THE DEATH OF STEPHEN was a major turning-point in the proclamation of the gospel and in the spread of Christianity as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 8 opens in Jerusalem with Saul consenting to, supporting, and being active in the death of the martyr. The believers were in those days subject to enormous pressures and increasing persecution. There had been internal murmurings, but these were resolved satisfactorily. The word of God increased, multitudes believed, including a great number of Jewish priests.
A compelling preacher, Stephen was arrested; false witnesses were found and the people deliberately stirred up. The points that roused the people were the alleged threats to the holy place, the law and customs delivered by Moses. In his defence Stephen outlines the plans and purposes of God clearly. His face is as the face of an angel and through the power of the Spirit his audience is cut to the heart, and rushing on him stones him to death. To the believers this was a further tragedy. Worse, however, was yet to come. Meantime Stephen is buried. At his funeral, which is still a lesson in guidance to us today for Christian funerals, devout men carried him to his burial. There is in the physical carrying of a coffin a touching feeling of identification and love, the display of which today is often missed at the funerals of believers. Furthermore he was buried. While cremation is popular today for many reasons, it is scriptural that believers should be buried, because not only was Christ buried, but the whole character of the act is in accord with fundamental doctrines of the Scriptures.
Immediately Saul made havoc of the church, entering into houses, invading privacy and committing people to prison, so that many fled to other places for safety. Dark days indeed in Jerusalem and, apparently, for the work of Christ. However, springing out of this or flowing from it, i.e. the persecution and the scattering, were nurnerous things including the founding of the church at Antioch. Let us ever remember that out of the most desperate situation can arise the greatest blessing. We must always trust our God in times of pressure, persecution or difficulty. We are told in Acts 11. 19 that the believers were scattered abroad. The implication is that they were thrown in all directions indiscriminately. We are further told however that they ‘travelled’, that there was not an indiscriminate scattering as the persecutors imagined, but the believers travelled in accord with divine direction. Each knew where he was going and went happily, recognizing the potential in following divine guidance. We too should appreciate that in His hands we are safe and are being led into areas of great potential for Him, and for ourselves, in spite of the problems that caused the move. Some of the believers travelled as far as Phenice and settled in the coastal strip there. Others went further, some taking ships to Cyprus and still others journeying to Antioch.
Antioch lay about 15 miles upstream from the mouth of the Orantes River. It was the third largest city in the known world, only Rome and Alexandria being larger. Cosmopolitan, it was noted for its chariot racing and the immoral worship of the god Apollo. His legendary pursuit of Daphne was re-enacted daily by the resident female priests and the visitors to the city. In such a place, where the beauty and tranquillity of nature and the sin and lust of men came face to face, the first Gentile church was founded following the preaching of the gospel message. The refugee believers having settled into life in a new place began to, speak freely of Christ to the Jews. However, fresh and innovative steps were taken and many shared the good news with the Gentile population. To the Jews they preached the Word, and to the Gentiles they preached Jesus as Lord. Even allowing for this difference of approach it is important to notice that the Word and the Lord Jesus were the themes. Jesus Christ is presented as Lord of all, so that when men and Women turn to Him their whole lives are changed. In some ways it is like taking up a new job. I move to a different place, have new responsibilities, report to a new master and spend my efforts in the extensions of his work. How much more blessed to be in the employ of the Master in heaven and to give to Him not only my soul but also my life. So in evangelical work today we must preach Christ crucified, raised from the dead, and Lord of men’s lives. He wants us not only to believe but, by giving Him His rightful place, to become disciples too. Some say that this truth should be taught to young converts. The Bible suggests it should, in fact, be preached to sinners so that they realize the implications before being converted! Christianity is not a bolt-on extra but an alternative way of living. Some today preach a social gospel and so gain social converts. The only way to preach is to declare Christ as the answer to men’s personal guilt, and as the Lord of their lives. It is hardly surprising therefore that the hand of the Lord was with them in their endeavours. The hand of the Lord, like the arm of the Lord is indicative of the active power of God. Without this I preach in the debility of humanity, but with it I can be confident of success. Thus it is not surprising to learn that a great number believed – they believed the Word; they turned – to the Lord. These were not only converts but potential disciples – they gave themselves to the Lord. These are clear lessons for us today. Primarily we must make Christ the theme and centre of the gospel. His claims as well as His work must be explained and, provided vve give the Lord His rightful place in the work, souls will be saved.
It is also interesting to note that the names of the preachers and pioneers are not recorded. Today we seem to feel that in order to have a gospel effort we need to employ the services of a well-known preacher. Even better, we think, if he is a full-time preacher from another part of the country, or even from another country! In some areas of the world the term ‘preacher’ equates with ‘full-time’ service. At Antioch they were all preachers, they were all ‘full-time’ in the sense of commitment. Consequently the Lord, and not the preacher, was the focus of the mission. We need to look less to ‘full-time’ preachers and more to the Lord and be prepared, as assemblies, to do the preaching ourselves. Famous names and well-known preachers are quite unknown outside our own circle and attract more believers to the preaching than they do unsaved people. In one East European country the assemblies have annual gospel campaigns in each assembly and the preaching is done entirely by the local brethren. Needless to say these meetings are fruitful and blessing ensues. The work at Antioch had got off to a good start. In one of the most sinful cities of its day the gospel took hold. They preached the Lord, the hand of the Lord was with them and ever more people turned to the Lord. May we too see the advantages of proclaiming such a message and share in similar success remembering always that the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of the assembly and of any work in the gospel. In going after sinners let us not be reluctant to go after the very worst of them.
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