Church Growth – The Good and the Bad of It

Series: Preacher: Date: May 23, 2004 Scripture Reference: Acts 7:57 - 8:25

I don’t know about you but I’m a fan of all those satirical “WHY” questions that tend to float around in the Internet. Here’s some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • WHY do they call apartments-“apartments” when they are so close to each other? Shouldn’t they be called “Togetherments?”
  • WHY do we park in driveways and drive on parkways?
  • WHY do they call it “rush hour” when we spend so much of the time sitting still in traffic jams?
  • If 7-11 is open 24-hours a day then WHY do they have locks on the doors?
  • WHY don’t they build the entire plane from the same material they use to make those indestructible little black box recorders?

And then, here’s a new one I heard this weekend:

  • WHY didn’t Noah swat those two mosquitos when he had the chance? – or in our case CICADAS!

Well, I don’t know if you’ve been counting, but this is the 8th sermon in our series on the book of Acts-a series we began about three months ago-and about now another WHY question may be in some of your minds, namely:

“WHY are we doing this, Mark? Why are we spending so much of our time in this one book? What about the other 65?”

Well, if wondering this-don’t feel bad. I mean, this IS a long series-the longest I’ve ever done. In fact, by my estimation it will take most of this year for us to complete it. So it’s normal to need a reminder about now as to WHY we are doing this. In fact, I think the longer it takes to do something, the more often we need to stop and remind ourselves WHY we’re doing it. And-in answer to this particular “WHY” question let me remind you that this sermon series is part of the vision for this year. As I joined our church council in praying and planning for all this year’s ministry tasks-all the ways that God has led us to be a part of furthering His kingdom-well, I felt led to take you through this study of Acts.

And I believe ONE of the reasons God has led me to do this is because the best place to learn to do great things for the Kingdom of God is to study the way the very first church did them. I mean for us to TRULY understand our local church-if we are to really appreciate what it is supposed to be like-if we are to stir our passion about our potential as a church family-well, the fact is we need to study the ORIGINAL. And that’s what we’re doing-we’re taking a close look at the first church-the original church in Jerusalem established by the very first Christians as recorded in the fifth book of the New Testament-the book of Acts. As we go through this verse by verse study we’ll be reminded of foundational, biblical principles that will help us to become the kind of church we need to be here at Redland. And in this next portion of Acts we come across two of those principles-two fundamental axioms that I think we need to understand here at Redland if we are to succeed at doing those things God has called us to do in the coming year.

Now, this morning we’re picking up where we left off a couple weeks ago in Acts chapter 7. In fact, I want us to back up a few verses and begin with the stoning of Stephen-who you should remember was the first Christian martyr. Today we’re focusing on Acts 7:57 through Acts 8:25 so take your Bibles and open them to that text and keep them open throughout the message. But let’s begin by looking once more at this text through the eyes of The Visual Bible, where the narrator, Luke, played by Dean Jones is telling us of Stephen’s death at the hands of the Sanhedrin.

Acts 7:57

57 – At this they covered their ears and yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,

58 – dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 – While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

60 – Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 8:1

1 – And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

2 – Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.

3 – But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.

4 – Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

5 – Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there.

6 – When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said.

7 – With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed.

8 – So there was great joy in that city.

9 – Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great,

10 – and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.”

11 – They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic.

12 – But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.

13 – Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

14 – When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.

15 – When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit,

16 – because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

17 – Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

18 – When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money

19 – and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

20 – Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!

21 – You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.

22 – Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.

23 – For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

24 – Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

25 – When they had testified and proclaimed the word of the Lord, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.


Now-as I said a moment ago-there are two foundational principles that we can draw from this text and the first is this…

1. In the Christian life God can use BAD for the GOOD of His Kingdom.

Remember-Joseph learned this lesson the hard way. When he met with his brothers years after they had sold him into slavery, he said,

“You intended to harm me but God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20).

And, as we look back over history we see this principle over and over again-God takes the BAD that inevitably comes into our lives, since we do live in a BAD, fallen world and in His sovereignty He uses it both for our good and His glory.

In this month’s issue of Christianity Today I came across an article that says Muslims are very interested in seeing in Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. You see, they’ve heard that it is anti-Semitic and Muslims are pro anything that is anti-Semitic so they are flocking to see this movie. And many are then asking questions about Christianity. I believe God will use this BAD thing-the hatred the Muslims have for the Jews for the GOOD of His kingdom because I believe this curiosity about The Passion will result in thousands of Muslims coming to embrace a faith in Jesus. Isn’t that awesome! Only God can bring good from bad!

And we can see another perfect example of this principle here in this text. Think of it.

Stephen is martyred. The first deacon is the first Christian to die because of his faith in Jesus. And, as I pointed out two weeks ago, Stephen was an awesome individual. He was one of those people that others were drawn to. Everybody loved Stephen. He was greatly admired-a gifted minister of the Gospel-BUT his life was brutally snuffed out-a HORRIBLE THING happened. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, it was only the beginning-only the first bad thing! As we saw dramatized a moment ago, Stephen’s murder was the catalyst for a widespread persecution of the church, a persecution that was led by a man named Saul. Look at Acts 8:3-4:

“Saul began to DESTROY the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.”

At this point in his life Saul acted much like a Gestapo officer in World War II dragging Jews from their homes and sending them off to concentration camps. In fact, the Greek here pictures Saul as a wild beast on the rampage, tearing his victims to shreds-and that’s pretty much what he did. I say this because later in Acts, after he becomes a Christian and changes his name to Paul, he confesses,“I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death…” (Acts 22:4)

Now-you’ll remember from our earlier study that there had been persecution before, threats, imprisonments-even beatings. But up until this point it had been directed only at the Apostles.

Now, with Saul at the helm, persecution is directed to the membership at large. And to make matters worse, for the first time we find the leaders of Judaism UNITED in their opposition of Christianity. Before it was only the Sadducees but now Pharisees like Saul are involved as well.

So-at first glance things look ALL BAD don’t they! But our hindsight shows that once again God used all this BAD for incredible GOOD.

And, in case you missed it, let me point out several BENEFITS-several good things that came from this time of persecution.

A. First, the Christian faith SPREAD.

When the Christians fled the persecution in Jerusalem they took the Gospel with them and in so doing they spread the Christian movement outward. I mean, Saul’s attempt to stamp out the church’s “fire” merely scattered the “embers” and started new “fires” all around the world. Amazingly enough, what began as PERSECUTION ended in PROCLAMATION. Think of it in this way…the stones that were thrown at Stephen were like stones thrown in a pond that sent waves of the gospel rippling ever outward. This kind of reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ book The Cat in the Hat. Remember? They spilled that pink stuff on the furniture and the more they tried to clean it up, the more they spread it all over the house and eventually the entire yard was pink! That’s basically what happened here. The more Saul and the others tried to wipe out “the stain” of Christianity, the more they spread it.

In fact, the word here in verse 1 that we translate as “scattered” is the Greek word, “diaspeiro” and it literally means “to scatter seed.” This is another good word picture of what happened. God used this persecution as a mechanism to scatter the seeds of the Gospel all over Judea and Samaria and even beyond, and wherever the seed fell, a church grew! This reminds me of something that evangelist Luis Palau once said,“The church is like manure. Pile it together and it stinks up the neighborhood. Spread it out and it enriches the world.”

Now-here’s something interesting that I came across in my study this week. Some scholars don’t think the Christians in Jerusalem fled out of FEAR but rather because they felt Stephen’s stoning was the sign from God that it was time to hit the road with the Gospel. This is because in Matthew 10:23, Jesus had said,”When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.” Perhaps the early Christians had learned this from the apostles, so when the persecution came they thought, “That’s our cue-let’s get going!” All this reminds me that a LITERAL translation of the Great Commission would be worded like this: “AS YOU GO, make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:20) because that’s what happened. AS THEY WENT – WHEREVER they went, they shared the gospel. And, in this first part of Acts 8 Luke gives us an example of this “as you go evangelism” in the form of the ministry of another deacon, named Philip-a Christian “seed” that ended up in Samaria, where he proclaimed the Gospel and performed powerful miracles in Jesus’ name.

Now-the fact that a Jew preached and ministered in Samaria itself was amazing because there was a long, deep-seated hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans. You may remember that the Jews viewed this particular people group as both religious and ethnic half-breeds. You see, when the Assyrians conquered Israel 800 years before the birth of Christ, they deported a great part of the Jewish population from the land and replaced them with strangers from other countries. The Jews who remained intermarried with these foreigners and the product was the Samaritan race. The Jews who returned from the deportation years later considered the Samaritans impure traitors-collaborators with the enemy. And, the Samaritans compounded the problem by building their own temple on Mt. Gerizim-something that was prohibited in the Old Testament. They got around this infraction of God’s law by REJECTING the part of the Old Testament where this law was mentioned and ACCEPTING only the first five books as Scripture.

Well, for all these reasons there was a great wall of hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans-a wall that had been growing ever higher for hundreds of years. But now when Philip shared the gospel, Samaritans responded and became Christians! A revival broke out in that region and in this way God built a bridge between these two peoples and made them ONE in Christ. So-an incredibly GOOD thing happened-a horrible wrong was righted-because of this time of persecution. But that’s not all. Here’s a second GOOD thing that came from all this BAD.

B.. This persecution helped turn Saul into PAUL-the greatest missionary the world has ever known.

Acts 20:22 tells us that Paul never forgot Stephen’s death. It apparently had a profound impact on his life. Paul’s first exposure to the Gospel came through Stephen. I for one think the memory Stephen’s teaching and the way he lived his brief life and the way he died was part of the catalyst that led Saul to decide to become a believer himself when he met Jesus on the Damascus road. I believe this memory helped fire his passion for missions. So, by killing Stephen, the Sanhedrin SILENCED a voice that was upsetting a CITY but without realizing it at the same time they AWOKE a voice that would upset an EMPIRE.

C.. And then, a third GOOD thing that came from this BAD was the fact that it caused the early Christians to GROW and MATURE spiritually.

You see, when they left Jerusalem they were forced to depend on God instead of the Apostles. Perhaps this is why God kept Peter and John and the others in Jerusalem. It was kind of like a mother bird urging her children to leave the nest so they could learn to fly on their own! And that’s what happened! Out on their own, away from Jerusalem, these new believers began to “fly” spiritually. They developed their gifts of evangelism, witnessing, helps, knowledge, teaching, prophecy, miracles-all those gifts of the Spirit that had been made available to them.

This reminds me of something we learned in the 40 Days-that God allows us to go through tough situations to help us develop the FRUITS of the Spirit. For example, He teaches us LOVE by putting some UNLOVELY people in our path. He teaches us JOY in the midst of SORROW.

He develops PEACE within us, not by making things go the way we planned but by allowing times of CHAOS and CONFUSION. You see, the truth is no TOOL is better at shaping us into the image of Jesus than PERSECUTION, in one form or another.

So these three examples serve as abundant proof that GOD is able to use BAD for GOOD!

And we would do well to remember this as we serve God here in Montgomery County. When tough times come our way-and they will-we must remember that God is sovereign, even over our tough times. He RULES over our sufferings and uses them for our benefit. In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey writes,

“When good things happen I accept them as gifts from God, worthy of thanksgiving. When bad things happen, I do not take them as necessarily sent by God….Rather, I trust that God an use even those bad things for my benefit….Faith allows me to believe that, despite the chaos of the present moment, God does reign; that regardless of how worthless I may feel, I truly matter to a God of love; that no pain lasts forever and no evil triumphs in the end. [After all,] Faith sees even the darkest deed of all history, the death of God’s Son, as a necessary prelude to the brightest.”

So WHEN you go through trials and tribulations-follow Yancey’s example here. Trust God’s heart; trust His wisdom; trust His sovereignty; trust His power…and ask yourself:

“Is my Heavenly Father allowing this to motivate me to mature spiritually? Is God allowing this temporary persecution to teach me eternal truth? Is He showing me that I can rely on Him no matter what comes?” Is He using this to give me a platform to share my faith in a place that I’ve never been before?”

Remember the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 4:17-18:

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

So, looking back on this early chapter of church history shows us that GOOD COMES FROM BAD but this backward glance shows us something else…

2. It also shows us that in the Kingdom of God, BAD often comes with GOOD.

I mean, when God is doing a good thing-when God is at work-satan will attempt to oppose it by sending his bad our way. You can count on it. When something GOOD is happening, he’ll try to stop it. Jesus taught this principle in His parable of the weeds. Remember? In Matthew 13:24-25 He said,

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed GOOD SEED in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed WEEDS among the wheat, and went away.”

Our Lord was warning us here that wherever God sows His true believers, satan will eventually sow his counterfeits. Think of it his way: The enemy comes first as a LION to DEVOUR and when that approach fails, he comes as a SERPENT to DECEIVE. I want you to note that in the other half of this chapter-which we’ll look at next week-Luke cites an example of GENUINE faith in Philip’s experience with the Ethiopian eunuch. But first he contrasts it with an example of FALSE faith-counterfeit faith-here in verses 9-24. And the false faith I’m referring to-satan’s deceptive “weed among the wheat” at this point-was as sorcerer named, Simon. Tradition says that he called himself SIMON MAGUS and “magus” is the Latin word for “great.” It would be like someone in our day calling himself, “Simon the Magnificent” or “Simon the Great.” Think of him as the David Copperfield of his day. In any case, he had been the big show in Samaria until Philip came along.

Well, when Philip showed up and did his miracles he began to draw a crowd, so Simon went to investigate and he was amazed! In Philip he saw GENUINE power and he wanted it. You see, the feats Simon had been doing were LIMITED. They were a combination of slight of hand tricks-and of demon-powered “miracles” that did not last. In short Simon had exhausted the limits of his ability and he knew it so when Philip came to town and began to do genuine, lasting miracles powered by the Holy Spirit of God, well, Simon immediately had a “professional” interest in Philip. He thought to himself,

“If I am going to advance in my profession or even just recapture the following that I have had until this guy showed up, I better get my hands on the power that he has.”

Apparently in an effort to claim this power for his own verse 13 says that Simon “…believed and was baptized” and followed Philip around like some sort of sorcerer’s apprentice, “…astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw…” God do through Philip.

Well, when the apostles in Jerusalem heard about the revival that had broken out in Samaria, they sent John and another Simon-Simon PETER-to investigate. And when these two laid their hands on these new believers, they received the Holy Spirit-sort of a “Samaritan Pentecost” and THAT display of power impressed Simon even more.

Now-I don’t believe Simon’s faith was genuine for two reasons.

First, in verses 21-23 Simon Peter talked to him and discerned that his heart was not right. He saw that it was, “full of bitterness and captive to sin.” And my second reason for making this judgement is the fact that church history says Simon Magus went on to become an arch-heretic-the founder of Gnosticism, a heresy which greatly plagued the EARLY CHURCH and seems to be rearing its ugly head AGAIN through Dan Brown’s popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, whose plot is based on gnostic philosophy and is spurring a renewed interest in false gospels and gnostic thought. By the way, tradition also says that Simon made himself the adversary of Simon Peter and dogged him from Antioch to Rome.

Now-where did Simon go wrong? How could he come so close and still miss out on genuine salvation? I mean think of it-he sat under the teaching of Philip and Simon Peter.

How did he end up as a tool of satan instead of a great man of God?

I can think of three errors he made and I want us to understand them not just so we’ll be able to recognize false faith when we see it-after all, satan still sows “weeds” in God’s wheat field-but also so that we will avoid these same errors ourselves.

A. Okay-Simon’s first mistake was the fact that he embraced a false view of SELF.

The most important person in SIMON’S life was SIMON. Verse 9 says, “He boasted that he was someone great.” To put it in modern vernacular, “Simon thought he was all that-and then some.” And the fact is Simon went beyond mere conceit. Look back at verse 10 where it says that Simon referred to himself as “The Great Power.” The notes in my study Bible say that this phrase means Simon claimed to be either God Himself or more likely His chief representative.

Early church fathers like Irenaeus and Hippolytus say that Simon Magus claimed to be the earthly manifestation of the Greek god, Zeus or Yahweh, the Old Testament name for God. In any case, it would be an understatement to say that Simon was a little stuck on himself. He went way beyond that and mimicked the sin of his master, satan, by putting himself equal with God. And, as you should know, a proper view of self is just the opposite. I mean, before we can come to GENUINE faith in Jesus we must humble ourselves-admitting that we are sinners, hopelessly lost without God’s grace. We must understand that even our best attempts at goodness and greatness fall far short of God’s holy standard. But that is not the only mistake Simon made.

B.. You see, he also embraced a false or flawed view of SALVATION.

Simon seems to have thought that being baptized and hanging around Philip was all it took to be a follower of Jesus. He made the same mistake that many people do today-people who assume that salvation is a result of religious activity. And its an easy mistake to make because we just naturally think that in order to receive something as WONDERFUL as eternal life and as POWERFUL as the Spirit of God living in us. Well, to get all that we think we’d have to do something in return-something to earn all this. I remember years ago asking teens to write out their testimony-to tell me how they became a Christian and 9 times out of 10 they’d begin by saying, “I walked the aisle…” And they said that because the hardest thing they could imagine doing would be to walk an aisle in front of hundreds of people but by doing that HARD thing they would deserve salvation. That’s not the way it works is it?! No-salvation is never the result of any external act like being baptized or taking communion or attending church or even walking the aisle. Salvation is the result of an inner act-asking Jesus to forgive us of our sin, committing to follow His will in our lives. Salvation is the result of faith in what Jesus has done-not in what we do. So Simon had a flawed view of self and of salvation, but his greatest error is seen in the fact that…

C. …he had a false or flawed view of God Himself.

Remember? Simon wanted to buy the Spirit of God-as if He was an “it”-some impersonal power that he could purchase and then manipulate. In fact, Simon’s offer led to a whole new form of being sin named after him-a sin known as “simony” which is basically defined as “buying or selling God’s blessings.” Look at verse 20-and be sure to note Peter’s strong rebuke of this assumption. He told Simon, “May you and your money perish with you!” But, J. B. Philips’ translation words it even more forcefully. He has Peter saying, “You and your money can go to Hell!” and I for one believe this is a more accurate translation of Peter’s words, because that’s exactly where this line of thinking will send you! You see, there is no greater sin than the presumption of thinking you could buy and use God like some genie in a bottle. We don’t manipulate God-NO! We bow at His feet and serve Him! He uses us-not the other way around!

But, before we “AMEN!” Peter’s rebuke of Simon too self-righteously, let’s examine our own presumptions about our Heavenly Father. I mean have you ever tried to “buy” His power? Teens, have you ever said, “God, help me pass this test and I’ll come to church every Sunday for the rest of my life!” Adults have you ever prayed, “God, take away this illness and I’ll do whatever You want!” I mean, how many times have you told God, “Get me out of this mess and I’ll follow You wherever you lead.” The sad fact is all of us have been guilty of simony in one form or other. We all try to BUY God’s powerful blessings with our obedience.


We come now to our time of invitation and as we do I would urge each of you to ask God another “WHY” question-namely:

“WHY have You brought me to this service this morning, God? Why have I had to hear these truths? How do I need to apply them to my own life?”

Let us pray.

Father God,

I pray that You’ll answer this question. Speak to each of us and tell us how we can apply the lessons these early Christians learned to our own situations. Help us to trust You in Bad times-even to thanking You for sending them, knowing You love us too much to allow anything into our lives that will not benefit us in some way. Help us to look to You in Good times as well so that we will be ready when satan sends his counterfeits…and forgive us God for those times when we have repeated Simon’s mistakes. Speak to us now Father and guide us to the very center of Your will. I ask all this in Jesus’ name. AMEN

As we sing, I invite you to respond publicly if you feel so led-to come and pray-to come and confess your faith in Jesus-or to come and join our church family.

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