I’ve been thinking a lot about the early Church and how God orchestrated events to expand the hearts of His Church to reflect his heart.
I believe what God did in the first century should instruct us as we engage a racially and socially torn culture.
This is one of the most divisive times that I can remember.
This pandemic has us fighting over masks, theories, and economics.
With the United States presidential election coming up, the rhetoric will continue to heat up over the next few months.
Our differences are driving us apart in scary ways right now.
On top of this, it has been a summer of racial inequalities coming to the forefront, protests, and even violence.
Back to the early Church. Acts 8:1-3 records how the church in Jerusalem went through a terrible time.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
A great persecution broke out; people were dragged off to jail and even killed.
The text records that all except the Apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
A question that comes to mind that I’m sure entered the minds of the early Christians is: “Why is God allowing this to happen?”
What happened next was everywhere the early Christians went they shared the message of Jesus, and people came to faith and churches were formed.
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.Acts 8:4
Samaritans came to faith. Greek-speaking people came to faith.
Before this persecution, the early Church was almost entirely Jewish.
It was based in Jerusalem and was considered to be an offshoot of the Jewish faith.
Suddenly, the Jesus movement was bigger than one ethnicity...one nation.
What was becoming clear was that God’s heart has always been for all people.
Jesus himself told the Church what his multi-ethnic mission was,
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
I imagine at some point in the scattering, some of the early Christians were like,
“Wait a second...we’re in Samaria. Didn’t Jesus say something about this?”
In Acts 8, Jesus’ mission for the Church was becoming a reality.
They were taking the message to exactly where He instructed them.
But what about “the ends of the earth?”
In Acts 9, God initiated that phase too when the Spirit instructed Philip to head to a desert road near Gaza, and he encountered an Ethiopian treasury official.
Homer, Heroditus, and others referred to Ethiopian, which was probably the kingdom of Nubia, as the edge of the world or the end of the earth.
After Philip explained the Gospel message to the Ethiopian, he was baptized and became a follower.
It strikes me that taking the Gospel outside their ethnic and national borders was so challenging that God had to show them how.
God orchestrated EVERYTHING in the story of the Ethiopian.
- God gives very specific instructions on where to go.
- The Ethiopian just happens to be reading an Isaiah scroll in exactly chapter 53, which is about the Messiah.
- There just happens to be a body of water big enough for a baptism on a desert road.
All of this tells me how serious God is about expanding the heart of his Church, and how challenging the process is for the Church, which almost always naturally closes around ethnic, social, and national lines.
Why? Because we like to be comfortably surrounded by people like us.
Through these stories, God stretches and expands the hearts of the early Church to match his own.
His desire was, is, and will always be for all people.
They were stuck in their own ethnicity and in their own region. God used pain as an opportunity to expand the hearts of His Church.
I wonder what bearing this story has on our churches today?
We are enduring a painful season—financially, socially, racially, medically.
I wonder how God desires to use these difficult months to shape us?
I wonder how He might want to expand our hearts beyond the four walls of our churches?
I wonder if a fresh movement of the Spirit desires that we reach across ethnic lines to share the love and grace of Jesus?
We know that God has always desired unity within diversity in the Church.
This theme begins with Abraham and extends through the Old Testament, to Jesus, the Church, and into Revelation.
I wonder if, like the persecution recorded in Acts, Jesus desires to use our present difficulty to align our hearts more and more with his.