AUSTRALIAN BIBLE CHURCH February  24, March 2, 2008



How much can the Least Do!

Action in the Acts


The Lord had just gone. He had been available for some 31/2 years, since reaching a round age of 30, what was normal for anyone for priesthood. He had been on this earth, the best of heaven with two arms and two legs, no owned address, a lowly position for His upbringing, a 'root out of a dry ground', yet none ever affected or directed the earth as this One did.

He has been mourned for some 2000 years, His birthday celebrations a delight, His death a call for purification as well as a sink for sin, grand composers have amassed vast works concerning Him, writers have wrought libraries upon Him and His saints know Him better than a dog his Master, as a man knows his God.

But He had gone. Raised from the dead, that great extension of the many miracles and raisings of others which had adorned Him like flowers in Autumn, He had then taught them from the elevation of a resurrected body no more subject to time and space as we are, yet quite able to eat and to be felt, or clung to; and someone who had betrayed Him was gone too, disembowelled, as if a comment on pitilessness, a suicide who had contributed to the killing of his own mercy.

What now ? First as in Acts 1, they had to replace Judas, making up the number of 12 once more. In choice, they waited on God, knowing that the scripture had predicted the betrayer, and so asking God for a divinely  made choice on his successor. This done, and the predicted power of the Spirit of God having come (which incidentally is still available as in John 14:21, Ephesians 3:16, but contrary to the predicted unbelief as His return draws near, a drabness foretold in II Timothy 3:5), a nascent church having been built in a moment, business became brisk. There were practical problems as well as the need to preach and teach and reach.

Who would cover them ? In Acts 6, we see the apostles decide to have deacons, those who would just serve to establish equity, serve at tables for the needy, arrange solutions to troubles and so on. This was no small matter. In the church of God nothing is small, since the Head is God in the person of Jesus Christ. Even for this, the people chosen had to be "men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom". Once again the choice was made. Stephen and Philip with 5 others were named. The apostles prayed, set hands on them, and specialised in their own ministries of the word and prayer.

What a wonder there then was. CHOICE, at times so hard, so pressing, so seemingly perilous, had been made in the face of SPIRITUAL need, relaying it to practical matters for the sake of this primary point, through prayer with due recognition of the primary realities of the faith.

SO decide and you will do well; for a decision instead of being a pain or problem, is an opportunity to realise to the uttermost the will of God for your service in His name! This reminds us of our duty to God: "Do not be unwise, see that you walk circumspectly, but know what the will of the Lord is, and do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:17-18). BUILD and do not decay, be filled and not empty, be knowledgeable concerning God's work, will and way for you, and not vague, be assiduous in enquiry of the Lord (remember Daniel 10). So we learn now from their ways then, the ways of the Lord.



Initial Impact

Christ had chosen to come to do His redeeming work (cf. Psalm 40), of course in infinite harmony with the will of His Father in so doing (John 8:29) and told us that in the same spirit we should seek not to be served, but to serve, for He gave His very life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).This was beautifully illustrated by the towel with which He clothed Himself, wiping on it the dirt of feet which He washed (John 13).

Note now what just two of those seven deacons, chosen for corporate service in the Church, proceeded to DO!

Stephen, amid a people who for centuries had used the temple as the symbolic way of approaching God, now had to declare to them, in effect,  that Christ was the new TEMPLE, the new sacrifice and the new prophet after Moses. In so doing, of course, he roused the inveterate wrath of die-hards, who found it easier to have Christ dead and the temple alive, than Christ alive in their hearts and the temple obsolescent, having completed its once so magnificent task (Hebrews 8:13).

As we see in Acts 6-7, Stephen’s adversaries construed his emphasis as meaning he was against Moses (though Moses predicted the coming of Christ, as the new and lasting Head – Deuteronomy 18:15-22), and was despising the Temple, though he was showing the divinely announced and provided perspective of things. As they proceeded, infuriated with false piety,  to stone Stephen, he delivered a speech so masterful, in such a gloriously free and incisive perspective that it made an impact on Saul, the grisly persecutor of Christians on behalf of the polluted priesthood, who kept the clothes of Stephen's assailants safe while the religious mob of unruly radicals murdered him. His words have circled the earth, up (Acts 7:2-53), lifted the minds of the saints, rebuked mere formalism and functioned to warn of rebellion against God as a national disease for Israel and as a danger to any. Your predecessors, he said, killed the prophets who foretold Christ, and now YOU yourselves have killed the Just One.

They had kept the architecture for a time (it went in 70 A.D. at the hand of Rome); but they had sought to devastate Him who is the summit of glory!

Indeed, they rushed on him, stoning him, who knelt, praying for forgiveness for them, and committing his spirit into Christ's hands, that Christ of whom Stephen, dying, declared – “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”


The Work of Witness  Grows

We have been looking at a great testimony, spoken of life in death. What did it concern ?

It was based on the marvel and the might of the Messiah, the risen Christ, disdaining death and moving out of the tomb by the simple expedient of His own power, so that there He was, able to have Mary cling to His feet to the point He had to tell her to cease doing so! (Matthew 16:17), just as later He invited Thomas to thrust his hand into His side (John 20), and having prepared a fire, let them eat of the fish (John 21:9ff.). In Luke 24:43, we see Him likewise eating with them.

When God faces death for us (as He promised so securely in Hosea 13:14), and has brought life (as Good Shepherd, as He promised in Ezekiel 34, speaking in fulfilment in John 10), there is only triumph possible.

Christianity shows the actuality of this, the religion of experiment for man and experience, wrought by God.

Put God in the place, and the place changes; put death in His hands, and He destroys it. Put sin on Him, and He bears it, but at the cost of receiving His life, which as in these two deacons, is abundant, so that the flesh is crucified with Him (Galatians 5:24) and eternity arises like the sun at dawn. Thus is it until the day dawns and the morning star arises in our hearts and the consummation in resurrection comes (I Peter 1:19).

Of these things the early Church spoke, and so must we all in whatever capacity we stand as Christian. What then of the work of testimony from these two deacons ?

There was a work of witness, filled with the Spirit, challenging the heart, of one sacrificing while teaching 50 generations to come, Stephen, a preacher from the dust and the stoners, amid blood. THAT, that was a pure pulpit, with a great amplifier over the ages.

But what of Philip ? This deacon went to Samaria on occasion, and preached Christ to these semi-Jews, that is people who had been brought from afar to the former northern part of Israel, now separate, to repopulate it when Assyria drove them out. Far in heart from Judah with its Temple, these people nevertheless listened to Philip the Jew! What a marvel, what a work, and they believed him (Acts 8:4). That is Nation 1 reached by Philip with the Gospel.

Nor is this all. It happened in a grand, noble and fascinating setting with incisive tableaux. A great persecution arose in Jerusalem after Stephen's death (Acts 8:1), and Saul was playing havoc with terrible dealings and reckless deeds in his misplaced zeal. Christians were scattered from the perilous place and Philip in the general outthrust, made use of it and went to Samaria, and a great multitude heeded him, they believed him (Acts 8:12), seeing the miracles wrought, the paralysed and the lame raised up, the spiritually infested delivered, the truth on his lips and in his heart from that great centre where such amazing things had been happening for more than 3 years.

It is clear that the kernel of Christ, the Messianic Master and the power of God in practice and compassion was prominently displayed as with Stephen in his speech and its preliminaries. Thus there is not only a series of exploits through these faithful deacons, but a parallel pre-eminence and emphasis on the Jesus Christ, exemplar and ground, focus of faith and Lord of life.

In his preliminary preaching, Philip had broken the barrier in this nearby by culturally most distant land of Samaria. Soon apostles came down, the people's hearts being turned to believe directly in Christ, they received the Spirit, in a vast outpouring, while the apostles then returned to Jerusalem preaching in Samaritan villages. It was Philip who broke the wall down, and they who built up a new kingdom in their midst by the Spirit of God.



Nor was this all that these two deacons were instrumental in doing. In Acts 8:26-40 we find more.

Philip, when the apostles came to Samaria, received a spiritual call to go out into the desert, in a miraculous feat of the Lord, so that he intersected in his journeyings, the chariot path of a treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia, returning it seems from a religious festival. Not only so, he came near to this chariot at the very time that its occupant was reading Isaiah 53. Now comes the Lord's direction of this deacon, Philip, to outreach of magnificent clarity and decisive simplicity, to Nation 2! Let us see how it occurred this time, for it all edifies the mind and blesses the heart.

The SPIRIT OF GOD told Philip to go up to him, which he did, and heard him reading aloud from the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading ?" he pointedly asked. "HOW CAN I ?" - replied the Ethiopian, unless someone explains it to me. This Philip then did, preaching Christ from the Isaianic text, which in fact has given a detailed account of the Gospel concerning Christ, some 700 years before it was fulfilled. Here was the parallel to the preaching of Stephen, concentrating on the Cross of Christ, predicted and now a divine work fully performed, making salvation simple if challenging, and its reception a matter of believing with all the heart in Him who came and acted and completed its purgative and plenary task for those who would receive Him. 

It is HE who as Isaiah 53 tells us, who will despite His eminent and grotesque sufferings for sin, for sinners, divide the spoil with the strong (53:12). Satan takes some (like the birds of the air in the parable of the sower and the seed), and Christ receives His own! Believing with all his heart, the Treasurer could now be baptised into the faith, like any outsider, and WAS! It was ... just like that, fact, faith, challenge, test, reception, baptism and ... he went on his way rejoicing! (Acts 8:39).

This proclamation from the prophecies concerning Christ and testimony of what He had done brought this beautiful seal on the reality of it all, so that the Treasurer earnestly believed as well he might. It was so clear:  these things had just happened in Jerusalem, foretold in such detail and for so long, things of which he was now reading from a book where this section came centuries before!

He took therefore the seal of the covenant: but what was the part of Isaiah which he read ? It was this:

"He was led as a Lamb to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so He did not open His mouth.

"In His humiliation His justice was taken away,
and who will declare His generation ?
For His life is taken from the earth."

No physical offspring did Christ have, no generation as in the lists in Genesis and Luke could be cited for Him, as proceeding FROM Him. His life was taken from the very earth: humiliation in holiness for Him, with happiness in pardon for His people, the transference. This He did so that those in it who would come to God by this long presented portraiture of the love of God and the gargoyle of sin, at the Cross, might find a clear path to salvation, life that was abundant in the very presence of God. If the eunuch let his eye move to Isaiah 54, he would find the everlasting mercy of God in this incarnate Son of God. Here was the promised Son of David, the Messiah. If the eunuch moved to both Isaiah 54 and 55, there was its gift in Christ the very epitome of liberty, a donation both sublime, divine  (cf. Isaiah 51:11, 54) for all who received it (Isaiah 49:6, 42:6).

Such was one of the first Christian sermons to an unbelieving non-Jew of which we have record, a sermon from Isaiah who spoke of Christ and Christ who not only spoke of Isaiah, but fulfilled His written words in a work of blood and power! What a time, what a place, what a race to touch, what an emissary to win, what a work to have done! And it was God who did it, directing His servant, the deacon, not an apostle, but a helper, in this startling way in His sovereign mercy.

Thus did these deacons testify, though not preachers, and thus did they teach in word and in deed, though they were not classified as teachers. It was as in the day of Moses, when being accorded 70 elders to help him, on whom the Spirit of God came for their task, he received report CONCERNING two more who were prophesying, Medad and Eldad (Numbers 11). On these, we read, the Spirit of God came down also!

To some this prophesying seemed out of order, but as to Moses, man of God that he was (and is), it was a matter of joy. He would like all so to act, not just the officials! As Paul puts it in I Corinthians 14:1, seek RATHER that you may prophesy. This is the focus for spiritual gifts, where the saving dynamic moves and where action must focus, in the Church of Jesus Christ.



So through these deacons did the open door come to faith and the lowly become exalted in service, while the church was being founded in this and that nation, expanded and thrust out into the world. Persecution had opened both doors and mouths as the Lord worked in and beyond man, so let us learn. Do not let us therefore moan when we have to suffer for the Lord Jesus Christ, but rather open the mouth and testify of Him, remembering Job on the one hand and I Peter 4:12-14 on the other.

"Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you,
as though some strange thing happened to you;
but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings,
that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.

"If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you,
for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.
On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified."


Let us then be stirred and stimulated, strengthened and encouraged by this wonder among the lowly, and by the vast power of God not shown in this case so much where honour flourished, but among the servers, the deacons.

God loves to use what is lowly, 'nothing' as I Corinthians 1:26-31 puts it, to abash the mighty, and in so doing He exhibits His own power and passion, beyond all form or reward and greatness among men. Here is sincerity and here is passion, here is lowliness from the Lord's height, and salvation effectively presented through His servants.

May He make each of us an emissary, a testimony in word and deed, and this tiny church the site of a spring, where others may find that water of God (John 7:37), of which Christ spoke in the great Feast Day in Jerusalem, before the people turned it into another picture. This ? it was one of blood, murder where life was, killing the incarnate Second person of the Trinity, before in vast mercy, the Lord sent the Third, the Holy Spirit,  as Christ had foretold, to comfort, strengthen and assist, assisting the assistants and blessing the wise, for whom the kingdom of heaven is the one which counts. Everlasting in the resurrected Jesus, who is eternal in praise, indispensable to this earth, it is the kingdom which lasts when this world goes (Matthew 24:35, Isaiah 51:6, Ephesians 1:10, Daniel 7:14,25-27).