Suffering and evangelism

Sermon: Sunday, 25th February, 2024
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Acts 8:1-25

Last Sunday we were thinking about Stephen, the first ever Christian martyr who is brutally stoned to death by the Sanhedrin. Just like Jesus, Stephen is falsely accused and killed. And like Jesus, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his murderers. We shouldn’t be surprised at this event.

‘Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.’ (John 15:20)

Stephen’s death unleashes a huge persecution against the fledgling Christian church. And so, Stephen’s death and the ensuing persecution seems to be a crushing defeat for the church. In verse 3 , we read of Saul’s fanatical persecution, who like a wild animal is going from house to house looking for followers of Jesus to imprison. It seems like the church could be snuffed out in its infancy.

When gardening, when you prune a bush it stimulates new growth, and likewise, the martyrdom of believers serves to multiply believers and counterintuitively, often increases the commitment and zeal of the Christian community. I love the fact that as Satan tries to smother the church – as Satan is the one ultimately behind all this persecution – God uses his actions to actually spread the gospel.

We can see a clear chain of events: Stephen’s martyrdom leads to increased persecution which results in Christians being scattered through Judea and Samaria; however, as they are scattered, they gossip the gospel wherever they go, and gospel reaches tens of thousands of new people. So, if you bought a copy of the Jerusalem Journal back in the days of the apostles, the headline might have been: ‘Christians forced to flee their homes’. But the truth is, a more accurate headline might be: ‘God is so powerful that he uses persecution for his own purposes.’ That’s what’s going on here.

1. Why does God allow suffering?

Imagine you were one of the families in Jerusalem who had just become followers of Jesus. Perhaps you were one of the 3000 people saved on the day of Pentecost and for weeks there was just a spiritual buzz at the changes within your family as you see the power of Jesus at work. You’re absolutely loving the fellowship and love in the newly formed church and it truly is the highlight of the week to meet with your brothers and sisters in Christ there. There’s such a sense of sharing and worship and lives are being changed. Some of your friends have become Christians too. But it’s been a hard fall from such heights. As your eyes fill with tears and you fill a bag with essentials, you wonder what the Lord is doing as you are forced to flee. Why is the Lord doing this? Why now, when things are just getting going? It makes no sense.

I don’t think there’s ever an easy answer to the question ‘Why does God allow his people to suffer?’ But here, one answer is clear: God allows the persecution so that the gospel will spread. I’m sure there were other reasons too. Jesus promised: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8) It was Jesus’ plan that the gospel would spread to Judea and Samaria, but I doubt many would have guessed he would fulfil this plan through persecution. But that’s what he allows. Acts 8:1 echoes Acts1:8. ‘On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.’

2. Sharing our faith in good times and bad

‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’ (Acts 8:4) The word ‘preached’ here probably just has the sense of ‘shared the good news’. Let’s take notice: these are untrained, ordinary Christians in a time of crisis. And what are they doing? They’re gossiping the gospel. People would have asked these fleeing people, ‘Why are you moving here to Samaria?’ They would have answered, not with bitterness, but with earnestness and joy: ‘We’re moving as we follow Jesus, who died to save us from our sins. He is the Messiah! Yes, we’ve had to flee, but we’ve no regrets and if you know Jesus as your Saviour, that’s all that really matters.’ I think these are the kind of conversations which took place, and took place naturally.

This is a huge challenge for us today. Many of us are going through challenging times. Many of us as struggling to care for loved ones, or with our health, or with work or family circumstances. Do we wait until life is easy before sharing our faith with friends? No. These Christians are our example.

Howard Marshall says this: ‘It seems to be the natural thing for early Christians to share the gospel’. Who is spreading the gospel in Judea and Samaria? Is it so-called full-time Christian workers? No. Gordon Keddie puts it this way: ‘They were simply full-time Christians.’ We’re all called to be full-time Christians. We’re all called to speak to others about what God has done in sending his Son to die on the cross. And here’s the challenge from this passage, we can do that even when we ourselves are in the middle of a crisis.

Friends, I think the message is clear. Evangelism is a team effort, and not just something church leaders should do, or the that the core team in the Leven church plant should do. If ordinary refugees fleeing Jerusalem told others about Jesus, then clearly, we ought to as well. So, please pray that God would give you opportunities, and please as you have opportunity, become more engaged in sharing your faith. This is the way church is meant to be. This is the way a church must be if we are expecting growth and conversions.

3. Sharing our faith is an international activity

It might not seem so to us, but verse 5 is a shocking verse: ‘Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.’ Why is this shocking? Because Jews hated Samaritans and Samaritans hated Jews. It had been that way for thousands of years. The Jews thought of the Samaritans as racial and religious hybrids. Israel split into two about 1000 BC and when Samaria was captured by Assyria in 722 BC, thousands of their people were deported and the country re-populated with foreigners. This meant that racially and religiously they were far from pure. They also set up their own temple at Mount Gerizim which rivalled the one in Jerusalem. This was a wicked thing to do. No wonder the apostle John comments: The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) (John 4:9)

Philip crosses the border into Samaritan territory because he knows that they need the gospel just as much as he does. And as a herald of King Jesus, we read that he ‘proclaimed the Christ’. That’s what it means to share the gospel – it’s telling others who Christ is and what he has achieved on the cross, dying in the place of sinners. Unless we talk about these things, we are not sharing our faith.

It’s wonderful to read: ‘But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.’ (Acts 8:12) This is an amazing revival. This is a moment in history far more significant than even when the Berlin wall fell in 1989. Here, the ethnic walls of division which used to exist are broken down; the church is now international. God is creating a new humanity through the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is made up of all the nations of the world. That’s why we really do love and value how international Kirkcaldy Free Church is becoming! This is the way the church is meant to be.

The challenge for us in Fife in 2024 is this: are we willing to take the gospel to people the rest of our culture hates? Will we take it to be people totally unlike ourselves? We might have a neighbour who is a drug dealer. The gospel is for them. They might be a different religion or an atheist. The gospel is for them. We might have almost nothing in common – it doesn’t matter. Will you do that?

Before moving on, let’s consider the puzzling section of the story: ‘When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus.’ (Acts 8:14-16) Why is there a gap between the people becoming Christians and receiving the Holy Spirit? These things normally go together. I think the best explanation is that this is the equivalent of Samaria’s ‘day of Pentecost’. As I’ve already said, this is a unique time in church history, as the gospel, for the first time, advances beyond Jerusalem and into Judea and Samaria. By doing this, God seems to underlining to the church in Jerusalem that the Samaritans really are now part of the covenant community.

It also sends a message to the Samaritans, as the Spirit is conveyed by the Jews whom they had despised for so many centuries. In other words, through this mini-Pentecost experience, which is atypical, the unity of the church is confirmed.

4. Sharing our faith has mixed results

We now come to consider this perplexing character called Simon the Sorcerer. It seems at first that Simon has become a Christian: ‘Simon himself believed and was baptised. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.’ (Acts 8:13) John Stott comments: ‘New Testament language does not always distinguish between believing and professing to believe.’ James writes, ‘You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.’ (James 2:19)

I think the best way of explaining what happens here to Simon is through Jesus’ parable of the Sower. Remember the seed which is sown on rocky soil: ‘Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.’ (Luke 8 v13) Simon appears to have true faith at first. However, time shows that he does not. I think Peter’s assessment of Simon clearly shows that he doesn’t have authentic faith in Jesus. He has never truly repented of his sin and placed his trust in Jesus: Peter answered: ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.’ (Acts 8:20-23)

Rather than listening to Peter’s advice, and repenting, Simon seems to continue in unbelief. He might ask for prayer, but he doesn’t repent. He remains captive to sin, and the old sorcerer is still very much in him. He’s more interested in the power of Jesus, than submitting to the Lordship of Jesus.

Sadly, today, as we share the gospel, we’ll see true conversions – authentic change but we’ll also be disappointed by those who appeared to believe and said all the right things, but they had no root – no saving faith in Jesus. We all must examine our own hearts to ensure that, yes, we have admitted our sinfulness to God and cast ourselves on Jesus alone to save us.