We have before us one of the most famous conversions in the history of Christianity. It is so important it is told three times in the book of Acts. One scholar said after the death and resurrection of Jesus there is no other greater event in human history than the conversion to Christianity of Saul of Tarsus. Another called him the second founder of Christianity. Paul turned Christianity from a little Jewish sect into a world religion. Without Paul’s conversion we would have no NT like we have. We would be devoid of the depths of theology and doctrine revealed in Romans. Our understanding of justification by faith and salvation by grace would be anemic. Without Paul there would not be the conversions of Augustine, Luther or Wesley. In fact, our conversion is tied to Paul’s conversion.
An angel of the Lord had sent the deacon Philip out into the desert on the road from Jerusalem down to Gaza. He wasn’t told why. Now the Spirit of the Lord tells him to go up to a chariot on the road. Again he is not told why or who is in it. Luke tells us it as a very important and highly placed official from the court of the Ethiopian Queen Candace. He was her CFO, in charge of her vast treasury. His wealth is evident by the fact that he is riding in a chariot driven by servants and by the fact that he has in his possession a hand copied scroll of the book of Isaiah. Few people had such things, mainly only rabbis.
I wonder if Philip was surprised by all the things God did through him. Back in chapter six of Acts he was just helping hand out alms to widows, waiting on tables as the apostles called it. He had just be elected a deacon in his church. It was a nice job, pretty easy, not a big deal, not to demanding. You know how some people think about deacons. They are sort of junior elders, they are the lower tier of spiritual leaders. Deacons is for the younger men, those starting out, like apprentices. But clearly God doesn’t look at it that way. Deacons are spiritual leaders gifted and equipped for important spiritual work. There is nothing second class about it. There are different roles and responsibilities, just as there are differences between men and women, husbands and wives, pastors and lay people. We should celebrate and honor the differences without ever slipping into suggesting one is better. In chapter 8 of Acts Philip has been used of God with great power and influence. Philip is the one who spreads the Gospel to Samaria and to Africa. He wasn’t an apostle, he wasn’t a professional evangelist, but God doesn’t just use pros. By His Spirit’s power and gifts, God can and will and wants to use every one of us for His glory and the blessing of others. Be open, be willing, be ready. Don’t despise the gifts he has given you. God loves to glorify Himself through what seems weak and foolish. Pray and ask Him to use you.
Last week we considered the persecution that followed in the wake of Stephen’s death, the first martyr of the early church. This morning we come to consider the first missionary of the early church. The ancient church father, Tertullian, once wrote, the more you kill us the more we will multiply, every drop of our blood will spring up, some thirty, some sixty, some a hundredfold (Apology, ch. 50).
We are returning to the Book of Acts this morning. This is Luke’s history of the early church. We started with Jesus’ ascension into heaven, then Pentecost and the phenomenal growth of the early church which lead to the formation of deacons to help with the work. One of them was Stephen who became the first martyr in the Christian church. He was stoned to death by an angry mob of Jews. All of this was watched over by Saul who was approving it.
You have heard often there are two kinds of people in the world. There are a million ways we can be divided into two camps. Huskies and Cougars. Ford and Chevy. Red States and Blue States. Coke and Pepsi. iPhone and Android. Those who eat the crust and those who don’t. Toilet paper over front or down the back. Morning people and those who want to shot morning people. Our text sets side by side a great contrast between Stephen and the Sanhedrin, a difference created by the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit, by one filled with the Spirit and those resisting the Holy Spirit. We see those that look around and one who looks up. Those filled with rage and one filled with peace. Those who show no mercy and the one who prays for mercy. Those ready to kill and one ready to die. Those who hate and one who loves. Those who are acting according to the flesh and one who sees and says and does things the flesh never could.
Last week we heard about the powerful ministry of Stephen, one of the seven men set apart as a deacon. Some of the Jews charged him with speaking blasphemously against Moses and God. Acts 6:13-14 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” Stephen has been charged with two very serious charges of blasphemy, blasphemy the law and the Temple, the most sacred things in the mind of any Jew.
How many of you have been impacted or influenced or greatly helped by a person who was in your life for a very short time? Someone who in the span of a few months or weeks or maybe even hours left a positive lasting mark? Who knows maybe you have been touched by an angel unawares? Some brief encounters can be as profound and life changing as a lifelong friendship. This reminds us not to take for granted how God might use us in some stranger’s life, how a word or action could make a lasting impression. Being salt and light, bringing a cup of cold water, lifting a broken spirit, doesn’t have to take a long time. Don’t underestimate what the Holy Spirit of God can do through you if you are open and available and paying attention to what He is doing around you. Stephen comes on the stage of Biblical history in Acts 6 and by the end of chapter seven he is dead and gone, but not forgotten. He has left a powerful example in his brief appearance. It is obvious Luke wants us to know him because he tells us a lot about him and he included his speech which is the longest speech in Acts.
In our reading of Acts, we have heard stories about how the church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers, how they gathered together in homes, practiced hospitality and sold their possessions to help those in need. We heard stories of bringing money and laying it at the feet of the apostles’ to be distributed to the poor. Several times Luke has mentioned how much the church grew even in the face of opposition. We have heard about the church together in bold prayer and the Spirit filling them. It is good for us to hear about the growth of the church in the world, it encourages us that God is at work, His Spirit is still as always powerfully transforming lives and gathering worshipers from every tongue, tribe and people. Now Luke tells us about a problem in this growing church and how the Spirit led them to solve the problem. And it’s good for us to hear that all churches have problems and issues.