Paying close attention.
Last time we saw that Stephen had a message for the Sanhedrin who in turn paid close attention to every word that he spoke. From their point of view it was in order that they might discover words of error and then to try him for heresy. That required their full attention but we also discovered that God had a much higher purpose. The word preached by Stephen would accomplish exactly what God had intended that it should. We therefore concluded that the Sanhedrin heard and rejected the word, Stephen preached the word and was martyred because of the gospel and Saul was being irresistibly drawn by God to Himself!
That is the power and effect of good clear gospel presentation.
We will not be too surprised to find that the gospel continued to have a great effect and that people from all walks of life were paying special attention to what might happen next. I remember a number of years ago being part of a church where there was great blessing especially from the preached word. As a church we were looking forward to Sundays because we knew that God would speak to us and challenge us greatly. I remember reading the passage in advance and trying to pre-empt what emphasis the preacher would bring to us. When Sunday came it was as if the whole congregation held onto every word and savoured the content. When God is at work then people cannot help but to pay attention, even if at times their motives are wrong.
From the passage that we have read we see that there were 2 ways in which special attention was afforded to the church.
1. The authorities paid special attention to the church.
2. Onlookers paid special attention to Philip.
1) The authorities paid special attention to the church:
We are reminded that Saul was present at the murder of Stephen; it seems to be that he was both in charge and fully in approval of proceedings. He meant ill towards the church and seemed to be winning the day. Stephen had died, the enemy of the church seemed to have gained the upper hand and so they used their authority to deal yet another blow to the church. Luke simply records that great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem and that this caused all but the apostles to be scattered far and wide throughout Judea and Samaria. Whilst all of this was happening Godly men were paying special attention to the memory of Stephen. They firstly buried him and they also mourned for him. Stephen’s death did not simply pass by as just another event in the growth of the church; it was not something that was simply to be expected. The church had lost a great man who served them with wisdom, care and compassion. The church had lost one of its best and most respected leaders. Therefore they paid special attention to do the right thing even though they were under the cosh at the time.
On this occasion it seems that the Apostles were not the centre of attention. It was the members of the church that were under attack. The authorities had not been able to demoralise the church by attacking the leaders alone. They had dealt a severe blow by killing Stephen and straight away they deal a body blow. They hit the body of the church in order to take the wind out of them. They persecute them greatly! We can only imagine what that might mean. For a people who could mercilessly stone an innocent man to death anything is possible. We do not need to be fanciful but we do know how a totally depraved crowd could quickly sink to the depths of evil!
Derren Brown programme where the audience were allowed to make decisions for a victim. They had 2 choices to make for each of a series of situations the man would find himself in. One choice was to do the man good and the other was to do him harm. The audience were all wearing masks to make themselves of equal standing and anonymous. The first choice was really nothing but a bit of fun, a trick or a treat. The majority went for the trick and so the man suffered some indignity. The events worsened and by the end almost all were in favour of the man being harmed until it showed the man in trying to escape being knocked down by a car and possibly having died. The object was to prove that man will always, as a pack seeks to do harm to innocent victims. It worked perfectly!
In a similar way the authorities persecuted the church, seeking to do them harm but Saul began to pay extra special attention to the church. He went about his business of destroying the church, banging on doors and dragging out believers, he did not care about gender both men and women were imprisoned by Saul. The church was being paid special attention and it was not pleasant.
Wherever God blesses the church there will always be opposition. We recently passed by Tintern abbey and wondered at the magnificence of the building and how that so many years ago they were able to build such lasting structures. But of course Tintern Abbey is derelict now because it had been destroyed by Oliver Cromwell. Many see this as pure vandalism and a blot in our history but we need to have a true perspective of events at the time. The people who were in charge of such places were just like the authorities that we are considering; they were severely persecuting the believers. They were destroying the true church and Cromwell was fighting against their persecutions. He destroyed their buildings in order to stop their destroying God’s people. I know which I prefer to be preserved.
When the church receives special attention from the authorities then generally difficulties are just around the corner.
The result was that the church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. The aim of the authorities was that the ever growing church be displaced and made impotent?
2) Onlookers paid special attention to Philip:
Philip is another of the men along with Stephen who had been chosen by the church to care for the widows. Now he is the subject of special attention, this time from the crowd. We remember the command of the Lord Jesus to the church: His disciples are to go out into the entire world and preach the gospel, beginning in Jerusalem and from there to go into all of Judea and then Samaria and then to the whole world. It is amazing to think that all of Jerusalem so quickly had heard the gospel and that now the authorities that are causing the church to fulfil the commands of the Lord, they are actually assisting the spread of the gospel rather than preventing it! Persecution is aiding the spread of the gospel because rather than making the believers afraid to preach, it empowered them to preach the Good News wherever they were. Luke chooses Philip as an example as to what was generally happening. Philip had gone to a city in Samaria where the Spirit of God worked mightily through him. We are rightly cautious as to how we portray what happened in this un-named city because so much is made of the miraculous today. We will return to this next time but it is right to say that what happened in Samaria at that time was a one off event that brought the gospel to Samaritans and many were converted and filled with the Spirit of God. God authenticated this new work of His Spirit by signs and wonders. The crowd paid close attention to Philip and evil spirits and sicknesses were dealt with. That unsurprisingly brought great joy to the city. It is how this came about that is of vital importance for us today, the crowd saw the miracles and were enthralled but we must notice that the miracles came after the preaching of Christ! Philip proclaimed Christ and God blessed the people. Verse 12 tells us that many believed and were converted.
If we pre-empt next week’s passage a little we find that a number of Samaritan’s believed when Philip preached and then they committed themselves to the faith. Many were baptised in obedience to the word of God. These were not just a set of numbers recorded in some church growth survey; they were real people with real issues that had been affected by the preaching of the gospel. The miraculous signs, healings etc. were an integral part of the events of that day but we must always recognise that they were secondary next to the greater miracle of people being saved by God’s good grace. Many today look for the secondary’s and are not too interested in the primary function of gospel witness which is the salvation of repentant sinners. I would like to add that the reason we do not see the signs and wonders as the early church did on this occasion is simply that we are now in very different times. As I have said before and as is clear from the passage before us; the signs were present to prove that this truly was a work of God’s grace in a time of great confusion. The gospel was going beyond the borders of Israel. The great question in the mind of the Jews was “is this allowable by God’s perspective?” God’s purpose was always to extend the borders of grace and so He proved to the people that this was His work. We are under no such confusion, we know that the gospel is for all people of all nations and so we do not need authentication but we desperately need the application of the preached word into hearts and lives. Our prayer should be the blessing of salvation in lives rather than the healing of a body that will die one day and if its owner is never converted will go to hell.
In a way we are like the early church each week, we are scattered all across our area with the gospel of grace in our hearts but it needs to be on our lips because it is by the preaching of the gospel that our contacts will be saved if God so pleases. How can they be saved unless they hear? The challenge for us today is to be like Philip and all of the scattered believers and to take Jesus to those who we are in contact with. Then perhaps there might be some who pay close attention to what we say and bring great joy into the church here at Ogmore-by-Sea.