READ – Acts 8:1b-25
Along with being the longest sermon in the Bible, Acts 7 laid the theological visionary groundwork for the church to move beyond the city of Jerusalem. Stephen’s main point was that God is on the move. This claim was both radically subversive to the religious elite, but inspiring to the early Christians. We see that in Acts 8 as Philip and the scattered Christians begin implementing the vision of Stephen’s teaching by crossing boundaries to reach people who both rejected the temple (Samaritans) and could not access the temple (Ethiopian eunuch). Essentially, the question for us is how does a church become a place for outsiders? We can get some clues by looking at the followers of Jesus in Acts 8.
1. The FRUIT OF THEIR SUFFERING
Acts 8:1 tells us that Stephen’s death sparked a large scale persecution of early Christians that leads to hundreds and maybe thousands fleeing as refugees. Humanly speaking, this was an organizational and personal disaster. The church had lost one of its most dynamic, gifted leaders. Even greater, people were being actively hunted down and imprisoned for their faith, while others were fleeing homes, families, jobs, and neighborhoods to preserve their life. Ordinarily, setbacks and personal disasters move us to look inward, but these early disciples saw it as an opportunity to face outward.
It’s important to see a couple things about Acts 8:4. First, the scattered Christians weren’t the apostles. They were ordinary men and women. They weren’t trained professionals, but everyday followers of Jesus sharing Jesus with others in their ordinary lives. Second, most translations aren’t particularly helpful. These believers weren’t “preaching” the gospel in the traditional sense. Rather, they were “sharing the good news.” Or as one writer puts it: “gossiping the gospel.” This was, in fact, one of the primary ways that God turned the Roman Empire upside down: ordinary Christians sharing Jesus with their neighbors.
What was the result, fruit of this scattering? Joy. The suburbs and cities of Samaria experienced joy. These Christians were living examples of Jesus’ teaching in John 12: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Disciples of Jesus get the pattern: something needs to die, seed needs to be scattered for there to be a harvest of joy.
2. THE CHARACTER OF THEIR WITNESS
The scattered disciples moved from being ministry consumers to ministry providers. They no longer had the luxury of sitting back and listening to the apostles’ preaching, now they were forced to go out. So what characterized their witness? We can observe that their evangelism was marked by truth and grace.
Their evangelism was marked by truth. The first-century was highly pluralistic. While Roman society was mostly tolerant of various faiths and religions, they were intolerant of narrow or exclusive religions, like Christianity. Christianity’s claim was that Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life – and that there was no other name through which you can receive salvation, other than Jesus. Right at the point in which it would have been easy and prudent to water down Christian truth, and soften its hard edge to make it adaptable to another culture, Luke says that Philip was showing them “the Christ” (v. 5) and preaching “the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 12).
But their evangelism was also marked by grace. We see this from Philip’s example. Philip is in Samaria (a city that Jews typically avoided). He’s interacting and socializing with Samaritans (Jews traditionally avoided Samaritans). And he’s close to – maybe even touching – Samaritan paralytics and the disabled which would have been both culturally and cultically taboo. Philip understood that he was just as religiously unclean as everyone else. Yes, the gospel is radically exclusive – Jesus is the only way. But the gospel is radically inclusive – the good news is for everyone, Jew or Samaritan.
3. THE GREATNESS OF THEIR GIFT
How was it that these disciples could be scattered and die so that others could have joy and live? How were they able to approach people with both conviction about the truth, but be compassionate in their engagement? It was because of the core element of the gospel: salvation is a free gift of grace. That’s what we learn through the bizarre encounter between Simon the sorcerer and the apostle Peter. Luke says that Simon both believed and was baptized and yet Peter refers to him basically as an unbeliever. He’s still in the “gall of bitterness” and the “bond of iniquity,” which was covenantal language for saying, ‘you are under God’s curse.” Why? Because even though Simon was intellectually convinced of the truth of Jesus, he was still confusing Christianity with religion.
All religions basically tell you there’s something you must do, achieve, or give. Christianity is unique because only in it will you discover something that’s been done for you, something to receive, a gift freely given.
How can salvation be free? The answer comes by considering the “gall of bitterness” in which Simon is cursed. Gall was essentially a bitter, sometimes poisonous, liquid that tasted horrible. While some scholars think the “gall of bitterness” refers to an emotional state, it’s more likely that Peter is referencing Old Testament covenantal language to describe a cursed condition. The irony is this wasn’t because Simon practiced sorcery (a lifestyle that would have resulted in capital punishment), but because he thought he could buy grace. Several years earlier, Jesus had encountered a Samaritan woman (whose lifestyle also would have been punishable by death). He crossed the social, cultural, gender, and religious barrier to meet her where she was. In that conversation – recorded in John 4 – Jesus offers this Samaritan a drink of living water resulting in eternal life and joy. The reason he could offer that drink freely to Samaritans and to us is that on the cross Jesus experienced the bitter curse of God’s wrath against sin. He was thirsty and his executioners offered him wine mixed with gall, yet he did not drink. He refused because all the wages of sin were being credited to his account. The bitter cup of God’s justice against evil was being drained. Why? So that salvation could be free, a gift, undeserved, unearned grace.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
2. Is there a particular setback in your life right now? A place you are feeling scattered? What might it look like to move beyond your own suffering to bring others joy through your suffering?
3. What are the obstacles to sharing the good news of Jesus with your friends and neighbors? When was the last time you tried to intentionally move someone toward Jesus?
4. Our witness, both individually and corporately, should be marked by truth and grace. Explain. Where do you tend to be lop-sided? Why is that?
5. Who is an ‘outsider’ in your circles right now? Maybe it’s someone who is culturally or religiously other? Maybe it’s just someone who is weird and awkward. What might it look like to move toward them this week?