Arguing against ideas

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen.

Acts 6:8-9

I started my career working for a major multinational retailer. Soon after I began, the company’s fortunes started to nosedive. I always maintain that this had nothing to do with me, but my friends are not so sure! I felt that the company wasn’t addressing the big issues that underlay the poor trading so suggested lots of new ideas. Each time I did so, I was told that “this is not our way of doing business.” It seemed strange to me that the company had deliberately recruited dynamic young people onto their management training programme, yet weren’t prepared to listen to any of our suggestions. It was almost as if they felt threated by new ways of doing things.

The Church is very good at not listening to new ideas. We read about declining attendance, and yet often individual Churches don’t want to adopt new methods or think of new ways of doing things. Just like in my retailer, it’s almost as if they feel threatened. The same could be said for the early Church and its relationship with the leading Jews of the time. In our verses today, Stephen is achieving great things in God’s name, but rather than listening to Stephen, reflecting on whether what he says makes sense or not, and then taking the appropriate action, they quickly jump on him and start arguing with him. In the next chapter they will put him on trial and eventually Stephen will be killed for his beliefs.

Thankfully we don’t get many stonings in the west these days, but we can still find ourselves playing the part of the Jewish leaders. Do we listen to new ideas and consider new ways of doing things? Whilst the gospel message remains constant, every generation has their own ideas about how to communicate this. We need to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.

The Word of God Spread

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:7

This week’s number one film in the UK is Sex and the City 2. I’d love at this point to tell you a little about what the film is about, but the truth is that I haven’t got a clue. Whilst I often go to the cinema and usually know what films are about, I pride myself on my ignorance when it comes to SATC2. Pretty much every review has panned this film and said that it is catastrophically bad, even by the standards of Sex and the City. Yet cinema goers are still heading down to their local multiplexes in their droves to see this film. It defies any logical explanation.

Some would say that the growth of the early church similarly defied any logical explanation. Already in the first five chapters of Acts we have seen Christians getting into trouble with the authorities about their faith, ending up in prison, and facing the Sanhedrin. The early Christians were in no doubt at all that they could face the death sentence if the Sanhedrin saw fit. They continued to proclaim Christ even louder though, and more and more people followed them. We’ve also seen that sin was to be found even in the early church with the lies of Ananias and Sapphira which led to their deaths in chapter five. This did not put people off joining the growing numbers of Christians. Earlier in chapter six of Acts we also saw divisions starting to appear in the Church. Yet still it grew.

All of this goes to show that even when God’s work is done by weak sinners like the apostles, and like you and me, miracles can still follow. Even when the Church is imperfect and struggling to take care of its own affairs, God still uses it to bring people to faith. Even if we think we’re weak and inadequate for spreading the gospel, God will work through us. When we struggle to find the words to write, or think our talks are weak, or our written words are naff, God can still make miracles happen. Why? Because whilst God uses us all, ultimately it is him that transforms peoples lives. He brings people to the Church. He leads them to the foot of the cross. He convicts them of their sin. And it is Jesus who saves souls, not us. Give thanks today that God can work through us and use us even though we are weak. Pray also that the Church will grow and expand in the coming years through God’s goodness rather than through our efforts.

Delegation’s what you need…

Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.

Acts 6:3-4

I have been heavily involved in running Model United Nations (MUN) organisations whilst working as a teacher. MUN is like a debating club that models the format of United Nations debates. One of the great things about the world of MUN is that the organisation is almost entirely student led, which means that young people get opportunities to develop leadership skills. When my students have found themselves getting overloaded with tasks, I always misquote the late, great Roy Castle (who always used to say “dedication’s what you need if you want to be a record breaker”), telling them “delegation’s what you need if you want to be a record breaker.” In other words, taking on too much can result in doing lots of things badly. There are some tasks that can be delegated out and given to other people to do, enabling you to focus on what is really important.

As the church continued to grow rapidly, the apostles found themselves becoming overloaded with jobs. One of the roles that they carried out was distributing aid to those who were in need. They found, however, that they were struggling to fulfil this role, and inadvertently left out some of the Greek-speaking widows, partly, no doubt, because of the language barrier. They decided that the best thing to do would be to appoint people specifically to the task of distributing aid. They sought out reliable people who could be trusted, and so picked people with a good reputation and who were clearly filled with the Holy Spirit, and therefore dedicated believers. Appointing others to this important role would enable the apostles to focus on what was most important – namely praying and teaching so that the word continued to be spread, and to enable even more people to have the chance to respond.

Think today about whether you are trying to do too much. Are you struggling to complete tasks, or do you find yourself doing them half heartedly and in a rush? Perhaps you need to consider delegating some of the things you do out to other people, to ensure that God’s work is done well.

Growing Pains

1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.6They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

8Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.9Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.

11Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.”

12So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.13They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

15All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Acts 6

The first five chapters of Acts have shown us much about the early Church, what the apostles did, and how their work, inspired by the Holy Spirit, led many people to abandon their previous lives and to accept Jesus as their Saviour. We see more and more people decide to become Christians. This next chapter is no different; the Church continues to grow, but for the first time we start to see the growing pains, particularly as the burden on the early Church leaders increases. In chapter six we also see once again how God’s work can lead to persecution, and the affirmation that whilst praying and preaching are the central elements of the Church’s work, looking after others is also very important.

In this chapter of Acts we stumble upon what the early Church considered to be the most important element of their work. The apostles feel that the focus of their work should “prayer and the ministry of the word,” that is teaching people about Christ. As the church grew the apostles found that they had more and more pressures on their time, and in Acts 6, we see that the disciples are getting concerned that they are being expected to administer aid to the needy, especially in this case to the Greek widows, as well as continuing their efforts teaching and healing all those who came to them. Whilst they may have been able to cope with the demand in the early days of the church, there are now a significant number of people who have signed up to follow Christ, and the disciples find themselves really pushed for time. The apostles decision, however, is to appoint others with the specific task of administering aid, enabling them to focus on their core ministry. This is telling since it reveals what the apostles believed their main focus should be; praying and teaching others about Jesus. They felt that they had been tasked with this role, and believed that they had been given the gifts necessary to carry out this function effectively. Do we as Christians today recognise the principle importance of prayer and the word? Do we dedicate ourselves to these activities in our own lives, to praying regularly and seeking out good teaching? If we feel that we have gifts in these areas do we share them with other people?

Whilst praying and teaching were considered by the apostles to be the most important element of what they did, they recognised that these were just two roles of many that the Church should carry out. In this passage we also see the importance that they place on supporting the needy and giving aid to those who needed it. When the leading apostles were asked what they should do, since they did not have time to teach, pray and administer aid, they could have responded that since teaching and prayer were the most important, the disciples should stop supporting the needy in order to focus on the Church’s primary task. They don’t do this, however. Instead, they task other people who were not so heavily involved with the Church’s teaching ministry to take over the tasks of providing aid to those who were in need. Even though the apostles place a firm emphasis on praying and teaching, they still believe that it is important for the Church to look after people. This is an example to us; do we as a Church support those less fortunate than ourselves, both inside and outside the Church? Do we look after those in need in our society, or do we neglect them? If this element of Christian service was important enough for the early Church, it makes sense that it should be important for us too!

There is a warning in this chapter, however, of the danger that doing God’s work can bring, as we have already seen several times in Acts. We see in this passage that the Church is continuing to grow, and every day more and more people are giving their lives to Christ. Luke, the writer of Acts, also tells us that even some Jewish Priests became Christians as a result of the teachings of the apostles. Unfortunately, this success did not go unnoticed by the highly religious people of Jerusalem, who clearly felt very threatened by the growth of the Christian Church. We witness Stephen, who had been appointed to take care of the Greek widows, performing great wonders and miraculous signs amongst the people. This angered some of the Jews, who took Stephen to the Sanhedrin on a trumped up case of blasphemy. Yet again, though, we see the Holy Spirit inspiring a Christian in times of trouble; they found that they could not argue against him, hence the need to lie to the Sanhedrin. If the Word of God is faithfully taught, we can expect to see jealousy and opposition, since it is threatening to those who do not believe, and it challenges their lives. If the opposition do not choose to accept the gospel, they can try to discredit and attack God’s workers. If we stand firm, though, God will come to our aid.

This chapter of Acts shows us much of great importance concerning the early Church. We see the centrality of the preaching of the word and of prayer to their mission. We also see that they do not neglect other areas of ministry, but believe that it is important to support those who are less fortunate. By witnessing what happens to Stephen, we also once again see how doing God’s work can lead to persecution, yet how the Holy Spirit will support us in our times of need. Above all else, we see the Church continuing to grow as more and more people accept Jesus as their saviour. Wouldn’t it be great if we could see that happening today!

Plan of Man or God?

If this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.

Acts 5:38b-39a

Do you remember Rabbit Telecom? The chances are that you probably don’t! I vaguely remember it from around the mid 1990s. It was a telephone system a little bit like a cordless home phone in the days before mobile phones. The idea was that you had a phone handset, and in shops and other public places there was a Rabbit base station. If you stood near a base station you could make phone calls. If you wandered too far away, though, just like with your cordless phone, you would lose the signal. Rabbit did not last very long because within a year or two people had started buying mobile phones. A few years later, everyone had one, and there was no need for the Rabbit system.

Sometimes new products emerge which seem like a good idea, and often they are. For various reasons, though, they sometimes fail. It might be because a better product comes along, it might be because it’s too expensive, or maybe the producer does not have the marketing budget to get the message into the retail world. In today’s verse, we see a similar idea. Gamaliel, a prominent rabbi and the teacher of Paul, speaks good sense to the Sanhedrin during their trial of the apostles. He tells them that if the apostles are frauds, then in time their message will be forgotten and everyone will go back to their normal lives and forget all about them and their message of salvation through Christ. If, however, the apostles are genuinely teaching God’s message, then they will succeed, whether or not the Sanhedrin tries to stop them. Here we are, 2,000 years later still talking about the message that those twelve men worked to hard to get out into the world. If Gamaliel could see the global church now, I am sure that he would have no doubt whatsoever that the Christian message is genuinely from God!

Sometimes we all have doubts about our faith, and wonder if perhaps the Christian message is made up and meaningless. To me, though, the fact that many of the apostles were willing to die for their beliefs, that over 2,000 years later millions of people still live their lives for Christ, and many of those can speak of the way in which Jesus has transformed their lives, seems to suggest that the Christian message is real and genuine. If it is, then we need to think how we respond to this. Do we follow Christ and seek to serve him, sure that Christ has won us eternal life, or do we ignore him, live purely for ourselves, and reject his gift of salvation?