As a church community we have a real interest in the country of Bosnia Herzegovina. This week we have spent some time together praying for this country. Thanking God for the peoples, for the peace after times of war, and for God's light and life to be seen and known in that country.
A video some of us watched together. Here with Spanish subtitles.
A summary of our time in God's Word last Sunday:
In Acts chapter 6v8 through into chapter 7 we read all about Stephen, who became the first Christian to die for his faith.
Of course this is a very sad event, and many followers of Jesus are still killed because of their faith around the world today. As the young church grew and opposition to it also grew, the issues came to a head with what happened to Stephen.
We was not a violent man. He did no harm to anyone. What angered the authorities so much that they would kill him? We find the answer in the long speech Stephen gave in chapter 7. And it is long. Really long!
But, he isn't just stalling for time! He appears to be wasting a lot of time going through all the history of Israel, but actually, but actually there is one big issue behind it.
The question behind it all is this: Where is God?
The thing that angered the Jewish leaders so much was that their authority and the temple as the centre of life and worship, was under threat. Unauthorised teachers gathering people outside of the temple, and bringing all this talk about the name of Jesus and his power. It was unacceptable to them.
For them, the TEMPLE was where it was at. This was everything to them. God would not be doing something like this. So Stephen's point is... really? Let's think about that.
Basically he is saying this: As we go through our history, where did God show up to meet with this people? Go through Stephen's speech here, and note as you read of the likes of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, the mention of all the different places.
What we see is God engaging with his people many places. In Mesopotamia (Iraq), Haran (Syria), Egypt, Sinai and all around the Sinai Desert (Saudi Arabia and Jordan) as well as Jerusalem.
God was showing up all over the place, and meeting with his people. That's why Stephen then quotes Psalm 110 to say - God has never ever been contained by buildings or specific times and places. He chose particular places and times for certain seasons, but things changed over the centuries as his revelation unfolded.
So, then he challenges them. And they don't like it.
'Why', he wants to know, 'do you always oppose what God is doing? Whenever he sends prophets you dismiss them and attack them. And you're doing it again'.
And it is at this point they can bear it no longer, drag him outside and stone him to death. Tragic waste of a young talented life.
But what do we make of it? What would you die for? And was a bright young man like Stephen really prepared to die for an argument over which building to meet in to worship?
Well of course it was far more than that. The issue that was SO important to him that he would die was the key principle that God, in Christ, is IN us as his people, WITH us, dwelling with us as his people wherever we are, whatever nationality we are. The Spirit poured out on all flesh (as Peter quoted the prophet Joel in Acts 2 at Pentecost).
We come to our God as we are now, through what Jesus has done. We no longer need all the processes and ceremonies of the High Priest and the temple sacrifices. It is done. People are every place may come to the Lord and find life. The Spirit on all flesh.
The fact that we meet on the other side of the world - beyond the ends of the world as far as they knew in that day... the fact we meet and can worship the Lord together... the fact that we can know his presence and power and forgiveness, thousands of miles away and thousands of years later, is what Stephen was prepared to die for.
Immanuel. God with us.
The new church community, in the book of Acts, was having an impact on many lives. But just as Jesus could not go too far before there was opposition, so it was with his followers as they lived and taught in his name.
Writers like David Gooding and John Stott have observed the way that after the initial explosion of activity, Acts chapters 4, 5 and 6 bring an onslaught of opposition in a variety of forms.
On Sunday we thought about the three key ways it was experienced and we looked at the young church's responses to them.
In broad terms, in these chapters, we see this:
chapter 4: Persecution
chapter 5: Corruption
chapter 6: Distraction
It came from outside. The leaders were arrested, they were told to be silent, not to speak in 'this name' (the name of Jesus was seen as a real threat), they were flogged and generally clamped down on. This was intimidation and pressure from the authorities - persecution from outside of the new community.
THEIR RESPONSE? PRAY FOR BOLDNESS
To gather and pray. And not simply saying 'please God make it stop', but for boldness to stand and continue. What a lesson - they expected the opposition. Their response was to pray for courage to continue.
The second challenge came from inside the community. Ananias and Sapphira, claiming to be followers of Christ, and seeing the way people like Barnabas (end of chapter 4) had sold a field in order to give the money to others in need, decided they wanted the applause without the sacrifice. So they sold a field, and pretended to give all the money while only giving part. As Peter pointed out, they were free to do with their field and the money as they liked. But they lied - to the people and to the Holy Spirit. And dramatically, judgment came as they fell down dead.
And we read this and think - really? Why so serious? We feel a bit uncomfortable. Plenty of other things go unpunished (at least in terms of the immediate - judgement will still come). But this was the early days and while there has been corruption within church institutions over years, the church at this time was only beginning. If a people pleasing, hypocritical, deceptive culture had taken root at this time, the whole thing may have crashed and burned. The very existence of the church was threatened.
RESPONSE? FEAR OF THE LORD
ch5v11 says great fear came on the entire church. In the bible, fear of the Lord is a big theme. Not just knee knocking fear, but awe and respect and reverence. It is the counter to 'fear of man' - people pleasing.
Some infighting had broken out around the question of whether there was discrimination going on in terms of caring for the widows. Possibly there was. It needed dealing with. But the apostles saw another concern. They did not want to get tied up and lose their focus, which can so easily happen - even with good, needed, legitimate things.
RESPONSE? BE CLEAR ABOUT PRIORITIES/ROLES.
The apostles appointed a team to deal with it. They recognised the importance of the issue, but made sure that the focus of the leadership could remain as prayer, and ministry of the word.
For all three, the ultimate guiding principle was that Jesus Christ is God and Lord over all, and what he wants matters most.
What he wants matters most. His name. His fame. His ways. His kingdom.
Being clear on that will prepare and arm us for whatever challenges may come our way.
At the beginning of the book of Acts we realised the big question to have in our minds, is 'What is Jesus doing and teaching?'. The gospel of Luke was about what he BEGAN to do and teach. Acts (Luke Part 2) is about what he CONTINUES to do and teach.
In chapter 3 we see Jesus, through his followers, DOING and TEACHING, as first a miracle is performed and a message is preached.
There is a pattern, often, of people seeing something, and then opening themselves to understand the message behind what they have just seen - a sign. Here it was a miracle. It might still be. This was a miracle where a man who had NEVER walked, was fully healed such that he was walking and leaping, and not surprisingly, praising God. It was absolutely amazing. We pray God would intervene in miraculous ways today too. Other pointers may be the love that Jesus' followers have for one another, or for those around them. It could be the way we serve or help others. It is often the impact of a changed life! But people SEE something and respond, wanting to know what this is all about.
This is surely part of what Jesus meant when he taught in Matthew 5, that his followers should let their good deeds shine before people so that they will praise the Heavenly Father. And these things are not to bring glory to us - they are to point to Jesus Christ. Hence Peter effectively says to the people 'why are you looking at me? I didn't do this!' It was the name of Jesus.
As people see the evidence of Jesus work in the man's life, Peter explains what is going on.
His key points?
- Who Jesus is: the one who lived, died and rose; the holy righteous one; the author of life! Big claims!
- How history points to him: and he trails through the way that Abraham (Genesis 12), Moses (Deuteronomy 18) and in fact, all the prophets from Samuel onwards, all spoke about what was happening.
- What they must do: Repent of sins and turn to God
- What will happen: Times of refreshing (in advance of the eventual restoration of all things) and the amazing fact that God will bless them by turning them back from their sinful ways.
What a great thing that God will do - bless us by turning us away from what would ruin our lives, and the lives of those around us. And turn us back to him, wiping our sins away.
Urban Life communities - followers of Jesus living life and bringing life in an urban setting!
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