Greear at SBTS chapel: Gospel goes to the nations through ‘ordinary people’
The gospel needs to spread throughout the world through ordinary people, just like it did in the book of Acts, said J.D. Greear during chapel at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, March 26.
Greear, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, used the example of Stephen in Acts 6-7 to bring this point home, arguing that the blueprint for the spread of Christianity was 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, who is also pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, and previously worked for the International Mission Board, the missions organization of the SBC. “His Plan A is raising up ordinary people in the power of the Spirit and sending them out.”
Stephen was not an apostle or elder in the early church. In fact, before he was appointed as a deacon in Acts 6, Stephen was a “ordinary guy,” Greear said, and even his deaconship was intended to be supporting role. He was one of several men selected in Acts 6 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 his story marked a turning point in the Book of Acts and all redemptive history.
Stephen did his job so well that it got the attention of the angry Jewish religious establishment, who began to discredit him. In Acts 7, the bring him before the Sanhedrin for questioning, where he delivers the longest and most comprehensive sermon in Acts. He traces Israel’s history in great detail and shows from the Scriptures how the entire Hebrew Bible is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Even more angry than before, the Jewish leaders drag him outside and stone him to death.
This moment inspires a brand new age in the expansion of the gospel message, Greear said. While 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. And God wants to use ordinary people today like he used Stephen in Acts.
“Not a single apostle is involved in the story. Not one,” he 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 is not self-confidence or positive thinking. It is the presence and empowerment of the Holy Spirit in their lives, Greear said. One of the most surprising verses in the New Testament is John 16:7, in which Jesus tells his disciples that it is “to [their] advantage” that he leaves earth and sends 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” (Matt 11:11), if they experience the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
“What makes Stephen remarkable is his confidence — a confidence he apparently gained from an awareness of the fulness of the Spirit within him,” he 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.”
Of course, Stephen’s story does not end happily, at least not 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 stone him to death. In his dying moments, Stephen alludes to Jesus’ final words and makes it clear that he sees himself as a sacrifice for others. Even if ministry doesn’t call us to give our lives, it often does require similar sacrifices, Greear said. This is a difficult lesson to learn in comfortable American culture.
“We like to talk a lot about how coming to Jesus brings peace and fulfillment into our lives, and that’s all true,” he 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 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.”
You can watch all of Greear’s sermon at Southern Equip.