|The Church An Extension of Christ
by E.H. Jack Sequeira
So far in our study of the history of the early church, the proclamation of the gospel has been restricted to the city of Jerusalem, where the apostles and the entire body of believers were remaining. As we move to Acts chapter 8, we will see how God pushes His people out into the world beyond Jerusalem. This is in fulfillment of what Jesus told His disciples before He ascended to heaven. Acts 1:8:
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.
Now the stoning of Stephen at the hands of an enraged Sandedrin, who could not tolerate the truth he spoke, brought to an end the first period of the early church. But please notice that the men who stoned Stephen laid their garments at the feet of Saul of Tarsus. Acts 7:55-58:
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. Look, he said, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 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.
The reason for this last statement is because the Holy Spirit wants us to know that there was a divine reason why God allowed this godly deacon to be martyred. Out of the death of Stephen came ultimately the birth of the great apostle Paul. This is how God works. That is why when Stephen gets to heaven he will get a big surprise to see Paul there and will most likely join us in singing the song of Moses. Revelation 15:2-4:
And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.
When the Sanhedrin stoned Stephen, they silenced a voice that was upsetting a city. But what they did not realize is that, by doing that, they were awakening a new voice that would not only upset an empire but turn the world upside down. Acts 17:5-7:
But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jasons house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesars decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.
The witness of Stephen pricked the heart of Saul. The fact that Stephen pleaded with God to forgive his murderers was more than Saul could stand. It bothered him to no end. To silence this inner conviction, Saul began to persecute the church in Jerusalem. This is how Acts 8 is introduced. Acts 8:1-3:
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. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
But God took advantage of this persecution and turned it towards His own end. This is the way God often works. God continually uses opposition to advance His cause. This is how the early church grew and this is how our global mission, in these last days, will be finished. Note how Sauls persecution of the church advanced Gods cause. Acts 8:4-8:
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
The persecution that rose over Stephen forced these early Christians out of Jerusalem and into Judea and Samaria, where they began to proclaim the good news of the gospel, all according to Gods plan. And Saul of Tarsus was part of that plan even before he became a Christian. God used Sauls rage to do two things. First, He forced the church out of Jerusalem. And second, He made the lay members to become involved in fulfilling the great commission, instead of depending on the apostles to do all the work.
These believers who were scattered abroad and went about preaching the Word were ordinary men and women with no theological training. But all of them were gifted by the Holy Spirit. However, they would never have discovered there gifts had God not used this persecution to place them in circumstances where they were forced to discover there gifts.
But where God gives success, Satan, unfortunately, is always there to put a wrench into the spokes. Where there is genuine Christianity you will also find counterfeit Christianity to hinder Gods work. It is this counterfeit Christianity we must now turn to. Acts 8:9-23:
Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, This man is the divine power known as the Great Power. They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of then; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles hands, he offered them money and said, Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.
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. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.
In this section, the Holy Spirit deliberately contrasts the marks of authentic Christianity with those of a false or counterfeit faith. This is the third occasion in the book of Acts we find Satan stepping in and sprouting his own seeds. The first was the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira, the second was the dissension created by the Greek-speaking widows over the distribution of goods, and now the third is this manifestation of religious falsehood by Simon the magician.
You will notice that in all these three incidents there is one thing in common that revealed the marks of counterfeit Christianity. This mark, of course, is the principle of self, the very foundation of Satans kingdom. Note what the Bible says about Simon in the last part of verse 9:
...He boasted that he was someone great....
At the heart of all counterfeit Christianity is a manifestation of some form of self. This is what brought the downfall of Lucifer who then became Satan. Isaiah 14:12-14:
How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.
In complete contrast, genuine Christianity leads people to Christ and makes very little of the individual. 2 Corinthians 4:5:
For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus sake.
But here in Acts we have a man who exalted himself. We find Simon trying to buy the power of the Holy Spirit so that his magical performance could match the superior power of the Holy Spirit that the apostles manifested. Note how Peter responds to his financial offer. Acts 8:18-21:
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles hands, he offered them money and said, Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit. 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.
Once again you will notice that the problem of self begins with the heart. In the case of Lucifer, we find him saying in his heart, I will ascend above the heights of God Himself. The same problem is revealed in Simon: his heart is not right with God. It is for this reason Jesus said in His sermon on the mount, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
According to the prophet Jeremiah, the natural heart is not only wicked but also deceitful above all things so that, in and of ourselves, we have no cure for it. Jeremiah 17:9:
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
It is only God who can take away our stony hearts and give us a heart of flesh. This is the power of the gospel which was promised by God to Israel in the New Covenant. Ezekiel 36:26-27:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
But for this to happen, or, in other words, if you want to be a genuine Christian, Jesus made it clear that you and I must be willing to deny self. Luke 9:23:
Then he said to them all: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
This is the cost of discipleship. This is what it cost the disciples of Christ before God could use them to turn their world upside down. And this is what it will cost each one of us if the Holy Spirit is going to use us to make an impact on the cities where we live.
That is why I want you to take note of the advice Peter gave Simon and Simons response to Peters counsel. Acts 8:22-24:
Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.
Then Simon answered, Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.
While we judge ourselves and others by our outward looks or performance, God always looks at our hearts. He knows what goes in there. Repentance is the genuine turning of the heart towards God. When this happens, we will experience genuine Christianity.
Following this incident of Simon, the 8th chapter of Acts ends with the account of the first Gentile to be baptized into the Christian church, the Ethiopian eunuch. He was a Jew by religion and had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. His heart was right with God and the Spirit used Philip, another godly deacon, to introduce him to Christ. Acts 8:26-40:
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, Go south to the road the desert road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, Go to that chariot and stay near it.
Then Philip ran up the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. Do you understand what you are reading? Philip asked.
How can I, he said, unless someone explains it to me? So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.
The eunuch asked Philip, Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else? Then Phillip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, Look, here is water. Why shouldnt I be baptized? And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled abaout, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
What a story! And this is what the Holy Spirit wants to do in each one our lives. If you are having a heart problem, if you are struggling with counterfeit Christianity, the only solution is to repent and turn to the cross of Christ. For there is where the power is.