Future Sift

For every Gospel action, there is an opposite and devious demonic reaction. We see this in the book of Acts. It appears in church history. We experience it in our personal journeys.

The Gospel revolution began with the Spirit-empowered resurrection witnesses on the Day of Pentecost. Thousands were converted, baptized, and enfolded in a matter of hours. In the following days, thousands more would convert. But Satan did not roll over. He reloaded. In chapter four, he attacked via persecution. Peter and John were seized, threatened, and told to cease their Gospel preaching endeavors (Acts 4:1-22). In chapter five, the enemy attacked through corruption, motivating Ananias and Sapphira to lie about their giving (Acts 5:1-11). Later in chapter five, another wave of persecution struck. This time the apostles were arrested, threatened, and beaten (Acts 5:17-40). Then, in chapter six, a more subtle snare emerged as the enemy sought to promote division and distraction. Disunity between the Greek and Hebrew-speaking widows was surfacing. Interference was lurking as the apostles were required to address the administrative breakdown that could lead to break up (Acts 6:1).

So the Acts 6:7 spiritual resurgence (the spread of the word, disciples multiplying greatly, and even Jewish priests being converted) arose in the fray of relentless spiritual counterattack. Persecution by the Jewish authorities was dogging the apostles at every turn. Prohibitions against preaching the Gospel were enforced. The Jewish leaders had jailed the apostles and would soon launch a movement of martyrdom, starting in chapter seven with Stephen’s death by stoning.

Opposition at the Highest Levels

Politically, the government was anything but conservative or faith-friendly. We know that the Roman Empire was ruled by blood-thirsty leaders who were womanizers and commonly married multiple times. These rulers were worshiped as gods, some having their own temples erected in their honor. They touted a society of religious tolerance but would soon lower the hammer on Christians who worshiped only one God and Savior – Jesus Christ. John MacArthur described the culture in these words: “It was brutal, totally pagan, and openly anti-Christian. There was no affirmation of morality or any sort of cultural Christianity. Early believers were aliens to everything in society.”[1]

Posthaste, Christians became despised and labeled as obstructionists to the prevailing religion and irreligion of the day. In this environment, Christians were branded as antisocial for not participating in the pagan norms of their communities. They were dubbed as contrary to the spiritual atmosphere of the day because they refused to worship the Roman gods. In time, they were classified as dangerous because the prevailing belief was that the “gods” were upset with those who refused to worship pagan-style. It was believed that their Christian views were bringing a divine judgment upon the empire.

More Pressure – More Power

By the end of the second century, the Christian apologist Tertullian complained about this widespread perception: “They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lions!’” [2]

Nero, who ruled in the second half of the first century, distinguished himself by dipping the martyred bodies of Christians in oil and using them as torches to light his royal courtyards. We’ve all heard the accounts of his burning Rome, then blaming the Christians to justify blatant persecution that even featured believers in the Coliseum, eaten alive by wild animals before a frenzied crowd.

I believe we could conclude that the revival of Acts 6 was the impetus to the increased persecution. The incredible power of the Gospel became a threat to the Judaism of the day and to the larger Roman society. At the same time, this revival served as preparation for the coming oppression, providing supernatural grace, transcendent resolve, and staunch boldness that would turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

A Preparatory Revival?

Without question, we too are in need of a momentous Acts 6 movement. I also cannot help but wonder if this will be the ultimate preparation for a coming sifting of the church. In all likelihood, a revival will advance the supernatural spread of the Gospel but will also fast-track the inevitable showdown between an intolerant culture and the truth of Jesus Christ.

Our real need is not to be “relevant” through new self-styled efforts to morph into a more palatable version of faith. Our need is to be revived in the New Testament essence of genuine faith that will answer a hostile and wary culture with a manifestation of all that makes Christianity unique and triumphant – the power of the Gospel, lived and proclaimed in supernatural power.

With 2,000 years of church history behind us we have a reliable trail of evidence of the rise and fall of Christianity. We know that persecution has been and still is a paramount reality in today’s world. Open Doors, an excellent ministry that exists to serve persecuted Christians around the world, warns that each month 322 Christians are killed for their faith, 215 churches and Christian properties are destroyed, and 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians (such as beatings, abductions, rapes, arrests, and forced marriages). Riveting.

America Immune?

To think that America is immune is naïve and the precursor to a dangerous apathy. As John MacArthur has noted, “Religious liberty isn’t promised to Christians… Persecution is .”[3] My friend Brett O’Donnell, who works for a variety of national and state political candidates, has his finger on the pulse of the culture as well as anyone I know. As we shared a recent dinner, he stated, “Daniel, your grandchildren will be the first generation to grow up in a society where being a Christian and being an American citizen is no longer compatible.”

To “sift” means “to separate by or as if by a sieve; to examine or question closely; to isolate that which is most important or useful.” [4] I believe a sifting is coming. This is a reality that will separate true Gospel ministry from empty, socially-acceptable Christian religion. A result could very well be the shedding of all things superficial and peripheral. This may well mark the return to very basic, Spirit-dependent, prayer-energized, and Gospel-propelled ministry, irrespective of programs, budgets, and facilities.

The suspicion and hostility within the present culture is growing like suffocating kudzu vine engulfing a grove of Georgia trees. As I write, the nation is watching Christians being fined and even jailed for not complying with the mainstream establishment of gay marriage. Believers in a biblical view of marriage are being labeled as “homophobic” by the highest political leaders in the land. The entertainment industry is celebrating all forms of immorality and debauchery in award-winning movies and songs. People who do not embrace this new day are now postured as the misfits and antebellum weirdos.

Already, Christian schools are being threatened to comply with the normalization of unbiblical lifestyles in the official documents of the institution or risk losing accreditation and government-sponsored loans for their students. Many leaders are convinced that the day is approaching quickly when tax-deductible giving to Gospel-rooted churches and Christian organizations will be taken away. When the government decides to tax churches for their land and buildings, the large facility–dependent, program-driven mega-ministries will likely falter.

A Hopeful Preparation

The best preparation for the future sifting is a return to the realities that gave early church leaders a transcendent faith and extraordinary impact. I have personally witnessed this kind of devotion on multiple occasions within the house churches of China, where the greatest current-day revival and advancement of Christianity has occurred under the oppression of a Communist government. With no facilities, no social media, no large programs, Christianity has flourished. Ministry in China is led by humble Acts 6:4 leaders and the people are doing one-another ministry reminiscent of the New Testament. Old paths. New power.

Back here at home, with all the training, technology, wealth, talent, and unprecedented opportunities we now have at our disposal, we are losing ground. So the sifting has begun. In all likelihood, it will become more focused and intense. Fortunately, the old paths of leadership seen in the book of Acts are still able to result in new power to face the challenges of ministry in a post-Christian culture. It is time to experience a truly transforming ministry approach as we make the next new thing the first old thing.


This devotion is adapted from the new book, Old Paths, New Power – Awakening Your Church through Prayer and the Ministry of the Word, set for release by Moody Publishers on June 7, 2016. DOWNLOAD A FREE EXCERPT here: http://www.strategicrenewal.com/old-paths-new-power/

Copyright © 2016 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.    


[1] http://www.gty.org/connect/johns-desk

[2] Bart D. Ehrman, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament (Oxford University Press 2004 ISBN 978-0-19-536934-2), pp. 313–314

[3] John F. MacArthur, We Will Not Bow, A sermon preached at Grace Community Church, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRTqw9g0sg4&safe=active

[4] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sift