"And Saul just went wild, devastating the church, entering house after house after house, dragging men and women off to jail. Forced to leave home, the believers all became missionaries. Wherever they were scattered, they preached the Message about Jesus. Going down to a Samaritan city, Philip proclaimed the Message of the Messiah. When the people heard what he had to say and saw the miracles, the clear signs of God's action, they hung on his every word. Many who could neither stand nor walk were healed that day. The evil spirits protested loudly as they were sent on their way. And what joy in the city!" Acts 8:3-8 (The Message).
Enter Saul, a young man made of the stuff God needed but, unfortunately, fighting for the wrong side at this point. But, from God's perspective, he was already a marked man. God let him run with his hate campaign a little longer while He set the stage for Saul's transfer from darkness to light.
From his perspective, Saul was fighting for God. On hindsight, he described himself as a Pharisee of the Pharisees, with an unquenchable zeal for God. He was willing to go as far as murder to protect what he considered to be the truth about God. He was the one-man audience that was applauding the crazy mob that killed Stephen. But God was right there, biding His time for the moment of His personal encounter with Saul.
In the meantime, the battle continued to rage between light and darkness. The more the agents of the dark realm of religious fanaticism struck at the children of light, the more the message spread and the church grew. Persecution had not driven the church underground -- it had spread the fire beyond the confines of Jerusalem into the neighbouring half-breed nation of Samaritans.
The Jews despised the Samaritans because they were the result of intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles. When Assyria conquered Samaria in 722 BC, they carried off some of the people into captivity and repopulated the area with people displaced from other conquered nations.
But the old hatred was swallowed up by a new love. Such was the transformation of these Jewish believers that they willingly shared the Message of Jesus with the very people they had previously hated and avoided so that a whole Samaritan city was affected.
Philip, another of the men chosen to distribute food parcels to the suffering widows in Jerusalem, surfaced as a powerful witness to this new Way. Like Stephen, he was at the centre of the action, with miracles of healing and deliverance going on apace. He had to flee from Jerusalem with the other believers to escape Saul's murderous assault on the church but, instead of disappearing, he was at the headwaters of a flood of missionary activity.
The phenomenal spread of "The Way", as it was called, must have driven Saul into a frenzy. Far from curbing the growth of the church, he contributed to its spread. These people could not be silenced or stopped. Like a cancer, they infiltrated every corner of society and brought an unstoppable joy to the city!
What is it that has dampened the activity of God so effectively that we see little of the early power and growth of the church today? As I have moved slowly through Acts, one thing is becoming clearer. Every problem that surfaced in the church threatened their unity and every solution restored unity.
What if church leaders today recognised their responsibility to foster and protect unity? What if humility and submission became the priority of every leader and every member in the local church? What if pastors and preachers became more serious about their function than their title? What if they focussed less on being "bosses “and more on being servant-leaders?
What if "Christians" became true followers of Jesus? Would we see the power of God at work again now as it was then?
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