Persecution and Growth

While the opening chapters of Acts empower and equip the apostles and other believers, the following chapters demonstrate why that was necessary.

The first recognizable theme of chapters 5-8 is suffering. At every turn, it seems, the apostles are told to stop preaching the Gospel, to stop speaking in the name of Jesus. These weren’t idle irritations as they were arrested and stood before councils. They were flogged, which served as a consolation for the elders and authorities who wanted to kill them.

The authorities’ irritation at the apostles was due to how much they disliked Jesus, but their persecution was justified under Roman rule not because of their beliefs but because they didn’t want an uprising from the believers.

Because despite the public pursuit and persecution of the apostles, the Church was growing rapidly.

This is the context in which we are introduced to Stephen. There is an ongoing paradox here of persecution and growth, and Stephen proves to be the highest point of tension within that paradox.

Stephen was wonderful. He was full of grace and power. He was eager to do for God. He had charisma and his face was like an angel’s.

Not everyone was smitten with Stephen, though. Some people plotted against him and said he was speaking blasphemy. Stephen faced a council, and his case was damaged by false witnesses. They asked Stephen what he had to say for himself, and he went into what can be considered both a defense of the faith and a history of it. He ends by calling the council “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised in hearts and ears,” and he said they “received the law as ordained by angels, and yet [they had] not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53, NRSV).

You would think that Stephen would take this time to make himself a more sympathetic, non-threatening character. Instead, Stephen uses this time to insult the people who are already wanting loud-mouth Christ-followers dead. Stephen believed what he said to be true, and we have no proof in scripture that the last minutes of his life were plagued with regret for what he said. The fact remains, though, that this did lead to the end of Stephen’s life because they stoned him.

While Stephen was being stoned to death, an ambitious and devoted man called Saul stood by monitoring the situation as everyone’s coats laid at his feet. Saul approved of them killing Stephen.

Then the floodgates opened.

The first three verses of Acts 8 are chaotic and disheartening. The persecution spread from the apostles to all believers, and people were dragged out of their homes to be thrown in prison.

But the story doesn’t stop there.

The rest of Acts 8 shows the growth and preserverance of the Church despite the danger of proclaiming the faith. Believers preached everywhere they went. Word of mouth was incredible. People came to listen and believe in groups. And believers were eager enough to share that they would go out of their way to witness to even one person, as Philip did when he left thriving Samaria to meet who turned out to be the treasurer of Ethiopia.

The point of all this summarizing and what we learn from this chunk of scripture is that God is always at work. Even in our suffering. Even when the world around us is crumbling and makes no sense. When we’re scattered. When we’re hurting. God is always working for our good.

It doesn’t make it easier. It doesn’t make our issues or troubles go away. It doesn’t even increase our understanding. But I refuse to believe that I’m the only one comforted by this.

The God who made you is pulling for you. He loves you. He believes in you. And He’s doing everything He can for you. All we have to do is ask and believe. I know that’s not always easy, but God will never leave us disappointed if we keep our eyes on Him.

The early Church was not perfect. It experienced new ground, new people, and a new era, and they had to learn how to navigate all that. As relentless as the persecution was, had the Church not been focused on God and the message of Jesus, they would have been easily snuffed out. But because they focused on God, they survived and prospered.

If you’re in a difficult season or if you’re spiritually weak or frustrated or confused, I hope you can find the same hope that I find in Acts 8. The Church’s story wasn’t over, and neither is yours.

By Carrie Prevette

Annoyance and Boldness

When Alan asked the congregation on Sunday if we (as individuals) were ever annoying, I leaned over to my brother and whispered, “Literally every day of my life.”

Sometimes I actually try to annoy people, mostly my brother because that’s just how we are, but I often feel like I’m being annoying even if I’m not doing anything. Which is why I’m very glad that I can’t be arrested for being annoying like Peter and John pretty much were in Acts 4.

Acts 4:1-3 (NLT) reads, “While Peter and John were speaking to the people, they were confronted by the priests, the captain of the Temple guard, and some of the Sadducees. These leaders were very disturbed that Peter and John were teaching the people that through Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead. They arrested them and, since it was already evening, put them in jail until morning.”

Imagine: a night in the slammer just because someone didn’t like what you were saying.

This scripture reminds us of two things. First, the apostles may have started the Church, but they practiced Judaism. The only difference between them and conventional Jews was that they believed the Messiah had already come. Jewish believers, especially those higher up or who had prestige in the faith, probably thought the apostles were pretty strange. Second, it reminds us that the opposition that Jesus faced did not die with Him. He said this would happen in scriptures such as John 15:18 and 16:33. Religious sects and individuals still very much disliked Jesus and what He said and did and, by extension, disliked His followers as well.

“But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand” (Acts 4:4, NRSV).

Other translations say it was five thousand men, which wouldn’t include the number of women and children. Regardless, we know at least five thousand people believed because of Peter and John. As annoying as religious leaders found them, others were touched and changed by the message they spoke.

The next day, Peter and John were standing in front of leaders and elders and pretty much everyone. When questioned about how they were doing what they were doing, they responded by proclaiming the power of Jesus.

Peter had a history of hiding and denying, and it would have been easy to back down in this situation. Easy, but devasting. He shows a lot of growth here because he holds onto his boldness and stands his ground. The consequences be what they may, Peter wasn’t going to say anything but the truth.

What you say and do, how you think and feel won’t please everyone, and that’s okay. Some people won’t like you and some will find you annoying. But someone can reach the people you can’t, and you can reach the people I can’t. All we need is to embrace who we are in Christ and take hold of the boldness He offers us. Not everyone will think you’re annoying. Many will be thankful for the impact you make.

By Carrie Prevette

Giving and Receiving

“One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:1-8, NRSV).

There’s a lot to unpack here. It’s a short story, and the actual story itself is pretty simple, but what this scripture means in its context for us has a lot of parts to it.

Peter and John were disciples, apostles, and Church leaders, but on this afternoon, they were no more spectacular than you or me. They were simply believers who were filled and led by the Spirit on their way to pray. When they got to the temple, they saw a man asking for help, and they had something to give him. It wasn’t what he asked for, but it was what he needed.

Peter and John gave because they had received. They’d never been healed from being lame, but they had received powers and gifts through the Spirit, and they received blessings to pass on to others. Peter said he was giving what he had, and Peter didn’t have because he was set apart from everyone else; he had because God gave to him.

This is what we are to do too. Jesus came to give us life abundantly (John 10:10) so that we can give to others out of that abundance. We are filled so that others won’t remain empty. We aren’t dragons hoarding the gold that is God’s goodness. We have so that we may gladly give (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).

And this is a Jesus level miracle. It’s no small feat. Acts 3:10 (NRSV) says that the people who recognized the formerly lame man “were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.” And this is Peter we’re talking about. Peter, who only had a problem with boldness when he denied Jesus three times and had to face him again. Peter, who was on fire for God and had a fiery temper. Peter, who was just as flawed as he was magnificent.

That’s why I am so encouraged by this scripture. If someone like Peter can so positively impact the world around him for kingdom of God then there’s no reason you or I can’t as well. It wasn’t about Peter; it was about him allowing God to use him.

There’s a lot to learn from the man at the Beautiful Gate as well. He could’ve taken his blessing and left. He wouldn’t have been the only person in scripture to do so. But he chose to rejoice and praise God, to go into the temple and praise and pray. This should be our reactions to God’s blessings as well.

God is constantly exceeding our expectations. He certainly did for the man at the temple gate. The man was expecting money, not a miracle. Lack of money was a problem, but it was a result of the main problem: his physical condition. So instead of solving one problem, God solved them all. I think this man would agree with the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes, well, you just might find / You get what you need.”

It’s a lot for such a small piece of scripture, but I think it’s what we all need to take to heart from time to time. Each of us, as imperfect as we are, can do astounding things through God. When God exceeds our expectations and when He blesses us, we should thank Him and pass on our blessings to others. In doing so, it strengthens our relationship with God and helps us and those around us.

By Carrie Prevette

Empowering and Decreasing

In Acts 2, we read of the Holy Spirit coming down upon the apostles and over one hundred other people, who were from various parts of the world and who were waiting. In a powerful moment, they were all speaking other languages and hearing their own.

It was startling and bewildering to those on the day of Pentecost. It’s the same all these centuries later. I don’t envy the apostles and the early Church for having to learn about and understand the Holy Spirit for their own sakes and in order to teach others about it. Even now we struggle to understand and make sense of the Holy Spirit because there are so many schools of thought and interpretations on it. And not understanding makes us uncomfortable, and discomfort creates avoidance almost to the point of taboo.

What does the Holy Spirit do? How does what happened on Pentecost affect us today?

The Holy Spirit is one third of the Godhead, and it is our connection to God. Jesus is the one who tore the veil so that we could commune with God, and the Holy Spirit is the way by which we commune with God. It convicts us, guides us, and teaches us.

The Holy Spirit empowers us. It takes us from where we are to where we are supposed to be. It makes us stronger in who we are, specifically who we are in Christ. It’s like it takes a big, bold marker and emphasizes our lines, colors, and shades. It changes the parts of us that need to change and enhances the parts that are good and vital to who we are and how we can impact the world for the kingdom of God.

Paul said that he was all things to all people so that he could win some to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Odd as it seems, this isn’t a result of Paul’s personality being watered down or changing so much as him using his position. Paul had a unique situation. He was Roman and Jewish, meaning he could reach both the oppressors and the oppressed. It also meant he could preach to Jews or gentiles. Paul was educated, a reformed Pharisee, but he had a certain charm that appealed to the common person. He had a bad past, but he was doing so much for God. There wasn’t someone Paul couldn’t reach because of who he was.

This can be confusing when we’re told, “More of God, less of us.” John 3:30 (NRSV) reads, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This makes sense in general. If God is love, goodness, hope, joy, there should be more of that. But how can we be empowered only to decrease?

When John the Baptist says this, he’s addressing a crowd, saying he isn’t the Messiah, but he’s the one who was sent ahead of Him. This statement is in reference to the significance of John and his humility. He’s saying he’s not nearly as important as the one who is coming after him. It has nothing to do with diminishing what makes John who he is. It serves to elevate Jesus.

This verse and concept do not reference who we are. It doesn’t mean that who we are is awful and must not be shown. It’s about allowing God to shine, to be the focal point of our lives and the filter through which we interact with the world. We can do that while still keeping the qualities that compose us.

The Holy Spirit may have stunned or confused those gathered on Pentecost, but it also ultimately liberated them. They now had a constant connection with God and a means to connect with other people spiritually. They became themselves, only starker. Their identities and roles in the kingdom were being made clearer while God was at the center.

It works the same in our lives. It’s not that we suddenly have all the answers and confidence, but we can navigate scriptures and the world in a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit to reach those answers and that confidence. It’s a freedom to both know and to discover, to be steadfast and to reinvent, to empower and to decrease.

By Carrie Prevette

Waiting

I don’t think there’s anyone who enjoys waiting. Some people may not mind it, others may be good at it, but no one has ever said, “You know what I really want to do today? I’d love to wait.”

I do think a small part of our issue with waiting these days is that we hardly ever have to be patient. Regardless, the phrase “waiting room” makes me exhausted. When I think of standing in line, I can almost hear the sighs and complaints, my own voice among them. I say, “I can’t wait!” a lot when I’m excited about something, not because I can’t but because I really hate that I have to.

But this is what Jesus wanted the apostles to do after His resurrection. He came to them multiple times and ways over 40 days to prove to them that He was, in fact, alive. “Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, ‘Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit'” (Acts 1:4-5, NLT).

The apostles are told to wait. They know the Holy Spirit is coming, but they don’t really know what that means, and they don’t exactly know when it’ll happen. All they know is that they have to wait.

In Psalm 27, David is rejoicing in his salvation, declaring God’s power and love, and he ends with saying in verse 14 (NLT), “Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.” In a Psalm that is ultimately about trusting in God, David advises to wait.

This is similar to Isaiah 40:31. The KJV translation of this verse says “they that wait upon the Lord” will have renewed strength, rise, not tire. The NRSV says “those who wait for the Lord….” The NIV reads “those who hope in the Lord….” And the NLT reads “those who trust in the Lord….” This demonstrates that waiting on God is interchangeable with hoping in Him and trusting in Him.

So that is what we must do. God wants us to be ready for our blessings or our next steps, so until we are, we have to wait. Our hope for our lives and futures are not misplaced if they are in Him, who renews who our hope and makes it a gift and a reality.

We are to trust in Him because there is none more worthy of our trust. No one loves us more, and in loving us the most, God gives us the best. We may not be ready for it when we want it, but if we continue to grow in Him and pursue what He wants of us and for us, we will be waiting actively, and the best that He wants for us will eventually be ours.

The next step for the apostles and the Church was the Holy Spirit. But the time for it was not while Jesus was here on Earth with them.

I’ve always felt bad for the apostles because they’re the only ones who had the truest pleasure of knowing Jesus and had to live without Him between His ascension and the Holy Spirit’s arrival. But those few days of waiting prepared them for the Holy Spirit. The waiting made them ready.

I don’t know what your next step is. I don’t know what blessing you’re looking for. I do know, though, that waiting is both difficult and worthwhile. Your better days are coming. Your rescue is coming. New mercies are coming. A new season is coming. Deeper faith is coming. You’ll be ready when it comes if you continue to strengthen your relationship with God in the meantime. His love will see to it. You just have to wait.

By Carrie Prevette

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