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Spreading Power Through Persecution

God uses the suffering of the church for the advancement of the Gospel.

On January 9, 1985, a Congregational pastor in Bulgaria named Christo Kuleczef, was arrested and put in jail. His crime was preaching in his church, just like I am right now. It was a crime because the week before the village committee had appointed a new pastor. The secular committee who runs the village put a new pastor in even though the Congregational church doesn't recognize any pastors but the ones they elect and install. So he preached, and they clamped him in jail immediately, and he immediately began to share Christ and make the truth known while he was in prison. He had a trial. It was a mockery of justice, and he was sentenced to eight months.

He did his eight months, got out, and wrote these words: "Both prisoners and jailers asked many questions, and we had a more fruitful ministry there than we could have expected in church. God was better served by our presence in prison than if we had been free."

There are a thousand stories like that in the world today, and there are more than a thousand from the centuries of church history. The lesson is simple. God uses persecution and suffering to spread the truth of Christ and to bring blessing to the world. All of us who have served time in jail because of our involvement in the cause are glad we did and would say the same thing this pastor said. It was good for us and for those to whom we spoke in prison that we were there, and we would do it again.

I would even extend that and say the legal suit being brought against this church and many of us in the church will serve for the advancement of righteousness and the truth of Christ. I don't have any doubt because I know the righteous cause for which it's brought. We did right. Therefore, it will serve righteousness. That will become clearer as we move through this text.

The point of the text is that God rules over the suffering of the church and causes her to spread spiritual power and the joy of faith to a lost world. It's not the only way God spreads truth or righteousness or joy, but it seems to be an extraordinarily common way. He spurs the church into ministry by suffering. Therefore, we must be careful not to judge before the time. How quick we are to say, "It's a defeat," when in fact God is positioning the church through an apparent setback for strategic advance.

I want to break down this God overrules the sufferings of the church for the advancement of the four encouraging truths from this text.

Encouraging Truth #1 is that God makes persecution serve the Great Commission.

Acts 8:1: "On that day [the day of Stephen's murder], a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles."

Until now in the Book of Acts all the activity happened in Jerusalem. Nobody, evidently, left Jerusalem to go anywhere with the gospel. There was a verse back in Acts 1:8 that said, "When the Holy Spirit is come upon you, you will receive power, and you will be my witnesses to Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." But they are still in Jerusalem until the persecution comes.

Where are the two places to which they are scattered? Judea and Samaria. Is that an accident? That's no accident. That's a clear teaching of Luke the writer that it took persecution to get them off their rear ends. This is a good church. This is a powerful church. This is a Holy S church in Jerusalem, but they are not doing evangelism outside Jerusalem. They do not see the unreached peoples out there, so God will even take the apple of his eye, if he whom he pours out his Holy Spirit in power in J move them to the unreached. He will do whatever he must to take a good church ministering to one another and reaching their village to give them a world vision and keep them moving.

Chapter 11:19 shows Luke will play this out even further as he writes the story:

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen [same situation] traveled as far as Phoenicia [now we're beyond Samaria up the coast] and Cyprus [off the coast, an island in the Mediterranean] and Antioch [near the bend of the Mediterranean Sea], speaking the word to none except Jews. But in Antioch they began to speak to Greeks [and the whole thing breaks open].

It was the persecution initiated through the suffering of Stephen that got the church only to Judea, not only to Samaria but to the uttermost parts of the where the Gentiles are who have absolutely no access to the gospel unless a good, happy, church breaks out and inconveniences itself, loses its sons and daughters and goes.

The lessons here are manifold. One: God is sovereign and turns the setbacks of the church into triumphs for the Great Commission. But let me make it more specific. See if you would agree with these inferences: comfort, ease, affluence, safety, security, and freedom often cause tremendous inertia in the church. What is inertia? It's that something about an object which if it's standing still makes it want to stay still, and if it's moving inertia makes it want to keep moving. It's harder to stop it. Ease and comfort and safety and security and luxury produce tremendous spiritual stagnation and inertia in the church.

It's ironic. I hear it in 're in my prayers. The things we think will produce personnel and resources and time and energy and prayer for the gospel because we are so free and we have so much, don't do it. It doesn't work. An article in the Tribune this week said the poor give a higher percent of income to churches than the rich do. The study said the poorest fifth of the church members gave on an average 3.4 percent of their income, while the wealthiest fifth gave 1.6 half as much. The richer you get, the less you you don't think you're giving less because you're giving more in dollars. It feels like you're giving a lot. As you get richer and richer and give more and more (and you give less and less), more goes to the bank and more goes to the house and more goes to the cabin and more goes to the cars and the toys.

It seems a strange it probably has to do with our sinfulness and the sufficiency of J hard times, ironically, seem to beget more personnel, more prayer, more power, more open purses than easy times, because easiness anesthetizes. Whereas when we hurt we somehow feel somebody else might be hurting. Isn't it ironic that the poor give more? I forget who told me recently that they weren't worried about the recession because people always give more to churches in recessions. I don't know if that's true, but this person thought that historically, people get near to spiritual realities when things are hard. When you are near to spiritual realities, when things are hard and your life is insecure, you start to take stock of priorities, and then you realize life isn't where the money is anyway. Isn't it strange that the prosperity supposed to produce for the mission field does exactly the opposite?

I want to be careful. Persecution is not to be naively celebrated or invited. That's not my point. Remember the parable of the four soils. With the first soil, the Word is plucked off the path by the devil. With the second soil, the sun comes out, persecution arises, and the seed falls away. Persecution hurts the church as well as mobilizes the church.

But that third soil is the great danger in America. "The cares of the world and the delight in riches and the desire for other things enter in and choke the Word, and it proves unfruitful." Yes, I admit that persecution can bring harmful effects into the church, and people can abort and apostasize. But frankly, in America today, the third soil is the great danger, namely the desire for other things, the delight in riches, the cares of the world. They anesthetize the church and make us think all is well when all is going to Hell among the unreached peoples of the world and even in our city.

The point is this: Let's be wary of prosperity. Set a cap on your lifestyle. Earn as much as you can; give as much as you can. Become a conduit of resources to the mission field and line that conduit with copper, not with gold. Don't be disheartened if pain and persecution come, because those are the mysterious maneuverings of the Master Sovereign Strategist to set us up for a greater breakthrough like they had in Jerusalem.

Encouraging Truth #2 is that trouble for the sake of truth brings honor.

The second encouraging thing is this: Stephen is honored and not blamed by godly people. The persecution in Jerusalem was owed to Stephen's speech. He brought this on Jerusalem. This is obvious here, but in Acts 11:19 it says, "the persecution that arose over Stephen."

I can imagine some cautious, prudent, believers in Jerusalem behind closed doors saying, "Stephen's speech was utterly uncalled for. There are less inflammatory ways to defend the truth than to say to the Sanhedrin that they are people who always resist the Holy Spirit. That's not what you should say to the Sanhedrin. It's always hotheads like this who get us in trouble as a church. Now the whole city is against us. How are you going to minister if the city is against you? Look at the waste of life and property and time. Look at the families broken up as people get put in prison. What about the children who were taken away from their families? Now we've all got to live like refugees and exiles in Judea and Samaria. Why didn't Stephen think before he spoke?" I wonder if anyone might talk like that.

Well, that's not God's version of the story. Luke wrote God's version of the story, and Luke says Stephen was a man full of grace and wisdom, a man full of the Holy Spirit and power, a man whose wisdom was irresistible. Acts 7:55Stephen was a man who in the last moment opened his mouth to speak the words that caused his enemies to clamp their ears, gnash their teeth, rush upon him, and decimate the church in Jerusalem. He was filled with the Holy S he brought persecution on the church filled with the Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:2 is Luke's tribute to this man. He made no innuendo of correction: Why didn't he soften his tongue to the Sanhedrin and avoid persecution? There is not a whiff of that in the book of Acts. Just this: "Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him."

I hear three things. They were devout, not worldly. Worldly people say, "What about our church? What about our possessions? What about our safety? What about our effectiveness?" Not, "What about the truth?" But godly people risked their lives and buried him and made a great lamentation over him. Therefore, my second encouragement to you is this. If in your service to the Lord, by virtue of courage, boldness, faithfulness, and obedience, you come into trouble and others with you, mark this: devout people will not blame you. They'll honor you. Worldly people will blame you.

Encouraging Truth #3 is that sometimes our worst enemies become our best friends.

Do you see that in verse 3? Saul ravaged the church and entered house after house. He dragged off men and women and committed them to prison, and that Saul is the same Saul who in a few weeks would be so dramatically converted that he would become the greatest advocate that Christianity has ever had in the history of the world.

I love it, and I need to hear this, because by experience and by I think I speak for the average human I find it easy to believe that the closest friends can become enemies. I can believe in Judas. I've seen that happen. That's the way the world . But we need help to believe that the opposite happens. It does. I've seen it worst critic can become the closest comrade; enemies can become friends; adversaries can become advocates.

One of the men who left the service after the first hour thanked me for that point. He said, "There's a man at work, and I had just about thrown in the towel on his foul mouth and enmity towards me and the gospel. I feel a new sense of hope to press on in prayer. God can do it."

I want you to feel hope like that. I want you to believe that if Saul, breathing out murders and threats, hating the was more opposed to you or the gospel than Paul was opposed. If Paul can get saved, anybody can get saved. He said in 1 Timothy 1:16—17: The reason I got saved is to show that the patience of Christ will work for anybody. That's why God chose him.

Look through the eyes of faith, for the people you are about to give up family, people at work because they are hostile against you or against the 's hope. Light can break forth out of heaven and knock them off their donkeys and grab them to be saved.

Encouraging Truth #4 is that persecution brings joy.

Finally, though the Word of God brings persecution and exile, it also brings joy. The same Word that brings persecution brings joy. Let me show you in the paragraph that begins with verse 4 and closes with verse 8. Verse 4 says they were scattered and went through these places preaching the Word. This word for preaching means "preaching it as good news, 'gospeling' it." The Word caused them so much pain, they had to leave home. They went around saying, "Hear the good news! Hear the good news." These are strange people. This Word that cost them their homeland, cost them their families, cost them their security, cost them who knows what, they now proclaim as good news. Look at the effect in verse 8: There was much joy in the city where Philip was doing that proclamation. It does work. It is good news.

Why? Three things are mentioned. In verse 7 it says unclean spirits came out of people when the Word was preached. People were freed and cleansed and made whole and pure, and they didn't have to carry the bondage, the oppression of the devil, those enslavements, obsessions, anymore. They were freed by the gospel.

Secondly, the paralyzed and lame were healed.

T is the summary and most important point in verse 5Philip went to a city of Samaria and proclaimed to them Christ. Christ. Christ is the only One who has the power to destroy the works of the devil and to free people. Christ is the only One who has power to heal both now in this age and in the resurrection in the age to and decisively when all tears and all pain and death are put away. Christ is the only One who can forgive our sins and make us right with God. Therefore, when Philip preached the Christ he, as it were, offered everything to the people in Samaria.

I want to close by encouraging you, urging you, pleading with you to if you have, hold fast to Christ as the sum of everything in life. If you have Christ, no matter how great the persecution, no matter how great the suffering, you have hope and joy that can never end. Sometimes belonging to Christ brings persecution, but always belonging to Christ brings joy, and the always lasts forever. Persecution is temporary. Even if like Stephen you have to die, it's temporary because you enter into glory, and your joy never ends. The joy that began in the "There was much joy in that city" ended. It lasts today in heaven. Those people are still rejoicing because Philip came and preached the Word that brought persecution for some but joy for all who believed.

Embrace Christ, and these four encouragements that I've given you from the text will not only be true in general, they will be true personally for you.

Let me state them:

Number one, God makes persecution serve the unstoppable mission of the church.

Number two, if your faithfulness brings you into trouble and others with you, godly people will not blame you. They will honor you.

Third, your worst critics, your worst enemies, may become your closest friends and best supporters by the grace of God.

Finally, the very Word that can bring persecution will always bring hope and joy because it is the Word of Christ and his forgiveness and everlasting promise of life.

To see Piper's outline, click here.

John Piper is a theologian, pastor, and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Sermon Outline:


We can find encouraging truths in a biblical account of church persecution.

I. Encouraging Truth #1 is that God makes persecution serve the Great Commission.

II. Encouraging Truth #2 is that trouble for the sake of truth brings honor.

III. Encouraging Truth #3 is that sometimes our worst enemies become our best friends.

IV. Encouraging Truth #4 is that persecution brings joy.