Persecution, Pain, and the Presence of God
Summary: All People experience resistance and pain in life; Christians experience Jesus in the midst of it.
This morning our time in Scripture is filled with people – real people, living real life with its real challenges. We’ll see people who face resistance and rejection, even at church, which reminds us: our relationships are broken because something is broken inside of us, and that can be healed, it can be made better, but it’s a process, and even as we’re healed, we’re surrounded by other people who can make our lives difficult.
We’ll also see that it’s not just the people around us, it’s the world we live in. And so, sometimes life itself is painful – we live with chronic pain, injuries and illnesses, with global pandemics like the Coronavirus and death, even when we’re trying to do good. And sometimes that doesn’t seem fair. If we’re trying so hard to be good and do good, why is there so much resistance?
So, we’ll talk about these things this morning – but we’ll also see one constant: God is with us through it all, and He often uses His people to comfort and encourage us in the middle of our difficulties. It should be some encouraging, and some very real, stuff.
We jump back in where we left off last week – Saul of Tarsus, the young, hot-shot Pharisee who had come to Damascus to arrest Christians, had this soul-transforming collision with Christ outside the city. He became a Christian and immediately began preaching the gospel he had come to silence. And that didn’t go well.
Acts 9: 20 Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.
21 Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?”
22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
23 Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him. 24 But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him. 25 Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket.
26 And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple.
Now, think about how this feels. Saul has just fled for his life in the middle of the night. And now he shows up at church back in Jerusalem, and all anyone can remember is the old Saul. They didn’t trust him.
Which goes to show – a reputation is hard to change. Prejudice and opinions are hard to change – even for people in the church. But we must. We must be open to people that don’t look like us or act like us who want to come in here and worship with us. We must be welcoming and encouraging. And we’ve got to do it in a way that is genuine.
People are looking for a place to belong, something to be a part of. They’re looking at the gym and in the community. There’s a reason pet ownership and dog parks have soared recently – people want to belong to someone/something even if it’s a pet.
Did you know there’s a service here in DC you can join and a lady will pair you up with potential friends? For seven hundred bucks she’ll set you up on friend dates – not romantic, purely friendship, to try and help you find someone you can hang out with – someone sent me an article on this from the Washington Post.
People need people, people want people. They might not know how to do it, they might not know how to connect, they might be complicated, they might have issues or a past, like Saul, but they want people to connect to. And we have to, have to, help them. This needs to be one of the fundamental building blocks of the City Gates Church – that we love God and love Others, because He said to. We’ve got to figure out how to do this better and keep doing it. And it’s not just the staff, it’s all of us. And it’s not just organized programs, it’s organic relationships too.
Jesus sought people out. He didn’t expect everyone to come to Him. Yes, crowds followed Him, but He often took the initiative with individuals. He told the apostles to follow Him. He told Zaccheus to come down out of the tree and invited Himself over for dinner. He initiated conversation with the woman at the well, and on and on it goes.
So, if Jesus made it a habit to talk to people, and to initiate with them, it’s probably a pretty good example to follow. If you have a problem saying hi to people and getting to know them, let me encourage you to follow the example of our Savior, step out of your comfort zone and be uncomfortable for Jesus. Ask Him for the strength and the courage to do it, and then start initiating. You never know how things are going to turn out.
Ask people to go out to lunch with you. Have people over in your home. Ask people to come with you to an event – and that includes events at the church – we try to plan things like potlucks, and breakfasts, the event the ladies had last night, to encourage relationships. The youth do a last Friday of the Month event just to hang out and have fun. We got the tables in the foyer and the stools so people can hang out. We’re offering a cheap lunch today, so people can hang out.
Of course, the problem is there are too many of us to all hang out in the foyer – we need to think about building more hang out space – some churches call it a fellowship hall. We don’t have anything like that but we could really, really use it. So, if you have a few hundred thousand dollars or more that you’d really like to put to use for the Lord, let us know, we’ll get that thing built, and we’ll create space where we can be more welcoming to more people – to get connected and stay connected with each other. Because, people need it, and going all the way back to Saul in Jerusalem, sometimes it’s hard to connect, even at church.
Fortunately, there was someone ready to take a risk, someone willing to reach out and he’s one of my favorite people in the Bible:
Acts 9:27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus.
Barnabas was a connector. Now, if you remember, we met him back in chapter four where he sold a piece of land he owned and gave the money to the apostles to fund the ministry there in Jerusalem. So, pray about that – maybe God wants you to sell something and give the funds to build a fellowship hall? I’m joking, at the same time, I’m not.
Anyway, his name was actually Joseph, Barnabas was a nickname – it means “Son of Encouragement.” So, imagine what this guy must have been like. Probably the kind of guy you’d love to know. When you look down and see you just got a text from Barnabas, you want to read it immediately. “What’s this guy up to?” You usually get a smile on your face when something involves Barnabas.
Barnabas is willing to give Saul a chance.
Now, somebody has to be that guy, but is it a stretch to say that Barnabas was probably stepping out of his comfort zone to connect with Saul?
Even if he was naturally outgoing, this is probably a little difficult at first, right? Remember, Saul is responsible for the death and imprisonment of people Barnabas knew. This was personal. It was probably hard. It was definitely risky.
But Barnabas goes to bat for Saul, introduces him to Peter, and apparently James the brother of Jesus, and the man who once persecuted church continues his new mission of promoting the church.
28 So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out.
According to Galatians 1 he stayed for about two weeks before he was forced to make another hasty exit. Check out the circumstances with me:
29 And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists (Jews influenced by Greek-culture), but they attempted to kill him.
OK, so in case your memory is a little rusty, or you’ve got other things going on – remember that we first met Saul back in chapter seven when these Hellenists were murdering Stephen, one of the early church leaders. Stephen had been trying to tell these people the truth about Jesus and they didn’t like what he had to say, so they put on a mock trial and then they threw big rocks at him until he died from the injuries.
That’s not a one-time thing where I get mad and take a swing at you, that’s a blind rage that keeps pouring out with bloodlust and fury, you keep going and going and going – chucking rocks at another human being until you realize it’s finally over because their body stops twitching and they stop screaming.
And if that sounds horrible to you – good. It should. This is what people can be like without Jesus. This is what God has come to save us from. This is what people will do to other people when you live by Darwinian rules – the survival of the fittest and rule of the strong. And before you go saying that was so primitive and how glad you are that people don’t act like that today – don’t forget – it was all very democratic too – this was the will of the majority.
But God in His mind-boggling mercy, sends these people another testimony of grace. Saul knew who these guys were – he was there when they murdered Stephen. He kept an eye on people’s stuff so they didn’t get any blood or dust stains on their nice robes.
Now he says I need to go tell those guys they were wrong, I was wrong, and tell them about this Jesus again. And maybe they’ll repent and believe like I did.
So he goes. Listen: he goes. He goes back knowing what happened last time. And they try to kill him too. Saul is learning, how much he must suffer for Jesus’ name – that’s what Jesus told Ananias, right?
Friends, let me stop here and ask you a question: is there any life to your life?
Here you have a man who is willing to die for what he believes. And, you see people who are willing to help him with that – they’re willing to kill for what they believe.
So, let me ask: is there any life to your life? Are your convictions anywhere near the convictions of these people? Are the things you’re spending your life on as serious as this? Is there anything you believe this deeply?
Is there anything worth really living for? Anything worth actually dying for? Anything worth taking a risk for? Is your life too safe? Is it too boring? Do you know there are still people today willing to risk everything, or do anything for the things they believe?
Now, that can be a two-edged sword – the Hellenists were willing to kill for what they believed, and that was wrong. That is never the Christian answer unless you are in the employment of the government and you have been tasked to do it’s bidding and even then it’s not to be relished, it’s to be conceded as a necessity in a fallen world to stop people who would do even more harm to others.
But are you willing to risk anything in life for what you know and believe most? When you hear about Coronavirus, is your first reaction to wonder how much toilet paper you need to stock up on or to wonder what a Christian should do to reflect the love of Christ in the middle of a crisis and think about how to volunteer to go in and help with containment, cleanup, and treatment? To bring meals or supplies to people in quarantine?
What drives you in life? When you look at people willing to kill for what they believe and people willing to die for what they believe – what drives you? What do you take seriously? Is there any life in your life or are you stuck doing the safe and responsible thing?
Are you sure that’s the right thing, or have you made a god out of predictability, calm, and control?
Listen, God doesn’t call everyone to risk everything, like Saul. It’s not His will for everyone to live this way, at all times. But, it does make you ask – are you really alive? Do you have any passion? Any zeal? You should. Even if your life is never in danger, you should, we should, feel a passion for God and the world we live in. We need to be reminded that heaven and hell are real and our beliefs have consequences.
Speaking of consequences – remember they’re ready to kill Saul, just like they killed Stephen, but God’s people jump in again and help him out:
30 When the brethren found out, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus.
Twice here we see Paul make a stealthy exit from a dangerous situation. The lesson for us is: you don’t just have to stand there and take it. If you’re in a bad situation, it’s OK to look for a way out. That could be one where your life is in danger, or maybe just a situation at work, definitely in a relationship – if your safety is at risk in a relationship, it’s OK to get out. You don’t need to have this Christian martyr guilt trip – that suffering makes you holy. You can avoid conflict when possible – now it’s not always possible, sometimes you have to stand and suffer, but don’t assume that’s always the case.
In fact, there are times when the Lord blesses His people with rest, peace, growth, and recovery. Look here:
Acts 9:31 Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.
What Jesus promised in Acts 1:8 is happening – the gospel is going out to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and the ends of the earth. The Church is growing as people do two things: they walk in the fear of the Lord – that is, they live for God, not self – and they find comfort in the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Now, you tell me: does this describe your life? Do you know the comfort of the Holy Spirit? Is that even language you would use? Could you ever say, “I have experienced comfort from God? I have experienced the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in my life, and it has given me rest and peace and calmed my fears, quieted my racing thoughts?” My friends, it’s right here in the Bible. They walked in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Is that something you know anything about?
If not, pray about it. Ask God for it. And keep asking until you can say, with confidence, “Yes, I know what Scripture is talking about, I know it experientially, not just intellectually.”
And then, see what you can do to share that with others. When you see someone struggling, or when you know they’re going through a rough time, ask them if you can pray, or tell them you’re going to pray, that they would know the comfort of the Holy Spirit in a real, tangible, way.
Well, now, we shift away from Saul for a bit and we get back to the apostle Peter as we finish the chapter.
Acts 9:32 Now it came to pass, as Peter went through all parts of the country, that he also came down to the saints who dwelt in Lydda. 33 There he found a certain man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden eight years and was paralyzed. 34 And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus the Christ heals you. Arise and make your bed.” Then he arose immediately. 35 So all who dwelt at Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
Peter is traveling around visiting new Christians – teaching, praying, fellowshipping with them. He is passing on what he knows and meeting the needs of others. Think about it – none of the New Testament books have been written at this point, it’s still the apostles getting the word out firsthand. And while Peter is out encouraging people, he runs into a man we’ve never heard of before and won’t hear of again – Aeneas.
Aeneas was paralyzed for eight years, not from birth; he knew what it was like to be well and no doubt wanted very badly to be well again, but wellness was not quick in coming.
There’s a lesson for us here, and that is: to remember that God can reach into your situation whenever He wants. If He has not delivered you from it, He must know you can handle it because He has promised nothing will come our way that He will not equip us to face. But also remember that He can choose to pull you out at any time – even after eight years. Never lose sight of that as time ticks on. Learn to be content where you are, but also remember that with God, the impossible is always an option.
In fact, that’s exactly what we see next:
Acts 9:36 At Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did. 37 But it happened in those days that she became sick and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 And since Lydda was near Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent two men to him, imploring him not to delay in coming to them. 39 Then Peter arose and went with them.
Now, I have to slide this in here and say, this is a big deal. Remember, Peter is the big shot apostle. He’s the name people know. And yet, when people show up all the sudden and ask him to come, now, to a ministry opportunity 3 hours away on foot – he goes. It’s a good reminder to many of us that we need to be willing to go when the opportunity comes. There are things you will have to say no to, but there are also things you should say yes to – ask God to help you get them right, and be willing to go.
When he had come, they brought him to the upper room. And all the widows stood by him weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them.
Now you have to see this: Dorcas made things for people. She physically demonstrated her love for others which was fueled by her love for Christ. She wasn’t in a formal position of ministry, she wasn’t a pastor or a ministry leader, but she is doing a great work, making a real impact on people for Jesus.
And she’s doing something she probably enjoyed. She knew how to sew or knit or weave so she used talent she already had for the benefit of others. When she died people were showing off the great stuff she had made and how useful it was, and were asking, what are we going to do without her?
Which shows us: If you are going to do this, if you are going to serve people’s physical needs – make GREAT stuff, not junk. Don’t slap together some blanket because you know how to sew and you’ve got this pattern that you can crank out quickly, no big deal. No, make something so good that you actually don’t want to give it away.
You’re giving something in the name of Jesus, and what you give expresses something of your understanding of how great He is. There’s a time for mass production, but usually, the best option is to make something on a smaller scale, but make it well. Make things for others that you wish you could receive yourself.
We’re coming up on a big season of new babies – there’s going to be a LOT of meals to take to families – make them good food. Take the time, give your best, and do it as an act of worship to God when you give it to that family. You’re not just being nice and neighborly; your gift is actually an act of worship.
Remember that when you serve people and they’ll remember you, like Tabitha.
40 But Peter put them all out, and knelt down and prayed. And turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 Then he gave her his hand and lifted her up; and when he had called the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord. 43 So it was that he stayed many days in Joppa with Simon, a tanner.
So, here’s what we’ve seen this morning: Saul experienced hostility from people and even got the cold shoulder at church; Aeneas had an injury; and Tabitha had an illness that led to death. The point is: Christians suffer in the world. Jesus is not a power-shield or insurance policy that keeps you from suffering any harm. In fact, in Saul’s case, Jesus was the reason he was in harm’s way.
One of the things we’ve seen in our study of Acts is the cycle of persecution from the outside and difficulty from within. In a way, you could say the same is true of our individual lives. We face difficulties in our relationships with other people as well as illnesses and injuries within.
But, when Jesus builds the church, He’s not only drawing people to Himself, He’s drawing people to each other. We’ve seen it said time and time again that the people of the early church were together, they were of one accord, and we see them here doing things like helping Saul escape Damascus, helping him get connected in Jerusalem, and then helping him escape Jerusalem. We see Peter come and help Aeneas, we see Tabitha make things for others, and people run to ask Peter to come help her. We see Peter come and pray, and we see a guy named Simon open up his house and give Peter a place to stay.
In other words, we see the family of God helping other family members get through this life.
Christians, difficult times are going to come – difficulties from the world around you and difficulties from within your own life. Jesus is not going to make things perfect and peaceful and quiet forever for you– there will be hard times, that’s normal in a fallen world.
But you should also expect that God will walk you through them. He will not leave you alone. And, He will often send other people to come alongside you. Do you see them? Have you thanked Him for them?
And, are you willing to be the person who is sent to someone else in need? Are you willing to be one of the people whose name history never records, who tied the ropes that let Saul down the wall? Are you willing to make things for people like Tabitha? Are you willing to speak up like Barnabas and take a risk on someone? Are you willing to go like Peter?
Is there any life in your life? Is there any sense of importance, of value, of worth? The kingdom is being built, people are being touched. There are needs all over the place. I just pray that you’re not too bored or too busy to notice. May God open our eyes and help us see the things He is doing – to thank Him for the people He sends our way, and to make ourselves available to be the people He sends to others.