Finally! Finally things were going right. They had been through a really rough patch. And things had really seemed bleak. But now everything was going right. All eight cylinders were firing. Things were happening. Their group was growing. Things were finally going the way they should, if Jesus truly is the King of kings and Lord of lords and Victor over sin, death, and the devil.
That whole rough patch of his arrest and trial and crucifixion and burial had made everything appear very bleak. But then he rose! And he finished the seminary training of his disciples—they are ready! And he ascended into heaven, like the coronation festival of a great King. And on Pentecost, their church in Jerusalem added 3,000 new members! And the members are so moved by the gospel that they don’t think of their possessions as their own any more but willingly share them. The disciples can do miracles, for real! Their church keeps growing. They add staff, seven deacons, to be specific. One whose name was Stephen. Finally! This is what you would expect if Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords and Victor over sin, death, and the devil.
And then. Then one of them was murdered. Murdered just for being a Christian. Murdered by a very ugly, very violent mob. His name was Stephen.
And isn’t that the way it goes? Ever notice that? Things are going smooth here at Good Shepherd…and then something goes wrong or we get $50,000 behind. In your own life, things are going smooth and you are cruising along…and then you get terribly sick or you lose your wallet or someone rear ends your car. And guess what’s going to happen when we get our mission up and going in Brandon? Smooth…and then bam.
Just like in our text. Things had been going smoothly…and then, “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen…” This seems so wrong. Except for one thing.
Isn’t this exactly what Jesus said it would be like? “In this world you will have trouble,” (John 16:33) Jesus told the disciples on Maundy Thursday evening. Later in Acts (14:22), “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is what Jesus said would happen. So no need to panic or get depressed. Instead tell yourself, “Trouble has come, just like Jesus said. So deal with it and don’t be daunted.”
Listen to how this sentence continues. “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, telling the message (of the gospel) only to the Jews.” That’s a good thing, isn’t it, that out of this terrible persecution, the gospel was spread. Unintended mission work gets done! Souls get saved! What a good thing! But again, isn’t this what Jesus said would happen, through the pen of Paul, “All things work out for good to those who love God.” (Romans 8:28) And through the pen of the prophet, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29:11)
This is what Jesus said would happen. So after things are going smooth for a while and then the bam! comes, no need to panic or get depressed. Instead tell yourself, “This situation will work for good, just like Jesus said. So I’ll deal with it, I won’t be daunted.”
Did you catch that detail that initially they spread the gospel only to Jews? Now listen to what it says next. “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.” In other words, the gospel crossed cultural and racial and political lines. A huge change. Huge change. And you know how difficult such changes can be. But again, isn’t that what Jesus had said? He said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth (on the cross when he paid for the sin of the world), will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) And through John’s pen in Revelation he said, “And they sang a new song, ‘…with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev. 5:9)
This is what Jesus said would happen. So when such changes do happen, tell yourself, “This is just what Jesus said. So I’ll maybe take a closer look at own attitudes, lest I dishonor my Lord and hinder the work of the gospel by any hint of racism. And I’ll have a welcoming spirit and I will not let such changes daunt me.
What happens next? “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” And isn’t that what Jesus said about his Word. That it is powerful? As he said through the pen of Paul in Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power (dynamis) of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Rom. 1:16)
And so even when church and Bible study and Sunday School seem to make no difference whatsoever in your life, or your child’s life, or your friend’s life, tell yourself, “Jesus said that his gospel is as powerful as dynamite, so I’ll keep bringing my children, myself, my friend to learn it. In the face of those times when the gospel seems to make no difference, I’ll be undaunted.”
Then it is reported that “News of this reached the ears of the church in Jerusalem and they sent Barnabas (probably because the apostles had also been scattered during the persecution) to Antioch. When he arrived he saw evidence of the grace of God (what would he have seen? He would have seen things like people coming to worship, people using Bible truths to encourage each other, people repenting of their sin and hearing the Absolution, etc) …Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.”
Which is what Jesus said would happen. He said he would provide pastors and teachers, “It was he (Jesus) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, and some to be pastors and teacher, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Eph. 4:11) So, no reason for us to worry or be stressed as one of the pastors Jesus himself sent to Good Shepherd nearly 40 years ago draws close to retirement. But instead let us tell ourselves, “Jesus gave us good pastors in the past, and he will give us good pastors in the future, just like he said. So in the coming changes, let us be undaunted.”
And then one last, interesting detail. “The disciples were called ‘Christians’ first at Antioch.” Groups get labeled, whether the label is Millennials or Gen X’ers or Baby Boomers, because they have something in common. They also get labeled because they are different than other people around them. And so it was that the people living in Antioch recognized that these disciples of Jesus all had something all have something in common—Christ. And that is also what made them different. And hence they coined the term “Christ-ians.”
And given that time and that age, one thing must have really made them seem so very different from the world around them–these Christians didn’t seem to be afraid of death. How odd that must have seemed to the people of that time.
And if you had a newly labeled Christian back then, “Why aren’t you afraid of death?”, you would have received the same answer that a long-time labeled Christian of today would answer.
“Because of what Jesus said. Jesus said that those who ‘live and believe in him will never die. (John 11:26) And that in his Father’s house are many rooms and he has gone to prepare one for me.’ (John 14:2) That’s what Jesus said. So no need to panic or get depressed about death. Instead I tell myself, ‘When death comes, I will be taken into heaven, just like Jesus said.’ So while I’m not looking forward to going through the nasty bits of death, I will not be daunted. Because while it is true that the sinner who does not believe will be condemned, it is also true that the sinner who believes and is baptized shall be saved.”
Because that’s what Jesus said. Amen.