This year has thrown up all sorts of challenges for the ministry of preaching. Many of us have been learning quickly how to adjust to preaching to a camera, taking church online, etc. But still, something is missing. Maybe we can’t gather, or maybe the gathering is restricted. Is this restriction actually curtailing the work of God?
The Book of Acts offers us an encouraging section to read when we feel our preaching is restricted. As you know, Acts shows the progress of the witness of the Apostles from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth (see 1:8).
The Jerusalem section, chapters 1-7, is thrilling. We see the church birthed and growing rapidly. We get to enjoy the boldness of Peter’s preaching, Peter and John before the authorities, even Stephen’s courageous final proclamation. It feels like preaching to crowds is central to the growth of the church. But opposition is building along the way. The apostles are warned in chapter 4, beaten in chapter 5 and then there is the execution of Stephen in chapter 7.
This brings us to the middle section of Acts, the Judea/Samaria section, if you like. It stretches from Acts 8 to Acts 12, where the summary statement is found in v24: “the word of God increased and multiplied.”
So what do we find in Acts 8-12? We see the gospel spreading to Samaritans and then Gentiles – a massively significant step of progression. But we also see a change of ministry opportunity. After the stoning of Stephen, we read this: “…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 . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (8:1,4)
They went about evangelising – that’s what it is saying here. They couldn’t bring friends to big gatherings in Jerusalem to listen to a great apostle preaching. They were scattered. Challenging circumstances, scattered believers, speaking about Jesus.
We immediately get the example of Philip who took the challenging circumstances as sovereign appointment and proclaimed Christ in Samaria. He spoke to crowds, but he also spoke to an individual in a chariot. Normal followers of Jesus speaking to people about Jesus wherever they found themselves.
In these chapters we see the conversion and commissioning of Saul to carry the message to the nations, and we see Peter being coached by God to understand how the gospel had to move beyond traditional Jewish boundaries in order to spread. But we also see normal believers representing Jesus. People like Tabitha/Dorcas, who was full of good works and acts of charity. In their words and in their deeds, they evangelised wherever God put them.
We know from Acts 12:24 that the word of God increased and multiplied, even away from Jerusalem, away from the big preaching events, away from the primarily apostolic pulpit. But there is one thing we have to recognize to really grasp what was going on then, and what is going on today. Challenging circumstances that scattered believers who then spoke about Jesus.
It sounds like a fruitful formula. None of us want the challenging circumstances, but when they come we see how believers find themselves in unique situations to speak of Jesus. So why do we hesitate today? Why aren’t we confident that our congregations will all gossip the gospel enthusiastically in these challenging times? Is it a matter of training, of example, of spiritual gifting? Perhaps, but not primarily.
Perhaps it is more to do with Acts 8-12’s truth not gripping us as it should. Luke returns for a summary of the ministry of the scattered believers in Acts 11:19-27. It tells us that the post-Stephen persecution scatterees travelled to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch. It tells us that they spoke the word. It tells us that the message of Jesus spread to Greek speakers as well as Jews. But notice verse 21:
“And the hand of the Lord was with them.”
That is massive. They needed that. They were witnesses in Judea and Samaria because they had received power when the Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). They were able to effectively do their part, not because they were really good at it, but because God did his part.
The same is true today. You may not be able to preach to a normal sized crowd this Sunday or next month. The typical autumn and winter events at the church may not be possible this year due to Covid-19. God’s plan may be to place you and me, and the people in our churches, into divinely ordained one-on-one situations where we can speak of Jesus.
Challenging circumstances that scatter believers who then speak of Jesus to anyone that crosses our path. And we can do so with confidence because the hand of the Lord is with us!
If you and your church folks are convinced that the hand of the Lord is with us this week, what difference will that make? Maybe we will discover that God’s plans are not on pause. And even if the pulpit is partially paused, God’s great plan to reach this world for Jesus is marching forwards, even in October 2020!