A Healthy Church Unashamedly Glorifies the Mission of Christ (Acts 6:8-8:3)
One of the most moving yet courageous stories in the history of the church was a 2nd century bishop of Smyrna named Polycarp. He was burned alive for his faith in Christ. The Roman cops arrested the old Bishop and brought to the arena for execution in front of a cheering crowd. The ruler pressed him and asked him, “Swear, I will release you. Denounce Christ.” The bishop responded, “86 years have I served him and he never did me wrong; and how can I now blaspheme MY KING JESUS that has saved me.” By the time he finished saying that – he was burned alive. And a 2nd century church father Tertullian wrote while reflecting deeply with the people who were defenders of the gospel – he said that the “blood of martyrs is the seed of the church”. The church then looks so much different to the church now.
What is happening now is that the American church is in a crisis. If you look at the current state of the church from a screen door, it appears that the American church is booming. Just drive along the western suburbs of Chicago, and you will see cops directing traffic, volunteers with matching vests, massive lobby, 7000 seat auditoriums, having 20,000 people each weekend for their services but it’s not just in Chicago, – it is across the US – we have churches in California, Houston, Oklahoma City- all labeled as the fastest growing churches in America. BUT in reality, the church in America is not booming. It is in crisis. On any given Sunday, the vast majority of Americans are absent from the church. When we leave to come to church, the driveways of people’s house are still covered with cars. AS the population continues to grow, the church falls further and further behind. Our world is changing- we are now becoming more and more post-Christian- we no longer can assume that people know anything about Jesus, the Bible, his message, or even the church. Our world is increasingly denying that God exists, relationship with God is a private matter, and spirituality is relative and all-inclusive – what works for me is what works for me- what works for you is what works for you.
Yet this passage strikes at the core of what it means to have the church to be about the mission of Christ, unashamedly. To be in mission means that you have been sent. Jesus was sent to show GOD. Not only to show but also to save. He came to make broken people whole. He came to make sinful people holy. So, not only is he a person in mission but ANYONE who comes into contact with him also becomes a person in mission as well. “Well,” someone says, “that’s one of my problems with this whole idea. Many people will say, Christianity is a great religion if it wasn’t for this missions stuff. Great religion, great teaching, it’s good for the world. But it’s too narrow to say that if you don’t believe, then you’re lost.” It’s like- imagine somebody whose is sick, somebody whom you love, as the same symptoms of sickness that you once had. You know it threatens your life and you know what you do in order to get treated and to be saved. So, what do you do? You start telling them about your experience. You are in mission because of this dynamic combination in your life because you love that person and love truth. If you love him or her but you don’t know any truth that will save, there is no mission. But if you know the truth that will save him or her but you don’t care for them, there is no mission. When love and truth comes together, you have a mission. That’s what we see in Stephen at the end of his life- he preached truth (the only truth that can show and save) but he also prayed love for his people– what does it mean to be a church that loves people yet combine them with the truth of the gospel. And what does it mean to have church that glorifies the mission of Christ. Two points this morning.
I. Being a faithful witness to Christ
We are introduced to this man, named Stephen. What we find is that this man facing opposition and then we hear his long, I mean, very long defense and then he’s dead. He becomes the first martyr of the church. Now, the word martyr actually means, “witness” or “the one who bears a testimony”, so here -Stephen bearing a testimony that got him killed by chapter 8. Now, why does Luke present or place such a bright SPOTLIGHT on Stephen? I mean, who was Stephen? Where did he come from? What was his job?
He was actually one of the people that were selected to serve tables. He was a deacon, he was layman. He was one of the 7 Greek-speaking Jews that was on the list to serve the widows. He was an immigrant. He was serving the needs of the widows yet by chapter 8, he is dead. Yet Luke places a bright SPOTLIGHT on Stephen.
I mean; IS it because that he was the first Christian martyr, who died for his faith? Did Luke write this so that Luke can give Stephen a nice, well-highlighted memorial because he died as hero. Remember, Luke is writing a 2nd volume as a description of the early church. What they did? What they said? What they faced? How did they respond? How did they live? And describes how God is –the absolute center of their lives — And Luke highlights this man because he wants his readers to know that we may very well end up just like this man. Though the way of Christ is good and glorious; it is still a narrow way.
But when it comes to being a witness of Christ, I believe that there are two lies that we are tempted to believe, there are two myths, two false assumptions that we actually believe as we reflect on this godly man named Stephen.
The first is that – I will not have to face what Jesus faced. We think that we do not have to die, we know that there is persecution in the broader church, as we pick up a magazine of the Voice of martyrs – we know that it happens, we know that it exists, but those of us who live in this luxurious, “safe” land called America, we actually believe that we will not have to face what Jesus faced. It feels far away- it’s over there, not here. Yet some of you will face great hostility, some of you will be called to go to the mission field over there – perhaps your parents do not want you to go. Maybe you will face hostility within your own family, within your own culture, within your own local community.
Loved ones, when we sign up for being a Christian, we do not sign up for a guaranteed life of peace and comfort. We sign up for RISK, as John Piper would say. If no one told you that, then they didn’t tell you the whole truth. In fact, he promises in some way, shape or form, we will be face hostility, we will face opposition, so let’s not think that this way of the cross is for other people, or other land, or other day, it is for us.
That is what Jesus told us in Matthew 16:24-25: If anyone comes after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Or John 15:18-19: if the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…
If you go through life and find your values, your morals, your standards, your worldview fit like a hand in a glove with the world and they love you for it, there is something wrong. IF you find the world, what you believe, what you stand for, what you are willing to die for – the world sees it all which you know it is absolutely true, and they hate you for it – Jesus says, they hated me first. The fact is, Jesus says, if you want to follow me, you have to die to live. The challenge is that you have to let go of your right to a happy American life and only then will you get happiness. What you need to stop is– stop saying to God, “YOU OWE ME”, whether your in cloud nine of your life or in the valleys. What you need to say is that — Oh GOD, I owe you EVERYTHING.
See that is what you see in Stephen’s life, look with me in ACTS 6:8- Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedman (they were slaves that are now free), these were Greek-speaking Jews from different place, all rose up and disputed, challenged, argued with him. What were they disputing, what were they arguing: Two things against Stephen. 1) In verse 11 – he spoke blaspheme against Moses and God (check out that word order; what is important to them, you’re telling us Moses customs, his laws, the traditions are to be changed). 2) In verse 13- he spoke words against the temple, that Jesus will destroy the temple and change its customs. Remembers temples were not only for religious purposes, it was the main tourist attraction in Jerusalem, people were selling and buying animals in the temple, so economy wise – its where they make money and you are telling me that Jesus will destroy this holy place – BUT these charges that they made up were twisted, they were manipulated in such way that it was false – “they secretly instigated” in v.11 or “they set up false witnesses” in v. 13 – you see that…. and those charges was made it into a lie –
So, for example, back in the day in church history, Romans hated the Christians because they were Cannibals. We know that is a lie but they thought when these Christians gather, they drink the Savior’s blood and eat the body of their Savior, so they say, Christians are Cannibals – they twisted it, they manipulated it, AND that’s how these Jews did with Stephen. That’s what they are disputing, that’s what they were arguing against Stephen. These false witnesses, these deceivers, and these manipulators opposed him; And Luke wants to present Stephen as re-living as Christ lived, as Christ endured. Stephen is walking in His steps. He is following Christ- he is giving all of who he is…he’s giving his life; he loses his life for Jesus’ sake.
BUT we have this belief that our lives will never be THAT terribly unfair, I mean, I don’t always have to get my way or anything but my life won’t be terribly unfair. Or the thought that we will never, ever be horribly misunderstood as a Christian; I mean people will have some sense of appreciation or goodwill towards me but I will never be horribly, purposefully misunderstood. Or that, if I do the right thing, if I pray hard, if I am a nice guy, if hold the doors, if I go to church, if I fast, then I will finally see that the good guys will win.
But the message of the NT is this: do not be surprised when the fiery trials come; don’t shrink back, don’t backslide, don’t fall away, don’t be ashamed that you will be counted as the scum of the earth, as a “ragamuffin”, for you serve a Savior, who suffered for you, who died for you, who lives for you. You know why? Because you are a Christian. You are a follower of Christ. You are a Christian only because He found you. Because he opened your heart, because he softened your heart. It’s a gift. When this happen, you become an absolutely unexplainable phenomenon to the world. The world needs to understand that we are saved by sheer grace alone.
The second lie that we actually believe is that: If I am called to suffer for the gospel, then I will be a horrible witness for Christ– If we are called to suffer for the sake of the gospel, I’ll be so horrible at it. I can never be like Stephen, there is no way, I don’t even have an angel face. Stephen is Stephen; he is in the Bible. There is no way, we’re sacred, we’re fearful, we’re bunch of cowards, not only in the aspect of our sin but even in defending the gospel; sure, yea, there are people who were great witnesses throughout history,- there was guy named Athanasius, he was a deacon of the church, way back in the 300s, he lived during a time of great controversy, stood against people who opposed Jesus Christ, those who denied that JESUS was God, never compromised the truth, he was a defender of the gospel and when he died– it was said that if the world is against Athanasius, then Athanasius is against the world for the cause of Christ. Somebody who looks at the world and says, “I don’t care what you say. (not arrogantly but humbly, boldly) I know what is true. I know what is just. I’m willing to die for it. I am willing to stand up against you for it.”
Stephen bore a faithful witness to Christ all the way to the end. But it was not HIS STRENGTH. Look with me of how Stephen is described: 6:3-full of Spirit and wisdom, v.5 – Stephen, full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, v.8- full of grace and power, v.10- couldn’t withstand the wisdom and the Spirit, 7:55- full of the Holy Spirit. – see, this man had strength, power, grace that was not his own. He was filled with the Spirit & the same Spirit at work among us, the same Spirit that is at work that fills you. HE was filled with the Spirit that even his face, his angelic face during the opposition was something to behold. It is not to be taken literally, he didn’t wings on the sides, but it was speaking of a supernatural presence of God. That everything that he said, he wasn’t panicking or wasn’t angry, but something about him, something that overwhelmed his ministry…it was that presence of God’s glory the aim of his ministry. While their eyes opposed the gospel, his eyes embraced the glory of the Son of man. Luke wants to present Stephen as a model for faithful witness in the midst of opposition, mistreatment and suffering for the gospel. He is living as Christ would live – but I know it is not possible that any of us can be that set apart like Jesus, in terms of what He actually experienced at the cross but I do know that it is possible that you and I can be a faithful witness to Christ. We can’t be holy like Jesus so that God can say “wow, you did it, you earned my love” but you can be a faithful witness, why because you are declared holy by another, you no longer have to feel that you are all alone because he was left alone, so that you can experience God’s overwhelming, unflinching fellowship with HIM. Stephen is re-living as Christ would live.
See, what will you do when someone one-day is going to give you the mic or put his finger on you, oppose you – and say, “hey- what do you believe about that- what did you say about marriage years ago? Or why do I have to believe that Jesus is the only way, why not believe in reincarnation? Or it’s so unfair that all of us humans are punished because of somebody else’s mistake? Or is Jesus the only Savior? Who are you to force YOUR faith, your values on others- Christianity is so arrogant? OH, You can’t really trust the gospels; they just made up some stories.” There will be some of us who will be dragged into courts of people’s minds and they will beat you down- how will you respond? How will you respond when the BIBLE taught will no be any longer be allowed in our society (it will happen)? Or the things that we see clearly in Scripture, things that we hold dear, things that are beautiful, good and true are considered laughable- how will you respond when the world hates you? You can’t plan it by worrying or by being scared or exaggerating every offense – no, no…you plan it by trusting, completely dependent on Christ – see the way to speak or preach for Christ Crucified, the RISEN SAVIOR is that YOU WALK WITH HIM NOW. You experience His overwhelming presence now so that you can respond to new mercies later. Being a faithful witness is not to mediate on yourself- Oh man, how am I doing, will I be courageous, oh I could never face it like him or her, if I got cancer, I would never do that, if that tragedy happened, I’d be terrible. No, don’t ponder, mediate on yourself, but you reflect, you ponder, gaze long, at the richness of the love of Christ. When you mediate on God – all your thoughts begin to afix themselves to the truth, your heart’s affection will grow more and more with liveliness, that’ you can’t help but to mediate on his glory, can’t help sensing his love overflowing from you…You are daily, hourly, tapping into the flow of God’s grace so that you are made increasingly worthy of his calling to defend the gospel at that moment of crisis. When you learn to trust him moment by moment now, the future grace of all that GOD IS——–is for you in Christ, arriving in every situation, in every circumstance, for every need…that is glorious, that’s sheer worth, that’s majestic. If you want an angelic face in the midst of trials, then you reflect on the glory of Christ day after day. IF you want to look upon the SON OF GOD standing at the end of your life, then you need to look upon the SON OF GOD today in your life. That’s being a faithful witness to Christ.
2. Being part of a gospel movement
There is MUCH to say about this second point. This second point has been a growing steady, definite conviction that has been continually forming in my heart for the past 10 years.
For the FIRST 27 years of my life, I was part of a mono-ethnic, mono-social group, mono-language, mono-culture, mono-everything…Indian church. It was a bunch of Indian immigrants from India, from the same region, same language settling in America to start a church, so, my church experiences was largely, exclusively an immigrant focus: first-generation mingled with 2nd generation, mono-ethnic, Indian, trans-planted church from a local, regional place in India to America. So, growing up in that church setting, I thought that to have a good, strong, healthy church was that I needed to be responsible and careful as an immigrant, needed to keep the family honor (both biological as well as the church family), not to waste family resources, honor elders, live according to standards and expectation. Tragically, I used these measures of growth and the healthiness of a church as way of thinking that I was part of a gospel movement. And this gospel movement looked so inward, such that it was as an ethno-centric, based family system, and education as a way of advancing yourself, a sense of achievement, respecting your tradition and elders. I thought that those were the measures of growth and healthiness and I thought that the gospel was only for a certain class or group of people- that a society, a church community, their collective identity rested on a specific, particular ethnicity. I thought that was being part of the gospel movement.
BUT THANKFULLY I WAS WRONG. How do I know that, we see what it means to be part of a gospel movement in Acts 8:1-4; take a look with me. We read that Saul, who later became Paul, saw Stephen stoned to death for preaching the gospel. He approved of his execution. And he went destroying the church. So, as a result of that, verse 1 tells us that all of the people had to flee, except the apostles, so non-apostles, they are bunch of lay people, they were scattered but the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. SO verse 4 tells us that those who were scattered went about preaching the word. The word preaching is not the word that you and I think of- we think of somebody publicly speaking to a group, but this word is not that, the word here in this verse actually means “to evangelize” – so we are told everybody evangelized. Persecution happened and people got pushed out, scattered, and everybody began to share, counsel, and preach the gospel wherever they went. That’s what a healthy church looks like – when believers, you and I, scatter from our gathering, are we preaching or are we evangelizing people with the gospel? – God used the persecution to turn the church into an entire community doing mission together. Talk about healthy church. Talk about a movement. That is what’s happening. Everybody, not just the leaders, everybody embodying the gospel, sharing the gospel, teaching the gospel from person to person as it is being pushed outward.
– That’s what you see in ACTS, the gospel is spreading in chapters 1-5 : that is the Lord added to their number or the Word of God spread, many believed, believers were added to the number… and as we see in Acts 6:7 all the way to Acts 8:4 on Stephen – this historical event was at a crucial point in the movement of the gospel. What does it show us? Well, the obvious- It shows us that the gospel is spreading, it’s moving beyond the walls of Jerusalem. The gospel is widening its scope; it’s widening its horizon. It’s going from the Jerusalem Jews to the Greek-speaking Immigrant Jews to their enemies, like places to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. It’s going out! The gospel is exploding! It’s exploding as the church is experiencing a crisis – a crisis that seems to intensify from a warning (4:21) to a flogging (5:40) to martyrdom (7:58-60) to persecution (8:1)- it’s intensifying– opposition rising from the top religious folks and now we see common folks being stirred to oppose- its from every angle- yet the gospel is moving forth. – they are going through persecution and yet the gospel is moving, it is exploding (8:1).
Part of the gospel moving forth or exploding is that it is the WORK OF GOD yet another part is the how the GOSPEL is working IN and THROUGH broken people like you and I. The gospel pulls you in so that it can push you out, then the reality of the gospel becomes our mission. This movement is happening when people’s aim, their goal, their unflinching goal of wherever we are being scattered – we are going to spread the gospel of Christ to all nations. The spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ is becoming their mission in life. It’s the Acts 1:8 perspective – You will be my witnesses for the movement of the gospel— from Jerusalem to Samaria to the ends of the earth…from Glendale Heights, to Chicago, to the Midwest, to our nation of United States of America and to the ends of the earth…propagating, spreading, broadcasting the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. THAT SHOULD BE OUR MISSION.
And when you look at Stephen’s very long sermon- that covers redemptive history, it actually gives hope to the person who kept on destroying the church, who ravaging the church. That it actually gives HOPE to a nation who wants to do nothing with Jesus of the BIBLE, as the only true story that will give meaning and security, it gives immeasurable hope to all people of all nations, all cultures – that the story of the glory of God that started ever since Abraham (Acts 7:2), even before him, of the promise of the gospel – that the only way that I can bless you, dear Abraham, the only way to see your nation be great, the only way for you to be a blessing —- is that you leave! Leave your land, leave your family and go to a place that I will show you. God says- I want you to move. In order for you to be a blessing for the nations, you’re going to have to get out of the familiar. I want you to move out. You are going to have to become vulnerable. A pastor TM says this: “There is no way God will ever bless you, he will never call you in to bless you, without sending you out to be a blessing.” The only way to be a blessing is for us to move out, to go out of our comforts, going out of our culture, going out of our country by faith,”—a pastor TM say this “God never calls you radically in without sending you radically out”, like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon and now, Stephen, unashamedly glorified the mission of Christ, as the gospel pulled them in so that they are pushed out. You know why? Because Jesus was sitting in heaven, perfectly secure, yet moved out. He emptied himself, he himself became vulnerable and he was killed. The story didn’t stop there! Then bursting forth, Christ rose from the grave; the mission of God becomes a reality. IT causes us to live for a cause more important than ourselves and to partner yourself with a force more powerful than yourself to make a difference in this world. That’s mission. That is what the world needs. It’s all or nothing. No God, no glory. No God, no true life. No God, no society. No God, no personal meaning and hope. No glory, you have nothing.
IF some of you are wondering why your life is so tasteless or have no joy. Do you know why it’s tasteless or joyless? Because you have no MISSION left because you have been living for yourself for years. That’s why! Because you have no higher mission than to get a nice home or to wait for your MR or MRS. RIGHT. Even if you get those things, that’s not going to make much of difference and you wonder, why is there emptiness, no joy- it’s because every human being needs to live for mission. Your heart, who you are, they are made for a world-changing mission. There is no way to get it unless you finally see the God who has broken into the world and has brought his never-changing truth and yet changing everything. It says, “Come along. I’ll move you first and then through you, I’ll move other people.” Let’s be a Healthy Church that Unashamedly Glorifies the Mission of Christ.
 Luke sums up a series of events by telling us that they have ked to the growth of the Word or of the church 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20