Monday, December 24, 2007

The Word of the Lord Increased

In at least three places in the book of Acts, chapter 6:7, 12:24, and 19:20, the author, Luke, describes how the “word of the Lord increased.” The book of Acts describes the early decades of the first Christians, as they strove to bring the message of the Gospel in ever-expanding circles to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Along the way they faced much opposition and persecution. Sometimes the opposition was merely verbal, and at other times it took the form of imprisonment, flogging, or even death by stoning (see the example of Stephen, Acts 7).

But the fascinating part about the three passages that I mentioned above, along with many other passages in the book of Acts, is how the church continued to grow and abound in the face of such opposition. In Acts chapter 6, the apostles had been arrested and put in prison, beaten and then told not to speak in the name of Jesus. In Acts chapter 12, the apostle James was killed by Herod, and then Peter was again jailed. In Acts 19 many magicians and sorcerers quit their magical arts and turned to the Lord, and following verse 20 there arose a great riot in Ephesus. Nevertheless, in each situation, the “word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” The surprising thing is how the opposition to the message of the Gospel did not snuff out or silence the early Christians, but almost seemed to energize and invigorate the further spreading of the Gospel! And lest we be misled to think that it was merely some sociological phenomena where the early disciples were just galvanized against opposition—Luke makes it clear to us that it was the Word of the Lord that increased, and was the driving power behind this growth. The testimony of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, witnessed by the apostles and many others, was a message that could not be contained, no matter what the opposition!

At some points, such as Acts 8:1-4, the persecution caused the believers to scatter, which turned out to be like trying to put out a fire in dry field by striking the fire. It only served to scatter the sparks and burning embers, as the believers spread out even further, to proclaim the message of the word. So this all leads me to wonder…how should Christians today regard opposition to the faith? Perhaps we have enjoyed too long a time of prosperity, and Christian beliefs have experienced a widespread acceptance, or at least toleration. And while Christians in other countries are certainly facing violence (check out the “Voice of the Martyrs” website), here in this country, most of the opposition still remains verbal or ideological.

So how ought we to receive criticism of the faith, and of the Biblical record? Some have suggested that we should be thankful for these challenges to the faith as opportunities for us to engage the world with the true message of the Gospel. When we see or hear Christianity being misrepresented or distorted by those who would challenge the Word, we may be given opportunities to more clearly articulate the true message of the Gospel to a world in desperate need of that truth. The apostle Peter advised that we should always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15-16a). Are you prepared to give a defense? Do you know the reason for the hope that is in you?

In any opposition, whether we are facing physical threats of persecution (as in the case of the apostles and many Christians in the mission field today) or whether it be merely the arguments of unbelievers, it is the Word of the Lord that must be our driving force. If, like the early Christians, we are devoted to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), we will continue to grow and increase in understanding of God’s Word. It is there in Christ’s Word that we learn the message of salvation and the wisdom of God which is revealed to us in the cross of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:21-25). With God’s own Word as our proclamation and instructor, we can boldly face the challenges that arise to our faith. We need not become discouraged or disheartened when Christianity seems to come under fire, but we boldly confess the truth and with gentleness and respect present a winsome defense of the Christian faith. Being faithful to that Word, we have this certain knowledge: that the Word of the Lord will increase, even and especially in the face of opposition. So let’s rise to the challenge instead of hiding or ignoring it, and go forward to speak the truth in love!

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