A Suffering Church
Last week we found ourselves within a portion of Scripture recounting a man named Stephen suffering for living a godly life in Christ Jesus. In our text today we see that suffering for Christ spreads far past the stoning of this man. Like a pack of savage beasts, these men got a taste for blood that was not completely satisfied by his demise. It did not matter that people were morning the death of the man who had the face of an angel by making loud lamentation over him. To make a loud lamentation conveys the idea that these devout men were beating their breast as a sign of anguish at the loss of their friend. It, however, was of no consequence, for as the text says:
“On that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem.”
The dam withholding the depraved intents of man was broken, and wrath was unleashed.
We know that the point man of this oppression was none other than Saul of Tarsus, who was in hearty agreement with putting Stephen to death. The fact that he was in hearty agreement means more than him merely feeling just in doing it. It means he felt gratified in doing it. He found satisfaction in seeing Stephen suffer. Saul took pleasure in watching him die.
Once his depraved mind had tasted the enjoyment of Stephen’s death, he became insatiable. His appetite for the destruction of believers became impossible to quench. Luke describes him as going forth from this day ravaging the church.
To ravage something is when someone or something seeks to bring severe and extensive damage to another person of thing. Saul brought havoc upon God’s people. He sought to lay waste to the church of Christ. As the text says, he was “entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.”
Now, we are all most likely of the understanding that imprisonment is not the only thing that Saul imposed upon the believers. The Scripture describes Him as breathing threats and murder against the disciples. The Chief of Sinner’s refers to himself as a “persecutor and violent aggressor.” He says in Galatians 1:13 that he sought to “persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.” He says in Acts 22:4, “I persecuted this Way to the death.” Listen to his words in Acts 26:9-11:
“9 So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities.”
Truly, to say that Saul ravaged the church is an inspired understatement. Before Christ called him to evangelize, Satan had commissioned him to eviscerate. The church suffered severely at the hands of a young man named Saul.
Divine Purposes for Suffering
The last time we were together we had recalled to our minds the certainty of suffering for all those who are Christ’s because a slave is not greater than their master. We who are in Christ through faith must drink the same cup as Him. Suffering for His sake is inevitable. The question we sought to answer, therefore, was this: Can a Christian possess true peace through even the most despicable forms of persecution? Is there solace in suffering for Christ? The answer is an emphatic, yes! Genuine believers can possess a true peace that passes understanding and a joy unspeakable no matter what degree of the worlds wrath they experience.
We find solace through suffering when we just take the time to consider several divine purposes for suffering among the church:
- Suffering sterilizes the church.
In other words, it separates the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the chaff. It purges the church of those who are self-deceived. We understand this from the Jesus’s illustration of shallow ground in The Parable of the Soil in Mark 4.
- Suffering sanctifies the church.
It is used by God as an agent to perfect people into the image of Christ. According to Paul and James, He sovereignly uses suffering as a sanctifying tool. Persecution thrusts the people of God into trials that refine them. We should, therefore, consider it all joy when we face trials, and exalt in our tribulations knowing that God is working through it for our good and His glory.
- Suffering assures true Christians that they belong to God.
Enduring hardship for the sake of righteousness is evidence that the Spirit of God resides upon a person. As Paul says in Romans 8:16-17:
“16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.
It is with this final point in mind that we can really being to grasp why real believers can suffer with peace and joy no matter the severity of the situation. They are assured of their position in Christ, and His affection for them. They know that their life is not their own, it is Christ’s. Positionally speaking, we who are trusting in Christ have died, and our lives are hidden with Christ in God; therefore, when Christ, who is our life, is revealed, we too shall be revealed with Him in glory. Death has no power or effect over us. This is what drew the apostle Paul to declare:
“18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
We can have true happiness in any circumstance because we have, as Ryle says, “A Friend who never dies” and “possession beyond the grave of which nothing can deprive” us. As the Scripture teaches, we can overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loves us and gave Himself for us, knowing that nothing can separate us from Him with whom we are inseparably linked.
The Seed Spread Through Suffering
There are two other great truths we see in this text that should produce in us great confidence and hope when the church is thrust into a state of suffering:
- The world will never prevail over the church.
Here in Acts, we see that great persecution began against the church. Saul began ravaging her. As was said earlier, he was a persecutor and violent aggressor. He persecuted the Way to death. He was trying to destroy the church of God beyond measure. Hell sought to lay waste to the church, yet to no avail.
Yes, it struck hard and made it so that the people were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, but what did the people do when they arrived at these destinations? Luke tells us:
“4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.”
No matter where God’s people found themselves, they went about proclaiming Christ,and Him crucified and risen again for the forgiveness of sins. The church was merely dispersed, but not destroyed.
Is this not what Jesus declared of the church which is He building upon a clear proclamation of His gospel? He said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Find comfort in the fact that though the world will attempt to prevail over Christ’s people, it will never overpower them. His church will stand through the severest forms of suffering that the wrathful world seeks to force upon her.
It could actually be argued that the harder hell attacks the church, the greater the church becomes. This leads us to the next point, which is that:
- His Kingdom is built through suffering.
I would like us to take a moment to recall the commission Jesus gave to His apostles before His ascension. We find it in Matthew 28:18-20 when Jesus says to them:
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
He says in Luke 24:46-49:
“46 Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Acts 1:8 states:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
We can clearly see that God’s intention was for His gospel to reach to the remotest parts of the earth. Up until this point in Acts, however, the gospel was only being spread around Jerusalem. It was persecution that propelled the gospel throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. God sovereignly used suffering to spread the seed of His Word and advance His kingdom. It was through hells attempts to overpower the church that God continued to build it among every tribe, tongue, and nation. As Tertullian who famously said that:
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Truly, His kingdom is built through suffering, therefore, we should not be dismayed when it comes upon us, for we can rest assured that Christ is building His church by sending His people to other locations with His gospel so that He might call His lost sheep to Himself.
Solace in Sovereignty
Friends, may we see that we find solace through suffering because we first find solace in His sovereignty. God is sovereign, not only over that which is good, but over that which is evil also. If God be not sovereign over evil, then evil is sovereign over God. If this is the case, we have every reason to fear, for if evil circumstances come upon us, we have absolutely no certainty that God is able to overcome them. This text, as well as the whole of Scripture, loudly declares that God is in complete control over the entirety of His creation.
Is God then the author of evil? May we never think such an abominable thing. There is none good but God. He is not tempted by evil, nor does He tempt others with it. The Lord of all the earth always does that which is right. Greatness is to be ascribed to His name, for His work is perfect, and all His ways are just. He is light, and in Him there is no darkness whatsoever.
He is holy, and according to His most wise and holy counsel of His own will did He freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass, yet without authoring sin and without distorting the free actions of His creatures. In other words, He accomplishes His predetermined purposes through the means of evil men:
- Joseph’s brothers meant evil against him by selling him into slavery, but God meant it for good to save His people from certain death.
- The Sanhedrin meant evil against Jesus by having Him crucified, but God meant it for good to save His people from eternal death. He made Him who knew no sin, to become sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. As Peter boldly declared on the day of Pentecost:
“22 Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— 23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. 24 But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.”
Let us end by understanding that no matter what adversity comes our way as Christians, it will always work out for God’s glory. No matter the chaos that seems to ensue, we can be still and know that He is God. We can acknowledge that He is working all things after the council of His own will, and no one and no thing is able to thwart His hand. We can rest assured that He is working all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. As one person says:
“God is not pleased with evil in and of itself, but He does govern it so as to bring about greater goods. We can be confident, therefore, that the hardest things we endure are not brought our way in vain. God will work in and through them to bring about much ultimate good for us and much final glory for Himself.”
When we stop and consider all the complexities and intricacies of life itself, and realize that the most minute detail is a product of His purpose, we are left praising God and declaring as the Sprit declares through Paul:
“33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”
 2 Timothy 3:12
 Acts 9:1
 1 Timothy 1:13
 Cross Reference 1 Corinthians 15:9; Philippians 3:6
 James 1:2-4; Romans 5:3-4
 1 Peter 4:14
 Romans 8:18
 Mark 10:18
 James 1:13
 Deuteronomy 32:3-4
 1 John 1:5
 Acts 2:22-24
 Psalm 46:10; Ephesians 1:11
 Romans 8:28-30
 Romans 11:33-36