ACTS 16:6-10
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

Our last two lessons focused on traits that made the early church succeed for God. Persecution did not dampen their love for Jesus. The early believers showed unwavering adherence to obeying the Great Commission, and were radically committed to acts of kindness. The early church was fueled by lay-involvement, and preached the Bible.

This lesson will examine three ways God influences His church to be effective in penetrating lostness. He will accomplish His agenda for reaching prechristians. God moves His people from their comfort zone to the front line by using one of three approaches: nudging, disruption, substitution.

God’s first approach is nudging. He urges, we obey. Paul responded to God’s inner prompting through the Macedonian call. Nudging is God’s preferred method of enlistment, the best way for us to be on mission with Him, to serve on His winning team. I’m glad God has chosen to use this gentle method with us at Second recently.

God’s second approach is disruption. The Lord will, if needed, use aggressive methods to capture His people’s attention. Some, like Titus and Timothy, come when gently nudged, others move only when God interrupts their routines.

After initial success, the early believers slipped into an inwardly focused comfort zone. God patiently waited, granting them a long time to recalibrate, but when nudging failed, He shattered their bubble with a tragic disruption of mammoth proportions.

To jump-start obedience to the Great Commission in the early church, God let His chief layman be killed: Stephen, the brightest and best, future church superstar, bold apologist, defender of the faith, ardent soulwinner.

His loss was a severe setback. He was exemplary, fulfilling the Great Commission while most of the early believers were dabbling in it. He got the point, they missed it. Suddenly he was gone, cut down by wicked hands.

What a blow! “Devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him” (Acts 8:2). Weep with them, brothers and sisters. Do not rob our heroes of being our role models by stripping them of their humanity. They agonized.

God did not take their pain for granted. He cared. It hurt Jesus to let Stephen be killed. He knew His people would be crushed. To soften the blow, Jesus revealed Himself. He personally came to receive Stephen into Heaven.

One question screams to be answered. Why did God let this happen to His dearly loved friend and dearly loved church? Because He dearly loved the lost.

Without the murder of Stephen, Christianity might have ended up as little more than a religious sect within Judaism, the Gentiles might have never heard about Jesus, and millions of lost sheep might have never been saved.

Jesus had commanded His followers to go be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the Uttermost. After five years of God patiently waiting and nudging, the message of Jesus was still shut up in Jerusalem.

God had to make a bold, forceful statement. Once He spoke, He did so with a shout, a huge, once-for-all-time holler. He confirmed C. S. Lewis’ insight that suffering is God’s megaphone to arrest our attention.

Jesus let Stephen be killed. What was the result? “That day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1).

After Stephen’s death, the Gospel was immediately carried to Judea and Samaria. Among those scattered was Philip, who went to Samaria, and while there was directed by God to win the Ethiopian Eunuch, who carried the Gospel to Africa. Thus the message spread to the Uttermost. The death of Stephen also resulted in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became Christianity’s greatest international missionary ever.

Even more came from Stephen’s death, as we see in Acts 11:19-21. “Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.” The great soulwinning, missionary sending church at Antioch was a direct result of Stephen’s death.

Note the progression. Jesus told them to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Uttermost. After five years, three of the four mandated regions were untouched. Stephen died. Within weeks all four points had been touched, the greatest international missionary was saved, and the greatest missions church set ablaze.

It is stunning to study the staggering lengths God will go to in order to demonstrate His concern for prechristians. How much does God care about unbelievers? For them, He had His Son leave Heaven, die, and rise from death.

In Acts 1 God made concern for the lost His last command on earth. In Acts 2 He enabled men to miraculously speak in foreign languages they had not learned. In Acts 5 He killed two of His followers who threatened the work.

In Acts 7 God let His premiere layman be killed. In Acts 9 He brought His most virulent opponent to his knees. In Acts 10 He humbled His number one church leader. In Acts 11 He killed a pompous ruler who tried to thwart the work.

In Acts 15 God let the leadership torch pass from His beloved Jerusalem Church. In Acts 16 He gave Paul a vision, the Macedonian Call, which opened Europe. In Acts 27 He arranged an all-expenses-paid trip to Rome for Paul.

God will get His message to the lost. He will build a winning team. If nudging and disruption don’t work, He uses a third approach, substitution.

God’s first Great-Commission-anointing rested on the Jerusalem Church. Its members were radically in love with Jesus, each other, and the lost.

Initially, the Jerusalem Church was in every way hugely successful, but had to be replaced as God’s foremost outreach center because it lost its focus on prechristians. It refused to stay on the front line of God’s agenda for lostness.

The Jerusalem Church had to surrender its mantle of leadership to the Antioch Church. This forfeiture by a great church causes me to pray for Second Baptist, “Lord, please make us chief harvesters. Don’t by-pass or bench us.”

We at Second want to be first-string players on God’s winning team. I played basketball in Cape Girardeau for three seasons. I started every game, except one. I back-talked Coach Pulley in practice and he benched me. He put me in the game before too long, but those few minutes on the bench at the start of that game remain some of the most agonizing moments of my life.

I could think only one thought. It kept rushing through my mind over and over again, “Put me in the game, Coach.” I now play in a different league for a different Coach, yet something in me still gnaws, “Put me in the game, God.”

A century ago, during the Welsh revival, God’s Spirit exploded in Wales, moving down valleys in overwhelming power, filling churches, and convicting whole cities. The believers in one village noticed God was working in towns around them, but their village was not being touched at all by God’s Spirit.

They called for a time of fasting and prayer. The cry of their prayers was simple, “God, as you move in power, please do not miss our village. Visit us, don’t skip us.” God heard their pleas. He does not pass by this kind of praying.

The church I grew up in sang often as an invitation hymn a song I thought referred only to unbelievers. In my older years I see it can apply to believers.

Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry;
While on others Thou art calling, do not pass me by.
Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry;
While on others Thou art calling, do not pass me by (Fanny Crosby).

Let’s not let Second wait for a Stephen disruption or an Antioch-replacement to follow God’s leading. While Jesus is nudging, let us make one swift act leading to a long obedience in the direction of lostness.