HEIRS OF THE KINGDOM (CHURCH EXPANSION): IV
The stoning of Stephen was a profound awakening for the disciples, who had settled in at Jerusalem to preach only to the Jews and not to the Gentiles. Two other men who were chosen with Stephen that would bring the Gospel to the Gentiles were Philip and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. There also was one more person, without whose advice and help the Jerusalem group may not have survived and the Gentiles would never have had Paul bring them the Gospel. Luke, who knew him personally, introduced him, “Thus Joseph who was surnamed by the apostles Barnabas (which means, Son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36). This man was a cousin of Saul, who became Paul. Joseph introduced Paul to the apostles and to Nicolaus of Antioch, to teach the people in Antioch. And the two, Paul and Barnabas, became the first commissioned missionaries. Now Philip had an extraordinary mission to perform.
When one does what is right, persecution was and still is a bad way to deal with its consequences. Yet, in the life of the early believers in Christ, and in particularly to the disciples, persecution reminded them that they had neglected the “Christ’s Command” to reach out to the world. They had convinced themselves that God would let nothing harmful happen to them. After all, the Lord had promised, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you” (Luke 10:19). The problem was that the disciples were not where they were supposed to have been! Where the Lord promised to protect the disciples was out among the nations. In order to move things ahead, and turn the earthly kingdom over to the Gentiles, as Jesus promised in the parable of the tenants, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it” (Matthew 21:42-43).
God’s intentions could not be stifled by Jewish nationalism, by racism, or even by their traditions. The disciples, like their predecessors under the Babylonians, did not let go of their old Davidic kingdom. Therefore, God used Nebuchadnezzar to break that relationship by persecution. This time, God used the very people for whom salvation was intended to persecute the disciples and scatter them among the nations. The Jewish religious leaders and the Herods drove the disciples out of Jerusalem into the world. And at the end, God had the Romans completely close down Judaea and Jerusalem. Therefore, God started a new mission field in Rome. God began the purging with Saul, whom the Lord converted into Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles.
And on that day (stoning Stephen) a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. But Saul laid waste the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison (Acts 8:1-3).
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. Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute 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.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank (Acts 9:1-9).
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that the might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to the saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared o you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized (Acts 9:10-19a).
For several days Saul was with the disciples at Damascus:
And in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed, and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called on this name? And he has come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests.” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night, to kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down over the wall, lowering him in a basket.
And when he had come to Jerusalem he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists; but they were seeking to kill him. And when the brethren knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him off to Tarsus.
And the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up and walking in the fear of the Lord in comfort of the Holy Spirit in was multiplied (Acts 9:19b-31).
While the disciples still were hesitating to leave Jerusalem, persecution did drive many of the new believers in Jesus out of Jerusalem, and they became witnesses to the nations. Philip, one of the seven disciples, like Stephen, became an evangelist in Samaria and to an Ethiopian Eunuch.
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and he signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.
But there was a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the nation of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all gave heed to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is that power of God which is called Great.” And they gave heed to him, because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip (Acts 8:4-13).
Philip’s proclamation of Jesus as the Christ attracted many of Samaritans. Jesus had promised his disciples that the Samaritans would produce a huge harvest when He would visit them in person (John 4:35). In Jesus’ instructions to go out into the world, Samaria was the second on the list (Acts 1:8). Philip was harvesting in abundance, and Jerusalem was anxious to capitalize on that harvest. The leaders sent Peter and John to assist Philip with some apostolic authority, which was more in line with the nature of Peter. This time, Peter did not cause Simon’s demise as he did with Ananias and Sapphira. Peter used the Holy Spirit as if the Holy Spirit was one of his tools and to his advantage. Right after the encounter with the magician, there were changes to the policy. The Holy Spirit, without Peter’s apostolic initiative, guided Philip. The endowing of “apostolicity,” in one person, did become a major issue in the Church; particularly, in the laying on of hands while passing on the Holy Spirit.
Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of your, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me” (Acts 8:14-25).
Philip barely finished with Samaria when an angel of the Lord dispatched him into the desert. Philip was sent to witness to a high Ethiopian official who did convert a whole people that lasted for over two thousand years. After he had baptized the Eunuch, Philip ended up in Caesarea where Cornelius resided. Cornelius was advised to invite Peter and have him explain the Gospel. Peter had to cross the barrier, which existed between Jews and Gentiles, and which no longer was a problem for Philip. This also explains why the Roman officer was familiar with godliness.
But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert road. And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus, and passing of he preached the gospel to all the towns till he came to Caesarea (Acts 8:26-40).
Peter became a traveling supervisor among the scattered flock. From Samaria, he went to Lydda and Joppa with much success. Thus far, Peter had only served the Jews and the proselytes. Peter’s stay in Joppa with Simon, the tanner, prepared him to reach out to the Gentiles. And Peter labored for the Gentiles’ independent rights to serve the Christ without Jewish interference.
Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints that lived at Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years and was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and they turned to the Lord.
Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas or Gazelle. She was full of good works and acts of charity. In those days she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him entreating him, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter rose and went with them. And when he had come, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing coats and garments which Dorcas made while she was with them. But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. And he gave her his hand and lifted her up. Then calling the saints and widows he presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner (Acts 9:32-43).
The healing of Aeneas and the return of Tabitha from Sheol ended Peter’s role as a healer and miracle worker. These miracles did bring in many who became Disciples of Christ. But, the miracles were not to be used as an outreach tool to convert sinners. It is not God who has to prove Himself to man! But, it is man who is accountable to God! Jesus, Himself, refused to use miracles as a sign that He was the One who would overcome man’s final enemy, death.
When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah. became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation. The queen of the south will rise arise at the judgment with the generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here (Luke 11:29-32).
As man perceives, death, to Jesus, was a state of sleep, and not the end of life. Sheol was not hell, or the final human destination, but Sheol is a place where the souls rest and awaits the call of the Son of Man in the “First Resurrection.” The voice of Jesus brought back Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:39-43), a widow’s son (Luke 7:11-15, and Lazarus (John 11:40-44). The Lord gave Peter permission to use “His name” to bring back Tabitha, but not beyond her:
Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son of man to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:25-29).
Peter was to learn to go on to his next mission in faith. However, there were no miracles and no more signs. Peter was to be surprised to find that people do believe because Jesus’ prayer is eternal:
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who are to believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:20-21).