I often think about where I am and wonder how I got here from the small town of Elgin, Oklahoma. I think about my humble beginnings and my awkward transition into adulthood. I think about the fact that I was one of the greatest introverts you would ever meet: I mean I hated being around people. I was somewhat of an outcast in school (especially middle school), and the only thing I liked to do was play video games. How did a person like me and a person as undeserving as me come to be a teacher and a minister? How ironic is it that one of the world’s greatest introverts would be called to live a public life and to minister to real people? How did I get here?
A more difficult question to answer would be, where do I go from here? What’s next and how do I know? I have no doubt that most people on the planet are asking this question. We might feel like something is keeping us from accomplishing what we think we can accomplish. We might just feel like we are wasting our lives away. We might be wondering what God wants from us and whether or not we can truly make a difference in such an evil world. As we talk more about the Holy Spirit’s work in the early church, we might just learn that God has a real direction for our lives in spite of all that may come against us. Whether we feel like we are where God wants us to be or not, let’s ask this question together: Where do we go from here?
Acts 8:1-3 (HCSB)
Saul agreed with putting him to death. On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him. Saul, however, was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison.
After this, the believers who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of Christ and we are introduced to Philip:
Acts 8:26-40 (HCSB)
An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip: “Get up and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is the desert road.) So he got up and went. There was an Ethiopian man, a eunuch and high official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to worship in Jerusalem and was sitting in his chariot on his way home, reading the prophet Isaiah aloud. The Spirit told Philip, “Go and join that chariot.” When Philip ran up to it, he heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” “How can I,” he said, “unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the Scripture passage he was reading was this: He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb is silent before its shearer, so He does not open His mouth. In His humiliation justice was denied Him. Who will describe His generation? For His life is taken from the earth. The eunuch replied to Philip, “I ask you, who is the prophet saying this about — himself or another person?” So Philip proceeded to tell him the good news about Jesus, beginning from that Scripture. As they were traveling down the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, “Look, there’s water! What would keep me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any longer. But he went on his way rejoicing. Philip appeared in Azotus, and he was traveling and evangelizing all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Persecution was the circumstance of the Christ-follower
After reading this great story of triumph over the grave, of the day of Pentacost where 3,000 people received eternal life, of sermons and miracles and salvation and growth in Jerusalem; we arrive at a very brutal scene for the early church. Stephen, who is a believer, is stoned as Saul, or Paul, looks on in approval. Stephen’s body is broken and he dies. At this moment, Luke writes that a great persecution begins against the church in Jerusalem causing the believers there, except for the apostles, to scatter. People of the church, Christians, are now running for their lives.
In America, we currently do not suffer persecution quite like these early Christians did, so I have to think about our own context: We live in a society where people worship the gods of pleasure, money and power. Here, abortion is legal and even encouraged in many cases. Millions of unborn children are dying each day. Homosexuality is rampant and, though we are commanded to love all people as Christ does, we are also to address sinfulness. Darwinian evolution is shoved down our throats, and those who believe their own mental capacities are beyond reproach persecute Christians who actually believe the Bible. In school we have to learn that a monkey and a man had a common ancestor even though it has not been and cannot be proved. We live in a society where people would rather receive handouts than earn their fair share and where people don’t care enough about the truth to actually, legitimately learn from others.
Beyond this, each individual is in his or her own unique context. We have our own families, our own unique set of connections, our own problems, our own passions, unique challenges and unique relationships. We even have a unique set of enemies (people who would come against us) and struggles (things that would draw us away from God).
This is the context we find ourselves in. Here I find this truth: Just as God was not surprised by the circumstances of the early New Testament Church, He is not surprised with our current circumstances in a North American context. We can take this encouragement to heart. We do not have to worry because God is the God of our circumstances.
Persecution was the avenue by which the Holy Spirit brought a powerful witness
This great persecution starts and God speaks into the heart of Phillip, telling Him to go from Jerusalem. In our English Bibles we see this message from God coming to Phillip from an angel. As we scroll down in the passage, we read that it is the Spirit (the Holy Spirit indicated by capitalization) who is speaking. As we examine the Greek, the word for “Spirit” could mean the Holy Spirit or it could simply mean a “spirit.” Just as the word for Angel could mean Angel or simply a messenger. The character here could be the Holy Spirit convicting Phillip to go or it could be an angel (whether seen or unseen) directing Phillip’s path. With the emphasis of the Holy Spirit in this book, I tend to think that the Holy Spirit is the one who is directly convicting Phillip to go. God used the context of persecution to send out His church as a powerful witness beyond Jerusalem. Again we see that God is the God of all circumstance. He can use any evil caused by people and build His kingdom despite the great evil we have seen in the world since the Fall (Genesis 3). This is amazing. We serve a powerful God!
God directs our paths and makes us witnesses in our circumstances
Tonight, let’s think about the circumstances we are in. We see the way the world around us is and we can know that God will build His kingdom in spite of the imperfections and even the evils in our society. You may be in a broken home, there may be people who pick on you or bully you, you may have lost a loved one, you might have to learn about some things that you don’t agree with, your boss at work may try to control you a little too much, and you may not feel like you are going anywhere or doing anything important. Remember that just as the Holy Spirit directed and used Phillip even in the midst of persecution, He can and will direct us and use us even in the midst of our negative circumstances.
The challenge for us is to remain in prayer, listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit within us. It may be a thought, a conviction, an audible voice or an epiphany. We stay attentive to the directing of the Holy Spirit and He will make us powerful witnesses in our current contexts even if we don’t see the immediate results that Phillip saw. Persevere through trials and God may just use those trials to build His church.