Same gospel message – different results:
The book of Acts tells the stories of many individuals who accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, but it also tells the stories of those who rejected him. It has always been that way. Jesus was a polarising figure. He caused divisions wherever he went.
And so too with his followers ever since. But what is also interesting is the fact that sometimes entire cities can more or less do the same: either accept Christ or reject him. That is something we find clearly laid out in the book of Acts. One can find examples of both of these reactions there. Let me speak to each.
When a city rejoices in God
Consider when an entire community seems to turn to God through Christ. Check out what is reported in Acts 8:4-8:
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.
While we may not know if every single individual in Samaria turned to Christ, it seems that at the very least the great majority did. That was a terrific result of one man’s preaching – and the move of God’s spirit. One can only pray, ‘Do it again Lord’.
Before moving on to the next city, let me offer a brief comment by James Montgomery Boice as he discusses the work of Philip:
Philip is the first person – indeed, the only person – in the New Testament to be called an evangelist (Acts 21:8). It is interesting that he was a layman. It has always seemed to me that those people who have been particularly effective in telling others about Christ have been laymen. We usually think that ministers are to be evangelists, and certainly there are ministers who are evangelists. But my experience has been that those who are most effective as evangelists are laypeople.
Good point, and that should give all of us some encouragement!
When a city rejects God
The welcome reception of the gospel in Samaria is offset by rejection and persecution in other cities. Consider for example what happened to Paul and Silas when they were in Thessalonica. Acts 17:1-8 says this:
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.
Two things stand out for me here. One, what we find in verse seven should sink in deeply to every Christian. The world will always have another king – any king but Jesus. It may not be Caesar, but it can be self, or the state, or any of a million idols we put in the place of God.
People always reject Jesus as their rightful king because they have other allegiances. That is something we must all bear in mind. The gospel will not be easily and readily accepted by most, because they want to continue to sit on the throne, and not be replaced by King Jesus.
The second thing I often tell others about is what we find in verse six: the early disciples were turning the world upside down. This was said by their detractors, but it is a great job description, and one that should apply to all Christians.
Our life and our witness should be such that people are not left neutral. Like Jesus and the early disciples, we should be finding folks either rejecting us – and often quite vehemently – or accepting us and our message. There can be no middle ground when the true Christian gospel is faithfully and boldly proclaimed.
We will be shaking the world up. John Stott ties both of these emphases together as he says this:
The general accusation levelled against the missionaries was that they had caused trouble (6). This means not (in the familiar and appealing AV expression) that they had ‘turned the world upside down’, but that they were causing a radical social upheaval. The verb anastato has revolutionary overtones and is used in 21:38 of an Egyptian terrorist who ‘started a revolt’. In particular, Paul and Silas were charged with high treason. It is hard to exaggerate the danger to which this exposed them, for ‘the very suggestion of treason against the Emperors often proved fatal to the accused’. Just as Jesus had been accused before Pilate of sedition, of ‘subverting’ the nation by claiming himself to be ‘Christ, a King’, (Lk. 23:2), so Paul’s teaching about the kingdom of God (14:22) and about Christ’s parousia (the official term for an imperial visit), which we know from the letters to the Thessalonians he had emphasized when he was with them, were misinterpreted. Since the emperor was sometimes called basileus (‘king’), (e.g. John 19:12; 1 Peter 2:13,17) as well as kaisar (‘emperor’), how could the attribution of basileus to Jesus (7) not be a treasonable offence? The ambiguity of Christian teaching in this area remains. On the one hand, as Christian people, we are called to be conscientious and law-abiding citizens, not revolutionaries. On the other hand, the kingship of Jesus has unavoidable political implications since, as his loyal subjects, we must refuse to give any other ruler or ideology the supreme homage and total obedience which are due to him alone.
Well said. Wherever Christians go, as they faithfully proclaim the kingship of Jesus, they will be accused of being troublemakers, rebels, dissidents, and treasonous. No wonder the disciples always got into trouble when they proclaimed the gospel.
No wonder for two thousand years all Christians who shared their faith have been met with resistance. Yes, sometimes individuals and even the crowds or entire cities will believe the word. But just as often they will reject it. But as always, it is up to God to bring the fruit – our job is to plant the seed. That is our responsibility. Are we being faithful in this?
Sadly today in the West most cities resemble Thessalonica. Very few would measure up to Samaria. But we must keep praying and keep sharing the good news, and perhaps God will grant repentance not just to individuals, but to whole communities and entire towns.