The Cosmic Conspiracy, Part 18
Times were starting to get desperate for Satan. Up to this point every attempt to derail the train of glory of the emerging spiritual giant of the church only ended in getting flattened as the train barreled down the tracks. With this kind of momentum it may now be impossible to stop. The prosecution of the religious leaders and the threat of imprisonment and flogging only emboldened the witness of the incorrigible lovers of Jesus. The temptation to allow corrupt money to control the direction of the church certainly did not end well! (See last post).
The church had amazing spiritual power to prove its witness. The church had pure, God ordained prosperity to fund its mission. The church had won the hearts and to-the-death devotion of multiple thousands of people who were spreading the gospel throughout Judea. Up to this point, it was a huge success! Maybe, the church would begin to crumble under its own weight. Perhaps, all this success would unleash the latent selfish, uncrucified flesh of these so-called new creations in Christ. Could success be the kryptonite of this super movement?
Acts, chapter 6 lays out another moment of truth for the church. By this time, the number of adherents included thousands of what were known as Hellenistic Jews. These were Jews that were born in the diaspora regions of the Greco-Roman territories. They were as much Greek in culture as they were Jewish in religion. They were not considered “pure Jews,” so the tendency to exhibit prejudice was an ingrained part of the Jewish pathos of the first century. If this mindset was lying dormant in the pure core of the church it was about to be tested.
One the main social ministries of the church was for it to care for the poor, and especially the widows among them. Because of the prevailing cultural structures, widows were the most vulnerable segment of the population. Each day, with the support of all the offerings that were pouring into the coffers, hundreds of widows’ physical needs were being cared for. At some point, the church members of the Hellenistic groups noticed that there was an inequity in how the food was being distributed. Their widows were either being overlooked or slighted. The grumblings began. Music to Satan’s ears! He had heard this song sung many times before in the history of Israel as the overture to a rebellion. I am sure that he was singing along.
However, once the problem was presented to the leadership of the church, the usual posturing never occurred. Instead, the leadership of the church gathered together to discuss and pray about the problem and come up with a solution that would lay the foundation for the next phase of Jesus’ commission to His Church, which would eventually encompass going into all the world. This was not just the outer rim of Judean culture, this was the haunt of the Gentiles. To a pious and devout Jew, the thought of mixing with Gentiles, let alone ministering to them, was anathema! Having the Hellenistic among them was a stretch, but a personal invitation to the Gentiles to join the family, at this point, was out of the question. But, the answer to the argument from the Hellenists created a stress fracture that would eventually split wide open and set the stage for the Gentile world to flood into the Kingdom.
The solution presented was not to restructure the program, but to restructure the leadership of the Church. It was proposed that a team of new leaders be appointed, almost all of them were Hellenists, to oversee the social outreach of the church. Seven men were selected based on the strength of their spiritual and personal lives. The account states that this decision and the men selected found favor with all of them - The pure Jews, and the Hellenists. The first great hurdle of going into all the world with the gospel was bounded over with ease. Prejudice and national pride had been snuffed out. Satan stood on the side of the tracks as the gospel train whizzed by him. It just kept chugging along.
For a period of time after this full amalgamation the church continued to expand in numbers and influence. The account states that many of the Jewish priests were even coming to faith in Jesus (although, they kept a very low profile for fear of being excommunicated for their new-found faith). This was totally out of control. It was time to get ugly and test the depth of the conviction and commitment of these followers of the Way. How would they fare as martyrs of the Way?
Human history has proven to Satan that people do not like to suffer any kind of pain. In truth, humans do not even like discomfort! Even Jesus had agonized, in part, over the physical torment that he would have to face in the process of crucifixion. It was time for another phase of the Cosmic Conspiracy to kick in. Satan, again, would use his favorite weapon - religion.
Up to this point, the Jewish religious-governmental leaders were standing anxiously by waiting for this upstart movement to implode. They had taken the counsel of one of their key advisors to keep their hands off, as this movement could possibly be ordained by God. If not, it would kill itself, as so many other sects had done in the past. However, this latest development, allowing Hellenists into the inner ranks, was too much for these arrogant, hypocritical, sons-of-Satan to swallow. The precious purity of the Jewish pedigree was being polluted. It was time to purge this movement out of Jerusalem.
One of the seven Hellenist leaders chosen by the Apostles, named Stephen, was not only helping to administrate the social outreach of the church, he was out on the streets performing amazing miracles and attracting crowds. He was also a highly skilled preacher and was leading many Jews to faith in Jesus. At some point, he got into a debate with a group of Jews who vehemently opposed his teaching, but could not touch his wisdom. They were publicly humiliated. They were enraged. So they found a group of deadbeats who were willing to lie and accuse Stephen of preaching blasphemy.
Stephen was arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin. His defense at this bogus trial is absolutely stellar. Stephen encapsulated the history of the Jewish nation’s covenant with Almighty God and their longing for the promised messiah. When he got to the part where Jesus was crucified, and put the blame on them, they went ballistic. They rushed at him in a wild rage, dragged him outside the court and city, and pronounced the death sentence over him. The brutal capital punishment of the day was stoning. As the pummeling began Stephen fixed his eyes into the heavens and saw Jesus standing, as if honoring His first fallen hero of the faith. As he was breathing his last breaths, he cried out for God to forgive these men and not to charge this sin against them. If Christianity ever needed a hero to model pure ministry, Stephen stands as the benchmark.
As the blood was draining from Stephen's battered body an all out purging of this sect was called for and a great wave of persecution from the Jews swept through Jerusalem. The scripture account in Acts 8 introduces us to Satan’s secret weapon. A man of the highest Jewish pedigree. A scholar. A highly passionate lover of the Law of God. A man possessed with zeal for the heritage of his people and his nation. A man who would stop at nothing to destroy heresy at any cost. The man’s name was Saul, and he was commissioned by the Sanhedrin to rid Judaism of any vestige of this despicable cult. The first great persecution went into action.
Saul began going from house to house searching for anyone who professed faith in Jesus. They were thrown before the courts. They were arrested, imprisoned, some were beaten, and some even martyred. Satan was stomping his feet wildly through Saul, attempting to stamp out this wildfire. So fierce was the onslaught that most of the believers (except for the Apostles and the core group of the church) were scattered into the regions of Samaria. It seemed that Satan had contained this inferno to a small, manageable campfire in Jerusalem. Surely, this little group that was left could be put out once and for all.
However, just as the winds carry sparks from a forest fire miles away from the scene, the wind of this persecution was carrying the sparks of this Holy Spirit fire into the regions that Jesus named as the next stop for the gospel train on its journey into all the world. Jesus told His disciples that they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even the utter-most parts of the world. The word, witnesses, that Jesus used has as its roots the meaning of our English word, martyr. The very weapon that Satan was using to snuff out the flames of this spiritual revolution was the fuel that Jesus was using to start fires of revival all over Samaria. The movement seemed to be under control in Jerusalem (for the moment) but now it was raging out of control in the despised regions of the Samaritans. Satan had set the match to another outpouring of God’s Spirit. Satan, again, was being used by God to promote the Gospel! Enraged, he incited Saul to take his persecution rampage to these new outbreaks. He received a commissioning from the Sanhedrin to go wherever the flames were burning and destroy this Jesus cult, no matter what the cost.
The opening verses of Acts 9 portrayed a man possessed by the hatred of Satan: “Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord's followers. So he went to the high priest” [Act 9:1 NLT]. We must remember that Satan hates humanity, and loves murder. Even if he is using humans to do his bidding, in an instant, after their use has been expended, he will devour them also. Satan has no issues with putting on the garments of “for the good of mankind” if it will give him access to gorge on the flesh of humanity. Satan has no issues appearing as an angel of light if it will lure and deceive hapless victims into his jaws. Death and destruction are his delirium, and now he has a man willing to mercilessly hunt down his prey wherever they may be.
This crazed, religious, purist zealot was on his way to the city of Damascus to terrorize any followers of the Way he found there. On his way, Jesus interrupted the mission by knocking Saul off his high-horse and appeared to him directly. This divine encounter resulted not only in the conversion of a repentant sinner, but also converted the blazing fire of persecution inside Saul into a raging inferno of passion for the cause of Christ. Jesus turned Satan’s special agent of terror into His great Apostle of truth. The great persecution that Satan had incited not only was the means for the expansion of the Gospel into the Samaritan world, it was also the means of grooming Saul, later to be renamed Paul (meaning small or humble) to be the tip of the spear that would pierce into the heart of the Gentile world.
Satan, once again, had been the unwitting pawn that God used for vetting out the one man that had the single-focused passion and perseverance to lead the charge of truth right into the heart of Satan’s domain - the uttermost parts of the earth. Paul would later pen these powerful and profound words in his letter to the Roman Church: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” [Rom 8:28 NLT]. Saul was a man passionately in love with the Hebrew God of his fathers. When Jesus appeared to him, He introduced Saul to God, His Father, and now Paul’s Father.
This conversion must have enraged Satan beyond description. Every evil thing that Satan used against the church to destroy it was being converted into the raw materials for building the Kingdom of God. What could halt this heavenly assault? Ridicule and mocking did not work. Prosecution and punishment did not work. Money and prosperity did not work. National pride and prejudice did not work. And now, persecution and martyrdom was yielding a crop of super evangelists who had no fear of death because they were living in the all-consuming power of the Holy Spirit.
First century church history paints an awe inspiring portrait of passionate, Spirit-filled believers who were consumed with the mission Jesus gave to them. It seemed like they were unstoppable, and the walls of the church were impenetrable. The Gospel was being preached with signs and wonders following, and the church was converting followers into disciples, just as Jesus commanded them to do. At the rate that they were going, it would seem that the world could be covered in the glory of God in short order. However, as I am writing this post millennia later, something obviously went wrong.
In the midst of the success of the church during this period a few glaring weaknesses, seven to be precise, began to come into focus. Jesus is about to call a holy huddle with His team and present His case. You can be sure that Satan was straining his ear and taking notes. This war was far from over!
So stay tuned, and tune in...
by Pastor Jim Anan