.

One of the questions scholars and theologians have asked for years is why did they refer to it as the Way? The theory is when Jesus taught, He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” This was so central in the teaching of Jesus that when they were trying to find a name for this group of people, this movement, this thing that was exploding with energy and passion, they called it ‘The Way.’

So Saul asked the high priest to give him authority to go and continue arresting those who are a part of ‘The Way’ starting in Damascus. Of course, the priest liked this idea and therefore loved Saul. He was taking care of their biggest problem. So, he’s on his way to Damascus, he has the letters, he has permission to arrest any Christians he finds and drag them back to Jerusalem to be jailed. But something incredible happened….

3 As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”

Now, if the Church were the church like most of us think, this voice would have said, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting it?” It being the church, the institution, the building, those people, those pastors. But here the voice says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me,” which I’m sure Saul thought what do you mean me? I’m not persecuting a me, I’m persecuting an it, a thing, a movement. Now Saul doesn’t just see a vision. He actually sees the risen Christ as he explains in 1 Corinthians and Galatians. So he asks…

5 “Who are you, lord?” Saul asked. And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting!

Meaning because Jesus is already up in Heaven, what you do to His people, you do to Him. In the presence of His people is the same as His presence on earth. So you know what that means for us?

We, the church, are the representatives of Jesus on the earth, not individually because we’re not that good—but collectively as the body, the hands, feet, the mouthpiece of Jesus. And even in the first century, there was evidence that this movement, this group of people that was overflowing into the countryside, together, collectively represented the body of Jesus.

6 Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Saul gets up and realizes he can’t see. He was literally blind. So his companions, who also heard the voice, but saw no one, led him to Damascus. And for three days he sat in someone’s house without being able to see, and he began to pray. All of a sudden, his entire life, his worldview was turned completely inside out and upside down. Meanwhile…

Acts 9:10-11
10 Now there was a believer in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, calling, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord!” he replied.
11 The Lord said, “Go over to Straight Street, to the house of Judas. When you get there, ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying to me right now.

Ananias is thinking, I’m not so sure I want. So he pleads.
Acts 9:13-16
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem.” 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

Word travels fast. He got the word that Saul was on his way with letters of authority, and he’s coming to arrest people like me.

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

This is where we begin to see how the message of Jesus survived the first century.
First, this message of Good News was not just for the Jews. This was not something just for those who understood the Old Testament context and were looking for a Messiah. This was for the entire world. Gentiles are basically everyone who is not a Jew. And God chooses the most unlikely candidate in the first century to be the mouthpiece of the Gospel.

So Ananias reluctantly decides to do what God asked him to do, and goes and finds Saul. Can you imagine walking up to that house and standing outside thinking, this is the very man responsible for murdering people I know and love. This is the man responsible for arresting men and women, dragging them out of their house, taking them to Jerusalem, and we’ve never heard from them again. This is the number one enemy of the movement to which I have given my life.

Ananias knocks on the door, walks in, and there’s Saul sitting there blinded. Ananias lays his hands on Saul, and Luke tells us that something like scales fell off Saul’s eyes, and he was able to see again. Ananias explained to Saul that God has given him a unique privilege, a unique opportunity, a mission, and he will suffer greatly. Your mission is to take the message of Jesus to the entire known world.

Acts 9:19-22
19 Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues (that would be to the Jews) that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.

And then for the next 3 years, Saul essentially disappears. For the next 3 years, Saul took time to get his own education. He took time to study and spend personal time with God. Then, he spent time with Jesus’ followers. He tells us in the book of Galatians that he spent two weeks with Peter absorbing the teachings, life, and miracles of Jesus. He also says that he spent time with James, the brother of Jesus. We know that he went to Jerusalem on at least two occasions and was with the closest followers of Jesus there. He just absorbed all that he could about the life and teachings of Jesus.

After these years of preparation, he began what we call his missionary journeys. For the next ten years or so, he traveled in three big circles around what is today Turkey and Greece and planted churches. Everywhere he went, he started in the synagogue to try and convince as many Jews as he could first. Afterall, they were the ones waiting on a Messiah and should have been the easy ones to convert, the low hanging fruit. However, often they would thrown him out, and in some cases, beat, stone, even arrested him. He then would shake off the dust and go to the Gentiles in that area and say, I have some great news for you.

He did this in Corinth and Athens and Ephesus. He went to the major cities, and fearlessly and boldly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Eventually, he was arrested while he was in Jerusalem and was taken up to Caesarea (Ses-er-eia) and kept in jail there for two years. He told them he was a Roman citizen and that he wanted to be tried by Rome, so he appealed to the emperor, which lead to a long dangerous journey from Jerusalem all the way to Rome where he was under house arrest for two more years.

While he was under house arrest in Rome, he wrote to the churches that he had already established. Many of these letters today make up the bulk of the New Testament, like the letter to the church in Ephesus, that we know as the book of Ephesians, and the letter to the church in Philippi that we know as the book of Philippians.

Eventually, he was released, but then was re-arrested just a few short years later and spent about a year and a half once again in prison, this time in a real dungeon in Rome.

Nero was the Emperor at that time, and let’s just say he was not fond of Christianity. One day, probably in the early morning hours, Paul’s prison doors were opened, guards took him out silently, walked him outside the city, and very quickly Paul knew where they were headed because it was a part of the city where executions were often held. Without any formality, with no eyewitnesses, he was executed. Although his life ended, the impact of his life had really just begun.

Here’s the significance of all of that. Very bad things can happen to good people, and God is still God. Very unexplainable things can happen to people who are extraordinarily faithful, and God is not changed by that. This is all part of the story, and it has been part of the story from the very beginning.

But never throughout the book of Acts do we find Christians huddled together, afraid that God has lost control, or afraid that maybe God doesn’t love them anymore. What we find is a BOLD commitment to this life-changing message that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. It was boldness and courage that got Paul on a boat over and over again to visit many of the pagan cultures that were anti-everything he had to teach. But he consistently did it, and it’s one of the primary reasons you know about Jesus today.

In addition to being an example of a bold missionary, there was something else that Paul did that is extraordinarily important for you and for me.

Because the apostle Paul was a Roman citizen, he had access to things that even some of his brothers in Jerusalem did not have access to like an education. And because of his brilliance, he was able to teach from Christian Judaism to the Gentile world. The thing that God raised him up to do, was to help those who didn’t have an Old Testament background, who weren’t looking for a Messiah, to understand the essence of the Gospel.
In 1 Corinthians, he defines very clearly what the Gospel message is. This is a letter he wrote the church in Corinth during that time when he was traveling around planting churches.

1 Corinthians 15:1,3-6
1 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 3 For what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living though some have fallen asleep.

Now this document was written about twenty years after these events. And he says to the Christians in Corinth, I know it’s hard to believe and wrap your mind around that someone actually rose from the dead, but you need to know there were over 500 people at one time who saw the resurrected Jesus, and if you want to get yourself a boat ticket and go to Jerusalem, you can find most of those people still alive.

1 Corinthians 15:7-10
7 Then he (Jesus) 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 (like I’m not worthy of seeing Him). 9 For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church. 10 But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results. For I have worked harder than any of the other apostles; yet it was not I but God who was working through me by his grace.

Isn’t that powerful? He says to the Corinthians, I don’t know why God chose me to bring this message to you. Out of all the people that should have been chosen to make a difference and to plant these churches, these gatherings, I’m the last one He should have chosen. Yet by His grace, He chose me.

So he brings to everyone the bottom line, the thing you can’t ignore. This just couldn’t be any clearer. I feel like the apostle Paul is saying, I know you have a lot of questions, but here’s the part you just can’t ever lose sight of. It’s four simple statements. Verse 3.

Christ died for our sin, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared to many people. That’s it. That’s the Gospel. That’s the simple message we are to take to the world, and for most of us that starts right here where we live.

We have been given the way, the truth, and the life. And it’s been entrusted to us to NOT keep it to ourselves. There is great urgency with this mission. We don’t know when Jesus is coming back, and we don’t when our time or the one’s around us time is up.
The world is so desperate right now for something greater than themselves. Let’s take advantage of that open window. Studies show that 3 out of 4 unchurched people will be interested in coming to church. Only 1 out of 20 of the no’s will give you push back. So let’s not miss the boat. We have a very unique time in our lives right now to make a difference in people’s lives and in the Kingdom of God.

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