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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Sowing the Seeds of (God's) Love


“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went." Acts 8:4

It’s a changing of the seasons in more ways than one. We are finally leaving Acts 7 and entering Acts 8. This coincides with the autumn equinox this last Friday. We are leaving summer, and entering Samaria. Autumn is just about here and the leaves are starting to fall… again. I say, ‘again’ because a lot of leaves fell several weeks ago, following a prolonged period of dry weather, and some really hot temperatures. Some of you probably observed this strange phenomenon. I noticed it particularly when riding on one of the local bridleways to work. It was really odd to hear the crunching underfoot, or under-wheel, from the carpet of yellow oak leaves on the ground, in the first half of August. Thankfully, the internet provided an explanation, given by Leigh Hunt from the Royal Horticultural Society. Apparently, we experienced a ‘false autumn’.

This happens when the trees are stressed by those two conditions - extreme heat and drought. They go into survival mode, letting go of damaged leaves in an attempt to preserve the rest of the tree. Mr Hunt said that in all his 45 years’ experience, this is one of the most severe years he's seen in terms of damage to trees in the countryside. Some trees will not make it. They will wither and begin to die. But what they then do is really interesting. In such circumstances, trees may react by producing more seeds - for instance, acorns - in an attempt to reproduce and survive into the future. The parent plant may not live, but its offspring may take root and continue life in the changed conditions of a subsequent season. I think we see something very similar in the dying moments of Stephen. Even though his life is ebbing away, he continues to sow seeds for the future growth of Christ’s kingdom.

As we have seen in past weeks, Stephen has not held back in confronting the erroneous, religious beliefs of those that had accused him of ‘blasphemous words’ (Acts 6:11). Some of the time when we confront others, our chief concern can be simply to prevail – to look good – to win the argument. We may have even thought that there was something of this in what Stephen has said. But that would be to seriously misjudge this faithful man. And the end of Acts 7 reveals this clearly. Stephen’s aim is not to win arguments. Stephen is intent on winning souls for Christ. We have considered before that true relationship with God begins with a change of heart. Stephen wants hearts to change. His earthly service is over, but the continued work of Jesus on earth is set to continue, in a new season of changed conditions for early church history. And Stephen throws out his final seeds.

His third to last uttering is found in Acts 7:56. The majority of those that surrounded him belong to the Jewish sect of the Sadducees. They are fundamentally materialistic. Acts 23:8 informs us of their belief system – there are no angels; no spirits; no such thing as rising from the dead. But Stephen points them to the heavens, in a powerful witness to what he believes, and is now even prepared to die for. They could take away his life on earth, but they weren’t going to take his future with Jesus – ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’

His second to last words (v.59) are a prayer, that again witness to his unwavering faith in the spiritual, and in his sure and certain hope of personal forgiveness of sin - ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’ – In effect, ‘Saviour – I’m coming to live with you.’

How many people must die reflecting on the shortcomings and failures of their lives and what that will mean in the next life? Stephen didn’t. He knew that his sin had been dealt with by Jesus. He was freed up to use his final words to beg God, not for his own forgiveness, which was already secured, but for the forgiveness of others. The final verse of Acts 7 tells us that, ‘he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.’ With these words, Stephen cast his final ‘kingdom’ seed. Because, without a doubt, that prayer was answered, and the effect of God’s answer still influences the thinking of believers, two thousand years later.

Perhaps there were many that observed this faithful-to-the-end death that, in time, had a change of heart. Very soon, the Bible is going to narrow its focus to just one individual. He was called Saul, and we find him in the first verse of chapter 8. He is more commonly referred to as Paul in scripture. He was not a Sadducee. He belonged to another Jewish sect, called the Pharisees. Unlike the Sadducees, he believed in life after death. But he didn’t believe in Jesus. In Acts 8:1, it is Paul’s time. He is emboldened by this wicked act, and his murderous, hating heart leads him on the path of cruel destruction of Jesus followers, which we read of in verse 3. Soon, though, it will be God’s time. In fact, despite how it must have looked to Christians caught up in this terrifying moment, it already is God’s time.

When we get to Acts 9, we will read of what is often referred to as Saul’s Damascus Road conversion. We can read that and think that Saul/Paul was changed in an instant. But that isn’t completely true. Many years later, when Paul tells the story of that day to a king, named Agrippa, he gives an additional detail. Jesus calls out to him from heaven, asking, ‘‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ This is what we read in Acts 9:4. But in Acts 26 we have the record of something else said by Christ, ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads’. This was a proverb familiar to people in that region. A goad was a stick with a pointed piece of iron on its tip used to prod oxen when ploughing. The farmer would prick the animal to steer it in the right direction. Sometimes the animal would rebel by kicking out at the goad, and this would result in it being applied even firmer. What this tells us, is that God was already prodding Saul/Paul. Despite his seemingly unshaken resolve to destroy the church, he was being shaken. His conscience was being pricked. Things were crossing the pathway of his life that were shouting at him, ‘Saul, you’ve got this wrong’. He was kicking out against those voices, trying to shut them up. Nevertheless, they were there. He couldn’t stop them. They were there preparing him for Acts 9. And, of all the things he saw that must have made him question his current mad career, surely the faithful death of this faithful Christ follower called Stephen, and his dying words of love towards his enemies, must have played over and over in Paul’s mind. Perhaps, a seed was planted, that would eventually take root. Certainly, though, if the Lord hadn’t answered Stephen’s dying prayer, then our New Testament, with its 27 books, would be reduced to only 14. How impoverished would we be?

As we move away from Stephen, and into Acts 8, the theme of seeds and sowing will continue. So will the theme of God’s overruling providence. We noticed this providence when we recently considered the lives of Joseph and Moses. Humans can plan with the most evil intent, to try to bring about the most evil result, and the Lord can take hold of that and use it bring about good, and to prosper his own plans (see Genesis 50:20). That is what happens here. We often consider what the converted Apostle Paul did for the Lord, but do we ever consider what he did for Christ’s kingdom before he was converted. He planned to destroy the church. As a result, it was scattered throughout the wider region. Did Paul’s plan work? No. Did God’s plan work? Yes.

It reminds me of an old joke. An elderly farmer writes to his son, who is in prison and tells him, ‘Son, I’m struggling without you here to work alongside me. I’m leaving the top field unplanted this year. I know you would help me prepare it, if you were here, but you aren’t.’ The son writes back. ‘Dad, please don’t touch the top field. That’s where I buried the money I stole.’ The letter is scrutinised by a prison officer, and the next day the field is completely dug over by the police. No money is uncovered. The following day, the farmer receives a further letter from his son. It reads, ‘There you go, Dad. Now plant your potatoes!’

What is amusing about this joke is the way that the son gets one over those on the other side – those who might be thought of as his enemies. By craft, he gets them to do what he wants, even though they think they are doing what they want. I mention it, because that is the situation in Acts 8. In the ‘great persecution’, led by the unregenerate Saul/Paul, he thinks he is doing what he wants, and that the church will be destroyed as a result. But the result is what God wants. The result is a scattering of people, carrying the seed of God’s word with them, ‘throughout Judea and Samaria’. Verses 4 & 5 tell us more – ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.’ This is what Jesus promised would happen.

In Acts 1:8, the recently risen Jesus told his disciples about what was going to occur as his church on earth was established. He told them, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ Note the words used – ‘You will be’. Jesus didn’t say, ‘I’d like you to do this, if the chance arises’. Jesus didn’t tell them, ‘It would be awfully nice if you did’. Jesus said, ‘You will’. He wasn’t so much giving them an instruction. He was telling them what was going to happen. So far, only the Jerusalem bit had happened. Beyond that, nothing much. The church hadn’t yet embarked on this wider mission. God says, in effect, ‘now is my time – now you will’. People are fleeing, into Judea and Samaria. With that fleeing, is flying - the gospel has taken wings. Seeds are being blown on this severe wind of change. They will take root in good, fresh ground and new growth in Christ’s kingdom willbe realised.

This thought reminds me of the Parable of the Sower, which Jesus told, as recorded in three of the gospel accounts. It should do, because there is a genuine connection between, for instance, Matthew 13 and Acts 8. Matthew 13:4 uses the word, ‘scattering’ – ‘A farmer… was scattering the seed’. This connection is even more evident if we compare these passages in the Ancient Greek language that they were originally written in.

We have an English word which is rarely used, but that some of you will have heard of. It’s ‘diaspora’. What does it mean? The Cambridge Dictionary says that it is, ‘a group of people who spread from one original country to other countries, or the act of spreading in this way.’ If you asked Mrs Google, the very first definition she would give you is more specific – it’s ‘the dispersion of the Jewish people beyond Israel.’ This is what is taking place. Jewish people, who had converted to Christ, were being dispersed. But how has ‘diaspora’ come into our language?

In Acts 8:4, we read of the actions of, ‘those who had been scattered’. The four English words, ‘who had been scattered’ are translated from a single Greek word. That word is ‘diaspeirō’. Sound similar to anything? It should do! This Greek word is made up of two parts. They are ‘dia’, which denotes the channel through which an act takes place, which is where we get the ‘who had been’ from in our NIV, and the ‘speirō’, which is where we get the ‘scattered’ from. How does this relate to Matthew 13, and the Parable of the Sower? Well in Matthew 13 where ‘a farmer… was scattering the seed’, the word ‘scattering’, in the original Greek is ‘speirō’. It seems evident, particularly in the original language, that we are to read the scattering of people in Acts 8, as being akin to a casting forth of seed, to bring about new growth on new ground.

Are these events of so long ago relevant to us now? I think so. Some of us have experienced things in the past that have caused us to be scattered - things that should never have taken place. Things that were intensely painful. Things that have moved us. We should look for hope in God’s ability to overrule for good. That hasn’t changed with the passing of time. Would we be here with God’s word this morning, in this village, if our past pathway had been smoother? I suspect the answer is ‘no’. Does God have a purpose for which we are found in Horbury Bridge? I suspect the answer is ‘yes’.

I once purchased a box of mixed grass seed and nutrients, to reseed my lawn where there was little growth. The contents had evidently become settled over time so, as per the instructions, I shook the box before scattering the seed. The results were pleasing to me. Sometimes, I think the Lord does this with his church. We become too settled, and he has to shake us up, to make us ready to go out into a new mission field.

So, this new mission field in Acts 8 - what is Samaria? Who were the Samaritans? This race of people began around 721BC, after the Assyrian captivity of the ten tribes that made up the Kingdom of Northern Israel. It is described in 2 Kings 17. The land is re-populated by people from various other nations before certain Israelites return and intermarry. This new group becomes the Samaritans. They are, kind of, a half-Jew, half non-Jew (or Gentile) make-up. They have their own version of selected Old Testament scriptures and their religion is a perversion of true Judaism.

The Jews of the Southern Kingdom, which included Judah and its capital Jerusalem, considered themselves to be the only remaining line of pure Israelites. They considered themselves to be specially, singularly, chosen by God. They almost had a magical status compared to all others. If I can put it into Harry Potter speak – They were the magical people – the ‘pure bloods’. The non-Jews, or Gentiles, were like ‘muggles’, completely non-special people. The Jews despised them. But there was a race that they despised even more – that was the ‘half-bloods’. They considered the Samaritans to be the worst, half-blood, type of creature. Their blood line contained a mix of Israel’s ‘magic’, adulterated with Gentile ordinariness, which made them the lowest of the low. This attitude had contributed to the years of increasing mutual suspicion, and is the mindset which prevails when the Gospel accounts open in the New Testament.

This is clearly seen, in John 4, in the record of the opening words of the very surprised Samaritan women that Jesus spoke to by the well. Jesus went totally against the culture of the day, and ‘the Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?(For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)’ Later on in this conversation, during a discussion about the Jews claim that the temple in Jerusalem was the only place to worship God and the Samaritans differing claim that the correct place was somewhere else, Jesus said something even more counter-cultural than before. He was proclaiming the start of Christ’s true Kingdom. ‘Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.’

This chimes with another parable of Jesus which, again, went against the prejudice of those around him. It’s the Parable of The Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37. Jesus had been asked a question about what the Jewish, Old Testament, Law really meant when it commanded people to be genuinely loving and neighbourly. In the parable, a Jewish man has been mugged and beaten and left for dead by a vicious gang of thugs. He needs help. Two religious Jews, who therefore should have been neighbourly, pretend not to notice his plight and disappear into the distance. Then a Samaritan comes. He doesn’t see a Jewish man on the floor, who probably would have despised the Samaritan if he hadn’t been so desperate. He just sees a fellow human in trouble and acts accordingly. After the parable, Jesus poses a question. The answer is self-evident. In effect, he asks, ‘who was correct in God’s sight – those who were born in the right place, but whose hearts are in the wrong place, or him who was born in the wrong place, but whose heart is where it should be?’

Unlike those around him, Jesus embraced all, without these prejudices. Some of his followers were going to have to overcome their own prejudices in order to carry God’s truth out into the wider world. One of them is John, who is mentioned in Acts 8. We’ll consider him next time. Another is Philip. He seems to have oh-so-quickly understood what Jesus requires of those that follow him. Verse 5 says, ‘Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.’ What was this Jewish convert thinking of? If ‘Jews do not associate with Samaritans’, then what business did he have in a Samaritan city. Philip was in the Jesus business now, as (v.12) ‘he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ’. Prejudice was a barrier that he had tossed to one side. The result? Verse 8, says, ‘… there was great joy in that city.’

As we seek to bring the gospel into what is a new place for us, may the same be true for many that live here. And may the prayer of the converted Apostle Paul, found in Romans 15:13, be answered for us all – ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’


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