Sunday’s Sermon: How God Advances and Builds His Kingdom

6 Feb

Acts 8:1-8
How God Advances and Builds His Kingdom

February 5, 2012

We live in the age of Wal-Mart. Buy up huge inventory, sell it cheap, get into as many places as you can, crush the competition and rise to the top. It works well in a capitalistic country like ours. Unfortunately, many people in our day are applying Wal-Mart principles to the church. We are seeing in our day all sorts of talk of church growth and this strategy and that strategy and much of what the church does in our day has more to do with imitating Wal-Mart than with following Jesus. It’s a hard trap to avoid. Great numbers call out to us. The outward appearance of the ministries we see on TV tempt us to think that because it is big, it must be right. But when we look at the 8th chapter of Acts, we see a very different reality. Yes God advances and builds His kingdom, but He does it in two deeply counter-cultural ways.

I.    God Advances His Kingdom Through PERSECUTION  (8:1-3).
1 And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
 2  Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3  But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

The early Church Father Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” and in Acts chapter 8, his words prove true. The blood of Stephen, whose death had been approved by Saul, had scarce dried up on the ground before the crowd which had put him to death turned upon the church in Jerusalem at large, to persecute them. Up until now in the book of Acts all the ministry has taken place in Jerusalem. The church was a mix of Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews who had put their trust in Jesus as Messiah. But in Acts 1:8, Jesus had told His disciples, “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 ends of the earth.” The early church had certainly experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and they were witnessing in Jerusalem, but they had not yet ventured outside the city to make Jesus known.
So it is no accident that Luke tells us that the church in Jerusalem was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. God used this persecution to move forward His plan for the Church.
I wonder if the greatest thing that holds us back as Christians is not the schemes of the devil or outright sin, but simply a desire for comfort?
Wilbur Reese wrote a poem many years ago that always convicts me when I hear it.

“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want the warmth of the womb not a new birth.
I want about a pound of the eternal in a paper sack.
I’d like to buy $3 worth of God, please.”

Jesus warned us in the parable of the four soils, that some fall away during persecution because they have no root. But in our country, I think our danger is to be like the third soil, of which Jesus said in Mark 4:19, “the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things enter in and choke the word and it proves unfruitful.” Is it possible that you have come to church for decades and not grown an inch spiritually, not because all your pastors were dolts, or the other members were so bad, but because you’ve had an idolatrous heart set on comfort rather than conformity to the image of Christ?
In America, I think prosperity has been far more devastating to the church than persecution. When we face persecution, we tend to get up in arms, like something unusual is happening to us. But Jesus told us to expect persecution, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” “Don’t be surprised when the world hates you.” But when we enjoy prosperity, what do we say? “Oh, the Lord is really blessing me!” And we don’t realize that for some of us, the very last thing our souls need is more money or a nicer car or a vacation home. The Lord Jesus tells us to be very wary of wealth. He tells us its hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom. But He tells us to rejoice when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. So we’ve got it exactly backwards.  God advances His kingdom through persecution and hardship and suffering and He doesn’t need your money to do it. The greatest works of God in the world this morning are probably not happening in the shiny multimillion dollar churches. Most of the great work of God in this world is probably taking place in simple places among simple people who are sold out in their devotion to God. Somewhere, a house church huddles together in China, and God is there. Somewhere in the desert of a Muslim land, a little pocket of Christians meet, and God meets with them. We’ve got it exactly wrong. We’ve got to stop seeing with worldly eyes and begin to see things from a God-centered view.
Living faithfully when we are being blessed makes very little difference to others. Our testimony does not shine when everything is going great. Anybody can be loving toward others when everything is going well for them. But when the diagnosis comes, when the loss happens, when I am dismissed for believing God, when I hold to biblical truth even when it hurts, when I don’t walk in step with the world because I walk with God, then my life begins to make a difference. When the church faces persecution it is then that God often really works. Have you ever tried to stamp out a fire? The harder you jump on it, the more you stir it up, the fire gets scattered and the fire spreads. That’s what happened when the church was persecuted in Acts and that’s what will happen with us when we face persecution.

But while God advances His kingdom through persecution,
II.    God Builds His Kingdom Through PREACHING and POWERFUL Works    (8:4-8).
 4  Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.  5  Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.
 6  And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7  For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8  So there was much joy in that city.
Now I love verse 4. Those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Who were those who were scattered? Not the apostles, they were back in Jerusalem. No, these were the everyday church members, the believers who had been in Jerusalem. When they were scattered, they went out preaching the word. Now this is exciting for a couple of reasons. First, they didn’t let persecution get them down. And you’ve got to remember, this persecution was not a little slap on the wrist. Livelihoods were being lost, homes were being left, in some cases families were probably being separated. So they were enduring all that, yet they weren’t turning bitter. So many people in our culture ignore God for twenty years and then when one little bad thing happens to them they shake their fist at God and scream “why?” But these people, they’re losing everything, and their response: to preach the Word.
The second thing that excites me is that this preaching was coming from everyday Christians and not from the apostles. It’s good to have elders in the church who labor in teaching and preaching. This is exactly what the New Testament teaches. But it is also good to have members of the church who are going out and making Jesus known. There is no special degree that is needed to go tell people about Jesus. No special wisdom. Just a love for God and a love for people and an understanding of what God has done for us in Christ. You can share the gospel with your child. You can share the gospel with your sick relative. You can share the gospel with that person who comes to your door. You can share the gospel with that neighbor or co-worker. You don’t need to call in a pastor to be the designated gospel sharer.   But the only way you’ll share the gospel the way the church in Acts did is if your heart is overflowing with love for God because of who He is and all He’s done for you. So, far from taking up another program or coming up with another idea to get Christians to evangelize, we need to focus instead on cultivating a life with God that is so focused on His glory and goodness that we just live there. And out of the overflow of that life we share with others. We become like the apostles we saw earlier in the book of Acts, who said, “We can’t help but testify to what we have seen and heard.” We can get so caught up in the busyness of our own lives or the activities of church life that we forget the fundamental things, like sharing the gospel and reading the Word and praying and walking with other believers through life, and leading our children to walk with God. We are intentionally a church without a truckload of ministries and activities because we believe your primary calling is to be a witness to your family, friends and to all those in your life. We support missions because we want to support the gospel going into the world, and we provide small groups through Sunday School and Men’s and Ladies’ groups to help us help each other to grow, but other than that, we want to keep our activities at church lean. There’s nothing wrong with class parties or picnics or other things, but we want to avoid the kind of church culture where you’re in the church building four or five nights a week. You need to preach and model the gospel for your family and you need to reach out to your friends. So let’s reach out. If you’re saved, you can do it. God will give you what you need. God builds His kingdom this way.
And let’s remember the example of Philip and reach out to all peoples. Philip went to the Samaritans, a people the Jews hated. But Philip, who had lived as a Jew before trusting in Jesus, now went to them with the Gospel. Why? Because the Gospel breaks down barriers. The gospel is the great lifter and the great leveler.

There is no place for racism in the church of Jesus Christ. No one should look down on another because they are white or black or Hispanic or Asian.
There is no place for sexism in the church. While there are biblical distinctions in roles for men and women in the church and home, women haven’t received less of the gospel, they are on equal footing in every way with men and should enjoy the blessings of spiritual life fully. And men, church is not something for the women, as if the hunting club or the lodge is for you and the church is for them. That’s a lie.
There is no place for economic barriers in the church. Those with less should not be looked down on by those with more. Those with more should not be regarded with suspicion. What joy it brings to me to see how the gospel can free us from all of these prejudices.
Finally, though sometimes faithfulness to the gospel brings persecution to us, ultimately the gospel is good news that brings great joy. Did you notice verse 8? “So there was much joy in that city.” God was doing mighty works as the Word was preached. I have said on several occasions that I believe the outpouring of miracles in the book of Acts is something that mostly has to do with the original establishment of the church and the unfolding of God’s plan for human history, so that we should probably not expect a similar outpouring in our day. But with that being the case, I don’t want to be heard saying that the consistent preaching of the gospel does nothing. I believe real preaching of the gospel when heard carefully and applied, as the Samaritans did, does bring real results. That’s really important. You can’t put it all on the preacher. People have to have ears to hear. So if people you share with don’t want to hear, don’t be discouraged, keep going until you find listening ears. A gospel preached faithfully and heeded will result in the salvation of souls, the maturing of lives, the restoration of relationships and sometimes amazing answers to prayer.
As the angel said at the birth of Jesus, the gospel is “good news of great joy for all the people.”
So today, I pray that if you’ve been seeing upside down, looking at persecution as a curse and comfort as a goal, I pray you would change your perspective. If you’ve been seeing the gospel as an obligation for gaining eternal life and not as a gift that brings joy, I pray your heart would change. God builds and advances His kingdom through hardship of persecution and the faithful preaching of His Word and this is what it means to be missional, to be  on mission with God.

One Response to “Sunday’s Sermon: How God Advances and Builds His Kingdom”

  1. Lynn D February 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    Thank you for posting. I was in the nursery yesterday.

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