36 U.S. Code§302 ~ October 27, 2019 ~ Acts 11:19-26
Alright, the Scripture for this morning is Acts chapter 11. Let me set the scene a little bit. The first government organized persecution of followers of Jesus in the Roman Empire began under the emperor Nero after the great fire in Rome in AD 64. It’s fascinating that even to this day, scholars are a little unsure as to whether or not Nero himself set the fire which destroyed a good portion of the city of Rome. But nonetheless, whether he did, or he didn’t, he pointed the finger at new scapegoats, these followers of this Jesus guy from Nazareth, and blamed them. And an official persecution began under his reign.
Now, Jewish leaders, they had a bit of a head start. The Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the teachers of religious law – they had been persecuting the followers of the Nazarene since the crucifixion, since the first Easter. So, over the last thirty some odd years, Jews had continued to persecute these new followers of Jesus, and we’re going to talk about that this morning. Please join me in the unison prayer as we prepare to study the Word of God. Let us pray.
Lord, upon the pages of this book is Your story. It is also our story. Open our eyes that we may see, our ears that we may hear, our minds that we may understand, and our hearts that they may be transformed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
We are in Acts 11 beginning in the 19th verse.
Meanwhile, the believers who had been scattered during the persecution after Stephen’s death traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch of Syria. They preached the word of God, but only to Jews. However, some of the believers who went to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching to the Gentiles about the Lord Jesus.
Gentiles are basically anybody who was not a Jew.
The power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord.
When the church at Jerusalem heard what had happened, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw this evidence of God’s blessing, he was filled with joy, and he encouraged the believers to stay true to the Lord. Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and strong in faith. And many people were brought to the Lord.
Then Barnabas went on to Tarsus to look for Saul.
When he found him, he brought him back to Antioch. Both of them stayed there
with the church for a full year, teaching large crowds of people. (It was at
Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.)
Now, that reading begins with the word “meanwhile,” and I love it when the Bible does that to you. It starts off your reading with “meanwhile…” or “therefore…” or “afterward…” After what? Therefore what? Meanwhile what? What was going on that we should be aware of?
Well, this story begins back in Acts 6 with a man, believer, evangelist by the name of Stephen. In Acts 6:8 we read this:
Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. But one day some men from the Synagogue of Freed Slaves, as it was called, started to debate with him. They were Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia.
Check this out.
None of them could stand against the wisdom and the
Spirit with which Stephen spoke.
So, they could not answer the argument. They could not come up with a counterargument. And that has not changed for 2000 years. Oftentimes when you’re in an argument with someone and they can’t answer your points, they turn around and just point fingers and start calling you names, because they can’t battle you on the field of ideas. Same thing happened here.
So they persuaded some men to lie about Stephen, saying, “We heard him blaspheme Moses, and even God.”
Which wasn’t true.
This roused the people, the elders, and the teachers of religious law. So they arrested Stephen and brought him before the high council.
The lying witnesses said, “This man is always
speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses.”
Not true. How does Stephen respond? That story is in chapter 7. Stephen basically preaches the gospel to the council and anyone within his hearing. He starts in the Old Testament, with the prophesies of the coming Messiah, the anointed one which we refer to as the Christ; and he connects all the dots. And he shows them, “You see? This Messiah that they’re talking about, that is being prophesied about by Jews in the Old Testament? It is fulfilled in Jesus.” He preaches the truth right in front of them. They don’t want to hear it. In verse 57 of chapter 7, it says:
Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting.
Doesn’t that kind of sound like someone going “La La La La La! I don’t want to hear it!” It’s making too much sense.
They rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Yes, that Saul.
As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Which sounds an awful lot like what Jesus said on the cross. “Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”
He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!”
Sounds an awful lot like Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”
And with that, he died.
Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen.
A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping
over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were
scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and
buried Stephen with great mourning.) But Saul was going everywhere to destroy
the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to
throw them into prison.
Now, we know that Saul eventually has a conversion experience on the road to Damascus; but at the time, others did not know of that experience. They had already fled. Philip had left. Peter had left. Barnabas had left. Those folks had no idea that Saul had been converted, he was now a believer. They were sharing the gospel out in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and beyond. And then, one day, Peter has an A-ha moment himself.
Peter is staying at a friend’s house by the name of Simon. He was a tanner in Joppa, about four miles south of Tel Aviv. And he goes up on the roof of where he is staying one afternoon right before lunch and he takes a little nap. He has a dream, a vision; and in this vision a sheet, four corners of a sheet is lowered down before him, and he hears a voice. “Peter, get up, kill, and eat.” For inside the sheet were a whole bunch of animals, every single one of which – according to the Bible – were not allowed to be eaten. It was verboten. It was against God’s law.
Peter responds: “No, Lord, I have never eaten anything that’s unclean, and I’m not going to do so now.” The voice says, “Don’t call anything unclean that I have made clean.” And this vision happens three times. That’s a clue. When you’re reading Scripture, if God repeats something three times, pay attention. He means it. As the sheet rises and Peter wakes up, he’s confused. He doesn’t know what this vision is all about; when all of a sudden, there’s a knock on the door.
A man named Cornelius, a Gentile, had sent two messengers to get Peter, to send him back to his house to share with him the rest of the story, the message of the gospel. Peter goes with these guys. He connects the dots with them. He shares with them the truth of the Word. And all of a sudden, the Holy Spirit comes upon these people and they start speaking in tongues. And Peter is shocked! These are Gentiles! That was supposed to be for the Jews. You’re supposed to be a Jew first, and then a Gentile. And then he got it. A lightbulb went on. A-ha! That’s what the vision was about. God said, “Don’t call anything unclean that I have made clean.” Gentiles, non-Jews, were once unbelievers were unclean; but because of what Christ did on the cross, they have now been cleansed like everyone else.
That is such a great analogy, that Kyle used earlier. They are now able to run right to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords directly, because of the Holy Spirit. Well, that was new. So, Peter spreads the news of what’s going on – you’ll find that story in chapter 10 and 11 – and the apostles hear this story about the Gentiles getting the Holy Spirit; and at first, they’re not happy about it. But Peter then shares with them his story, and in verse 18 of chapter 11, they stopped objecting. They began praising God. They said, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.”
All of that is what’s going on “meanwhile.” So, all of that is taking place. Meanwhile, believers have been scattered all throughout the region. They are sharing the gospel with Jews first, and then in verse 20 it says they began to preach to some Gentiles. And in verse 21, the power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord. The same thing that happened at Cornelius’ house is happening again and again and again.
Well, the church in Jerusalem is hearing about this and they’re not sure what to think. They send Barnabas to check it out. Barnabas gets there and he’s all excited. He’s filled with joy. He can’t believe the Holy Spirit, Jesus, is accessible to anyone who believes. He goes to get Paul. Paul comes back with him. They stay for a year; they preach and teach; the crowds grow and grow. And it was here also that something else happened. During this time, we read, It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.
You see, people began to realize that these followers of Jesus were not really considered Jews anymore. I mean, the original twelve, the apostles were all Jews, as well as many of the early disciples; but up until this point, most people understood these followers of Jesus as a sect of Judaism, like Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Essenes – these followers that believed in Jesus and what He taught were simply known as “Followers of the Way” – the way of Jesus. The Jewish Rabbi. But it was increasingly becoming clear to those in Antioch, the Jews rejected Jesus and all those who followed him. In fact, like the Romans, they were now persecuting them. So, if they were not Jews, these people, what were they? Well, in Antioch they figured since they are followers of Jesus who they believe is the Christ, the Messiah, they started calling them Christ-ians – Christians.
And this Christian movement grew and spread. Over the next hundred years, the Christian church flourished. Pastors and teachers like Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp, and Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, and Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, and Origen – they all provide the fuel which fans the flames of Christian faith up and down the Mediterranean coast, throughout Anatolia, inland parts of the Roman empire, even into the Partheon empire. Even in the midst of great persecution. You see, it was still a risk to your personal safety to profess you’re a follower of Jesus. You risked imprisonment, you risked torture, you risked even death! And yet, the Christian church, the Christian faith, continued to blossom. The hope and the promise of Jesus continued to multiply. In fact, that is often when Christian faith grows the fastest.
You see, here in this country, we really live in the lap of luxury compared to the rest of the world. We have freedom – freedom to worship as we choose. We never have to worry about soldiers breaking down those doors and coming to arrest us and take us away. And yet, in this country, the mainline church is dying.
Do you know where the Christian faith has seen dramatic and explosive growth? In Asia, in Africa, and in South America. The growth of the African church in particular is jaw-dropping. In 1900 there were fewer than 9 million Christians in all of Africa. Nine million. Today, there are more than 541 million. There has been a 51% increase in Africa over the last 15 years alone. 51% increase! What do you think the numbers in America have been over the last 15 years? And in Africa, there are a lot of countries where it’s still not safe to profess your faith. 51% increase.
You might be surprised to know Communist China, where if you go on google and check out some news articles, you will see every week there is another pastor who is arrested, there is another church that is shut down, there is another cathedral that is literally blown up. The Christian church is heavily persecuted in China; and yet, in Communist China, they are on course to become the world’s most Christian nation in the next 15 years.
How about the middle east? You might think, “Well, yeah, but I bet Christianity’s not doing that well in the middle east.” You would be wrong. The top seven countries where Christianity has the highest percentage of growth rate are Nepal, China, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and Yemen.” Except for Nepal and China (Nepal is heavily Buddhist, China is atheist), every other country on that list is Islamic. In those countries, being a Christian is against the law, that can result in imprisonment or worse.
It’s been happening ever since it started with Saul. I mean, I remember in my lifetime, when I was a junior in high school in 1979, extremists took control in Iran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. My entire senior year, all over the town there were yellow ribbons tied around trees – some of you might remember this off the Tony Orlando song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” – all in hopes and prayer that these Americans would be released and be allowed to come home. Four hundred forty-four days, that’s over a year! Those extremists then set up a hardline Islamic government that follows Sharia law. At that time, there were approximately 500 Christians in the entire country of Iran. And over the nest 20 years, a wave of persecution started. It continues to this day. all missionaries were expelled; evangelism was declared illegal; Bibles in the Persian or Farsi language were banned; and pastors were imprisoned and executed. There were genuine fears that the small Iranian church would be crushed. Instead, it has multiplied. It has multiplied in an extraordinary way. Today, there are not 500, but approximately 500,000 Christians in the country of Iran, and some sources put the number even higher. The historic and organic growth of Christianity in Iran is recognized as one of the fastest growing underground church movements in the world.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Christian faith is still illegal. It still can find you in prison. It’s still persecuted. If Iranian Muslims who become Christians are caught, they face arbitrary arrest and detention. There’s a new documentary that just came out called “Sheep Among Wolves.” It’s a fascinating story. It examines the growth of the Christian faith in Iran – especially among women who are spearheading the movement. You go girls! The fact is, more Iranians have become Christians in the past 20 years than in the previous thirteen centuries since Islam subjugated Iran. Multiple reports indicate that even sons of political and spiritual leaders are leaving Islam for Christianity. Praise God! In the midst of persecution, in the face of death, the faith is blossoming!
All I can say is that the Christian faith at one time was that alive here in this country.
In fact, in 1956, the United States Congress passed a law that was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, establishing a national motto. We didn’t have one prior to that. Title 36, chapter 3, section 302 now, today, of the US Code boldly declares our national motto to be “In God We Trust.” We print it on our money. But I wonder: do we still?
Are we glad to make such a claim? Or do we find that offensive today? Why would we? And ask yourself: If a Congressman or a Congresswoman or a Senator proposed such a bill in 2019 – let’s pretend we didn’t have a national motto, and somebody said in 2019, “I make a motion we make our national motto ‘In God We Trust!’” – do you think it would pass? It was only 1956. What happened in the last 63 years?
Some might say we’ve gotten a little too comfortable. Stephen was willing to die for his faith. Peter, Paul, Barnabas – they would soon follow. Peter was crucified upside down at his request, because he did not believe he was worthy enough to even be executed in the same manner as Jesus, since he denied Him three times. Paul was beheaded under Nero’s campaign. Barnabas was tortured in several different ways and then eventually stoned to death. And there are countless numbers of others whose names we will never know, who risked it all in order to share the message of Jesus with the rest of the world. So passionate about their faith were they.
There’s even an English historian by the name of John Fox. He attempted to record all of these stories in 1563 in a book we know as “Fox’s Book of Martyrs.” By 1570 (that’s only seven years), it had grown to 2300 pages. Stories of people who were willing to die for their faith.
We don’t live in Nepal. We don’t live in China, or Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, or Oman, or Yemen, or Iran. So, my question is what is it that stops us from declaring our faith to our friends? To our family? To our co-workers? To strangers? Statistically, less than 2% of every Christian ever shares their faith with someone else. 98% of us do not. Why is that?
I mean, we all proudly and loudly proclaim our allegiance to our favorite team, right? We get very excited about our team! We get exited about our team, even if they’re terrible! You come into my office, you stop by, I have a shrine (some people have seen it) to the New York Jets! We don’t have any problem letting the world know we are a Yankees fan. What about Jesus? It’s almost as if we say, “Well, Jesus, that’s something I do on Sunday.” Isn’t that something we do on Sunday too?
Maybe we’re too comfortable. Why is it that I will go to the mat for my beloved Patriots or Giants, but remain cautious and careful and guarded in letting people know I am a follower of Jesus?
Now, I wore my shirt this morning, my collared shirt, partially because it’s a costume, but you know I used to wear this every single day? When I was serving in Maine, it was required of me by my boss, by my pastor and mentor Reverend Carlson. It was my uniform. You cannot help but reveal to the world that you are a believer in Jesus if you’re walking around with one of these on. And believe me, it works! You can’t sit down at the bus stop without somebody coming and sitting down next to you and saying, “You know, I don’t go to church all that often, but…” “You know, my sister…” They would pour out their hearts to me, because they knew where I stand. Why would they do that? Because Christians are supposed to respond. Christians are supposed to be loving, and caring, and listening. There was no doubt where I stood when I wore my collar.
Why is it, Lord, why is it when I find myself hesitant to proclaim to the world – not to other Christians on Sunday morning, that’s preaching to the choir – when I proclaim to the world what my parents did in 1956? That in God I trust? When I am wary in revealing that I am a Christ follower; that I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and the only source humanity can rely on to reveal the truth, Lord, help me. Help me when I struggle. Help me remember the women in Iran. Help me remember my brothers and sisters in China, in Oman, in Yemen. Help me remember Pastor Han. This is the story of Pastor Han. [shows video from Voice of the Martyrs]
This is from 2016. Still happens, friends.
Next week is what they call the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I have a bunch of magazines I’m going to put out on the three tables in Robinson Lobby, and as you leave today, please help yourself. I’m not asking for anything. I’m just asking for prayer. If you would just pick up a magazine, take your time, read it, and let the Holy Spirit do its work. Pray for our brothers and sisters who are persecuted all over the world. There are some commitment to pray cards on the information desk out there. If you like, you can fill it out. It makes a handy dandy little bookmark for you, and you can fill out this if you want to receive a free global prayer guide that lists the places in the world really in need of your prayer. And I have about ten of the video DVDs if anybody is interested in sharing that story of Pastor Han with others. Just let me know.
It just blows my mind; it humbles me that people like Pastor Han and the thousand North Koreans who are now beliers at the risk of their own life are willing to put it all on the line to be known as Jesus followers. Lord, give me the courage to be as vocal a supporter of Jesus as I am of Joe Namath. It’s easy to tell everybody I’m a Joe Namath fan. I pray that I can be as strong an advocate and a fan of the truth that is Jesus Christ.
The believers in Antioch boldly proclaimed themselves Christians, even though they knew what may lie ahead. My prayer is that we would od that same: boldly proclaim that we are followers of that rabbi from Nazareth, the Son of God, the Messiah, Jesus. Would you stand and pray with me?