A Success Busting God Thing
Acts 2:8, 33, 40,41
Acts 4:31
Acts 5:12-16, 35-39
Acts 7:7, 51 - 8:8

(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg


People of God
This morning, you may have noticed the title of my message “A Success Busting God Thing.” As an introduction to our scripture passage, let me in summary fashion recount what happened after Jesus ascended to heaven, the story of the first 7 chapters of Acts.
Jesus promised that the disciples would be baptized with the Holy Spirit - a baptism of power that would drench them with the presence and power of God in such a way that they would become witnesses - as Luke points out: 8 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.”

Pentecost was that baptism by the Spirit, a clear universal demonstration that Jesus not only arose from the death, but he also ascended to the right hand of the Father, and in his victory of evil, he shared with his church the gift of the Spirit. That’s how Peter understood it when he summarized Pentecost in his first sermon:
2: 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.

Peter basically told them that the death of Jesus, his resurrection, his ascension and now the strange signs at Pentecost - they were all a “God Thing.”  God was at work! The people who heard his message were cut to the heart and they wondered “What must we do?” Peter called them to repentance and faith with the promise that forgiveness of sins would be theirs. And then we read in chapter 2:40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. Now that was success! Scripture defines those numbers as success, we would to. 3000 added to the church in one day.

This must have been a God thing! Again, that’s how the early church understood it. The church instantly became a community filled with powerful dynamics of learning, sharing, breaking bread together, uninhibited praise and miraculous signs.  All this was evidence that what was happening was a God thing. And people were coming to faith daily, at least in Jerusalem.

Where there is success, there is opposition because success for the kingdom of God and of his Christ means defeat for the rule of Satan. In chapter 3 we see the true nature of spiritual battle coming to the surface. Peter and John are going to the temple to pray, as a faithful Jew would.  On the way by the temple gate called “Beautiful” they heal a man who was lame, and he starts running around leaping and praising God. When people see this miracle, again Peter and John give a powerful sermon - and what they basically say is “This is a God thing! Jesus has ascended and you will be held accountable for your deeds.” The leaders of the Synagogue take notice of these unqualified preachers and by chapter 4, they choose to put a lid on it, they throw Peter and John in jail. But because what is going on has everything to do with God, and the Sprit is upon them, Peter and John speak boldly. The leaders of the Synagogue had them whipped and warned not to continue. Peter and John go home nursing their wounds, but they knew this is a God thing - and so they prayed that God continue his powerful work as only the Sovereign Lord can do,  4:31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

Again, the church grows. Because this is a God thing, people willingly share their possessions, actions which are contrary to human nature. People are even willing to sell their properties so that there is no one in the community who has needs. The church is a celebration of grace, this is a God thing that’s growing, at least in Jerusalem.

But where God’s rule is breaking in, Satan’s rule will counter attack. And so we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Like so many others, they sell some of their property, but in the selling they secretly keep a little for themselves. This way they not only make some person gain, but they also use their offering to gain personal reputation as big givers. Satan, you see, rules in the hidden corners of human hearts, and this little mix of selfish gain in with a good offering is actually a spiritual attack on the integrity of the church from within. But the church is a God thing. Their deed is exposed, they literally die on the spot. Spiritual battle is serious stuff.

In the process, there is success. The church starts gaining a reputation of purity and integrity. People who don’t believe at least respect, even fear the church. Jerusalem becomes aware of the power of God with the church to heal. And so Luke describes their success - at least in Jerusalem.
5:12 The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 15 As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.

At least in Jerusalem things were going incredibly well. The church was growing. Lives were being changed. Worship was vibrant. Once again, Peter and the apostles are thrown in jail. This time, as they go before the Synagogue rulers, with boldness they preach the message of the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ to them. In short, they tell the leaders: “This is a God thing!” But by claiming that the church was a God thing, their implied judgement was that what the leaders and Pharisees were up to was not a God thing. In response, the Pharisees and leaders were about to kill them. But then a wise Pharisee, Gamaliel arose and said
“Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

If this is a God thing - don’t oppose it! Give them a whipping and a warning and let them go.  That happens.  But of course these pesky disciples continue their preaching and more people are added to the faith.  By chapter 6, there are so many in the church that it is experiencing growing pains. The apostles can’t do it all any more so they choose 7 deacons to administer mercy while they give their attention to prayer and preaching. Luke summarizes their success

7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Luke notes that one of those deacons appointed was Stephen “a man full of faith of the Holy Spirit.” That was not a good choice for the church in Jerusalem, at least if the church in Jerusalem wanted to remain successful.

You see, it was Stephen’s spiritual authority and preaching that got the church into trouble with the Jews of the Synagogue of the Freedmen. It was Stephen that spoke with the radiance of God on his face. It was Stephen who spoke with irrepressible wisdom. It was Stephen who had the un-diplomatic style of communication when he said to his hearers:  51 “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”

I am certain that if the church council in Jerusalem had time to respond to Stephen’s preaching to the Sanhedrin, they would have advised him to cool it, use some diplomacy, be careful with the words you use, after all, the profound gains they had made in Jerusalem were still young, still fragile. But things happened fast. They didn’t have the time to evaluate Stephen’s preaching style. Scripture reads beginning at verse 54 of chapter 7.

54 When they heard (The high priest and the Sandhedrin) this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
8 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.

Because of one newly appointed deacon who had not yet learned the skills of diplomacy in speaking, the success of the church in Jerusalem was busted. Christians who once gave away their properties to share with the poor now by force lost what they had left. Stephen lost his life, but he wasn’t the only one. Men, women and children were dragged into prison. Families were divided. Fellowship was busted. All the Christians could do was leave all behind and flee for their lives. The only ones left in Jerusalem were the apostles.  It seemed in a matter of hours, the incredible church that had been established disappeared. Success busted. Numbers gone. Fellowship disintegrated. Budget resources - well, what budget? This was a time of intense hardship for every new Christian. No one experiencing it would have called it success.

But the truth is, sometimes God busts our successes so that his success will be accomplished. God’s plan for the church was that the gospel would be preached NOT ONLY IN JERUSALEM, but in Judea and Samaria and all the ends of the earth. And who better to accomplish that than all the people, not the leaders, but the people who had been hearing the word, learning the word, living the word. The apostles stayed in Jerusalem. The people fleeing - well lets read exactly what it says:

4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.

By telling you this story, of the many points I could highlight, today I want to focus on just one. God’s purpose for the church is not our success, our wonderful worship services, our care groups, our fellowship, our great times together. God’s purpose for the church includes the spread of his word. And if the church is not accomplishing that task through its members, through its fellowship, through its care groups, through its ministries, then God will take our successes and bust them.

If our worship does not have room for visitors who do not know the faith, it our worship has no space for someone “out there,” then don’t be surprised if God sends us difficulties.

If our care groups are good and healthy and strong and maybe the dynamics are a real God thing, and maybe we feel the fellowship we experience is still a little fragile, if we have no room for the new person or new persons, God’s thing to do might be to break us up to make more room.

If our circle of friends is precious and caring but our friendship has no room for a new friend in the circle, God may well bust our friendships.

A church that gazes on itself, no matter how successful it might feel, is a church that will destruct if it does not have those outside of their walls, their circle of friends in strong view.

If we are successful in every way, but fail to bring the word to the world, in occupations, in school, in our relationships, God’s purpose might break our success to make his success, and it would be "a God thing."


 


(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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