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External and Internal Pressures
Every so often in life we find that good things come to an end, and transitions need to take place. Perhaps it’s time to move on from a job that has served you well, or—as you all have experienced—a seasoned and fruitful pastor needs to hand the button to the next man. Transitions are inevitable in life.
Now, why do we make transitions? What are the scenarios, or pressures, that lead us to make certain decisions concerning a transition? As we probably experience to some degree every day, our decisions are usually a result of pressure—and, we could understand those pressures as external pressures, or internal pressures.
Consider a husband who comes home one day from a job that he loved, and he simply says “honey I quit my job”. The wife’s obvious response, is “Why? You loved that job, and it served our family so well!” If the husband simply says, “well, I just wasn’t feeling it”, or “I had this strange sense that it was time to transition into something else”. You might say the pressure was internal—probably he was suddenly overcome with an internal struggle with feelings of discontentment. In this situation, there was no clear or obvious external pressure that moved this man to quit his job. One pastor would say this guy has a case of the liver shivers—anxieties, feelings, emotions pressured up within him to transition out of his job. Many Christians who are ruled by their emotions find themselves in far too many seasons of transition because they make decisions like this.
External pressures are much more reliable, and helpful, when it’s time to make these decisions. Let’s say, instead of the husband saying he quit his job because “he wasn’t feeling it”, he said to his wife, “my boss asked me to lie on a tax document, and I refused. He said do it, or quit.” There’s an external pressure. The godly wife, I’m sure, would be proud of her husband rather than disappointed. Or, take the process of a boy becoming a godly man. A 16 year old boy realizes he thinks a girl is pretty, and he understands that the word of God—an external pressure, an external standard—says he should marry her rather than just sleep with her. So, he’s pressured to marry her, care for her, get a good job—but then she gets pregnant. There’s an external pressure that forces a transition. Children, as many of you know, are some of the most powerful external pressures in life. Very quickly, the young man becomes a man. When I was working in drug and alcohol rehab, the overwhelming tipping point for drug addicts was that external pressure of children. So many would say to me, “I’ve been using drugs my whole life, but when I saw my first daughter look at me with those newborn eyes, I knew it was time to get clean.” And, they meant it.
External and internal pressures are the two ways we are forced to make decisions and transitions. You could also describe these two pressures as objective and subjective pressures. Objective pressures are external—outside of you, concrete, tangible. Subjective pressures are within you, and are largely dominated by your emotions or your intuitions.
The Lord commends us to pay attention to those external—or objective—pressures as we make decisions and transitions. The Christian life isn’t first subjective, about those internal pressures and feelings. We often flip this because the bible says, “The Lord wants your heart, not your sacrifice” (cf. Hosea 6:6). So, focus on the heart, right? Let the Lord lead you in all these things as you listen to him in your quiet prayer time.
It’s true that the Lord wants your heart, but it’s the LORD who wants your heart, your faith and obedience. He’s external, outside of you! He’s is the supreme “external pressure”, if you will, as he calls us to receive him and his word by faith, submitting our hearts to him with everything we have. We are governed not by internal pressures—our hearts, our feelings—but by God whose sovereignty directs and convicts our hearts through is objective word, Spirit, and salvation through Christ.
The Gospel and the Lord’s External Pressures
Now, what does this have to do with our passage? I titled this message “How did the Gospel Initially Spread?” because that’s what this passage is about. It’s about the gospel making its first transition from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria. There’s a transition, here—the church makes its first dramatic move away from Jerusalem. How did that transition come about? What moved the gospel from Jerusalem to Samaria in this passage? I can tell you that it was not a bunch of apostles huddled in the upper room, saying “I feel like it’s time to move onto other towns. I don’t have a good reason why, but it just seems like the right thing to do”. That wasn’t it. The gospel moved as the early church responded to a number of external pressures—and, they were all orchestrated by the Lord who governs all things.
This morning, we’re going to first consider the Lord’s external pressures which transitioned the church away from Jerusalem. I’ll just mention a few of them briefly, as we set ourselves up for the story of Philip in our passage this morning. Then, we’ll take a bit more time to consider how the Lord’s external pressures governed the ministry of the church in Samaria, with Phillip.
The Immediate Pressures for Transitioning Out of Jerusalem
Consider some of the pressures involved in the church’s transition from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.
The Pressure of Rejection: “Go to the Next Town”
First, The Jews rejected them in Jerusalem—and, I’m not even talking about Stephen’s martyrdom, yet. Why was Stephen martyred in the first place? He preached Jesus to them, and they passionately rejected him. So, it was only a matter of time that the Christians would move to the next city. Jesus said, “wherever they do not receive you, shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them”. He’s expressing not just judgment, but urgency in this statement—go to the next town! So here, the external pressure of people persistently rejecting the gospel is a reason to transition from one city to the next as an evangelist. It fit with Jesus’s model of ministry to urgently preach his kingdom from one town to the next.
The Pressure of Persecution
Another external pressure, obviously, is an extension of this. Stephen’s martyrdom (and the persecution that followed) was a more immediate external pressure for the church to transition away from Jerusalem. In verse 1 of our passage, we read—“there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered [or dispersed] throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria”. So, the persecution was a sure sign that it was time to bring the gospel elsewhere. However, I love the example of the early church, here. They didn’t leave Jerusalem when they began to be opposed. In fact, they didn’t stop preaching the gospel in Jerusalem until they were kicked out, even killed. They sought every Jew they could in Jerusalem with the gospel. This is a reminder that, while Jesus does tell us to go to the next town when we’re rejected, he doesn’t necessarily tell us to leave at the first sign of rejection.
This week happened to be the anniversary of Jim Elliot’s martyrdom—he kept going back to the Auca Indians in Ecuador until they killed him and his friends. Years later, the tribe became Christian through his wife who continued his work. The Lord rewards persistence in evangelism. If you have a friend or family member whom you’ve been praying for through many years, don’t stop praying and witnessing. God loves persistent prayers.
That said—in this case with the Christians in Jerusalem, the nature of the persecution drove them out. Did you notice the little detail about Saul, in this story? Saul, or as we’ll soon know him as the apostle Paul, (verse 3) “was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” That’s the persecution we’re talking about—and, something tells me Saul wasn’t the only one dragging folks out of their house for imprisonment.
This was a powerful external pressure. But it was the Lord’s pressure, in his control. It spread the gospel rather than locked it up behind bars.
The Pressure of God’s Word
But, it wasn’t just the rejection and persecution that pressured the Christians out of Jerusalem. Jesus told them to be his witnesses from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. So, that’s why they ended up in Samaria in our passage. Jesus told them to go there in Acts 1:8—“you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem [did it!] and in all Jude and Samaria”. Those words were an external pressure upon the Christians to go to Judea and Samaria.
Jesus’s words—his instructions to us as his people—ought to be a relentless pressure upon our hearts and minds, brothers and sisters. His words should press us to love, forgive quickly, rejoice always, pray without ceasing, enjoy peaceful fellowship with him through his blood. His words should be like pressure cookers within us, in desperate need of a release. It reminds me of when the prophet Jeremiah was filled with God’s word—“My heart is broken within me; all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and because of his holy words.” I love that. Holding Jesus’s words in without release—without obedience—is like being overcome with wine, or a bone-shaking illness for the godly person. I pray that the Lord’s word would fill us with that sort of pressure and urgency—as if you can’t rest until his Word and Spirit of conviction is satisfied.
How Did the Church Grow in Samaria, Then?
So, the church spread from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria through these three external pressures—rejection, persecution, and Jesus’s words. What happens, then, when it reaches Judea and Samaria? For the rest of our time, this morning, I want us to see that while the church spread geographically through these pressures, it also grew in maturity through these divinely orchestrated pressures as well.
That’s a bit of an interesting turn, here, isn’t it? We might think it spread geographically, and then grew numerically. That’s true. It did grow numerically. Verse 12 describes Philip baptizing a large number of Samaritan men and women. However, there are a few interesting details which signal the church’s growth in maturity in this passage, and I don’t want to miss them.
I gave us three of the Lord’s pressures that moved the church from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. Let’s now consider three ways this passage describes the church’s growth in maturity as it spread.
The Missing Apostles Pressured the Church to Evangelism
First, look at verse 1 again.
There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
So, the church scattered, except the apostles. In fact, this verse says “they were all scattered”—every Christian in Jerusalem left, except the apostles. They stayed back. It’s a strange detail, but it’s really important, for a number of reasons this morning. Now, look at verse 4—
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
Who was scattered, and who was preaching the word in Judea and Samaria? The whole church, except the apostles. In other words—ordinary Christians like you and me. Can you imagine that? This has to be one of the most amazing works of missionary mobilization in the history of the church. Remember how big the church was at this point—the last figure we were given way back in chapter four numbered just the men in the church at 5,000. This is a mass exodus of thousands, all being sent out preaching the gospel to Israel.
I can’t wait to hear the stories of this revival when I get to heaven—this initial budding of the church out of Jerusalem, and into the world. We hear of this story concerning Philip—and, we’ll get there in a moment. But, we also see a story from all this if you skip a head to chapter 11. While our story with Philip this morning describes how the gospel made its way north to Samaria, we see the same group of exiled believers make their way further north to Antioch. Again—the gospel made it to Antioch through these ordinary Christians exiled out of Jerusalem. Chapter 11 verse 19—
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen [again, “the whole church except the apostles”] traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word …
These Christians were traveling missionaries. They were “speaking the word”—thousands of Christians, all at once, spread the word throughout Rome like a bomb.
Now, how is this a pressure that served to mature the church? Here’s an illustration. Have you ever worked a job that you felt a little uncomfortable with, but you know it’s time for you to completely take the reins and let your mentor step back? Perhaps you could think of a young teacher in her first year of teaching, after student teaching alongside a mentor for a year. The first day of school comes, and I can imagine the teacher taking a deep breath as she whispers to herself, “there’s no going back now”. It’s time to hold your head high, commit, and accomplish the task. The training wheels are off.
That’s how I picture this group of young evangelists as they were sent out without the apostles, and I imagine without a strong sentiment of organization. They were all going into unreached territory. There were no churches to get involved with—this is pioneer missionary work. Sound like a sanctifying pressure, to you?
In a word, you might say that the pressures of the missing apostles who stayed in Jerusalem moved the early Christians to rely upon the Lord’s help as they were committed to the work of evangelism. The apostles weren’t in the field with them—and, there are good reasons for that as we’ll see in a moment. These Christians, like you and me, had the Lord, the Spirit, and they had each other.
Put yourself in this situation, and perhaps you’ll feel what I’m saying. You receive the gospel in Jerusalem, and you’ve been eating up the apostle’s teaching and enjoying their leadership for several months. Then, you get forced out of Jerusalem with marching orders to bring the gospel to Judea and Samaria, only the apostles stay behind. The obvious question comes to mind—“what now?”. That situation—that question—is purifying to your faith and your soul. It’s a purifying situation for the whole church, I imagine. Every believer at that point throughout all of Judea will quickly realize, if they hadn’t already, that their only hope and strength is in the risen Jesus. The whole church will be pressured into looking to Jesus for direction, for power, and for words to say as they bring the gospel to new corners of the world.
I brought this verse up last week when we considered Stephen, but I think it’s just as applicable now. Luke 21:15, Jesus says “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” The best way to prepare for evangelism and defending the faith isn’t pondering the right phrases and questions beforehand. It’s spending time with Jesus in prayer, in his word, and getting filled with fresh revelations and insights of his grace. As you’re filled with awe, in fellowship with him, he’ll give you words to say when it’s time.
So, the missing apostles, as they stayed in Jerusalem, pressured the dispersed church to look to Jesus for words and power as they brought the gospel to Judea and Samaria. That’s the first pressure that brought maturity to the church as she spread throughout the region. The missing apostles.
Simon’s Story, and Two More Pressures
The next two pressures that brought about maturity, as you might imagine, deal directly with the story of Philip in Samaria. That’s where we’ll spend the rest of our time this morning. In many ways, it’s a very simple—yet captivating—story. Philip, fleeing from the persecution, ends up in Samaria where the Lord gave him power to preach the gospel, and to perform miraculous signs. You see that in verse 6—“the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and [when they] saw the signs that he did.” He was casting out demons, healing the paralyzed and lame. Verse 8 says that this gospel brought about “great joy” in the city.
Then we meet Philip the magician in verse 8, who practiced magic and held the crowds captive with teachings about how great he is. At an interesting turn of events, verse 13 tells us that when people heard Philip’s gospel preaching and were baptized, “even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip”.
So, that sets up this story. The church, no doubt, is growing numerically. However, what are the two remaining pressures in this passage that pertain to the church’s growth in maturity?
The Missing Spirit Pressured the Church to Unity
The first pressure was the missing Holy Spirit. Perhaps the Spirit’s late arrival in this passage got you thinking: “Philip came, people believed, people were baptized, but they didn’t receive the Holy Spirit?” That’s all in verses 14–16.
Verse 14 says that when the apostles in Jerusalem heard the word of all these baptisms in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to help out. Verse 15 actually says—“[they] came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
So here’s the question—were these Samaritans saved, if they hadn’t received the Spirit yet? Verses 12 and 13 seem to say so! They heard the word, received it by faith, and were baptized! Yet they hadn’t received the Spirit—so, if we go with Jesus’s words in John 3:5, they weren’t saved. Remember John 3:5? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”. Jesus says you must receive the Spirit to be saved. Acts says these Christians were saved, but they hadn’t received the Spirit.
These were unusual times, in the early church. The church was young, persecuted, and spread out. So, she needed maturity if she would endure. Perhaps two particular marks of a mature church come to mind—power, and unity. Without power and unity, a church will fall apart quickly.
So by withholding the gift of the Holy Spirit until the apostle’s would show up from Jerusalem, Jesus ensured that his church in Samaria would experience power and unity. Think about the wisdom in all this, as Jesus sovereignly orchestrated it from his throne in heaven. Obviously, the power any mature church needs is from the Spirit and the Word. If the Spirit isn’t working among us, we’ve got no power as a church—no power over sin, no power in evangelism and outreach, no power in fellowship or prayer or reading the word. We need the Spirit. Jesus gave the Spirit to the Samaritans, but only through the apostles.
He wouldn’t give his Spirit through Philip or anyone else—only the apostles. They had to come to Samaria. Why? Along with many other men, I think Jesus was ensuring that his church was a united, apostolic church. Imagine how important this was when the church first started to spread into different cities. We don’t want a Samaritan church with a Samaritan Holy Spirit and gospel, in contrast to a Jerusalem Church or an Antioch Church and Spirit. It’s all one church, as Paul says in Ephesians 5, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone”. Jesus only poured his Spirit out in this way, through the apostles, because he was concerned about the church’s unity. He wouldn’t let the church be a Spirit-filled church without being an apostolic church—approved and empowered by the apostles, Jesus’s honored servants.
The pressure of the missing Holy Spirit brought about apostolic unity and power in the church—two marks of maturity that I pray we might enjoy as a church as well. We need to remember that Jesus was calling the shots, and orchestrating all this from heaven. He doesn’t need his apostles alive on Earth to work this same unity and power into his church. He’s given us his word, his pastors, prayer and the sacraments, to fill us with his gracious unity and power (let alone salvation).
So, the church is maturing under the pressure of (1) the missing apostles, which drove the church to spread the kingdom of Christ with their training wheels off. Then, the church is maturing under the pressure of (2) the missing Holy Spirit moved the church to greater power and unity, as the Spirit’s power came through the apostles’ ministry. Consider one last pressure that the Lord used in this story, to promote the church’s maturity.
Missing Repentance Pressured the Church to Purity
There’s another interesting missing piece in this story, and it’s Simon’s repentance. Even though verse 13 tells us that he believed and was baptized, it becomes very clear through the rest of the story that he was missing repentance from the world. When Simon sees the Holy Spirit being poured out through Peter and John, he offered them money to receive the same ability, to improve his career in godless magical arts. In other words—he thought he could purchase God’s power and salvation with money.
He had no repentance, and therefore his faith was false. It was a faith, but it was false. There is such a thing as a false faith. The Bible talks about it in a few places—James calls a “false faith” a dead faith. It’s a faith, but it’s dead. It bears no fruit, it just lays there without any obedience. So, one mark of a false faith is a fruitless faith. Often, these folks talk a big talk with lots of correct theology. It’s all a show.
Then there’s the faith that “believes in vain”, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul says “I remind you of the gospel… by which you are being saved, if you hold fast… unless you believed in vain”. In other words, a false faith doesn’t hold fast. It believed in vain, it didn’t persevere to get the prize.
Then there’s the false faith that gets caught up in the moment. Jesus talks about that in the parable of the sowers. Luke 8:13, "And the [seeds] on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away." That was Simon. He probably rejoiced for a season but was quickly overcome with temptation into his former desire for magic and power when he saw the apostles’ work. So, he offered to buy it, like a worldly-minded person does. Peter’s response in verse 21—“You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore, repent”. You lack repentance, Simon! “I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity!”
And there, we see two more descriptions of false faith, here—it’s in the gall of bitterness, and the bond of iniquity. When a false faith doesn’t get it’s worldly pleasures, it gets bitter. It gets enslaved to iniquity.
Fruit matters, and bitterness is to be feared. It’s a dangerous, fearful thing to let worldly desires and bitterness take root. So, we must press on every day to examine ourselves, to see that we are resting in Jesus for forgiveness, peace, fellowship and jojoy. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” Then he gives us the way we test ourselves—"Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” Here’s the test—is Christ and his peace of forgiveness in you, or is the world’s pleasures and bitterness in you?
So, the pressure of a missing repentance moved this church—through Peter and John’s leadership—to renounce an influential person like Simon. It’s good to identify godless and faithless leaders in the church. It’s the mark of a mature church. Verse 24 does make us wonder if Simon repented—he asks Peter to pray for him. However, we really don’t see reference to any repentance. He doesn’t pray. One man said this was more of a sarcastic request, “you pray for me, then, Peter”.
In Other Words, Jesus is Directing His Church
Now, all this talk this morning about the Lord’s external pressures is nothing but a fancy way to say one point for us this morning: the Lord is Sovereignly directing and strengthening his church, and no one can thwart his plans. It reminds me of Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:25 when he says that
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
He gave himself up for his church. He won’t rest until everyone whom he died for is brought into this fold, sanctified and made holy to himself. Until then, he’s governing every external pressure in heaven and earth to serve the good of his people, and the praise of his glory.