This past week we’ve been at Christian camp and one of the stories I taught was the story of Stephen. I don’t think I’ve ever preached on Stephen because it’s not really a story that gets nearly enough attention. It’s really incredible, though, that Stephen was chosen in the distribution of food because he was full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. His tenure did not last long at all. It turns out that Stephen could not keep silent about his God. He wanted everyone to know how amazing God is and he was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
It didn’t take long for false witnesses to arise and accuse Stephen of some very ungodly things. Stephen was arrested and he used this opportunity to preach about Jesus Christ. When Stephen accused them of resisting the Holy Spirit, they had had enough. The crowd ground their teeth at him. Stephen looked up to heaven and said, “Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56 ESV). At this, they stopped their ears, rushed him, and began stoning Stephen, laying their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
When Stephen fell to his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (vs. 60). After he said this, Stephen fell asleep and died. Stephen’s faithfulness to the end and his plea for God to forgive these men of murder had to have had a major impact on Saul (later named Paul). It may not have moved Saul in the moment, but later when Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, he most likely would have been haunted by Stephen’s last words. This story shows us the importance of being faithful to the end and treating people with mercy. This one act of grace that Stephen had for Paul and the others would be a catalyst that sparked one of the most influential evangelists in the history of Christianity. We’ll rarely know what influence we’ll have on others by being faithful to God.
There’s no question that the entire structure of the church is changing rapidly. For the first time ever, US church membership fell below the majority. This is incredibly significant. It’s impossible to overstate how rapidly church membership is in a freefall. We’re in a similar situation that an airplane pilot would be in if the plane was in freefall. There is no time to look back and assess what went wrong. In the moment, it’s the pilot’s job to fix the free fall and avoid a crash.
Jesus gave a glaring example of this when he told his disciples the cost of following him. Jesus told a man to follow him. He replied, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (Luke 9:59 ESV). Another said he was going to say farewell to those at his home. Jesus responded by saying, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (vs. 62). In other words, the mission is too important to take care of other matters first. This is not only a lesson on the cost of following Jesus, but is also about priorities. When other things become more important, the church falls apart.
Immediately after this, Jesus sent out the seventy-two, two by two, into every town and place where he was about to go. Jesus was preparing for his ministry by equipping others to go before him. His words are important: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2). The same is true today. We are in desperate need of laborers. More specifically, the church is in need of laborers who refuse to look back. If we are going to expand the kingdom, we have to be willing to follow Jesus now. We need to prioritize him above everything else in our lives. And we need to keep our eyes on the goal.
Last week we talked about how Paul, a former persecutor and enemy of Christianity, was given God’s grace and revelation to preach to the Gentiles. Paul went to great lengths to describe the mystery of the gospel that was revealed to him by the power of God. But before Paul mentioned the need for unity and the equipping of saints for works of ministry, he had one more focus: a prayer for the Ephesians to have spiritual strength.
Paul bowed his knees before the Father and prayed, “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. . . ” (Ephesians 3:16, 17 ESV). This was incredibly important in Ephesus, especially, because there was already animosity between the pagans and Gentile Christians. In order for Christianity to survive, the Christians had to be bold.
The Christians in Ephesus were first generation Christians, which means they couldn’t rely on the faith of their parents and grandparents. Their strength had to come from God, and God alone. Paul’s prayer apparently helped to strengthen the Christians, because we know from history that the church in Ephesus was extremely significant. In 431 A.D. there was a major convention of Christian leaders, known as the Council of Ephesus. We still are reading about the church there, 2,000 years after the fact.
We, too, can be a significant congregation if we rely on the power and strength of the Lord!
Our theme this year is equipping the saints for works of ministry. The text comes from chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. But there is a lot of context leading up to the passage on unity that comes through equipping of the saints. In chapter 3, Paul said that “the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly” (Ephesians 3:3 ESV). Paul told them that the mystery wasn’t even made known to the sons of men in generations past, but was only made known to the prophets and holy apostles by the Spirit. The mystery, Paul concludes, is “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (vs. 6).
Paul goes on: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (vs. 8). It’s important to note that Paul didn’t feel like he was the very least of every Christian. He actually was. We know this from the blunt, matter-of-fact statement he made. The word he used only appears once in all of the Bible. It literally means “less than the least.” Paul wasn’t using hyperbole. He actually killed Christians. He was full of venom and zeal. Paul singlehandedly wrecked families for the rest of their earthly existence. And God used him.
Paul is clear that God’s grace is the only reason he was chosen to be a mouthpiece to spread the gospel. Paul, writing from prison, is equipping the Ephesians to be equippers. If he, the least of the least, can do it, so can the “upper” saints! The mystery of the gospel binds everyone together as heirs of the kingdom of God! If God can use Paul to reach a massive group of Gentiles, he can use you too! God’s power is made perfect in weakness!
Words really matter. They have the power to both tear down or build up. They can encourage or discourage. Just as important, how we speak to and about outsiders matters. People will never want to be part of a community that talks down to them. I often wonder how appealing Christianity is to outsiders, based on what they hear us say about them. Peter tells his readers to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16 ESV).
Words are as important as actions. In fact, they are inseparable throughout the Bible. Both our words and actions are meaningful. How we respond to people will influence the way they view both us and God. As believers, we are representatives of Christ and his body. Are we attracting people to Him or are we turning them away?
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech be seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5-6). There is a lot packed into these two verses. First, our time is not really ours. It belongs to God. We are to use it wisely. Second, wisdom is essential. We need to “walk in wisdom” toward outsiders. That requires dedication to prayer and a whole lot of patience. Finally, our speech is to be seasoned with salt so that we know how to answer people.
So many people rely on their own ability, knowledge, or people skills. But this is not what Paul appeals to. Instead, he’s urging them to tap into God’s wisdom, the Holy Spirit, and to choose their words wisely. How we speak to the unchurched really, really matters.
When Paul was in Troas, he received the famous Macedonian call. Doors were being shut everywhere he and his companions travelled. The Spirit prevented them from preaching in Asia. They covered a lot of ground without preaching. When they attempted to go to Bithynia, the Spirit of Jesus prevented them from going. So they continued on to Troas, where Paul saw a vision: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us'” (Acts 16:9 ESV).
Luke says that they immediately sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that God had called them to preach. Little did they know what trouble was waiting for them. When they went to Philippi, Paul and Silas were whipped and imprisoned. After their release, they were ordered to leave the city. They came to a leading city in Macedonia called Thessalonica. This was a major port city and a Roman capital of a section of Macedonia. Paul was only there for three weeks until a mob was formed and he was forced out.
This is important because Thessalonica not only became a major center of Christianity, but they became the leading evangelistic center. When Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonian church, he said that the church became an example in all of Macedonia and Achaia. And it didn’t stop there. Paul went on: “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.” (1 Thessalonians 1:8).
Paul is clear that the gospel was sowed in much affliction in Thessalonica. But God allowed those seeds to grow. And Jesus Christ became known throughout most of the word. Three weeks. A determined Paul chose to listen to the call and refused to give up. He could have easily kept quiet in Thessalonica. But instead he faithfully trusted God and he preached. The Spirit moved hearts. The new Christians were moved to tell others. And very soon they were telling others. And on the Gospel went!
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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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