This is a major turning point in the book of Acts and really in church history. Jesus commissioned the disciples to go into all the world, from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts... And through Acts 7 they have confined their witness to Jerusalem only. And the Church is exploding there. The Holy Spirit is powerfully moving to save people. But their mission is global in scope.
2 Observations here:
1. God Advances His Mission through His Invisible Hand of Providence
So God uses the stoning of Stephen, sanctioned by Saul, to catalyze a much larger persecution against the Church in Jerusalem. God uses the Jews violent opposition to the gospel message and the gospel people to advance gospel purposes. It's this persecution against Christians that sends them into the surrounding region.
I'll just say this by way of observation, though the text doesn't eplicitly say this... that we tend to lose urgency and focus in comfort. When things are going well, we tend not to want to rock the boat or change anything. We are risk averse in this way. And the Lord in his determination to accomplish his own purposes has to bring pain and discomfort into our lives in order to get us to move. It would be far better to urgently pursue God's mission under the best of circumstances, but the best of circumstances deaden our senses.
C.S. Lewis said, "Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." It's persecution that moves the Church to fulfill their divine commission more faithfully.
2. God Advances His Mission through the Witness of His Ordinary People
Followers of Jesus are scattered around the Mediterranean world by this violent opposition. They are sent all over the place fleeing persecution. And with them the gospel advances into these regions as we will see. But notice the end of v. 2... "except for the apostles." The apostles remain in Jerusalem. It is ordinary Christians; not leaders of great stature and training; not impressive and notable men and women; it is just people who have believed in Christ, repented of sin, and are glorifying God through lives that are being transformed by the gospel. And they are the ambassadors God sends into the unreached world to declare and display the good news of Jesus.
Philip, another non-apostle, preaches faithfully and boldly, and the Spirit performed signs and wonders through him, and a whole city was rejoicing because Jesus had visited them. Brothers and sisters, that's our gospel ambition... to so powerfully and pervasively represent Christ that a whole city rejoices that we are here, because our being here is as if God himself is here. That's what it means to be Christ's body... to collectively embody the presence and power of the kingdom of God in our own communities.
There is a lot going on here, that's worthy of deeper study. But for our devotional pruposes here, I want to just scratch the surface on a few things rather than go deep on everything.
1. People have a deep spiritual hunger
Simon has made a big splash in Samaria with his magic become a sort of celebrity. But those same people sensed the spiritual power in Philip and they embraced him too. As much as our own culture and age idolizes education and science and knowledge, there remains a fascination with, belief in, and curiosity about spiritual things. Just think about the books and films and tv shows that fill the entertainment landscape. We are obsessed with spiritual things.
2. The Gospel is the deepest spiritual power
Just the gospel faithfully preached by Philip was enough to distract from the spiritual forces that captivated them previously. Even the one thought to have the power of God, who in fact claimed the power of God, was persuaded by the power of the gospel.
3. The Apostles maintained oversight of the church's expansion and leadership
When they heard of the work of God in Samaria, Peter and John were dispatched to go and confirm what had happened and to strengthen the ministry there. This is one place that indicates an outpouring of the Spirit as a second work of grace, distinct from the work of salvation. Pentacostals and most charismatics are distinguished by their belief in a "baptism of the Spirit" as a second work of grace that is necessary for every individual after salvation, for them to actually live with any spiritual power. Their belief genuinely espouses that the required sign of such a baptism is confirmed by speaking in tongues.
This is a go to text for them. I can't give a full treatment of the differing persepctive here, but I would point out that this is the only place in the whole book of Acts where people were said to have believed in Jesus, been water baptized, and did NOT receive the Holy Spirit. There are lots of different interpretations and speculations about this, but I would caution us against building doctrines and denominations out of isolated instances described in Scripture. The first rule of interpreting Scripture, is we use Scripture to interpret Scripture wherever possible, and there is a lot not said here that cannot be be reliably interpeted and univarsally applied through anecdotes. For a fuller treatment of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, and this passage in particular, click here.
4. Genuine Faith and Counterfeit Faith
Simon believed the gospel we're told, along with many of the Samaritans. But his faith was certainly misguided at some level, as if it was a means of personal gain. Certainly there is a kind of faith some people come to that is really a desire for an easier or better life in some way. It's not an embracing of Jesus as the greatest treasure, and the only atonement for me as a guilty sinner. It's the embracing of some self-ideal, that he is the surest route to the me I always wanted and the life I always wanted. Simon's request to commercialize the power of the Holy Spirit reveals the motives of his heart... it's easy to see how he would want to monetize such power for personal gain, as was his vocation when we meet him.
5. Repentance is needed not just for external behaviors, but internal motivations
v. 22, in Peter's rebuke of Simon, he says to repent that the intention of his heart might be forgiven. Sin originates in the heart, at the level of desire and intent before it ever plays out observably. We must grow in this self-awareness of our motives and intentions, and be honest about them and humbly repent wherever they deviate from God's design and diminish his glory.
This text is familiar to so many people and any time we've read something a lot or heard it preached on or talked about a lot, there is a danger growing callous to it or glossing over it without taking the time to appreciate it fully. Familiarity breeds contempt. I don't want to dig in to the details too much here. I just want to stop and think about this one simple thing... Saul is the least likely person on the planet to come to faith in Jesus Christ and give his life in service to the advancement of the gospel. Think about that. I am not overstating or exaggerating things here at all. I literally hates and is systematically persecuting, imprisoning and executing follower of Jesus for the single reason that they are followers of Jesus.
Beloved, there is no one beyond the reach of the Risen Christ. There is no heart so hard that the grace of Jesus cannot penetrate and capture it. The lostness of your aging mom and dad is not beyond the finding power of God. The blindness of your wayward son or daughter is not beyond the sight restoring power of Jesus. The enslavement and addictions of your friend or relative is not beyond the liberating power of the Spirit. The self-deception of your boss and the self-indulgence of your co-worker is not beyond the self-denying power of the cross. The religious zeal of your muslim neighbor is not beyond the disorienting power of grace. The apathy of your agnostic or atheistic friend is not beyond the awakening power of the Resurrection. God is able reveal himself in power to anyone for their salvation, whether by ordinary means of evangelism or the extraordinary means knocking them to the ground and speaking to them audibly. Either way, Jesus can make himself visible to anyone at any time and he is able to save anyone at any time.
Keep praying to the Lord for those you love. Keep pleading with the Lord for those you love. Keep trusting in the Lord for those you love. Keep representing the Lord to those you love. Keep presenting the gospel humbly to those you love. Don't lose heart. The Lord's hand is not too short that in cannot save. Neither is His heart hard toward people that he will not save. Don't you dare think anyone is beyond the mercy and grace of Jesus.
2 Separate ideas related to transformation...
1) There is no Salvation without Transformation
Okay, so as zealous as Saul was for the Law and Judaism, he is now for Jesus. It's an incredible transformation. His story is obviously very radical, but let's not miss this. There is a miraculous thing that happens when anyone is rescued from sin and rebellion and reconciled to God. We were all enemies of God at one time, even if not as violently or consciously. We were hostile to God and he has transformed our lives. And the reality of a new life, a changed life, is obvious and observable.
Even if the deepest change is of our hearts and indeed our very identity, that will be obvious to those around us. As outspoken as he was against the gospel, he now is that outspoken for the gospel. Saul goes from targeting Christians to being targeted as a Christian in a matter of a few days. Your lostness before Christ may have been less overtly oppositional and the changes you immediately experience may be less obvious or extreme, but the life of Christ in a person formerly void of Christ will be visible.
2) There is no Transformation without Challenge
Paul wasn't just readily accepted by the Christian community he was seeking to kill and imprison just days or weeks before. And that wasn't Christians being mean. That was Christians being wise. Transformation can be tricky because it can be faked for a time. A genuinely transformed person will understand that time is still needed to demonstrate change and earn trust where they have formerly been a danger or untrustworthy.
One of the clear evidences of the authenticity of our new life, is to sustain humility and patience toward those who have doubts about our new life. We will have detractors, doubters, critics and skeptics. We will also have an accuer who will work through them or through our own thoughts to undermine our own confidence in the genuineness of our transformation. Brothers and sisters, the enemy will use the voices of other Christians and critics, and his own voice to remind you of your old life, former practices, remaining desires for sin and your unworthiness to be forgiven. He will do everything he can to rob you of joy and security in Jesus, to beat you down with your past, parade your guilt, create doubt about any possibility of a meaningful future and all manor of ways to undermine your progress.
The transforming grace of Jesus in our lives puts a target on our backs and we will absolutely receive enemy fire and most likely receive some friendly fire that threatens our devotion to Christ and our trust in him to finish the work that he has begun.
Last word on this... in the face of such discouragement and opposition, we all need Baranabas' in our lives, who come along side us, and give credible witness to our progress, who faithfully encourage us, warmly make a place for us, and who embody God's grace to us in a way that deepens and advances God's transformational work in our hearts and lives.
Do you have a Barnabas in your life?
For whom are you a Barnabas?