Lifting Up Jesus Part 1
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
Lifting Up Jesus
The story of Jesus doesn’t end with His ascension. In the scriptures, His story continues in the lives of the disciples, and today the story goes on in our lives. The primary assignment of the Church is to lift up Jesus. We are not a social or political action group. There are other groups whose primary cause is to address those issues. No one else is lifting up Jesus. Therefore, our primary message is to keep the story of Jesus alive.
Our text for today begins the second major division of the book of Acts if you divide it up according to the Lord’s Commission in Acts 1:8.: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
First, they were to witness in Jerusalem. Now we come to the Lord Jesus Christ’s work by the Holy Spirit through the apostles in Judea and Samaria. This section of the book includes chapters 8-12. Chapter 7 concluded with a most unusual scene. It included the two young men who had the greatest influence upon the early church. The one was Stephen, the deacon, the young man who gave up his life, the first martyr in the church. The other man was a young Pharisee who had charge of the stoning of Stephen. His name was Saul.
I want to read our text for today and you will see as we study these verses that Saul becomes the chief persecutor of the Church, and that the Church is scattered.
1 Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial and made great lamentation over him.
3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.
5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them.
6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.
7 For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed.
8 And there was great joy in that city.
9 But there was a certain man called Simon, who previously practiced sorcery in the city and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great,
10 to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the great power of God.”
11 And they heeded him because he had astonished them with his sorceries for a long time.
12 But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized.
13 Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done.
Let’s take a quick look at what happened in the Early Church that kept the story of Jesus alive. The disciples had been filled with the Spirit, and the Spirit empowered them for witnessing. He gave Peter insight into the Word and the ability to show men Christ in the Word. The Spirit used the witness of the Church to convict the lost, just as Jesus said He would do. But the same Holy Spirit also assisted the believers in their church fellowship. The original group was outnumbered by the new believers, but there was still harmony in the church family. They worshiped daily and witnessed daily, and “the Lord added to the church daily.”
God was doing great things through them. The Lord Jesus Christ was at work by the Holy Spirit through the apostles in Jerusalem. The Church was born on the Day of Pentecost because the Holy Spirit was indwelling believers; and He filled them with His love, power and the ability to serve.
There were wonders performed by the apostles. Peter healed a lame man who was sitting at the gate of the Temple. When a crowd formed to observe the miracle, Peter gave his first sermon and three thousand were saved. Later on, he preached his second sermon and five thousand believed.
They were holding the things of the world loosely. Those who owned property sold it and brought the proceeds to the apostles and laid it at their feet. They held all things in common; people were provided for by the Church according to how great their need was. They were an unselfish and living in loving fellowship.
They were lifting up Jesus in spite of persecution. They went door to door and told the people of Jerusalem about Him. Their main message was the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and that brought the persecution at the hand of the Sadducees. Their enemy had been the Pharisees, but now it was the Sadducees because they did not believe in the Resurrection of the dead and they violently opposed anyone who advocated it.
However, when those in the world do their worst, God does His best. They crucified Jesus, but God raised Him from the dead. They stoned Stephen, but God gave him the face of an angel. In the momentous experience of Stephen’s death, a young religious man saw that Christians die well. Saul was exposed to Jesus as never before. Although he was not converted at the time, the seeds of his conversion were sown. The experience of Stephen’s death exposed him to Jesus in a special way, but he was not ready to follow Him.
But many did believe, and in Acts 8, we read that the entire Church was given the opportunity to lift up Jesus. But something happens when people lift up Jesus; when Jesus is lifted up, people respond. For the religious crowd, the response may be hostility. In verse 3 we read, “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.”
Saul was the Jewish name of Paul, but he is better known by this official Roman name. Paul was born in the Roman city of Tarsus and he possessed Roman citizenship. He became a scholar of Jewish tradition and he was proficient in the interpretation of Scripture, and he studied under the famous rabbi Gamaliel. Like all Jewish boys, Paul had to learn a trade, and his trade was tent making.
As a Pharisee, he committed himself to teaching and practicing Old Testament laws and traditions. He fanatically persecuted and imprisoned followers of Jesus Christ, and he took part in the great persecution of the Church which was at Jerusalem.
The murder of Stephen gave rise to persecution unlike anything seen before. This time the target was not just the individuals, but the church as a whole. Although the persecution was deadly, nevertheless it accomplished the direct will of God. This persecution caused the scattering of the Jews of the Jerusalem church throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except for the apostles who remained in Jerusalem.
As a result, the Lord’s command, which we read in chapter 1, verse 8, “….and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the world,” was fulfilled by the persecution of the Early Church.
And what is the “young man” Saul doing while this is going on? He has become the prime mover in the campaign against the church. With papers of permission from the authority of the Sanhedrin and high priest, Paul harassed the church, smashing down doors and arresting men and women in their homes and sending them off to prison. He did so as a passionate Pharisee, fully believing that he was keeping the Law pure from those of this new Christian sect whom he considered to have contaminated the Law.
Then what was the result of Saul’s and the others’ harassment? It was that those who were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word. Not only was persecution the means by which the gospel spread to other regions in Palestine, but also it caused the gospel to go to much farther fields as well.
Satan must have wished that he had never started the persecution. It didn’t achieve the results that he thought it would. God took his evil works and turned them into a means to accomplish His plan for the Church. Satan lost this battle and he lost when he crucified Jesus. Jesus came to earth to save mankind by paying our debt of sin and He went purposely to the cross. Satan didn’t take His life, but He laid it down willingly for our sakes. He died at Calvary, but three days later He rose from the grave; He completed what He had come to earth to do. And Satan had lost because men could now be saved by putting their faith in Jesus, and he would not be able to stop Jesus from building His Church.
Satan lost again when he scattered the believers. He thought that he could break up the Church, but he was wrong. The effect was just the opposite because the Church continued to grow. Later on, Paul would give the same kind of testimony after he had been put into prison in Rome. He said, “But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel.” (Phil. 1:12) He could say that because he wrote several of his epistles when he was in prison and he was able to continue preaching the gospel and bringing many to the Lord.