Our current series is called “BIG Church”, and the reason it’s called “BIG Church” is because Church as God designed it is a really big deal. The Church is not an institution; it’s not a location. The Church is a movement, and it’s a movement around a very simple message that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that He died on the cross and rose from the dead. And it was that same very simple message that caused the movement, just two months after the resurrection took place, to grow so rapidly that over 5,000 men (not counting women and children so very likely 10,000+) embraced that message.
We’ve been looking at the book of Acts and asking the question: How did the story and the message of Jesus survive the first century? Why is it that one third of the world’s population today acknowledge that Jesus is sent from God, and most of the people in that third of the world’s population believe that He’s actually the Son of God, sent to save us from our sins?
The story began as a small group of eyewitnesses went into the streets of Jerusalem and began to proclaim that He was in fact the Messiah, and that He had been raised from the dead. On day one of the Church, over 3,000 people embraced this message. Can you imagine if we went out and did one mission and 3,000 people became believers that day?
A few weeks later, another 2,000 men (not counting women and children) embraced it and now everyone in city knew something unique was going on. This new movement threatened the very delicate balance of power between Jewish authorities and Roman authorities. You see, the Romans left the Jews worship their God, but they needed to keep it down. No distractions to Rome or they would no longer be allowed to have their Temple nor their religion.
And now, instead of one dozen people, there are over 10,000+ people running around the streets of Jerusalem saying that Jesus has risen from the dead; He’s the Messiah; things are changing and we can never ever go back to what it was before.
So because of this disturbance to the oh so delegate balance of power, persecution broke out. And where we left off in the story last week was when the religious leaders brought Jesus’ apostles before the Sanhedrin, warned them to stop talking about the resurrection and to stop talking about the name that they wouldn’t even say, Jesus. Then to make their point, Luke tells us that these men were flogged, which meant basically they were whipped and beaten almost to death. And after being beaten and warned not to speak the name of Jesus anymore, here’s what happened.
41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
To have suffered, to have given up something, to be disfigured because of the name of Jesus is the thing they were most proud of. Jesus gave His life for them, so they rejoiced to give something so great up for Him. We don’t find them huddling together asking how can bad things happen to good people and where is God? Instead, we find them stepping out in an incredibly bold way to say, in spite of what you tell us, we can’t stop talking about what we’ve seen—this is too BIG!
So as the weeks went on, the church continued to grow and grow. It overflowed out of Jerusalem into the surrounding areas, and things got so big and a little complicated, they began to develop some structure to the local church. Other leaders surfaced and began to take on responsibility, and one of those leaders was a man named Stephen.
Stephen was a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles among the people, and spoke out boldly about his faith. Some men from the synagogue couldn’t stand up to the wisdom and Spirit which Stephen spoke with, so they had him arrested. They paid people to lie about the things Stephen said. And when asked if these accusations were true, Stephen gives a long defense that takes up the whole 7th chapter. He takes his Jewish audience from the Old Testament (which they would have known well) all the way through to current times to explain that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. At the end of his message, the people were so stirred up they drug him outside the city and stoned him to death. As he was dying, he said, “Jesus receive my spirit and don’t charge them with this sin.”
Stephen was the very first martyr. Once he was killed, and once there was no negative reprisal from the Romans, it empowered the enemies of the Church (starting with the Jewish leaders) to begin a widespread persecution of all those that were speaking in the name of Jesus and embracing Christianity.
Saul’s Persecution of the Church
The book of Acts reads so much like history as Luke introduces this period of persecution that broke out against the Christians. And as he does, he introduces to us in a foreshadowing kind of way the character that would then begin to make the biggest difference in the local Church. Here’s how Luke, in the book of Acts, explains it and introduces this new character.
And Saul was there [there being at the stoning of Stephen] giving approval of his death.
Now, Saul is actually the Hebrew name of the man that we know as the apostle Paul. Paul was either a Roman surname because Saul was a Roman citizen as well as a Jew, or Paul might have been an actual Greek pronunciation of this Hebrew name. But here’s what Luke writes next.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles [Jesus’ eleven followers, plus the one they added] were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Which was a fulfillment of what Jesus had said: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” Acts 1:8. And so, many of the new disciples, the new followers of Jesus, headed for the hills leaving Jerusalem because the persecution was so intense.
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 both men and women and put them in prison.
The reason that he went from house to house is because that’s where the Christians met. Remember the was no church buildings, do they met in homes. Saul became known as the number one person who could track down these Christians, and was a major character in the persecution period, almost the ringleader if you would.
His goal and mission, thinking he was serving God, was to actually stomp out the local Church. To put an end to this movement once and for all. Luke tells us that for three years this went on unchecked; for three years, he continued to persecute the Church, arrest Christians, and threw Christians in jail. Many of these Christians were put to death, but while he persecuted the Church, the Church actually continued to spread. Basically, he would kick over the anthill, and the ants would scatter. By persecuting the church, he actually drove the message of Jesus out further into the countryside and outside of Palestine.
At the end of these three years of unchecked persecution of the Church, something incredible happened that changed everything for Saul and changed everything for the spread of the Gospel.
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
At this point in history, Christians were not called Christians. There wasn’t the church in terms of an establishment. This entire movement, because that’s what it was, was called the Way.
One of the questions scholars and theologians have asked for hundreds of years is why, in the beginning days of the local church, did they refer to it as the Way? And the assumption is, or basically the best theory is, because when Jesus taught, apparently, He commonly said and taught, “I am the Way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” This was so central in the teaching of Jesus that when they were trying to find a name for this group of people, this movement, this thing that was exploding with energy and passion, they called it the Way.
So Saul asked the high priest to give him authority to go and continue arresting those who are a part of the Way starting in Damascus. Of course, the priest liked this idea and therefore loved Saul. He was taking care of their biggest problem. So, he’s on his way to Damascus, he has the letters, he has permission to arrest any Christians he finds, and basically drag them back to Jerusalem to be tried. But here’s the something incredible that happened….
3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Now, if the Church were the church like most of us think, this voice would have said, Saul, Saul why do you persecute it? It being the church, the institution, the building, those people, those pastors, but here in the first century, as they’re beginning to understand what’s really going on, the voice says, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me, which I’m sure he thought, in fact he says in just a minute, what do you mean me? I’m not persecuting a me, I’m persecuting an it, a thing, a movement. Saul’s blinded by the light, has his eyes shut tight and asks….
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.
Meaning, because Jesus is already up in Heaven, what you do to my people, you do to me. In the presence of my people is the same as my presence on earth. So you know what that means for us?
We, the church, are the representatives of Jesus on the earth. Not individually, because we’re not that good—collectively as the body, the hands, feet, mouthpiece of Jesus. And even in the first century, there was evidence that this movement, this group of people that was overflowing into the countryside, together, collectively represented the body of Jesus.
6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Saul gets up and he realizes he still can’t see, was literally blind. So his companions, who also heard the voice, but saw no one, led him to Damascus. And for three days he sat in someone’s house without being able to see, and he began to pray. All of a sudden, his entire life, his worldview was turned completely upside down. Meanwhile, there’s another guy in Damascus named Ananias, and this is where his story begins.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. 11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street [an interesting detail—again this reads like history] and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.
And Ananias is thinking, I know that name and I’m not so sure I want to do that.
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem.
In other words, I’m pretty sure he’s here looking for me. I don’t think I need to be going and looking for him. It continues.
14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my [This is where it begins to answer how in the world this message survived the first century?] chosen instrument to proclaim my name [not simply my message, not simply my teaching—my name] to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
First, this message of Good News was not just for the Jews. This was not something just for those who understood the Old Testament context. This wasn’t just for people who were looking for a Messiah. This was for the entire world. And God chooses the most unlikely candidate in the first century to be the mouthpiece of the Gospel to the Gentiles (Gentiles are basically everyone who is not a Jew).
Ananias Obeys God
So Ananias reluctantly decides to do what God asked him to do, goes and finds Saul. Can you imagine walking up to that house and standing outside thinking, this is the man responsible for murdering people I know. This is the man responsible for arresting men and women, dragging them out of their house, taking them to Jerusalem, and we’ve never heard from them again. This is the number one enemy of the movement to which I have given my life.
Ananias knocks on the door and walks in, and there’s Saul sitting there blinded. Ananias lays his hands on him, and Luke tells us that something like scales fell off Saul’s eyes, and he was able to see again. He explained to Saul that God has given him a unique privilege, a unique opportunity, a mission, and he will suffer greatly. But your mission is to take this message, the message of the Church, and the message of Jesus to the entire known world in your lifetime.
19 Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues [that would be to the Jews] that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” [word travels fast; yet Paul continued to grow bold.] 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
And then for the next twelve or fourteen years, Saul essentially disappears. He shows up here and there and speaks, but for the next twelve or fourteen years, Saul got his own education. He took time to study and spend personal time with God. And then he spent time with Jesus’ followers. He tells us in the book of Galatians that he spent two weeks with Peter absorbing the teachings, the life and miracles of Jesus. He also says that he spent time with James, the brother of Jesus. We know that he went to Jerusalem on at least two occasions and was with the closest followers of Jesus there. He just absorbed all that he could about the life and teachings of Jesus.
After these years of preparation, he began what we call Paul’s missionary journeys. And for the next ten or eleven years, he traveled through this part of the known world—throughout what is today Turkey and Greece—from Jerusalem. During those years, he stopped in each of these cities, and actually planted little ekklesias, little churches, little gatherings. For ten or eleven years, mostly by ship he traveled in three big circles around this area. And everywhere he went, he would go to the synagogue first and try to convince as many Jews as he could. This was because they were the ones waiting on a Messiah. They should have been the easy ones to convert. However, once they would throw him out and, in some cases, beat him, stone him, even have him arrested, he would shake off the dust and go to the Gentiles in that area and say, I have some great news.
He did this in Corinth and Athens and Ephesus, all over this part of the world. He went to the major cities and he fearlessly and boldly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Eventually, he was arrested while he was in Jerusalem and was taken up to Caesarea (Ses-er-eia) and kept in jail there for two years. He told them he was a Roman citizen and that he wanted to be tried by Rome, so he appealed to the emperor.
So he then began this long dangerous journey from Jerusalem all the way to Rome where he was under house arrest for two more years. While he was under house arrest in Rome, he wrote some of the literature that’s familiar to all of us. He wrote to the churches, to the ekklesias, the gatherings, that he had established all around the realm of the Mediterranean. Many of these letters make up the bulk of the New Testament, like the letter to the church in Ephesus, that we know as the book of Ephesians, and the letter to the church in Philippi that we know as the book of Philippians.
Eventually, he was released, but then was re-arrested just a few years later and spent about a year and a half once again in prison, this time in a real dungeon in Rome.
Nero was the Emperor. And let’s just say he was not fond of Christianity. One day, probably early in the morning, Paul’s prison doors were opened, guards took him out silently, walked him outside the city, and very quickly Paul knew where they were headed because it was a part of the city where executions were often held. Without any ceremony, with no eyewitnesses, he was executed. Although his life ended, the impact of his life had really just begun.
Here’s the significance of that. Very bad things can happen to good people, and God is still God and sits on His throne. Very unexplainable things can happen to people who are extraordinarily faithful, and God is not rocked or changed by that. This is just part of the story, and it has been part of the story from the very beginning. And never throughout the book of Acts do we find Christians huddled together, afraid that God has lost control, or afraid that maybe God doesn’t love them anymore. What we find is a BOLD commitment to this life-changing message that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And it was Paul’s boldness, and it was his courage to get on a boat time after time and visit many of the pagan cultures that were anti-everything he had to teach. But he consistently did that, and it’s one of the primary reasons you know about Jesus today.
In addition to being an example of a bold missionary, there was something else that Paul did that is extraordinarily important for you and for me.
Because the apostle Paul was a Roman citizen, he had access to things that even some of his brothers in Jerusalem did not have access to like an education. And because of his brilliance he was, thankfully for our benefit, able to teach from Christian Judaism to the Gentile world. In fact, as we will see next week, he got in trouble with the Christian Jews in Jerusalem because he had a Gentile version of Christianity. But the thing that God raised him up to do was to help those who don’t have an Old Testament background, who weren’t looking for a Messiah, to understand the essence of the Gospel.
The Gospel Message
In the book of 1 Corinthians, he defines very clearly what the Gospel message is. This is a letter that he wrote during that time when he was traveling around building the ekklesia, the gathering, and he wrote to the people in Corinth.
1 Corinthians 15:1,3-6
1 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 3 For what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, [Do you know who Cephas is? Peter] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time,
Paul realized and discovered in talking to all the people in Jerusalem that there were points after Jesus’ resurrection that he didn’t just appear to one or two here or there that thought they had some kind of mysterious vision of a resurrected Jesus. He said, no you need to understand there was a time when the resurrected Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at the same time. Then listen to this next part….
1 Corinthians 15:6
6 most of whom are still living though some have fallen asleep.
Now this document was written about twenty some years after the events. And he says to the Christians in Corinth, I know it’s hard to believe and wrap your mind around that someone actually rising from the dead, but you need to know there were over 500 people at one time who saw the resurrected Jesus. And if you want to get yourself a boat ticket and go to Jerusalem, you can find most of those people. Some have died, but most are still alive and walking around today.
1 Corinthians 15:7-9
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, [then listen as he brings it back to his personal ministry] 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. [like he was born in the wrong time, and shouldn’t have appeared to me] 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God.
There’s that word again. I persecuted the ekklesia, the movement of God.
1 Corinthians 15:10
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.
Isn’t that powerful? He says to the Corinthians, I don’t know why God chose me to bring this message to you. Out of all the people that should have been chosen to make a difference and to plant these ekklesias, these gatherings, I’m the last one He should have chosen. Yet by His grace, He chose me.
So he brings to everyone the bottom line, the thing you can’t ignore. This just couldn’t be any clearer. I feel like the apostle Paul is saying, I know you have a lot of questions, but here’s the part you just can’t ever lose sight of. It’s four simple statements.
Christ died for our sin.
He was buried.
He was raised.
That’s the Gospel—that’s the starting point. That’s not the point you get to after you get all your questions answered. That’s the simple message we are to take to the world. The whole world, and for most of us that starts right here where we live.
Believe Today and Be Saved
So here’s my question for you as we wrap this up. Has there ever been a time in your life, that ah-ha moment where you said, I get it. Have you ever expressed to your Heavenly Father, thank you that Christ died for my sins, he was buried, he rose from the dead, he lives today and I want to embrace Him as my personal Savior? Thank you for loving me enough to put all that in place for my benefit. Because you know, love is a choice. God chooses to love you that much.
I know you may still have lots of questions about the Bible and all that is in there, but have you first done the most important thing and embraced the Gospel? If you haven’t, I want to give you a chance to do that today.
If something clicked in you today, then perhaps this is the day for you to embrace this message and to join the ekklesia, the Church, the movement of God.
Please bow your heads in prayer with me. For those of you watching online, if you would bow with us as well. I want to lead you through this prayer. And you can change the words, you can say this out loud if you want, or say it in your heart, but would you just pray this.
Heavenly Father, I believe Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world and for my sins. I believe he was buried and I believe on the third day you raised Him from the dead and that he was seen. I embrace Him as my personal Savior. I’m trusting Him to provide forgiveness for all of my sins: my past sin, the sins I’ll commit this very day, and the sins I’ll commit in the future. Receive me into your family. I’m thrilled to join the Church of God. And it’s in the name of Jesus, the resurrected Savior, I pray. Amen.