Summary: Even if the future of the church in America looks like VERSES 1-3, God can still bring about VERSE 8.
My favorite movies are those with plot twists at the end. When what happens at the end of a movie, you never saw coming at the beginning. And when the ending is revealed it's kind of like, "oh, everything makes sense now." I think the first time I vividly remember experiencing that phenomenon was at the end of Planet of the Apes. When astronaut George Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, who we suppose has been on some distant planet run by these ape-like humanoids is actually on planet earth in the future as he rides his horse on the beach only to discover this:
Or for you Star Wars fans, in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader says, "Luke, I am your father." Nobody saw that coming.
As we return to our study of the book of Acts this morning we find ourselves in Acts chapter 8. Last week we saw that Stephen had given an absolutely brilliant, Holy Spirit inspired speech before the high Jewish court, the Sanhedrin. His speech not only answered their charges of blasphemy but revealed their idolatrous hearts. He held Jesus out to them as their only hope. At that, they rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and chapter 7 ends with them beating the life out of him with stones and boulders.
Our text today, chapter 8 vs. 1-8 starts with that sad, somber tone - but then ends in an amazing plot twist. Let's read our text for this morning:
1And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. 4Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. 5Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8So there was much joy in that city.
How do we go from verse 1 to verse 8? How do you go from the execution of Stephen which was the impetus to great persecution against the church in verse 1, to verse 8 when there was much joy in the city. How does that happen? How do you go from the killing of a godly man, the ravaging of the church in brutal persecution, to much joy. The long answer is what I'll seek to explain in this sermon. The short answer is one word: God. God does it. God takes the difficulties, the opposition, the hardships and persecution and turns them for his glory and our good.
This is how our God works. This is how he surprises us with his grace again and again. He takes what seems hopeless and turns it around. I would call this not a plot-twist, but a God-twist. God twists the expected outcome. Fierce persecution of the church resulting in much joy is simply the first God-twist in a Church history that is filled with stories like this. For 2000 years God's been doing this in and through his church; and we can expect him to continue doing this.
Illustration: In 1521 Martin Luther stood before a Roman Catholic council to answer the heresy charges against him. Luther proclaimed that salvation is by faith alone and did not require any kind of works like giving alms, paying penance, buying indulgences through the church or taking of the sacraments - that only through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross could someone be saved. This flew in the face of 16th Century Roman Catholic dogma.
Following the council an edict was given denouncing Luther; and a reward for his capture and arrest was given. Luther escaped capture and went into hiding for the next several years. What good can come from that persecution against a pure gospel. Here's what good came from it - the Luther Bible. The German speaking people did not have a Bible in their language. The Roman Church declared it was not only illegal, but immoral to have the Bible in any language other than the language of the church - Latin. Luther spent his time in exile translating the New Testament and then the Old Testament from their original languages into German. That was something you just didn't do. Luther's bold translation was a precursor to other languages - like English - receiving the Bible for the first time.