What a wonderful day Easter was. Wonderful for us as we celebrated the fact Jesus is the Risen Savior, available even now to help us through all we experience, both difficult and good. Wonderful for the followers of Jesus 2000 years ago as they prepared to serve the Risen Savior in their day and age.
It is what the followers of Jesus did shortly after His resurrection we will think about in this message, beginning with something that happened a few weeks following the first Easter. For that, Matthew 28, starting with verse 16.
To set the stage, remember that on the first Easter morning, the disciples were given a message that Jesus, who had risen from the dead, wanted to meet with them in Galilee. Jesus had been crucified and buried in Judea, which was the southern part of Israel. The meeting was to be in Galilee, which was the northern part of the country.
A few weeks later, it was time for the meeting. In obedience to what Jesus had said, the disciples traveled from where they were to where the meeting was to be held.
That is amazing because it was still close to the time Jesus had suffered horribly. There must have still been the fear among Jesus’ followers that they, too, might be mistreated. However, the disciples were willing to risk being seen in public. They did head north to Galilee.
Matthew 28, starting with verse 16. The eleven disciples - remember there had been twelve disciples, but Judas Iscariot, after betraying Jesus, had killed himself, which left eleven disciples - went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus directed them.
When they arrived, they saw Jesus. They had seen Him before, including the evening of Easter and a few more times later. Now the disciples saw Jesus again.
Seeing Him, they worshiped Him, though some, it is recorded, doubted. That is interesting, is it not? I mean, the disciples had seen Jesus. They had heard Him talk and had watched Him eat. They had touched Him. It should have been obvious He really had risen and was alive again, but some doubted.
What a comforting word. Comfort for any of us who might sometime have a doubt or two flash through our minds. Doubts must not last. As we will see, they did not last for the eleven disciples. But doubts came, even for the disciples.
That day, Jesus had some messages for the disciples.
First, all authority in Heaven and on earth had been given to Him. That was confirmation there was no one anywhere who had or has the power and importance of Jesus. It is confirmation that His word on anything and everything was and is the final word of truth.
Second, the disciples were to go and make new disciples of all nations. Making disciples begins with leading others to believing in Jesus, but there is more, including, Jesus said, baptizing the new believers and teaching them all that Jesus had said and done.
“All nations” is important. As that is worded in the Book of Acts, all nations include Jerusalem, from where the disciples had come. For us, that is our own hometowns. And Judea, which was the area around Jerusalem. For us, that is our state. And Samaria, which was the area between Judea and Galilee where unpopular, unacceptable people lived. For us, that refers to people around us who are down-and-outers. And to the end of the earth, which are all the other countries of the world.
A few weeks following Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the disciples were told by Jesus that He expected them to go out to all the world - the nearby parts and far distant parts of the world - and make disciples. What a scary thought that must have been, especially since there still was a feeling of fear in those who were known as having been followers of Jesus.
But listen to Jesus’ third message to them. Remember the authority He stated He had. That fits in with the promise He gave the disciples. Jesus said, “Lo, I [the one with all authority everywhere] am with You.” How long? “Always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus met with His disciples, instructing them to be ministers for Him anywhere and everywhere. Did they do what Jesus instructed them to do? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Which takes us to the first chapter of Acts, where we learn of the significant start the disciples had to their ministries. The start was prayer.
Acts 1, starting with verse 12. Back in Jerusalem, the eleven disciples gathered in an upper room they used from time to time. Earlier, right after the crucifixion, they had been afraid in that room, but after having had the meeting with Jesus in Galilee, their mood was more directed toward prayer. Fervent prayer. They, with one accord, devoted themselves to prayer.
There were some others there as well. Some women and some of Jesus’ natural brothers. But together they spent time and energy praying. I assume they prayed for greater belief and for the strength to be more loyal to Jesus than they had been earlier and for the wisdom and discernment they would need to be most effective in making disciples.
The disciples met often for fervent prayer. At one of the prayer meetings, a very wonderful thing happened. The disciples received the Holy Spirit.
With the power of the Holy Spirit in him and the strength that comes from praying, the apostle Peter gave the first recorded sermon, which is the next thing that happened shortly after Jesus’ resurrection.
The sermon is found in Acts 2. There were other sermons Peter gave. The rest of the disciples also preached. But Peter gave the first sermon recorded.
How interesting that Peter gave the first sermon. Interesting because, we remember, when Jesus had been on trial the night before His crucifixion, Peter had denied Jesus, doing so three times. The last denial had included a curse on himself if he was lying about not being a follower of Jesus. It was a lie, so Peter, according to his own words, deserved eternal condemnation.
But Jesus had forgiven Peter. Peter’s response included being the giver of the first recorded sermon.
The sermon was powerful. In it, Peter taught about Jesus, proving He was and is the Risen Savior. In the sermon, Peter also encouraged - he invited - he challenged - those who heard it to come to believe in Jesus as the Savior who had risen from the dead.
Listen to how effective Peter’s sermon was. Those who heeded the challenge and did accept Jesus, doing so that very day, numbered about 3000 people.
And listen to this. The acceptance was not in word only. Those who believed in Jesus were baptized. That allowed the disciples to do what Jesus had instructed them to do when He met with them in Galilee. And they began that day to continue to learn about Jesus and eat together and pray together.
It could be assumed that with such early success, the lives of the apostles would have been easy from that point on. However, such was not the case.
One example of that is recorded in chapter 4 of Acts. It came after another of Peter’s sermons. Another very effective sermon, that one resulting in about 5000 men becoming believers in Jesus. Assuming some women and children also responded, the total number could have been at least double that 5000.
Right before that sermon, Peter, and John with him, healed a man who had been lame from birth. The healing had been instantaneous and complete. For the first time in his life, the man’s feet and ankles were strong and he could not only walk, but also leap - and land safely. It was the crowd attracted to the miracle to whom Peter preached.
Unfortunately, the healing of the man, which had come in the name of Jesus, and what Peter preached, which was that Jesus was and is the Savior, annoyed some of the Jewish leaders, who had Peter and John arrested.
The next day, Peter and John were brought before the leaders to explain themselves. Their explanation was that indeed the healing had been in the name and power of Jesus who, Peter reminded the leaders, had been killed at their hands.
The implication was that those leaders should repent for their part in Jesus’ death. The statement that ended the explanation was this. “There is salvation from sin in no one else” - not the Jewish faith and not all the rules and regulations the Jewish faith taught - salvation comes in no one and nothing else but Jesus for, Peter proclaimed, “There is no other name under Heaven [no name but Jesus] by which we can be saved.”
The religious leaders were very upset by the healing of the lame man being done in Jesus’ name and by what they heard from Peter. They wanted to take action against Peter and John. So, after turning away, they talked over what to do.
Of course, they admitted, the man had been healed. That had attracted several people to Jesus. How could they deny what was clearly evident? But they still wanted to silence Peter and John.
Their decision was this. They would not physically hurt the two disciples, but the leaders would instruct them to stop speaking and teaching about Jesus.
With that decision, they turned back to Peter and John. They ordered them to never speak of Jesus again. Which brought an interesting response. Peter and John answered, “We do not know if it is right to listen to you or to God, but we do know we cannot do anything but speak of what we have seen and heard from Jesus.” That is what they had to do. That is what they would do.
Remember Peter, the night of Jesus’ trials, had denied Jesus. Three times he had failed in that way. Remember that after Jesus’ resurrection, He had offered Peter a second chance. How amazingly Peter took advantage of that second chance. The chance to do better. By the time of Acts 4, Peter was afraid of no one. He promised to continue to boldly preach for Jesus, even when warned to not do so.
In Acts 6, we are introduced to Stephen. A man described as being of good reputation, filled with faith, wisdom, and the Holy Spirit. We first hear of him when he was one of the men chosen by the disciples to serve widows in the early Christian church in Jerusalem. Such serving was designed to free the disciples to have more time for preaching.
Serving widows was Stephen’s first role in leadership. However, as important as serving widows was, his role soon expanded as he began doing wonders and signs, of course in the name of Jesus, meaning it was Jesus’ power, not his own, that was on display.
Stephen then began to be known for very powerful preaching. Very direct preaching. In a sermon recorded in Acts 7, Stephen pointed out to common Jews and Jewish leaders who had gathered and were listening to him that they had a whole history of resisting the Holy Spirit. That, he said, had gone on since early Old Testament times, and, Stephen added, it was continuing. He called the Jews “stiff-necked,” still resisting the Holy Spirit, that seen in their part of having Jesus killed and even that day not accepting Jesus as the Savior He was.
What Stephen preached was true, but the Jews who heard him did not like what he said. In fact, they were enraged. So much so they cried out, trying to drown him out. They stopped their ears so they could not hear him over their crying out. They rushed to him, grabbed him, and threw him out of the city. They then stoned Stephen.
Stephen got a few words in right before he died. He said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” which is very similar to the prayer Jesus spoke as He neared death on a cross, which is proof Stephen was a devout follower of Jesus. He had the same attitude as Jesus.
Right after saying that prayer, a big enough stone hit Stephen that he died. It was right about that time we are introduced to yet another person, that one named Saul. It was Saul who watched the garments of those who did the stoning, thereby showing his approval of what was happening to Stephen. When Stephen died, Saul - this is verse 1 of Acts 8 - consented to his death. He expressed his approval of what had happened to Stephen, who was a devout follower of Jesus.
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Saul, who over time came to be called Paul, was at that time a very bold, dedicated, effective enemy of the followers of Jesus. A very violent enemy of Christians. In fact, shortly after Stephen’s death, Saul himself sought Christians in and around Jerusalem, going so far as entering houses in search of followers of Jesus. Any he found, men and women alike, he dragged off and committed to prison where they would either renounce their Christian faith or be held prisoner or killed.
So strong was Saul’s hatred of Christians that he asked for and received permission to leave Jerusalem and head north to Damascus in Syria and search for followers of Jesus there.
It is there we will pick up the report next Sunday, when we will do two things. We will consider what happened to Saul that converted him from an enemy of Christians to a minister for Jesus and we will begin a series of messages based on Philippians, one of the New Testament books written by Saul who became Paul.
For today, may we know that what Jesus told His disciples in Galilee to do, which was to go and make disciples, is a challenge He has for us as well.
May we know that as Jesus promised to be with His disciples back then, so He promises to be with us as we make disciples.
As the disciples devoted themselves to prayer, may we do the same.
As Peter, John, and Stephen were not afraid to share Jesus with others, may we be brave, even when doing so will get us in trouble.
As Peter and John were, may we be determined to have the need to tell of Jesus.
As Stephen was willing to pray for his enemies, may be do the same.
In all those ways, the true meaning of Easter will continue.
The closing song for today is a hymn that reminds us what Jesus instructed His disciples to do. The hymn reminds us we are to tell the nations about Him. Let’s remember that “nations” refers to all nations, including our own, and may we remember that according to what Jesus said, telling others about Him includes baptizing them and teaching them.
Two verses of We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.
We’ve a story to tell to the nations
That shall turn their hearts to the right,
A story of truth and mercy,
A story of peace and light,
A story of peace and light.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
And the dawn to noonday bright,
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
The kingdom of love and light.
We’ve a message to give to the nations -
That the Lord who reigneth above
Has sent us His sone to save us
And show us that God is love,
And show us that God is love.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
And the dawn to noonday bright,
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
The kingdom of love and light.
Lord, what a marvelous fact that Your resurrection was not the end, but rather a new beginning. A beginning that continues even now as we have the privilege of making disciples, using Your authority and presence to do so, as we have the privilege of being devoted to prayer, including praying that we will be brave when we tell others about You. Brave enough to pray for those who oppose us.
Thank You, Jesus, for the privilege of working for You. Amen.