Acts 8:1-8

the-persecuted-churchActs 8

1 And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. 4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city.

Last year, Candida Moss published a controversial book entitled The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.  As the title suggests, Moss argues that the alleged persecution of the early Christians was greatly exaggerated and has been greatly overplayed.  This plays well into charges that modern Christians are also exaggerating claims of present-day persecution.

The book has been taken apart by more than a few critics, but Michael Bird has offered one of the more insightful and powerful responses to Candida Moss.

I’ve taught Christians from persecuted churches in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sudan, China, and Egypt. Persecution is no myth. These Christians, average men and women like you and I, have either seen or experienced some of the most unspeakable and inhumane evils one could mention. There is no myth here, only a cold and brutal evil that is faced by innocents.

Moss is obviously a religious academic superstar in the making…The Yanks will love her pommy accent. However, I can’t help but think that a few weeks visiting churches in Juba, Karcachi, Alexandria, or Lebanon might give her some life experience to better inform her own career for a life in academics and the media. It’s one thing to write about the myth of persecution from the safety of a professorial chair with minions chanting for more tweets to bash the religious right; but it might be a harder myth to perpetuate after listening to a mother in Juba telling you what a Muslim mob did to her eighteen-month year old son.[1]

Michael Bird has a point, and one that should be heeded by those who would deny the reality of the persecution of the Church throughout the ages.  The fact is that people of God have been attacked from the very beginning, and they are being attacked in our day as well.  One of the sobering but encouraging insights of the books of Acts is how the Church, though persecuted, stayed faithful to its task of bearing witness to the risen Christ.  We may see that truth in our text today.

The murder of Stephen created opposite reactions:  the persecution of the Church and the advance of the Church.

There is something paradoxical about efforts to eradicate the Church, and that is that these efforts oftentimes advance the mission of the Church even as they strike out against this mission.  We can see this dynamic in play in the beginning of Acts 8.

1 And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

There are some fascinating insights into the nature of this persecution in these verses.  First, the killing of Stephen acted like the pulling of the pin on the hand grenade of the Devil’s wrath against God and His Church.  It was “on that day,” the day of Stephen’s death, that Satan was allowed to give full vent to his anger, such that “there arose…a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem.”  The practical result of this persecution was that the believers “were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.”  Interestingly, Luke informs us that the believers were scattered, “except the apostles.”  They stood their ground.  This does not mean that those who were scattered were cowards in contrast to the apostles.  Rather, it means that the apostles saw their mission at that time as being centered in and emanating out from Jerusalem.  They stayed on board like ship captains who refuse to get in the lifeboats until everybody else is safe.

We also see that Stephen, the first martyr, is buried and is deeply mourned.  Furthermore, Luke begins his portrait of Saul’s life.  Saul “was ravaging the church.”  That verb “ravaging” is the Greek word lymainomai, which is used in other ancient writings “to describe a person torn up by wild animals, such as lions, wild pigs, leopards, and wolves.”[2]  Thus, Saul, at this point in his life, is the deadly tool in the hands of Satan.  He is striking out and tearing at the Bride of Christ, the Church.  Luke tells us he was “entering house after house” and “he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”

Church, please understand that this reality is the reality being lived by many Christians the world over right now.  Literally.  Today.  Today.

You may right now turn on the news or go online and see the images of Christian refugees fleeing the wrath of Isis in the Iraq.  You may read the horrible stories of the terrible atrocities being committed against ancient Christian communities in the Middle East.  You may read of beheadings and torture and rape and murder being inflicted upon the Body of Christ in that area of the world and others as well.  You will remember, I hope, how just a few weeks ago we put an image of the sign, the Arabic letter “N”, that was being painted on the homes of Christians in Mosul by Isis, marking these as the homes of “Nazarenes,” Christians.

This is not ancient history.  In William Faulkner’s novel, Requiem for a Nun, he penned this famous line:  “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  Indeed it is not.  We are part of an ongoing story.  We may read here of early chapters of the story, but it is still our story.  The Church was persecuted then.  In many parts of the world it is persecuted today as well.

Even so, may I show you a beautiful verse?  As dark and bleak and violent and oppressive and nightmarish and painful as verses 1-3 are, hear now verse 4.

4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.

Can you believe this?

They were beaten, but they kept preaching.

They were robbed, but they kept preaching.

They were imprisoned, but they kept preaching.

They were lied about and slandered, but they kept preaching.

They were flogged, but they kept preaching.

They were stoned to death, but they kept preaching.

The murder of Stephen created opposite reactions:  the persecution of the Church and the advance of the Church.

4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.

James Montgomery Boice has pointed out something interesting about this word “scattered” in verse 4.

            There are different words for “scattered” in Greek.  One means dispersed so that the item is gone from that point on, like scattering a person’s ashes on the ocean’s waves.  That is not the word used here in verses 1 and 4.  The word used here means scattered in order to be planted.  It is exactly like the Hebrew word jezreel, meaning “scattered” but also “planted.”[3]

How beautiful.  They were “scattered in order to be planted.”  As John Chrysostom put it, “[The persecution] dispersed the teachers, so that the discipleship became greater.”[4]

So it was, and so it ever should be with the people of God when they are persecuted.  These trials do not break the Church.  The Church belongs to God!  No, these trials spread the Church abroad so that the gospel may increase!

Amazingly, Paul, named Saul here in our text, would become a great hero of the faith who would himself suffer persecution.  In one particular imprisonment, Paul demonstrated how he too used his suffering for the spread of the gospel.  Hear his words from the first chapter of Philippians when he tells the Philippian Christians not to worry on his account.

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. 15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

“What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.”  This was Paul’s mindset when he suffered and this was the mindset of the early Church in Acts 8 when it suffered.  You may drive the Church from one locale to another, but you cannot destroy it!

The reactions were opposite, but not equal:  God’s advancement of His Kingdom is always greater than Satan’s attempt to destroy it.

Yes, we see that the murder of Stephen brought opposition reactions:  the persecution of the Church and the advance of the Church.  But may we note today that these reactions, while opposite, were not equal.  Friends, the wrath of the Devil is no match for the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Satan cannot hate as deeply as God loves, and the Devil’s wounds are never as great as the Lord’s healing.  Listen to verses 5-8.

5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city.

It is most significant that God once again uses an early deacon to work His works of power.  Stephen is killed so God now uses Philip.  You cannot stop the power of God!  His mission can never be ultimately thwarted!

Philip goes to Samaria and preaches Christ and works miracles.  As a result, the city in which he was ministering was revolutionized.  He preached, cast out demons, and healed the sick, the paralyzed, and the lame.  The result:  “So there was much joy in that city.”

I cannot help but notice the two contrasting statements of emotion in our text.

2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.

8 So there was much joy in that city.

The Church weeps.  The Church rejoices.

The Church suffers.  The Church advances.

The Church buries.  The Church watches as Christ resurrects.

The Church knows pain.  The Church knows joy.

Here is the lot and the nature of the Church on this side of glory.  The pilgrim Church of Christ must suffer, but it must never be defeated.  And in this, it just like its Lord Jesus.  Jesus suffered, but He was not defeated.

Paul Powell writes, “The church is like a nail.  The harder you hit it, the deeper you drive it into the hearts of men and the soul of society.”[5]

Amen.  And Amen.



[1] https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/10/academic-review-of-moss-myth-of-persecution

[2] Clinton E. Arnold, “Acts.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol.2. Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.278.

[3] James Montgomery Boice, Acts. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), p.133.

[4] Francis Martin, ed. Acts. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.V. Thomas C. Oden, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p.28.

[5] Paul Powell, The Church (Dallas, TX:  The Annuity Board Press)

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