Have you ever a heard a comment like one of these in a church meeting? “We couldn’t possibly plant a church/ support a missionary/ afford a youth worker/ extend our building/ outreach to Muslims/ minister to refugees.”
It’s the sort of statement that’s often followed by a comment like, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Or “We must be financially responsible.” Or “We need to crawl before we can walk.”
We often presume to know what God wants for his church, and that we’ve got God figured out. And yet the message of Acts is that God is into things that have never been done before, God’s plans are bigger than we could ever imagine, and God himself is bigger than any box we might try to fit him in!
Michael Green, in his book on Acts, Thirty Years That Changed The World says that Acts “has so much to say to our half-hearted and cold-blooded Christianity in the Western world. It rebukes our preoccupation with buildings and ministerial pedigree, our syncretism and pluralism, our lack of expectancy and vibrant faith. As such it is a book supremely relevant for our time (p5).” Amen to that!
We see the beginning of God’s surprising plans even before Jesus’ ascension. In chapter 1 Jesus tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. This would mean the keeping of Jesus’ own promise (Luke 24:49) as well as God’s fulfillment of prophecy (Ezekiel 36:27; Isaiah 44:3; Joel 2:28-29). The disciples could only see such a gift as the beginning of a new age for Israel, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6)
Jesus rebukes them that they mustn’t put God in boxes, and then expands their horizons, “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 (1:8).” In other words, “Forget Israel! For God, Israel’s just the beginning!”
Further on into Acts Peter and Paul both receive further horizon-expanding visions that show that God’s plans are bigger than they could ever imagine. For Peter it takes a dream of unclean animals served up for lunch to send him to the house of the Gentile Cornelius, resulting in ‘a second Pentecost’, as the Holy Spirit falls even on Gentiles. He concludes (11:17), “If God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”
For Paul’s part, he had planned his second missionary journey to be nothing more than revisiting those churches he had planted throughout Galatia and Asia on his first journey (see 15:36). However God had different ideas. Paul was kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in Asia, and when he tried to enter Bithynia, to the north of Asia, the Spirit of Jesus prevented them. Instead he had a vision of a man from Macedonia begging for help. Paul concluded that God had called them to preach the gospel in Macedonia, on a new continent entirely (16:10).
Despite the clarity of Jesus’ call, the scope of God’s strategy, and the promise of Spirit-power in 1:8, the disciples seem to be slow-learners. Following Jesus’ ascension, the Spirit comes, thousands of Jews are converted, and by 6:7 even a large number of priests come to faith. But the gospel had no further than Jerusalem. What would it take for the Christians to be faithful to their commission in 1:8, and to begin seeing the world the way God did?
The crucial turning point comes in Ch 7, Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin. It’s a chapter I suspect many of us skip over on our way to something more interesting.
Acts is full of speeches and sermons – more than one third of the total number of verses – to Jew and Gentile, Christian and non-Christian, in settings from royal courts to riverbanks, mostly from the lips of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the two pillars of the early church. However it is Stephen’s speech that occupies more space than any other. He is a “simple deacon” who appears in Ch 6 and disappears in Ch 7. What in this speech so interests Luke that he devotes 52 verses to recounting it?
Paul Barnett’s reconstruction is probably correct (p207-221) – Stephen represents the views of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, who had grown-up outside Israel, and had a less Jewish-focused perspective of God’s purposes than the Hebrew/ Aramaic-speaking Christians. That the two groups were distinct seems obvious from the need for seven (probably Greek-speaking) deacons to look after the daily distribution of food.
Stephen is arrested for preaching Jesus in the Greek-speaking synagogue. He is falsely accused of speaking against Moses and the law, against ‘this place’ – i.e. the temple.
His defense seems to wander aimlessly through the history pages of Israel, yet he is doing something far more significant. No one in Acts sees God’s worldwide purposes as early or as clearly as Stephen does. A major point is that God’s interest and activity are not confined to within the borders of Israel alone – he appeared to Abram in Mesopotamia, then spoke to him in Haran. When Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, God was with him there. God increased the numbers of his people in Egypt, then raised up Moses. After Moses fled to Midian, God appeared to him at Mt Sinai, which was holy ground though not in the land. God led his people out of Egypt and for forty years in the desert, where he also gave them the law. Success in conquering the land under Joshua came because of God’s presence among them represented by the movable tabernacle. And even when Solomon built a permanent temple, he was aware that the Most High does not live in houses made by men.
While the tabernacle-tent was made according to God’s plan (7:44), the temple was ‘made with hands’ (7:48). This is a sharp attack on the attitude of the Jews who had made an idol of their temple since it is the same phrase Stephen uses to describe the golden calf (7:41). Thus Stephen’s accusers are just like their fathers (7:51).
Rather than a defense, his speech is more of a counter-attack, and it so angers the narrow-minded and place-focused Sanhedrin that Stephen is stoned, the first martyr of the Christian church. It is the trigger to a great persecution that drove the Christians out of Jerusalem, preaching the word wherever they went (8:4; 11:19-21), to Judea, then Samaria (8), then eventually to all the Gentile world.
From Stephen’s vantage point, provided by a cultural background different from that of many in the Jerusalem Church, he was able to perceive a potential danger hidden from his Hebrew Christian brothers and sisters. To the Hellenist, the Christians’ remaining in Jerusalem and continuing attachment to Jewish nationalistic institutions such as the temple could lead them into the same errors of attitude and action that had ensnared Judaism. Jesus the Messiah had commanded a worldwide mission (Matt 28:19; Acts 1:8) but the young Church had not obeyed. The geographical, cultural and religious provincialism of their Jewish background had stood in the way.
The Apostles were constantly surprised at God’s plans. And even though the events Acts describes were one-off, God hasn’t changed, and neither have his plans – they’re still bigger than we could ever imagine.
Where have we become comfortable and place-focused? Where has our gaze been reduced to nothing more than a squinty-eyed myopia concentrated no further a field than our church, our suburb, our own people group, or our country?
The recent GAA heard of the re-planted Presbyterian Church in Darwin, as well as plans for the planting of new churches in Perth. Will we see these opportunities to jump on board with God’s big purposes?
Let’s see our world the way God does. He’s the God who is into things that have never been done before!
 Green, Michael. Thirty years that changed the world (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2002).
 Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times (IVP, 1999).