Prison and Persecution: The Gospel Goes On

persecution

When Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, it’s hard to imagine that they knew what challenges waited for them. Very shortly after the ascension of Jesus, the church was persecuted and scattered. Christians were literally meeting in a cave in Antioch of Syria (which ended up becoming the sending church for Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys).

Peter clearly had in mind preaching to Jewish people. But that idea got flipped on its head when God sent him to Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile. When more persecution came, James the brother of John was killed with the sword. This alone would have been a devastating blow to the disciples, because James was one of the “inner circle” during Jesus’ ministry.

As if James’ death wasn’t bad enough, Peter was imprisoned. “He (Herod) killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:2, 3 ESV). We don’t know why Herod kept Peter alive and not James, but clearly Herod was most likely going to put on a show for the Jewish people before killing Peter. Luke records a miraculous escape for Peter, then Peter appears to a group of people praying at Mark’s mother’s house. He told them to “tell these things to James and the brothers,” then he left and went somewhere else.

Peter did not shrink back. Neither did the other disciples. They boldly preached the word of God, because Jesus told them that they would be his witnesses. This is an amazing example of the boldness that we need to have today. The Gospel will go on, but we need to be willing to step up and share it.

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It’s Time To Be Jesus’ Witnesses in the World

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There are a lot of really sobering discussions on where the direction of the church is headed. I’ve quoted Thom Rainer a few times recently because I think he really has a good grasp of trends in the church. Mr. Rainer hosted a podcast today called “Five Reasons Why the Speed of Change Must Accelerate in Your Church in the Post-Quarantine Era.” It was spot-on. The problems that the church is seeing at unprecedented rates have been festering just beneath the surface for a long time.

Church apathy, sliding attendance, tensions within leadership–these have all been warning signs that things were reaching a tipping point. When COVID hit, it accelerated these problems at a very high rate. Rainer argues that COVID didn’t cause the problems, but accelerated them. So to counter these problems, leadership needs to accelerate change. The days of “easy conversions,” he argues, are over. Instead of merely inviting people in, he says that churches need to be very intentional about reaching the lost.

This is an “Acts 1:8” moment, he says. Acts 1 is the ascension narrative. Jesus was giving final instructions to his disciples. Acts 1:8 says, “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.” Not long after that, the Christians faced persecution and were scattered. The disciples had to move out of Jerusalem and had to be very intentional about reaching people and being witnesses to those who had never heard the gospel.

The face of the church is changing rapidly. The question is, are we keeping up?

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Fishers of Men

Fisher of men

The calling of the first disciples in Luke is an incredible story. After struggling to catch any fish all day, Peter and his companions went ashore. Jesus had been teaching large crowds of people and got into Peter’s boat. Jesus told him to put out a little and Jesus continued teaching the crowds from the boat. When he was done speaking, he told Peter to put out into the deep of the lake and let his nets down for a catch.

Peter explained that they had worked all day and caught nothing but, because Jesus said to, he would lower the nets. When they did so, the nets filled with so many fish that they began to break. After signaling to the other boat, they filled both boats so full of fish that they began to break. Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged him to leave because Peter was a sinful man.

Luke records that “he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon” (Luke 5:9, 10 ESV). Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10). When they came ashore, Peter and his friends left everything to follow Jesus.

Our current events are putting a major strain on churches. Many are wondering how they can help. The church will continue on. It always has. But we each need to be doing our part to give of our time and money to make a difference in the world. Like Jesus’ disciples, we need to trust Jesus. We need to trust that he will provide plenty of people for the kingdom. But we need to work. We cannot blindly expect the church to flourish if we are not willing to follow Christ.

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What Caused Church Growth In the New Testament?

Together

What caused the church to grow so rapidly that, by 110 A.D. Pliny the Younger was writing a letter to Emperor Trajan about his concern for the “problem” of Christians? By then, most of the pagan temples had been deserted. This was in spite of strong Roman policies that were designed to squelch the spread of Christianity. It really confused Pliny, and he was requesting help from the emperor himself.

Business marketers, believe it or not, use biblical concepts to rapidly grow an sustain businesses. Think, for a moment, what it is that draws you to a particular brand or store. There is one theme that marketers begin with–commonality. A good business will find something that customers will share commonality with, something that fulfills a need or brings a sense of satisfaction. In Acts, Luke said that the believers had everything in common (Acts 4:32). Finding common ground is unifying. It’s what draws us to other people and can be a great source of finding hope.

It wasn’t commonality by itself that caused the church to grow. Of course, everything Christians did was rooted in the cross of Jesus. They proclaimed Christ, fed the poor, took care of orphans and widows, and freed the oppressed. This was their common ground in Christ. Luke said, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32 ESV). The word for common actually means defiled. In other words, everything to them was stripped of its spiritual value and material possessions were just that–they were meaningless material possessions. Therefore, they could freely share them with others because there was no attachment to things.

Pagan people were drawn to Christ because Christians knew what they stood for. They had zero attachment to physical things and, in fact, shared their money with others to help them out. Christians spent their time preaching Christ, calling people to repentance, and offering hope to people who were desperate. They did it with kindness and humility, emptying themselves of pride. They pointed people to the cross of Jesus. This was attractive to some unbelievers, and through the Holy Spirit the church began to see a major increase.

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New Year, New Decade, New Theme!

With a host of New Year’s resolutions stacking up for 2020, we mark both the turn of a new year and the turn of a new decade. Each year we begin a new theme for the sermon series. Since we are embarking on a new decade, it seemed fitting to follow the theme of “Revival!”

Revival is needed in every aspect of life because we have a tendency to stagnate. Marriages stagnate. Churches stagnate. Jobs stagnate. Life stagnates. Revival allows us to turn the page and bring about renewal. Psalm 85:6 says, “Will you not revive us again, that you people may rejoice in you?”

God is a God of revival. He revives that which was once lost and dead. He renews and restores. And God rescues and redeems. He revived Israel when he rescued her from Egypt, made a covenant with her, and promised to bring her into the promised land. Jesus revived the sick, lame, and dead. He restored their health and reunited them with their families.

Revival runs strong throughout the entire Bible, because that’s who God is. 2019 brought on many challenges to our congregation. We have faced poverty, death, and much sickness. We have endured and persevered. But now it is time for revival!

If you are tired, come for revival! If you are sick, come for revival! If you are grieving, come for revival! If you have left the church for an extended time, come back for revival! The church functions best when the body of believers joins together in perfect harmony. We’re excited to see where God is taking us and we long for you to be part of the journey!

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Enduring Hardships Together

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When Paul was on his very first missionary journey, he endured incredible challenges. It is not surprising, because the Lord told Ananias that he would show Paul how much he would suffer for his name. And suffer Paul did. From the very first step he took on the mission trail, Paul experienced opposition.

When Paul and Barnabas came into Lystra, Paul was stoned and left for dead. Luke records that “when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe” (Acts 14:20 ESV). When they had gone on to Derbe, they circled back and entered Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

In the midst of hardships, Paul and his companions were strengthening the church, encouraging people to remain faithful, and were appointing elders in every church. This is such an example of what the church could and should be doing! Most people shut down when they are discouraged. It is normal to feel defeated. But what happens when we share our pain and suffering and use that to the glory of God? Luke records that, in those same churches, “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5). God will bless the church when we lean into him and endure hardships together!

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The Miracle of Togetherness

Friends in tree

What if we really applied the simplicity of the gospel to our lives? Go, make disciples (followers), baptize them, and teach them to do what Jesus commands. We overlook the simplicity of the first century church. Paul and his companions planted churches. A lot of them. Oftentimes they were in a town for 2-4 weeks before being driven out by angry mobs. Imagine. You have 2 weeks to establish a church and give them the tools that they need to launch and succeed. What do you teach them in 2 weeks? Unless the message and training are painfully simple, the church is doomed from its very inception. If we look at the message in its purity, here’s what we find: Stop worshiping idols, worship God and Jesus, repent from your sins, be kind to and love one another, bless others, repeat. Togetherness. Driven by one purpose.

The new Christians didn’t worry about where they would meet. Any place would make due. Literally. They met in homes, in chariots, on the edge of the lake, in synagogues, and in fields. In fact, remember how people were called Christians first at Antioch (Acts 11:26)? The church met in Antioch because of the persecution led, ironically, by Paul. It’s incredible that the very church that sent Paul and Barnabas off on their missionary journeys was the same church that fled Paul’s crusade to persecute Christians. And where did they meet? Below are pictures of their meeting place. The Antioch church that began because of persecution met in . . . . a cave! This is the very spot where those souls sang songs, prayed over, and sent off Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Luke, Mark, and the like! The facade was built later, but it’s believed that the chair and pulpit are original to the church. Imagine, Paul and Barnabas gave their reports from their missionary journeys at that very pulpit!
St. Peter's church

Chair

Pulpit

See, the Christians made due. They didn’t need a whole lot. Just devoted people, a place to gather, and belief. The rest is, as they say, history! In Acts 15, Christians were sent from this very cave down to Jerusalem to resolve a conflict. Jewish believers were telling non-Jewish Christians that, unless they were circumcised, they were going to hell. Paul, Barnabas, and “some others” were sent by the church in Antioch to go to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders. “And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). Look again at that cave. Simple. Powerful. Effective. After meeting in Jerusalem, they brought a letter back up to this church in Antioch. It reads in its entirety,

“The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to your with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:22-29 ESV).

Brand new churches. Made up of pagans who had no Christian background. They were not given any further burden than to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from anything that was strangled (that still had blood in it), and from sexual immorality. And the church grew exponentially!

Many people are shifting back to simple church. The good news is that it’s working. Churches that practice simplicity and who are focused on mission are growing leaps and bounds faster than all of the best staffed churches who are program-heavy. There’s a miracle that accompanies togetherness and simplicity!