Today we will be giving a brief overview of Acts 8:1–33. focusing on 8:1-5 (read). In this section we see the expansion of the Church beyond Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. This is in accordance with God’s plan as revealed in Acts 1:8, which provides the structure for the book of Acts. This first major expansion of the church comes not through an painstakingly designed program, or major outreach undertaking, but through the simple direction of God’s Spirit, who uses all things, even persecution, to accomplish his purposes on his timetable. This section should shape our thinking about God’s way of spontaneous expansion by the Spirit. It gives us enough data to show us how to identify and cooperate with the work of God as we seek to build his church. I hope that you will be encouraged that the spontaneous expansion of the church is less complicated and more attainable than you previously thought, and that you will have some tools in order to participate in it.
Every once in a while I am asked as a pastor, what is my plan or strategy regarding how to reach ABC type of people, whether it’s university students, young adults, members of our community, high school students, whatever. My answer, I am sure, is always a bit disappointing. What do you mean, what’s my plan? I don’t have one. What I mean by that, is that I don’t have any answers, any program or any event by which we are try to manipulate or contrive the process of outreach. Yet that doesn’t mean that there is no strategy. As we are going to see in this text, there is indeed a very clear strategy for the spontaneous expansion of the church. I believe that if we as a church were to follow this strategy and understand our roles, then we would see people come to know Jesus.
Acts 8:1 And Saul approved of his execution. And 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. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Acts 8:4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 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. 7 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. 8 So there was much joy in that city.
Acts 8:9 But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.
12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.
Acts 8:14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” 24 And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
Acts 8:25 Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
God’s Spontaneous Expansion The first major expansion of the church happens in a very surprising way. If you remember, the church was told explicitly to remain in Jerusalem – until they received the promised Holy Spirit. But after that they were to be His witnesses in Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the Earth. Yet here it is three years after Pentecost and where is the church? In Jerusalem. Up to this point, there has not been even a hint of outward expansion. And we get no indication that the apostles and church leaders had been planning any such endeavour. Yet Luke very intentionally points out that this was the fulfillment of Jesus’ command: “they were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” should take you right back to Acts 1:8.
What caused the church to expand outward? Persecution. They got chased out of town. Paul the Apostle is universally recognized as the greatest missionary ever, and ironically he even contributed to the expansion of the church before he was saved! The point is that this period of persecution is presented in the text as being the instrument of expansion.
What do I mean by “Spontaneous Expansion”? The spontaneous expansion of the church is not apparently manipulated or contrived - there’s no strategy, or planning sessions. but that it proceeds naturally without external constraint, but controlled and directed internally. It is the free flowing movement of God’s Spirit through His people to take His Gospel to places beyond the walls. “beyond the walls” – that’s the second part of the phrase, “expansion”. In Acts, we see both attraction and expansion playing a part in the growth of the church. What drives the spontaneous expansion of the church? When the members of the church see and understand that every occasion in their life, whether seemingly good or evil, is an opportunity for expansion.
I once read through the book of Acts looking to answer this one simple question – how did the church know where to expand to next. Short answer – they were open to every leading of the Spirit, whether it be circumstance, vision, prompting, or direction from God’s word. They were sensitive to the Spirit opening and closing doors. So when the believers were chased out of Jerusalem, they didn’t see it as a hindrance to the mission, but saw it as an opportunity through which the mission would continue. A responsiveness to seeing the Spirit’s guidance.
The believers spread the word: The second surprising thing about this first major expansion of the church is through whom it is accomplished. The text is explicitly clear that it is not undertaken by the apostles. Somehow, they remained in Jerusalem even during the intense persecution. That they were “all scattered”, does not mean every single last one of them, but that a great number of every segment of the church were chased out. It was these common believers who fulfilled Jesus’ command to take the Gospel outside of Jerusalem. This appears to have been a common pattern in the early church – for example, we do not have any record of an apostle or missionary planting the church at Rome. Most scholars believe that the church at Rome was planted by believers who has been present at Pentecost returning home and spontaneously spreading the Gospel. Roland Alland writes in his book The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church:
“The rapid and wide expansion of the church in the early centuries was due in the first place to the spontaneous activity of individuals . . . A natural instinct to share with others a new-found joy, strengthened and enlightened by the divine Grace of Christ., the Saviour, inevitably tends to impel men to propagate the Gospel. The early church recognized this natural instinct and this divine grace, and gave free scope to it. The names of a few great apostles were known to the whole church; but the first teachers of the majority of the Christians were probably unknown to any but to those whom they had quietly influenced. No one, then, was surprised at the spontaneous efforts of individual Christians to convert others to the faith. They probably thought it quite natural.”
Among those believers who went out spreading the word, there were no doubt, especially gifted and mature men and women who took the lead – the ministry of Philip, who had been one of the assistants in the Jerusalem church is particularly highlighted as being instrumental in establishing the church in Samaria. Yet it is extremely important that the believers were free to do this work, considering the esteem the Apostles of the Lord must have had in their estimation. “I can’t do this – I’m not an apostle.” – did not seem to enter their minds.
That’s not to say the apostles didn’t have work. there are four ways in which the apostles in Jerusalem supported the spontaneous expansion as regular believers saw opportunities and shared the gospel.
- The Leaders had Equipped Next-Gen Leaders: First, they had obviously well-equipped the believers to spread the word. The believers who went out had sat under the apostles teaching ministry for three years. Philip and Stephen and Barnabas, the two key names associated with this expansion, had all been raised up and equipped by the apostles in the Jerusalem church. Part of this equipping was modeling a lifestyle of evangelism, in which they dedicated themselves to gospel proclamation.
- They Gathered the Believers Into the Church: Acts 8:14: Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the Word of God, they sent them Peter and John. Peter and John did a couple of things: They validated that the Samaritans had become believers just as the Jews had – this was an important practical as well as theological question, for the Samaritans were considered to be less-than-Jews. Were they to be considered part of the church? Yes, they were, and the apostles confirmed it by laying their hands on the Samaritan believers so that they received the Holy Spirit as the rest of them. This is not to be taken in a way that the apostles had some sort of magic touch, but that the salvation of the Samaritans was authenticated. This is the difference between evangelism and making disciples. Converts are to be gathered into the church and included into the body. We do not make individual converts, we are called to make disciples of the nations.
- They guarded the ministry. This is the point of the episode with Simon the Magician. He had seen the apostles laying their hands on the Samaritans and thought that it would be a cool trick to add to his arsenal so that he could increase his sphere of influence. Peter rebukes him harshly in verses 20-23. Now many people come to the story of Simon and ask the question, “Is Simon saved”, but that is not the question the texts cares to answer. The text is concerned with this question: “Is Simon to be connected to the ministry.” The answer is an emphatic “No!” The spontaneous expansion of the church does not equal reckless expansion.
Church Planting Strategy: Our church planting strategy is you.
- Be Connected: If this is your church family and you wish to come alongside of us and partner with us in ministry - especially if you already are, be baptized and become a member. This is helpful so that we can get to know you - make sure there are no Simon’s among us. In our membership course we go over our core understandings of the church and our beliefs.
- Be Active in Ministry: Ministry Fair, there are lots of places to serve. Children ministry, youth, young adults, welcome, outreach connect groups; this is where the Holy Spirit can use you to minister spontaneously.
Connect Groups: I challenge every connect group this summer, to consider how to welcome people in or to go out to reach people. Summer term. People start going outside - you see your neighbours again.
Outreach Team: not to do the outreach work, but to pray, and to plan and to set opportunities in front of us.
- Be Discipled: I want to be pretty bold. We’re not doing as well here as we did in the past. Partly my fault, partly yours. I want to explain our Sunday Discipleship Strategy with you, so that we’re all on the same page.
- Be Equipped: Leadership Courses. To raise up leading men and women in our congregation that can serve in leadership here in the church and form a core team if and when the Holy Spirit moves us out.