Acts: The Birth and Growth of the Church
Open your Bibles, if you would, to the book of Acts. You may have never had a sermon on 28 verses, let alone 28 chapters. But today's the day. It's such a joy for me to preach an entire book in one sermon. With the idea that we need to preach, and learn, and understand, and hear from the whole counsel of God. So, knowing that that would never happen verse by verse, this series was born. And so, I've gone through all the books of the Old Testament, and now we're up to the book of Acts in the New Testament, and it's a fascinating book. If you've never read the whole thing, I would encourage you to even try and read the whole thing in one sitting. It is amazing. Acts is about the birth and growth of the church.
A man without a plan is just a man. A man with a good plan, though, can accomplish much. Man derailed the plan in the garden though. But God made a way. God promised love, God promised land, and God promised a king. God promised that God would be with us, Immanuel. And God gave us his Son, Jesus Christ. Our eternal Jesus was born, lived a perfect life, and gave the perfect solution to sin. Thereby grace was secured for all mankind. Death was defeated. It is the greatest story ever told. It is of course true and historical. Our faith is not just in some idea, it is in a Person. Now, after Jesus lived, the perfect life, died, was crucified on the cross, was buried, and rose again. He then appeared for 40 days, to hundreds of people. And at the time, many miraculous things were happening. And as we come to the book of Acts, what we find out is that the book of Acts, is the plan for today. It is what is going on in the world, from the church's perspective. And it was time for the next phase of the plan. And Luke, who wrote the book of Luke and Acts – there are two part one work, for his friend, Theophilus. He wrote this so that Theophilus would be sure of the things from which he had been taught. So, Luke gave us all that Jesus began to do and teach and Acts picks up with the Ascension of Jesus, takes us through the ministry of Peter, and through the ministry of Paul, and ends with Paul in prison with a bit of a surprise ending. That you'll have to wait about 50 to 60 minutes for.
Turn in your Bibles if you would to Acts chapter one, verse one, as we find out the plan of God for the church. I'll be reading out of the ESV. And if you need a Bible, there's one under a seat nearby. Acts 1:1, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Verse four [Acts 1:4-5], “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
The Holy Spirit is the plan. The Holy Spirit is going to be described. His ministry is going to be described, his acts are going to be described, and his work in the church is going to be described in an incredible way. And I think one thing just at the outset, as you think about acts, remember that when you observe something in Scripture, that doesn't mean that you are supposed to go and do it, or experience it. For instance, when Peter saw Jesus and he walked on water. I don't know how many of you have tried that, but it doesn't work very well. So, you need to know the difference between observing what Scripture is talking about and commands for you to apply those. And I'll try and be specific as we go through this today. But this is part of the plan up until this point in history, that has never happened before. At least not in this way. We saw the Holy Spirit influence people in the Old Testament and would even rush upon them and give them supernatural strength, give them direction, help them to have clarity, but would never indwell the people. That is happening here and now.
By chapter five, we have this new thing called, “the Church.” Before Jesus spoke of it, it was not mentioned in Scripture, you will not find the word “church” in your Old Testament, anywhere. And so Acts is a story about the birth of the church. And Jesus said, in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church.” That should give us great confidence as we consider what is going on in Grace Bible Church, in the world today, in other churches out there. That Jesus is actively fulfilling his promise to build his glorious Church. And we see this plan unfold in these 28 chapters. But there is, thankfully, another summary verse that will tell you just what is in these 28 chapters. And we don't have to wait till chapter five to find out. If you look in Acts 1:8, you'll see an outline for all of the book of Acts. In fact, for world history, until the end comes.
Let me read that for you, Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” That is an outline for the book of Acts. Chapters one through seven, as you see in your Bible journal there in the middle, where the chapter overview is, is the gospel going out to Jerusalem. Chapters eight through twelve is the gospel going out to Judea and Samaria. Chapters thirteen to twenty-eight is the gospel beginning to spread to the end of the earth. I just want to encourage you a little bit right at the outset, just want to summarize a theme throughout the book of Acts. Remember, God's plan cannot be thwarted. And we're going to talk about phase one here in chapters one through seven, where the Gospel goes out to Jerusalem. And no matter how intense the persecution is, the plan cannot be stopped. And I want us to think about that, as I preach an overview of this book this morning.
Acts 6:7 says, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem…” So, there's the first phase in Jerusalem, “and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Think of all your favorite preachers you like to take shots at that we know they're not saved. Look at this, and “the priests became obedient to the faith.” That's incredible.
Acts 9:31, in the second phase – going through Judea and Samaria, says, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” So you've got the church in Jerusalem, being built up and being multiplied. You’ve got the church in Judea and the Galilean area, you know, about 50 miles/ 60 miles north of Jerusalem (that’s where Jesus did most of his ministry). And the Samaritan area which is south. Those are the ones who intermarried with the Babylonians who came in and created a new religion even. It was going forth there.
Then you see in Acts 12:24, the word of God increasing and multiplying among Gentiles. And then Acts 16:5, you see, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.” And in Acts 19:20, “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” The word of the Lord prevailed mightily, over and over and over again. In the near surrounding area of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Galilee. And even as it spreads for thousands of miles, the word of the Lord continues to prevail. And just at the outset, I just want to ask you, do you see that happening today? Do you see the word of God prevailing mightily? Because it is prevailing, and it is going forth, and it is doing its work in this world, and you and I should want to be part of that. And what you're going to see here in Acts as this goes out to Jerusalem, we're going to talk about (you can turn back to chapter two), that we're going to see this mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon people.
No matter what happens, God's plan is going forward. And I want to just go through the first seven chapters a little bit with you and, and maybe pause a little bit in chapters eight to twelve. And then we're going to speed way up at the end, as we think about Paul's journeys. But Acts chapter two, beginning in verse one is a unique portion of Scripture. It signifies a change in God's plan for the earth. A predestined plan, a plan that was set forth before the foundation of the world. But this is the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2:1-4, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as a fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” This “other tongues” is glossolalia, it is a word for languages. As you read through this chapter, even those who think speaking in tongues is for today, those scholars even agree here in Acts chapter two, that this is indeed, people being able to speak in known languages. Parthians, Medes, Greeks – all of them hear the Word without interpretation in their own language. So, there is this amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
And you remember, on the night when Jesus was betrayed, what he told the disciples would happen, “It's to your benefit that I go away.” Why is that? “If I don't go away, the Holy Spirit will not come.” The Holy Spirit, who is the Comforter, the Helper. He is going to come and be with you, even be in you. Okay, so this is part of the plan, that Jesus sends forth the Holy Spirit. He comes in this miraculous way. And following up, you can make note of this in Acts. Following up, many of these significant events are significant sermons, which warms my heart. I love that Acts is just full of sermon after sermon after sermon.
So, let's see what Peter preaches on the Day of Pentecost. It's the most amazing thing that's ever happened in the life of the church. What is he going to say? What do you think he should say? What do you think he should say? Look in Acts 2:21, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That's a new idea for the Jewish person. Now, if they're familiar with Isaiah, they're in their mind, thinking that there's going to come a light unto the Gentiles. But in their culture it’s – you'll see later, even Peter will say, “It's not lawful for us to even spend time with other nations.” Like, where does he get that? Right? “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That is part of the plan. Your spouse who doesn't know Jesus, your children who don't know Jesus, your boss whom you think will never know Jesus. Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be, what? Saved! That is a truth that you and I trust in.
Acts 2:36, let's see what else Peter says, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Is Paul playing to the crowd here? Is he trying to butter them up? I mean, he's just reminding them, they crucified this innocent man who is Lord of all. He's the Messiah, that's Christ. He is the Lord; he is the ruler. He is the one that you need to submit to for salvation, and you just nailed him to a tree. Real preaching brings real truth, to bear on the lives of mankind. He is Lord and Christ. And that too, is part of the plan.
Acts 2:38, “And Peter said to them” after their cut to the heart with these things, and they're wondering, like, what should we do? He says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And you’re thinking, “Is he teaching that I have to be baptized to be saved? No, that's why it's, “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” You're going to receive this gift, you didn't earn it. It doesn't say, “and you shall earn the Holy Spirit.” And you are making all the right decisions and so God owes you this Holy Spirit. No. It's turn to Jesus, turn from your sin. Be baptized, those who have repented, and give a public display to everyone in Jerusalem that Jesus Christ is Lord. That takes a lot of courage. It takes a lot of courage to stand up for the name of Jesus, in our day and age, just like it did then. It's so easy to just back off and be peaceable and not challenge people who don't know Jesus. Not because you want to win an argument, we certainly don't want to be arrogant. We certainly don't want to think that we're smarter and that's why we know Jesus. We just want to share the gift of the Holy Spirit with everyone because Jesus might save them. Friends, you and I have the greatest message that mankind needs to hear. And we have the ability to speak it anytime we want. Yeah, you might be persecuted for it. Yeah, you might get in trouble for it. But you have the ability to give the words of life to anyone so that they might be saved. And I would think that we could look at Acts chapter two and Peter's sermon and see what are the components of a good message to a world that has rejected him. Right? They rejected him, they crucified him. Call on the name of the Lord. He is Lord and Christ. Repent and turn from your sins and be baptized. Peter is giving them the gospel. And all of that is a gift of God's grace.
So, what happened? Acts 2:41, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” That's a lot of people. If you've ever started a business, or run a business, or a small business even, and you’re thinking, “We've got all these sales and marketing schemes, and we're just trying to get new business and we want this to work.” And maybe you've been in a business where it actually worked. And then it works so well. You're like, “Oh no, we've got to like pull back the marketing a little bit.” And the marketing team is going, “This is awesome. Let's spend more money.” You know, it's like Amazon Prime is just going to be at your doorstep and UPS and got to get the product out. Imagine with a fledgling church, that could all fit in one room. They were all in the room, in the upper room, when the Holy Spirit was poured out. And now you've got 3,000 people to look after. What would you guys do if all the big churches from here to DC decided to come here? Yeah, get here early. How's making disciples going? The plan doesn't change based on the amount of people. Whether there's 15 or 15,000. It's the same plan. You shouldn't be thrown off when you go to a small church or a big church. Small churches aren't better than big churches and big churches aren't better than small churches. They're all churches for the glory of God. And they all should have the exact same plan: to make disciples of everyone. We're going to have a sign up for discipleship class after the sermon.
Did the church follow the plan? Acts 2:46-47, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” 3,000 was just the start. By the time we get to chapter six, you're going to know why they developed deacons, right? We need help. Why? Because they took God seriously. This is an amazing start to the church and it's just the beginning. Peter is used greatly by God in the life of the church. He goes around healing people, like chapter three, verse six, he continues to preach constantly like chapter three, verse nineteen. There's lots of preaching in the book of Acts. There's lots of miracles in the book of Acts. And this is a book that you and I should be really familiar with.
What is the response to Peters message? Look in Acts 3:19-20 and you'll see his message to the people. He continues to tell them to, “Repent… and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come…” Where does the refreshing come from? Where does that verse say? “…from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus.” I don't know where we're looking for refreshment today. But can I just tell you, it doesn't change. It always comes from Jesus Christ. In his presence there is fullness of joy. There is life everlasting. He's described as this fountain of grace. His love is described as unending and deep and wide. He has mercy on the saved and the unsaved. He gives his common grace to all people. He feeds billions of people every day. He is so gracious and so kind. And I just want to ask us, is that where we're looking for refreshment these days?
And then in Acts 4:4, his preaching continues to work because the Holy Spirit is moving through him. And it says, “But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.” Serious number of men are needed to help and women. You know, think about the trellis and the vine illustration. The trellis is the support system for grapes. They're all over the place here in Loudoun County. It's like Napa Valley, East Coast, right? When I got here 10 years ago, there were about 18 to 20 vineyards. Now, there's like 45, within a half an hour of here. And all the grapes, they don't grow well on the ground, they get moldy, animals eat them. So, they build fences around and they support them on the trellis. And if your trellis is built correctly, you're going to have the stability of the vine relying on the trellis. And so, there's this system that is going to need to be put in place very soon where the leaders need to continue to develop a trellis of gifted people who make disciples. So that the elders and the leaders are not just serving all the time, but they're paying attention to the preaching, the prayer, and the ministry of the Word. And you're going to see that soon.
We just, you know, take those verses out of chapter six and just think, “well, our pastor should be preaching and he should be praying,” but in reality it's because there's so many people who need to be shepherded. Acts 4:11, Peter continues to say that salvation comes through Jesus alone. “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you,” he keeps telling them over and over again, exactly what they've done, “rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” Right, the builders, you're supposed to know what's going on, but you rejected the best piece. [Acts 4:12] “And there is salvation and no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” We need to memorize that verse, Acts 4:12. We need to know it, it brings clarity for us for all other religions in the world. No other name. No, he's not called by another name in a different religion and it's the same god. It's a different false religion. There's only one Name. Peter is making that clear.
And then he preaches about preaching Christ under threat in Acts 4:19-20. Those have been very popular verses over the last three years, you know, with all of the government stuff going on. But it's not a new verse. And then he's preaching predestination that all men submit to. Listen to this in Acts 4:27. Look there, if you would, with me. And I know we're kind of going through the weeds, but you need to see that in order to grow the church, you don't change the message. And I want us to see this over and over and over again. He says in Acts 4:27, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate…” So he calls out the Roman powers with legions of soldiers, “along with the Gentiles,” and all the Israelites go, “that's right,” “and the peoples of Israel.” And all the Gentiles go, “yep them too.” [Acts 4:28] “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
That will challenge your theology. [Acts 4:29] “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” God, predestined events to take place that even unbelievers submitted to. That is a powerful God. There is much more to understand. And there are many unprecedented things that happen in Acts. One such thing, which shows a great understanding of the Holy Spirit, is in Acts 5:1-11. And this is a scary passage, in a sense. The people were selling properties and selling things and giving lots of money to the church and they were distributing that money to the poor among them. Jerusalem is not a wealthy place at this point. And so, this couple, Ananias and Sapphira, they sell some land and one of them comes in and says, “Look, here's all the money for our land,” and they forgot about the Holy Spirit knowing all things. And that the Holy Spirit can work through the Holy Spirit's servant to know things that normal people couldn't know. And they thought that their secret of making it look like they gave generously to the church, but really were stingy and kept back a lot of it for themselves. They wanted the pat on the back and the pride of, “look how generous we are.” But, you know, Peter here miraculously knew the books. And he said, “You've not only lied to the Holy Spirit, you've lied to God.” And now you're going to die. Whoa! Whoa! That's significant. Jesus takes lying seriously. Jesus takes giving and generosity seriously. And the early church, after this point, had no question about it. No question. We don't see this happen ever again.
And you just wonder, is this going to kill the church? I mean, they just took two people out for lying. That's some church discipline, right. I mean, that's significant. But things do begin to get dangerous and not just for the church fakers. But for Peter and the apostles. And this too, is part of God's plan, and we need to understand this. They get thrown in jail, they get beaten. And when we say beaten, you know, you and I just think of like, you know, getting beat up as a little kid. No, think of like a six foot eight 285-pound soldier, punching you in the face, holding a sword. That's beaten. And then they get busted out of jail by an angel, and they rejoice because they were counted worthy of suffering. I think having the mindset of Peter and later of Paul is significant for us. How can we endure those things? I mean, I get crushed when I get accused of something that somebody else thinks I did, but I don't think I did. And normally they're right that I did that, but I don't think so. So, I'm going to be like discouraged, all evening. Because somebody just accuses me of something. Or because things aren't going the way I like. Or because we can't take the vacation we want or because we can't do this or that, you know, all the first world problems that we have. And here are these men, they're seeing thousands come to faith and yet they're getting persecuted. They're getting literally beaten up for the cause of Christ. And they endure, and not only that, they rejoice.
Friend, if you want to learn how to get through trials, get to know Peter. Not only was he the “foot-in-mouth machine,” he was the man who after the Ascension of Jesus Christ took on the world. And then all the leaders, Acts 5:25, they're like, you know what we read this morning, “Look, the men whom you put in prison,” they're probably blue and bloody, “they're standing in the temple and teaching the people.” They didn't take a sabbatical. They didn't take a vacation. And they didn't see their chiropractor for six weeks before they came back to work. They went right back to it. That is the power of Jesus Christ working in the lives of his people. It’s the same Jesus Christ you and I serve.
At this point, you can see the scenario of why we get to chapter six. There's, I'll describe it for you, there's two factions of widows who are arguing over the daily distribution of food. And this is a situation that takes great care, right, because a whole group of ladies are arguing with a whole other group of ladies. And so, the men/ the leaders say, “Well, somebody else should handle it.” Right? “And so, we should not give up preaching and teaching for the ministry of serving,” they said, and so they find seven men full of the Holy Spirit. And if you'll read Acts chapter seven, Steven basically is so full of the Holy Spirit and such an amazing teacher, he recounts the entire history of Israel in chapter seven, right. Summarizes it as he's about to get stoned to death. But this is what we will call the prototype for deacons. Diakonos, to serve, choose out seven servants.
And these men will pay the price. They are not the leaders of the church. They're the ones who serve the people so the leaders can continue the work of the ministry that they're called to. That's what Ephesians chapter four says, “equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” The leaders equip the saints, in this case, recognized deacons to do the work. It's not just any work. It's work that alleviates the burden off of the elders specifically, that is what deacons do. Everybody fellowships, everybody serves one another. That's just what we do in the body of Christ. But these are chosen to do that.
And then in chapter seven, Stephen gives this amazing account of Israel and how Jesus got to be here and their gnashing their teeth at him. And by the end of chapter seven, verse 58, it says this [Acts 7:58], “Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.” That's Stephen, you know, thanks for picking me to be a deacon. “And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Now why did they have to do that? They were about to get bloody. [Acts 7:59] “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” Does that sound familiar? And then in verse 60, he says something else really familiar. [Acts 7:60] “And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” He died. As he's dying, he's saying, “Lord God, forgive these people.” Who else said that? Jesus on the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This was a godly man, a godly man. As godly as we see in Scripture.
These stories, though, aren't just random. And they're not just about the spread of the gospel in Jerusalem. That's phase one. They're part of God's plan. And Saul was there watching the whole thing. But persecution is how the Word spread, persecution and preaching. And hopefully you don't feel like the preaching is persecution, but it’s persecution and preaching. Let me ask you, friends, how are we doing at sharing the gospel in our area? How are we doing at reaching people for Jesus Christ? Wherever you live. Recently, Matt and I made this map. He got all the addresses of everyone from the church and plotted them out on a map. So, I could see, where exactly does everyone live? It's fascinating. I love that, I love maps and geography and all that kind of stuff. And we have some people right in Purcellville, some people in Hamilton, a couple in Round Hill. And most of the people are within 30 minutes of this location. Half of the people are towards Leesburg, and south. And we have people coming from an hour south of us, and some people from 45 minutes north and west of us, and some even from an hour away. How's our Jerusalem doing hearing about Grace Bible Church and the Jesus we serve? Right, because we want to share with them, no matter if 45 minutes or an hour is too far away from them. We still share Jesus with them. When you're on vacation, you still share Jesus with people, no matter where you are. We just keep sharing Jesus. And I just want to encourage you that no matter what is going on in the world, that we need to have the courage to spread the Gospel throughout all of our cities. Starting with right here, in our area, where we live.
Phase two then, is the gospel going out to Judea and Samaria. That's chapters eight through twelve. Look in Acts 8:1. You wonder, like, how's this going to happen? “And Saul approved of his execution [i.e., of Stephens execution]. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church,” I thought we were already in a persecution. They're beating people, putting them in jail, and they just put somebody to death. So, the great persecution has to be greater than that. And a great persecution rose “against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” The apostles were like, we're not going anywhere. Remember, they were running scared before Jesus was on the cross. And now, no matter what, they're holding fast and standing firm. Acts 8:3, “But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
We understand through other verses, in Acts, that Saul would actually kill people, because they follow Jesus. Saul wasn't just against the church, he was violently against the church. And what I love about Saul, who as you know becomes Paul, is the fact that God took the worst, and made him the greatest vessel for his glory. I mean, you and I, we look at each other, and we go, “how in the world could God use someone like me?” Right, “I've done this, and this and this.” And you know, five days later, we're still going, “and this and this, and this, and this.” And we’ve just done all these things that we're so ashamed of. And yet, here's Paul, who is going into people's houses, dragging out mom, and shoving her to the Roman soldiers. Dragging out dad and shoving to the Roman soldiers. The kids either go to prison with them, or they go off to somebody else's place, and they're slaves. That's who God chose to write 13 books in the New Testament. Saul was worse than you and me. He calls himself the greatest of sinners. We could lodge many complaints against Saul, but passivity was not one of them.
Now, notice this great persecution was scattering people. It scattered them all throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. So that's why we say the gospel spread in chapters eight through twelve to those regions, persecution spread people. And look in Acts 8:4, what did they do as they went? Acts 8:4, “Now those who were scattered went about what preaching the word.” And you thought preaching was just for preachers. Everyone who was scattered, was declaring the Lordship and the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ, they were declaring the grace of God, they were declaring salvation in the name of Jesus as they went. As they're running for their lives, they're continuing to share the thing that made them run for their lives. You can just see, like little torches, lighting up new believers in every city as they go all over the place. The land that was dark now has a little spark here, and a little spark here, and a little spark there. And the light gets brighter, and brighter, and brighter. When you live for Jesus, it's clear that now you can become a target as well. But persecution doesn't snuff out the light of the gospel. The light overcomes the darkness.
Chapter nine is significant. I know you're watching you're watch like, “we’re only on chapter nine and we’re 40 minutes in.” Don't worry, told you we’ll speed up. Saul becomes Paul. Notice when Jesus gets ahold of him. If you have a problem with thinking through just how sinful you are and notice when God gets a hold of Saul. Acts 9:1-2, “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” So now he's chasing them. He's going after them. We thought we'd be safe if we fled the city. But in Acts 9:4-6, “And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”
He's blinded by this. He hears a voice from heaven, legitimately, and God chooses Saul to share the gospel. Normally, you want to, if you think about hiring, you want to pick the guy with the good resume. You know, he's gone to the schools you like, he's got something to show for himself. Paul's resume was: “Yep, I murdered them. And I chased them. And I'm pretty much evil head to toe.” Jesus says, “You're the man. I am going to use you in a way that will change the world.” Look in Acts 9:15-16, “But the Lord said to him [i.e. the prophet that Jesus sent to go open the eyes of Saul; notice he couldn't do it himself], ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
That's normally not a job description you get excited about. You're going to go before the Gentiles and Jews who've been arguing for thousands of years. The kings who've taken over all of those arguing people. And you're going to suffer greatly, just for me. I'm your new boss. And maybe you're thinking, “Well, I can relate to that.” But he's going to suffer for Jesus for the rest of his life, sharing his name, and that was part of God's plan. Saul receives the Holy Spirit. He is baptized, and his message and his life are changed. He no longer persecutes Christ, he preaches Christ. He no longer persecutes the Way, he tells people, “Jesus is the Way.” In Acts 9:22, “But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.”
Is it okay if God changes our plans? He was on the way to Damascus chasing Christians. And now he's in Damascus preaching Christ. And they're kind of like, “This guy is either just totally messed up mentally, or something's happened to him. Something has changed him.” And this is what we see in people who come to know Jesus truly, they are changed. They are not the same. Acts 9:31, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” Church, we can learn much about ourselves here. It would seem like the church should be weak. It should seem like the church should be intimidated. But they had peace and they were growing. Why? Acts 9:31 tells us, they walked in the fear of the Lord. They walked in the fear of the Lord. We shouldn't go through our whole lives wondering, what does it really mean to walk in the fear of the Lord? This is what it means: you trust him above all else. When they needed comfort, they didn't take a vacation, they found it in the Holy Spirit.
They walked in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. What did Jesus say, what title did he give the Holy Spirit in John? The Comforter. And now we see that plan coming to pass under incredible circumstances. Our comfort and peace must be in the Lord. Church, how are we doing? Are we reaching our Judea and Samaria because people see us and they see the comfort of Christ? They see the fear of the Lord in us, they see us living differently. They see us having life maybe even out of control, but somehow soothed by the Holy Spirit, somehow rising above the circumstances. And maybe that's you, maybe you have been able to rise above the circumstances. And if that is you, then Jesus is on your lips, and we need to comfort our other brothers and sisters who are going through it. We have people in great trials, and they need to know that not just somebody loves them, they need to know you love them. They need to know that you and I will walk through them with their trials. That when trials hit, and they spin out of control, and they don't know which end is up you, you pick them up. You walk arm and arm with them, for the glory of Christ. And you see this, the church was doing this. Acts 9:31, the church had peace, the church was being built up. Not just Peter or Paul or the apostles, but the whole church. There are so many people who need to hear about Jesus in our area, as in any area of the world. But you and I are the plan.
So, what happened, that made the gospel spread beyond 100 miles? You might think, “Well, it's probably more persecution.” Well, that was in full swing. Saul, now Paul, had murder threats. The same thing he was doing is now coming against him. And we see in chapters 10 through 12, that God convinces Peter – the mouthpiece of the apostles, the leader of the apostles – that the gospel is also for the Gentiles. And so, it's spreading to the Gentiles. But what makes it spread beyond 100 miles? Acts 13 tells us. And this is the beginning of phase three, where the Gospel begins to spread to the end of the earth. [Acts 13:1-3] “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the Tetrarch [the guy who helped crucify Jesus], and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
See, the Holy Spirit is actively engaged in sending people out to do his work. That's what we see. That is what caused the church to spread from where they were to other areas and other regions. And we need to be willing to think through how we're reaching not only this area, or the half mile around our own house. But how, collectively, are we walking in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Spirit, so much so that we are spreading the gospel everywhere? And this doesn't mean just pick up a foreign missionary. Notice they didn't do that. They were sending their best guy to leave them and to go elsewhere. Well, so far, we see this amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And as we get into this last phase here. Just in summary, the Holy Spirit has come to dwell on earth. That's Chapter 2, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is given to the Samaritans in chapter 8. And we see the Holy Spirit given to the Gentiles in chapter 10. And we see this work happening and going out. And Barnabas and Paul in their journeys, they go all over the place.
And in chapter 15, some people are debating and demanding that these new Christians become Jews. You know, it's not just you need Jesus, you need to be like me, and you need to follow all the laws we follow. That's the whole debate going on in chapter 15. “And after,” it says in Acts 15:7-9, “after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.”
The distinctions that the world wants you to see our external, but the distinctions that Peter and Paul and the council want us to see, that God makes important, is the heart. The distinction that we should be concerned with is the heart of mankind. Not where they live, not what kind of foods they like, not what kind of clothes they wear, not what they look like. But what is their heart like? Have they been forgiven of their sins? That's the question. And if so, we have fellowship with them. The apostles, the leaders of the church, the Gentiles who got saved, they made a decision here, that the Gentiles did not have to become Jews, and follow the Mosaic Law to be saved. Look in Acts 15:10, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples,” that's this keeping the law of circumcision, “that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” How are people saved? The grace of Jesus Christ. That's what we need to keep central. As we make disciples, are we sharing the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, with all people?
Well, now's the time when we're going to speed up a little bit. You can smile, it's all right. It's been a lot. The Jews and the Gentiles are saved the same way. And now the rest of the book, which is actually a lot of the book, it’s like almost half of the book, chapters 16 through 28. We see all kinds of conversions, and miracles, and just this preaching, and focusing on Jesus, and raising money for the poor that needs to go to Jerusalem. And Paul is like, he's traveling everywhere. By chapter 16, you're familiar with the story of Lydia. That's in Lystra, about 750 miles northeast. Do you know where you'd land 750 miles northeast of here? I don't know either. But this is the kind of gospel spread we're talking about.
You see, we're challenged to reach Purcellville or Leesburg or wherever or Loudoun County or.... We've got people from three states coming here, right. We're challenged to reach them. 750 miles away! That's where Paul ends up just a couple chapters later and people are getting saved. And he's also beaten and put in prison. Then in chapter 17, you have Silas with Paul. You find Paul in Athens, Greece, that's about 1,800 miles away by land. It's about two thirds of the way across the US. Without a plane, without an air-conditioned car. I mean, that's commitment. And then Paul goes to Corinth. Then he goes to Antioch. There's two Antioch’s by the way, one just north and then one over towards Turkey. And then he goes to Ephesus, and there's riots everywhere. And then there's Paul in Macedonia and Greece again in chapter 20. And Paul gives his farewell to the Ephesian elders. And this is the Ephesian church, if you look up ancient Ephesus on Google Maps, you can zoom in and see where it was. It's right on the coast. And it's about 1,100 miles by land.1,100 miles! And Paul is there and he's preaching for about two years. Acts 19:10, “so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”
And this is kind of the height of his ministry. In Acts 19:11, “And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul,” the Scripture says, “so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” Remember, when I said, you're not supposed to try everything you observe? Right, you know, back in the 70s, and the 80s, and just touch the screen. Remember all those televangelists. And you can order a handkerchief of healing. I think you can still do that, if you want to. These are not things that are prescriptive for us, they're descriptive. They're describing what God is doing through the work of Paul in his life. During this time, there were many, many plots to kill Paul. And many of them came from Jerusalem. And a prophet even stands up in Acts 21 – as we get to the end here and bring this all home – and there's a prophet who says, “you're going to be bound,” and they know that means eventual death.
And in Acts 21:12-14, “When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.” “We don't want you to go over 1,000 miles home, we want you to stay here and be safe, where we are.” Then Paul answered in verse 13 [Acts 21:13-14], “‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, ‘Let the will of the Lord be done.’” That's where it comes to a head. In our lives, are we saying, “Let the will of the Lord be done?” Traveling, it’s bumpy roads, it's not smooth. If you even have bad shocks, it was a better ride than what Paul had. Right? All over the place. We never hear him complain. Wow, that was really far. Let me take three weeks off when I get there. We don't hear that. Why? Because he is determined to preach Christ. So, after all of his trials, after his beatings, after his imprisonment, after the death threats, he wants to go back into the lion’s den. He wants to go back to Jerusalem, and he's going to hop on a boat, which is about 600 miles from Ephesus, sailing north and back East.
But isn't that part of God's plan? He was a chosen instrument. When did Paul become a chosen instrument of God? Practically, it was when he was saved, right? He was predestined. When did you become a chosen instrument of God? When you got saved. That's when the new plan kicked in. That's why when we ask people who are joining the church, “Tell me your testimony, tell me how you've been changed by the grace of God.” Hopefully you haven't gone around murdering Christians all over the world. But if you did, we would hope you'd be changed by Jesus Christ. Hopefully your life now doesn't look anything like your life before. And we rejoice in that. You don't dwell on the past. We rejoice in the change that God brings about in our lives. Have we not been set apart for the work of the gospel? Everyone, when they were scattered? Was it just Philip and the disciples who were going around preaching or was it everyone? That's the plan, to go and make disciples of all nations.
Paul ends up going through a life threatening storm. So, he's in Jerusalem, he gets captured, he gets taken by the Romans. And then he appeals to Caesar. And then he's got to go back to Rome. He just came 600 nautical miles back to Jerusalem, to share the gospel. He shares the gospel and says Gentiles all over the world are being saved. And then he gets arrested, beaten, and now he's got to go back to Rome, via ship. Rome is 1,600 miles by boat. On his way there, shipwreck, as you know. And just when he thinks his life has been saved, he's on the island of Malta. And what happens after he gets on the island? You guys know. He gets bitten by a snake! “I just got my life saved. I just swam to shore. And as I'm warming myself by the fire, now I get bitten by a snake.” I mean, we would be huddled in the corner at this point in Paul's life, begging God for mercy.
“But you will go before kings and speak my name.” And that's what he was going to do. And so, at this point in his life, we see in Acts 28:30-31. This is Paul in prison in Rome. What's his mindset? “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles…” And they will what? “they will listen,” Acts 28:28. The Gentiles will listen. That's the plan. And you think, “Well, people don't listen.” But you're here, aren't you? You're here, aren't you? You're fighting for your faith, aren't you? You're saying, “God, I'm not doing well sometimes. But I'm still here.” God is not done with us yet. And there are more people who will listen.
Acts 28:30, “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Without what? Did we not just read Acts? Teaching without hindrance, he was bound, but his mouth was free. Friends, you might have some circumstances that make it difficult but our mouths are free. How are we doing, church? How are we doing reaching the ends of the earth?
I pray that Acts is a bold encouragement to you and your faith. I pray that it inspires you and your family to pursue Jesus. And when you hit the pothole and when life gives you something unexpected, rejoice. Listen, nothing can stop a faithful believer. Nothing! All you and I are called to do is to be faithful to God and let him take care of the rest. Let's pray.
Lord, we know nothing will stop your church. Lord, we pray that you would make us bold, like Peter, and bold, like Paul. We pray that you would make us bold like the disciples, after the resurrection. We pray that you would give us great courage, Lord God. That we would speak your name. That we would not hide but that we would let our light shine brightly for your glory.
Lord, I pray that if there's someone here that doesn't know you that they would, today, turn from their sin and receive the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. That you may change them, even right now where they sit. Lord God, we thank you for the great privilege it is to know you.
Now friends, let's just pray and ask God right now to help us to have courage to make disciples of all nations.
Lord, we pray that the lost may be saved. And the saved may be bold, for your glory. Amen.
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