Change, Adversity, and Sanctification

Acts 6-9

“And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem
greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith”
(Acts 6:7).

by Joseph Ledwinka

Change, Adversity, and Sanctification

In the development of God’s precious disciples, change is the undeniable constant. God uses change as a tool to accomplish His sanctifying work. Change in relationships, responsibilities, direction, motivation, behavior, and ultimately change of heart, lead his people, sometimes through adversity, but always toward their sanctification.

The thread of change weaves its way through The Acts of The Apostles in a lovely and powerful display of the inworking of God’s holy Spirit among the men and women of the early church to do His good pleasure.

Change of Structure (6:1-6)

As the early Christian movement grew, it experienced dramatic change, and many times, the “push-pull” of adversity along with it. Gamaliel’s cautioning of the Jewish council’s attitude toward The Way (recommending not to persecute the followers of Jesus Christ) was perhaps a key turning point that opened the door for the exponential growth of the early church.

Acts chapter six documents the effect that the growth of the early church had on the communal social structure of the movement. Rapid change left the Grecian widows without the necessary care. The change was implemented in both the teaching and the service structure, and it offers an incredible example to us. To plan this change, the apostles used transparency, discussion, and included all those involved, all the while being careful to not lessen any of their spiritual needs.

After the agreement, the entire group brought the matter to God in prayer, and only then did they empower the newly elected deacons to do the work.

Change in Enemies (6:7-15)

Much is said in a few words in this passage. It is difficult to find a more powerful movement than one which changes the spiritual belief systems (fixed mindsets) of its most ardent enemies. Rather than measure the number of new converts each day, Luke highlights the conversion of its enemies as the more interesting metric of the movement’s impact: “A great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7 NASB). Only those priests who were willing to submit to God, instead of following their tradition, were converted. For others, their hardened hearts kept them locked in a fixed mindset of spiritual certainty and error.

Stephen was one of the seven deacons who were chosen to minister to the physical needs of the brethren. But his office of service did not stop him from sharing his faith by teaching.

Stephen’s faith was the catalyst of his life. His great faith, combined with his will, led him through adversity to sanctification. Stephen was totally consecrated to God through Jesus Christ and to doing the gospel work. Today, we still admire his example of devotion.

Stephen was blessed with a large measure of God’s holy Spirit, which powered his singleness of heart and mind. “Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8 NASB). Stephen’s actions compelled the attention of individuals from two extremes: those who were attracted to him, and those who persecuted him. The power of Stephen’s arguments heightened the zeal of his enemies, since the truth he expressed opposed their message as powerfully as
light opposes darkness.

Stephen’s adversaries considered him a threat, and shortly after their unified efforts went into action, a noticeable pattern emerged. When they could not argue against his wisdom and spirit (Acts 6:10), the same style of false accusation used against his Lord Jesus Christ (Mark 14:57, 58) resurfaced and was aimed
at him (Acts 6:11-13).

The accusers in both Jesus’ and Stephen’s case swore false testimony. Each of the false accusers claimed that Jesus and Stephen used words which opposed God, the Law of Moses, and the Temple.

Adversity and Sanctification (7:1-60)

When Jesus was brought before his accusers, he could have silenced them. But Jesus knew from prophecy that his time had come. Isaiah prophesied that Jesus was to be led as a silent lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). Jesus knew that God’s plan for him was to provide the ransom sacrifice.

Like Jesus, Stephen was also brought before the high priest by his accusers. However, Stephen chose to rebut his accusers by recounting how God’s faithful prophets and messengers were rejected by the fathers of his accusers.

“You men who are stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, always resisting the holy Spirit, you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the righteous one, who’s betrayers and murderers you have now become. You who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53 NASB). Why did Stephen present a defense, whereas Jesus did not? Jesus knew that he was about to die as a ransom. Perhaps Stephen considered that his ministry was just beginning and that his future lay in
fulfilling the great commission.

Stephen’s solitary voice of truth pierced the hearts of his accusers. He showed his enemies that they had adopted the same evil mindset as their fathers. Though Stephen’s words were true, his accusers found them to be more than they could accept. In a uniform rush to judgment, they killed Stephen just as their fathers
had killed God’s faithful prophets and messengers. To some of the brethren in the early church, surely all seemed lost with Stephen’s death. But perhaps Stephen’s words had a positive effect on a few who were watching.

Change in Spiritual Mindset (8:1-3)

An unwillingness to change fueled the actions of Stephen’s murderers. Stephen pointed out that they elevated physical values over the more important spiritual values God desired. For example, they revered the physical location of the temple, where they thought one could find God. Stephen tried to show them the value of a spiritual mindset, letting God into their hearts, to be with them wherever they went. Stephen
was the example of this spiritual mindset.

At first glance, the murder of Stephen seemed to stall the growth of the early church. “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1 NIV). One individual in particular, Saul of Tarsus, who approved of Stephen’s death, made it his mission to go house-to-house to find, arrest, and imprison Christians. But in God’s providence, Saul’s persecution actually spread the gospel. The scattering of believers throughout Judea and Samaria spread the message of the gospel quickly, with more and more people added to the church with each persecution.

Change in Motivation (8:4-25)

As the disciples scattered, some went to Samaria, outside the confines of Jewish culture. Here they found that their message was accepted with gladness. Philip the Evangelist enjoyed great success preaching the gospel in Samaria. Perhaps his work was helped by Jesus’ earlier groundbreaking work with the woman at the well and in the nearby Samaritan city.

Peter and John were sent to help propel Philip’s successful efforts. How refreshing it must have been for them to feel welcomed in Samaria! This success was surely a blessing that increased their zeal in the gospel work.

While preaching in Samaria, they converted a man named Simon (the Sorcerer) who was engaged in magic arts. Philip’s working of miracles caught the attention of Simon, who saw the holy Spirit bestowed on believers by the laying on of the apostle’s hands. Simon wanted that power too, and he tried to purchase it. Peter identified Simon’s wrong spirit, firmly rebuked him, and gained his repentance. Peter added Simon to the gospel ministry.

The Ethiopian Eunuch (8:26-40)

In contrast to Simon, the Ethiopian eunuch was brought to the gospel with a proper, humble spirit. We are not privileged to know his name, but we are given substantial insights into his character. He was a court official in the service of the queen of Ethiopia. He oversaw all her treasure, apparently a highly trusted individual returning to Ethiopia from Jerusalem after worship.

Interestingly, like the account of Simon the Sorcerer, this account also involves money. However, though the Ethiopian eunuch likely had access to far more money than Simon, in his inquisitive discussion with Phillip, the Ethiopian eunuch showed that money meant nothing to him. It was evident to Philip that this
man possessed a humble servant’s heart. He was a sincere, studious servant who sought the truth, and he acted on that truth when God, through Philip, showed it to him.

Changing Saul’s Heart (9:1-43)

There are instances in the gospel ministry that only our Lord Jesus Christ can handle. Sometimes an individual’s life and focus are so complicated, layered, and outside of human comprehension that only divine intervention can affect the necessary change. This was the case with Saul of Tarsus, the same Saul who had approved of Stephen’s murder.

Saul was a respected Pharisee, highly educated in the Law. He was full of zeal and committed to persecuting the Church — but in this, he was completely wrong. Saul’s conversion is a beautiful lesson for us. If we ever believe that we know that someone is beyond God’s ability to change, we need look no further than to this man whose “spear” of destruction was turned into a “plowshare” of God’s truth (Isaiah 2:4 KJV).

Another lesson we may learn from Saul’s example is that it is possible for us to be totally deceived in our own heart and mind. Though this may seem inconceivable for any rational person, like Saul, it is possible to be in the service and sympathy of a flawed system of belief. The cure is a change by the hand of Jesus Christ, and this change may include adversity. But if we follow the lead of Jesus, his tender guidance will always lead to our sanctification.

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus into the Apostle Paul reveals that even the most determined minds can be changed. Like Saul, there is hope for anyone who submits to Jesus.

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