Chapter 28 “New Beginnings”
What could turn a group of gutless deserters into courageous, outspoken evangelists willing to be imprisoned and even die for their cause? They had witnessed the resurrected Christ. He had proved Himself alive for forty days to various people in a variety of circumstances and places. Just before His ascension, Jesus told the disciples to wait for the promised power of the Holy Spirit so that they could be witnesses to His resurrection in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Ten days later on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit stormed in like tongues of fire. He empowered each disciple to declare the gospel. Peter became the first mega-church preacher and that day three thousand new believers were baptized. This new community of believers embraced teaching and fellowship and enjoyed the favor of nearly all the people. All but the powerful Jewish rulers, that is.
The new church continued to grow rapidly. The apostles were even able to perform miracles similar to those Jesus had done! As the apostles spread the word of the resurrection in Jerusalem, they incited outrage and opposition from the Jewish rulers. Peter refused to be silenced and continued to speak in spite of orders to stop. Even a severe flogging could not curb his zealous proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. Stephen’s scathing sermon before the Sanhedrin showed how the Jews had repeatedly rejected God’s prophets and resisted God’s Spirit. The Sanhedrin dragged him outside of Jerusalem to stone him. He saw a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God and entrusted himself to the Lord.
Sparked by the martyring of Stephen, persecution drove Christians like Philip out of Jerusalem and into outlying areas like Samaria. While the opposition grew, so did the spread of the gospel message. A Pharisee named Saul made it his personal mission to defeat this movement once and for all, but his blinding come-to-Jesus moment on the road to Damascus really “opened his eyes.” Meanwhile, God prepared Ananias to deliver God’s marching orders to Saul: he had a mission to be God’s witness to the Gentiles. As Ananias laid his hands upon him, Saul’s sight was restored and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Within a few short days, this persecutor of Christ became a preacher of Christ. Needless to say, his turnaround was met with suspicion and doubt, but trusted Barnabas vouched for him to the apostles in Jerusalem. Saul soon found himself on the receiving end of death threats, so he too was sent away from Jerusalem. The church spread throughout Judea and Samaria as God used even persecution to achieve His Upper Story purpose of spreading the news that Jesus is the risen Messiah.
God’s next move was so radical that He had to prepare both Peter and Cornelius for this new revelation. While an angel told Roman centurion Cornelius to send for Peter, Peter was given a vision of unclean animals on a sheet. A heavenly voice instructed him to eat this meat that was definitely not kosher. What Peter called impure, God now called clean. As Peter was trying to interpret the meaning of this vision, Cornelius’ servants arrived and summoned him to their master’s home. When he explained the gospel to a full house, the Holy Spirit was poured out on these Gentiles too! The Holy Spirit was now available to all who believed! Peter now knew his vision was not about food but about God’s plan to declare all people “kosher” who would believe in Christ. Peter’s ministry continued in Jerusalem where Herod Agrippa’s persecution grew deadly. Peter was imprisoned but even prison bars could not stop God’s plan. As his friends earnestly prayed for him, an angel miraculously freed him. Kings, rulers, and prison guards all found themselves fighting against God and helpless to stop His plan. While the Lower Story
of persecution drove believers away from Jerusalem, the Upper Story of resurrection drove many to God. He alone can redeem even the worst of circumstances. After all, He alone is the God who raised the dead!