The gospel needs to spread throughout the world by ordinary people, just like it did in the book of Acts, J.D. Greear said during The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s chapel March 26.
Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, used the example of Stephen in Acts 6-7 to bring this point home, describing the blueprint for the spread of Christianity as more like Stephen’s dramatic sermon before the Sanhedrin than the Sermon on the Mount.
“Jesus’ plan for reaching the world is not gathering large groups of people to bask in the anointing of one prophetic teacher,” said Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area, who once worked for the International Mission Board.
“His Plan A is raising up ordinary people in the power of the Spirit and sending them out,” Greear said.
Stephen was not an apostle or elder in the early church. In fact, before he was appointed as a deacon in Acts 6, he was an “ordinary guy,” Greear said. Even his deaconship was a supporting role as one of several men selected to help deliver food to widows so the apostles could focus on prayer and teaching the Word. He was the “Meals on Wheels” of the early church, Greear said.
But Stephen’s story marked a turning point in the book of Acts and all redemptive history, Greear noted.
Stephen did his job so well that it got the attention of the angry Jewish religious establishment, who began to discredit him, Greear recounted. In Acts 7, Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin for questioning, where he delivered the longest and most comprehensive sermon in Acts, tracing Israel’s history in great detail and showing from the scriptures how the entire Hebrew Bible is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Even more angry than before, the Jewish leaders took him outside and stoned him to death.
This moment inspired a brand-new age in the expansion of the gospel message, Greear said. Whereas before Acts 7 the gospel had not yet left Jerusalem, after Acts 7 it expands to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth just as Jesus commanded in Acts 1:8.
Stephen – an ordinary man – would be the springboard for global transformation, Greear said, noting that God wants to use ordinary people today like He used Stephen in Acts.
“Not a single apostle is involved in the story. Not one,” Greear said. “It is Stephen’s witness that provokes the riot, and of those who leave preaching the Word, Luke, the author of Acts, seems to go out of his way to show you that not a single apostle was included.
“For those reasons, I believe Stephen’s story is given to us as an example of how the gospel is supposed to spread globally. In Acts, Stephen is a picture of what ordinary Christians in the church are supposed to look like, and what will happen in the world when they do.”
The thing that makes ordinary Christians such extraordinary servants for the Kingdom, Greear said, is not self-confidence or positive thinking, but the presence and empowerment of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
One of the most surprising verses in the New Testament, Greear said, is John 16:7, in which Jesus tells His disciples that it is to their “advantage” that He would leave earth and send the Holy Spirit instead. It is hard to imagine that the presence of the Spirit is better for Christian ministry than the presence of Christ, Greear said, but that reality highlights the central role of the Spirit in the Christian life.
Anyone can do anything, even the “least of the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 11:11) if they experience the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, Greear said.
“What makes Stephen remarkable is his confidence – a confidence he apparently gained from an awareness of the fullness of the Spirit within him,” Greear said. “The most common characteristic repeated about Stephen was that he was ‘filled with the Spirit.’ What gives ordinary people such extraordinary confidence and effectiveness is the knowledge of the power of the Spirit within them.”
Greear acknowledged that Stephen’s story does not end happily from a worldly perspective. After telling the Sanhedrin that he could see Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father in heaven, the Jewish leaders stoned him to death. In his dying moments, Stephen alluded to Jesus’ final words and made it clear that he saw himself as a sacrifice for others. Even if ministry doesn’t call us to give our lives, it often does require similar sacrifices, which is a difficult lesson to learn in comfortable American culture, Greear said.
“We like to talk a lot about how coming to Jesus brings peace and fulfillment into our lives, and that’s all true,” Greear said. “But at some point, if people are serious about following Jesus, obedience to Him goes the opposite way of fulfillment, happiness and peace. At some point, coming to Jesus is going to take you 180 degrees opposite of the direction you want to go. And in that moment, there is only one thing that is going to propel you forward: a vision of Jesus being absolutely and totally worth it.”
Greear’s chapel sermon can be viewed at http://equip.sbts.edu.
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