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31st May 2015
Acts 8:1-8 is a passage describing the Early Church's joy-filled courage in the face of challenging circumstances.
It follows Stephen’s speech to the High Priest's Council and his execution. The Pharisees wanted to do everything in their power to stop the spread of the Christian faith, and it was a frightening time as they began to hunt down other members of the Church.
Verses 1-8 describe the extreme persecution that arose against the Church. As a result, they were scattered. Acts 1:8 is Jesus' prophetic message to the apostles that 'You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth', and by chapter 8 we can see that the Church has taken the gospel to the very same regions. As a result of this persecution, the gospel was spread and the Church grew.
Persecution has always been a constant factor in church life. Through greater media coverage, we're now much more aware of the ferocious persecution facing the international Church today. According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights because of their faith. Christians in the Middle East are currently suffering extreme persecution at the hands of Islamic State, and there have been countless other attacks in various nations.
Persecution is rife in the world today, but we can stay aware of current affairs and stand with our brothers and sisters across the world in prayer, as well as financially and by raising awareness.
Although life isn't always smooth, God promises to sustain his people in every circumstance. We may not always understand why things happen, but, speaking on suffering, Rick Warren says: ‘God is more interested in your character than your comfort, and he's more concerned about your holiness than your happiness.' God uses the events of life to shape and refine us, and for the Early Church, the reality was that their persecution was part of the spread of the gospel.
Importantly, the scattered Church never stopped preaching the gospel (v 4). Phillip also made a bold move in going to Samaria, despite the deep animosity between the Jews and Samaritans.
The declaration of the gospel was accompanied by signs and wonders, a regular part of the life of the Early Church and a key part of seeing the Kingdom of God advancing. The Church's single strategy was to preach the gospel, heal the sick and free people from demonic oppression, and great joy came about in the whole city of Samaria as a result. If we really want to see our town change, we need to show God’s love through our actions, becoming bolder at showing people Jesus and the gospel.
Surprisingly, even in such a challenging time, the Church was characterised by joy (v8). The Greek word indicates gladness and thanksgiving - both a gift from the Spirit and something that individuals can cultivate.
Wayne Grudem says: 'The normal heart attitude of a Christian is rejoicing in the Lord and in the lessons he gives us. As we glorify God and enjoy him, Scripture tells us that he rejoices in us [...] When we realise that God created us to glorify him, and when we start to act in ways that fulfil that purpose, then we begin to experience an intensity of joy in the Lord that we have never known before.'
Even in suffering, we can trust that God works all things together for good (Romans 8:28). God sometimes uses suffering to achieve more than in easier times. Though we may not always understand it, our call is to be faithful throughout challenging times.
The Early Church didn't give in to bitterness and resentment. Instead, they were bold and courageous, receiving the power of the Holy Spirit and speaking about Jesus. They recognised that they were part of God's bigger plan to advance the gospel and devoted themselves to it. They drew on the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit and used this to fulfill the prophetic word that they would be witness 'in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the Earth'.
Let's resolve to be a people characterised by the same joy as the Early Church. We can rejoice in our salvation, healing and deliverance, which are freely available to everyone who believes. We musn't let our circumstances become our focus, but rather focus on God's grace.
Nehemiah 8:10 reminds us that 'the joy of the Lord is your strength'. There’s an important link between joy and strength, because joy helps us to withstand attacks and hard times. If you are a Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit, you can expect joy to become part of your life.
The Early Church didn't allow themselves to be robbed of joy, either. Many things can prevent us from experiencing the complete joy that God has for us. Let God reveal to you the areas where you're not experiencing joy and ask for a fresh filling of his Spirit.
Just like the Early Church, we musn't lose sight of God's plans for us throughout difficult circumstances. We're called to respond with faith and boldness, empowered by the Holy Spirit and experiencing deep joy in God to give us strength, even in the hardest times.
Posted by Steve Young