Summary: The danger of growth is great. The need for growth is even greater. The love of Jesus, the Good Sheperd for his people is the greatest of all!
(Acts 6:1-9; 7:2a, 51-60)
Intro: Wouldn’t it be great if our church suddenly grew by the thousands? The book of Acts demonstrates that this is possible. It also reminds us to be careful what we wish for, because growth isn’t always easy or painless. It often means we have to deal with changes and challenges. But because of Jesus, our victorious and risen Lord, in the end, it’s worth it all!
I. With growth the church faces internal tensons
A. Growth: the number of disciples was increasing.
1. From 120 to 3,000 to 5,000, etc.
2. Its makeup was entirely people of Jewish background.
3. They were centered in Jerusalem.
[Question: what keeps us from growing that way today?]
B. Confict: there were some sore spots among different believers.
1. There were two groups of believers
a. Hebraic Jews were from Palestine and spoke Hebrew.
b. Grecian Jews were born outside of Palestine and spoke Greek.
2. The Grecian Jews had a complaint: their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. (This was their only source of provision.)
[Question: what are some internal struggles the church faces today?]
C. Example: the problem was handled wisely and well.
1. The disciples kept their focus on the ministry of the Word and prayer, but they didn’t sacrifice care and service at its expense, either—they got help!
2. They appointed seven men to handle food distribution… but not just anyone!
a. The men they chose were well-qualified: full of the Spirit and wisdom.
b. These men represented the party that had been slighted: they had Greek names.
c. This group even included a convert to Judaism (a proselyte) from Antioch
[Question: how can we apply some of these same principles today?]
D. Result: “The Word of God spread;” There was an even greater explosion of growth within Jerusalem, and a large number of priests were included.
II. With growth the church faces external opposition.
A. Growth: Stephen’s reputation grew as he became increasingly important. (He was one of the 7!)
1. He was full: “of faith and the Holy Spirit” (v. 5) “of God’s grace and power” (v. 8) [Note: in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full!]
2. He did great wonders and miraculous signs.
B. Conflict: The Synagogue of the Freemen (Roman slaves of Jewish background who had been set free and now lived in Jerusalem) opposed Stephen—perhaps they felt jealous, threatened.
1. They couldn’t “fight fair”—they couldn’t stand up to his wisdom or the Holy Spirit.
2. So they used alternate methods: politics, deception, force.
a. They stirred up the people by making false accusations.
b. Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin. [Note: This is also the approach used against Jesus!]
C. Example: Stephen answered the accusations against himwithout descending to their level.
1. He appealed to their “common ground”—the history of Israel, noting two important things:
a. The “good old days” weren’t always so good. God’s people had a long history of rejecting Moses and the prophets, a history that led up to Jesus himself.
b. The temple, which had actually been preceeded by the tabernacle, could never adequately contain God. It was temporary and transitory. [Note: only Jesus himself, true God in human flesh, could give us this kind access to God. Jesus said “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were theives and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:7-9)]
2. He unflinchingly condemned their unbelief and rejection of the Messiah: “You always resist the Holy Spirit!”
3. Yet, he prayed for their salvation, even as he was being stoned by them: “Lord, do not hold this against them.”
D. The result: good, but not in a way we would expect.
1. Stephen was received into glory—even before he “fell alseep” he looked into heaven and saw
Jesus at the right hand of God.
2. Headed up by Saul, widespread persecution broke out against the church. Christians were forced to flee Jerusalem and were scattered—but this only caused the church to grow and spread even more.
Conclusion: The book of Acts is not just the acts of the aposltes. It is the continuation of what Jesus began during his earthly life. It is Christ in action! As seen by Stephen, the risen Christ is even now at the right hand of God in glory. This means that as Lord of all, he graciously rules all things in heaven and on earth especially for the good of his church—even for our good! Yes, there are internal tensions faced by congregations, church bodies, and Christianity in general. Yes, external opposition grows ever more fierce by the hour. But by faith we can see the gentle hand of our Good Shepherd leading, guiding, feeding, comforting, and protecting us along every twist and turn of the hazardous way. The danger of growth is great. The need for growth is even greater. But our Savior’s love for His dear Church is the greatest of all. Amen!