Since its founding, the United States has been a predominantly Christian culture. Not that everybody was a good Christian, they werent, but by and large people did believe that Jesus is the Savior and the Bible is Gods Word. Obeying His Word was another matter. There was a consensus. We generally agreed on what we should or should not be doing. When opinions are polled today it seems there is still a majority who say they believe these things, though more and more qualifiers are being added. Yet in spite of what people may claim to believe, the United States as a culture is progressively rejecting its historical faith. And a growing number of people are becoming hostile to that faith. What may have worked in the past to bring lost sheep back to the fold doesnt work with secular skeptics. With these, old fashioned evangelism often produces mockery or verbal abuse. The question many believers are asking today is, Has America become hard ground? Are the days of soul winning here drawing to an end?
The examples of Saul and Peter help us answer that question. During its first decades of life the church in Israel faced a culture much more resistant to the gospel than we do. They might have angry mobs gather or an assassination squad plan their execution. And the government provided them no protection. In fact, some leaders joined the persecution, if they thought it benefitted their careers. This was the culture into which Saul of Tarsus and Peter went to preach. Both men faced a hostile environment, but the way they ministered to it was very different. Their message was the same, but the way they proclaimed it was not, and as we will see from this portion of Acts, the way the people in that resistant culture responded was also very different. And if we observe them carefully they will teach us how to reach a changing America.
Watching Saul (Ac 9:19-31)
When we compare the sequence of events Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians (Ga 1:11-2:10) with those described in Acts, we realize Luke chose to skip over three years of Sauls history between verses 25 and 26. Saul did indeed return to Jerusalem after escaping from Damascus, but on that first occasion he stayed there only a short period of time. Heres the scenario as I put it together:
1) Damascus #1 (Ac 9:19-25): Jewish leaders plotted to kill him. There was a plan to capture him when he went in or out of the city gates, but someone warned him and he escaped at night by being lowered through the wall in a basket.
2) Jerusalem #1 (Ac 22:17-21): From the glimpse he give us here it appears he was alone and facing a very dangerous environment. He had to avoid being seen by religious leaders because a report of his activities in Damascus had surely reached them. And he had no friends among the church. They were terrified of him. When retelling this moment years later, Paul said he went to the temple to pray, and as he was praying
(Ac 22:18-21). This was not the Lord calling him to evangelize non-Jews, it was an urgent warning to flee to a foreign nation for asylum.
3) Arabia (Gal 1:17): He probably fled south through the Negev across the Arabah, and into the Arabia kingdom of Nabatea for safety. Probably the same route Elijah took fleeing from Jezebel (1Ki 19:3-8). At that time the term Arabia included not only the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula but also the areas east and south of Israel.
4) Damascus #2 (2Co 11:32, 33): After disappearing for a period of time in Arabia he returned to Damascus (Gal 1:18), and there he somehow stirred up the anger of the Nabatean government who controlled the city, or at least the territory around it. Again, to escape capture he was lowered down through the wall in a basket.
5) Jerusalem #2 (Ac 9:26-30): Three years after fleeing Jerusalem he returned because he wanted to meet Peter (Gal 1:18). He stayed with Peter for 15 days and also met James, the Lords brother (Ac 9:28; Gal 1:18-20). The church invited him to join them when they went out to do public ministry and he soon ended up in heated debates with Hellenistic Jews who attempted to kill him (Ac 9:29).
6) Tarsus (Syria/Cilicia) (Ac 9:30, 31): To protect his life, and probably to avoid rekindling the fires of persecution, the church took him down to Caesarea and sent him to his hometown of Tarsus. He spent 13 years in that region (Gal 2:1) before Barnabas came up and brought him back to Antioch (Ac 11:26).
As we review this scenario, Sauls pattern of ministry becomes evident:
Bold proclamation, Scriptural debate, Violence, Fleeing for his life
Watching Peter (Ac 9:32-43)
Luke now turns his focus back to Peter, and as we watch Peter minister we discover his approach seems to be centered on divine guidance and healing, which in turn opened a door for preaching. This stands in stark contrast to Sauls style, at this point in his life. As we noted, he used bold proclamation followed by scriptural debate which tended to provoke anger, and he was repeatedly forced to flee for his life. Peter, on the other hand, repeatedly gained favor and led whole communities to Christ.
Aeneas (vs 32-35): Lukes first example of Peters ministry during this season is the healing of a man named Aeneas. Peter had been systematically visiting churches in all the regions of Israel (Judea, Galilee, and Samaria) and in the course of these travels went down from Jerusalem to a town called Lydda located on the coastal plain. The first thing he did was to meet with the believers and in the process encountered a man lying on a mattress who had been paralyzed for eight years. In a manner very similar to the healing of the lame man in the temple (Ac 3:6), Peter spoke authoritatively and commanded healing. He said, Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you, stand up and make your own bed! And immediately Aeneas stood.
Everyone in town, and it was a good-sized town with a very conservative Jewish culture, saw Aeneas after he as healed, including those in the surrounding region. In such communities people know each other, and everyone would have known Aeneas. They knew he was paralyzed, and they probably knew if it had been caused by a disease or an injury. So when they saw him walking about normally there was no question in their minds about the validity of the healing. They knew a profound miracle had taken place, and judging from Lukes choice of words their response was virtually universal. Everyone who saw Aeneas began to call on the name of the Lord.
As we watch Peter in Lydda and Joppa, his pattern of ministry also becomes evident:
Divine appointment, Miracle, Explanation: Jesus did this!, People-movement to Christ, Stay and pastor until strong
A word of caution
Before we think Luke somehow intended to put Saul in a bad light, remember he wrote this in Rome while sharing an apartment with Paul. Paul undoubtedly was the one who told his story to Luke, who then wrote it down. So Paul is the one humbly exposing his own struggle to reach his people. And he, too, must have marveled at Peters effectiveness. Different cultures respond to different methods. Judaism loved Peter. Gentiles loved Paul. When it came to Gentiles, the tables were turned. It was Paul who had fruit beyond any other apostle.
Saul and Peter
Without disrespecting the boldness or integrity of our apostle Paul in any way, I think he and Luke, when this book was being written, decided to put these examples side-by-side so we could learn from them. Saul approached Judaism one way, and Peter another. Saul had one type of reaction and Peter another. Among Gentiles, Saul had wonderful fruitfulness, but among his own people, in a culture initially resistant to the gospel, he had a very predictable response: a few souls and an angry mob.
As America changes, Peter shows us how to deal with a hardening culture. His fruitfulness among the same group of people that would have tried to kill Saul was breathtaking: whole communities of conservative Jews turned to Jesus. But lets remember Peter didnt develop this style of ministry. He didnt invent a better way. He just continued to do what Jesus did.
Watching Jesus (Mt 9:18-35)
What we read here is very similar to what Peter did, or maybe we should say what Peter did was very similar to what Jesus did. The events and the results are almost interchangeable.
Divine appointments, Miracle, Explanation: I did this!, People-movement to Christ, Move on
Seeing the harvest (Mt 9:36-10:1)
Two people can look at the same situation and come up with two different conclusions. When Jesus looked at the people of that day what did He see? It says they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd (v36). Many were sick and demonized, depressed and discouraged, wandering through life with no direction. And when we look at the culture of America today we see the same things. Seeing so many troubled people it would be natural to assume, This is hard ground, nobodys going to come to Jesus here! But if we look at it through Jesus eyes, the situation is exactly the opposite. He looked at that troubled culture and said Look at that plentiful harvest! So many desperate people! There arent nearly enough workers to reach them all! And then He sent out some workers, and listen to what He told them to do: Mt 10:1, 7, 8. And years later, Peter was still doing that.
Felt needs and spiritual needs
Jesus showed us how to reach a hostile culture. Hostility to God produces distressed, dispirited, spiritually leaderless people. Jesus generally started with the needs people knew they had, and then after they saw God meet those needs their heart might open to talk about their spiritual needs.
Saul confronted people with the truth and then argued from scripture to prove his point, and would win the argument. But that didnt mean he won the person. Is there a place for this type of confrontation? Yes, but frankly it should be used carefully because it will glean a few souls who are ready to hear, but it leaves many angry. I think thats because it makes people choose too quickly, and when they do they choose on the basis of loyalties, personal pride, or even a misunderstanding of what was said. Its often a flesh response. Answered prayer, however, confronts people with Gods love and power. Choices are made based on thankfulness and amazement at the reality of God. No one has to argue that Jesus is real anymore. The question now is, Will I surrender to Him? Its a heart response.
Reaching our culture
So how will we reach our changing culture? In years past Sauls approach often worked. People would fall under conviction and come back to God. But in many areas that spiritual season has passed. Thankfully the Lord has shown us how to reach a resistant culture like ours
and so has Peter. We, too, need to rely on:
1) Divine appointments: we need to spend time listening to God and letting Him guide us.
No we wont all have to raise the dead, but frankly all types of answered prayer have a profound effect.
Simply offering to pray for someone can start the process.
See, I told you He loved you!
Let me tell you what Jesus did for me.
4) Pastor til strong: take to church, give a Bible, encourage to be water baptized, and baptized in the Holy Spirit.
Look around. The harvest is plentiful!
1) Whats the most amazing answer to prayer you have ever had? Please tell us what happened.
2) Have you ever had a divine appointment? What happened?