Throughout the church’s history, there have been efforts to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. In the mid-1500s, during the reign of Queen Mary of England, she orchestrated the execution of over 300 Christians, thus inheriting the nickname, “Bloody Mary.” More recent persecution of Christians.
But there is one thing that these assaults on the church have in common-- none of them were able to abolish the church of Jesus Christ.
This passage in Acts 8:1-13 records another Satanic attempt to crush the church that has the opposite effect. It is a record of how God advanced the gospel in a crisis.
54 Now when they heard this, they were (BY)cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. 55 But being (BZ)full of the Holy Spirit, he (CA)gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing (CB)at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Behold, I see the (CC)heavens opened up and (CD)the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. 58 When they had (CE)driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and (CF)the witnesses (CG)laid aside their robes at the feet of (CH)a young man named Saul. 59 They went on stoning Stephen as he (CI)called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then (CJ)falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, (CK)do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he [ag](CL)fell asleep.
Chs. 6-7 (see handwritten notes)
Saul before the Council just like Jesus (on the night of His betrayal) and the apostles (chs.4-5).
I. How Persecution Threatened to Crush the Church
1 SAUL WAS IN HEARTY AGREEMENT WITH PUTTING HIM TO DEATH. AND ON THAT DAY A GREAT PERSECUTION BEGAN AGAINST THE CHURCH IN JERUSALEM, AND THEY WERE ALL SCATTERED THROUGHOUT THE REGIONS OF JUDEA AND SAMARIA, EXCEPT THE APOSTLES. 2 SOME DEVOUT MEN BURIED STEPHEN, AND MADE LOUD LAMENTATION OVER HIM.
Saul, then a Pharisee and enemy of Christ, the one who is later identified as Paul (Acts13:9), launched a persecution against the early church. This is Saul before his conversion to Christ (Acts 9). Later, the Lord would appoint Saul as His chosen instrument to bear Christ's name to the Jews, Gentiles and kings. But before then, as Stephen’s blood was being shed, SAUL was standing by approving and consenting to this hate-filled execution (Acts 22:20). He stood by watching the coats of those who three the stones without interrupting. This is a window into Saul’s wicked and murderous hatred for Jesus Christ and His church. Saul is like the the ones thrusting the stones.
On the same day of Stephen's stoning, Satan unleashed a campaign to stamp out the church of Jesus Christ. By the way, this was not the first persecution against believers. In Acts 4 and 5, the apostles had been arrested, tried, threatened, and beaten for preaching Christ and defying the religious authorities; however they determined to keep preaching (4:18-20; 5:27-29, 40-42). Now in chapter 8, this was a campaign by Saul to arrest, punish, and destroy the church (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Galatians 1:13).
Now just imagine yourself a young Christian. You've renounced your former way of life and religion, and then just days later the local government orders soldiers to seize, arrest, and punish you and everybody else like you because it is illegal to follow Christ.
What is so incredible about Acts 8:2 is not the persecution and not that the believers scattered, but where they scattered to: THROUGHOUT THE REGIONS OF JUDEA AND SAMARIA. It was back in chapter one, verse 8 that Jesus predicted the disciples would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria. So, these believers fled to the same regions where Christ said His apostles were to testify of Him. However, in this case, the apostles remained in Jerusalem.
After Stephen's death a homegoing service of sorts took place. Devout members of the church buried Stephen and cried out in deep sorrow. Remember, Stephen had an honorable testimony among the believers and he also was servant in the church (Acts 6:3). And now the life of this servant had been merciless cut off. But there’s not much time for mourning and remembrance:
3 BUT SAUL BEGAN RAVAGING THE CHURCH, ENTERING HOUSE AFTER HOUSE, AND DRAGGING OFF MEN AND WOMEN, HE WOULD PUT THEM IN PRISON.
Saul, the aggressor, unleashes an ALL OUT WAR against the church, but what he was really doing was persecuting the Lord Himself (Acts 9:4-5; 22:7). Saul is ruthless, full hatred and rage (26:9) was continually ravaging and destroying the church. How so? By relentlessly entering Christian houses arresting probably families of believers, both men and women, delivering them to prison so they could stand trial and be executed. According to chapter 26, Saul not only locked up Christians in prisons, but also, when they were being put to death, he cast his vote against them. Also, as he punished the Christians in the synagogues he tried to force them to blaspheme Christ.
This is the first organized persecution of the church. Since then, there’s been Nero, the Roman emperor (AD 54 to 68), who many Romans believed instigated the Great Fire of Rome to clear the way for his planned palace complex. Many believed that to cover up his crime he accused Christians as scapegoats, and subsequently, had them burned alive. Prior to this, in Acts 8, we see how persecution threatened to crush the church.
But let us see how in spite of the movement:
II. How God Advanced the Gospel in a Crisis
4 THEREFORE, THOSE WHO HAD BEEN SCATTERED WENT ABOUT PREACHING THE WORD.
As a consequence of persecution, believers at Jerusalem, who avoided imprisonment and were being scattered, didn’t remain silent. Some commentators believe that the Hellenistic believers were persecuted. As they were scattered, they penetrated new territories continually preaching the Word. The Spirit of God providentially moved upon these Christians to flood new areas with the Word. God used persecution to force the church out of Jerusalem and into Gentile areas to evangelize the nations! Nothing, not even a movement against the church could extinguish the proclamation of the gospel.
The irony is that persecution was intended to crush the church and gospel proclamation. Instead, persecution was the fuse that ignited it. God used persecution as a mechanism to put evangelism into motion. It is as though the message to the early church was there's no time for you grieve over Stephen, there's no time to shelter and hide, get up, go out, and take the gospel to Judea and Samaria. Oh, does the church need a fuse, to ignite the flame of evangelism. The Greek word that is translated here as "preaching" is where we get our English words evangelize and evangelism. It means to announce the good news of God's salvation, the same gospel they heard and received.
I think about the opposition that Paul experienced in Acts 17, which drove him into Athens, Greece, which was not on his missionary itinerary, but it was on God’s. It led to the conversion and accompaniment of a few Greeks (v.34).
Brothers and sisters, we have to be in tune to the fact that what we may perceive as an obstacle or deterrent to evangelism can be what God has presented as providential opportunity. On face value, verse 4 seems illogical, irrational. The seemingly wise thing to do wouldn’t be to preach the Word, especially after what they heard what happened to Stephen. Conventional wisdom would say, “Don’t do anything that will invite more persecution. Don’t go opening your mouths anywhere; instead, lay low, keep a low profile, sort of blend in, and keep quiet.” Sadly, that describes many in the church today, absent of persecution.
So the early church was being scattered not only for its preservation, but for the purpose of gospel proclamation. This continued in the rest of chapter 8. The Spirit of God empowered Philip to proclaim Jesus Christ to the Samaritans (vv.5-13), followed by the apostles' arrival and laying on of hands that they receive the Holy Spirit (vv.14-17), and Philip's preaching of Jesus to the Ethiopian, followed by his conversion (vv.25-40).
There are many takeaways from Acts 8:1-4:
This passage illustrates God's sovereignty over Satan's attempts to crush the church. God ultimately protected the church from extermination by removing it out of immediate danger.
Secondly, it shows that what would appear to crush the church God used to ignite gospel proclamation. God used a crisis of persecution to move believers out of Jerusalem in order to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Moreover, the believers took the Word to the Samaritans, people with whom they previously had cultural and theological tensions. We can't help but think of our Savior's providential meeting with the Samaritan woman (John 4).
Next, related to the previous point, what we read in verse one is a preview to the apostles' arrival as predicted in Christ's declaration (Acts 1:8). The believers scattered into Samaria and Judea (8:4), which prepared the way for the apostles' arrival. Philip's preaching in Samaria (vv.5-13) preceded the apostles' arrival, prayer, and laying on of hands for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit (vv.15, 17) and additional Samaritan evangelization (v.25). By the time we get to
Finally, we are reminded of Christ's promise that the gates of Hades will not overpower His church (Matthew 16:18). In fact, the time we near the end of chapter nine, we read that THE CHURCH THROUGHOUT ALL JUDEA AND GALILEE AND SAMARIA ENJOYED PEACE, BEING BUILT UP; AND GOING ON IN THE FEAR OF THE LORD AND IN THE COMFORT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, IT CONTINUED TO INCREASE (v.31). In fact, we read how members of the Jerusalem church, undeterred, went to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to Jews (11:19). Again, Christ preserves and multiplies His church and there's nothing Satan can do to stop it.
I recognize that the crisis facing the American church is not one of overt, physical persecution or threat. Instead, in many respects, the church is experiencing a crisis of silence. The crisis is the absence of Christian voices to speak gospel truth to the present age. By God's grace, may we seize the moment and redeem the time to proclaim the gospel, trusting that God can advance the gospel even in a crisis.