In Acts 1:1, Luke reminded us that he shared “what Jesus began to do and teach” in his first account. He doesn’t give a new purpose in Acts. In his gospel, he explained his purpose, “It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (vv.3-4).
Luke has recorded all of this so that believers like Theophilus will have confidence in the gospel they have heard. He writes in order to strengthen the faith of the church. It is helpful to keep that in mind whenever we read Luke/Acts. How will this passage give us greater certainty?
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
Stephen’s death has advanced God’s mission to spread the gospel across the world. As saints in the early church read Acts they understood how and when the expansion of the Church began. As we have a great desire to see that work continue, we should look to this passage for insight.
Are you ready to respond as these men, women, and children responded? We lack confidence in the gospel. Whether we struggle to believe it, or share it, or apply it-it all amounts to a lack of confidence in the power of the Word.
These believers in Jerusalem faced an escalating violence: A warning (4:21) was followed by flogging (5:40), then the execution of Stephen (7:58-60) was followed by “a great persecution” (8:1). The confidence we receive from this passage is that God is advancing His kingdom in the midst of enemy attacks.
God allows persecution to serve the Church. It increased their boldness to preach the Word. It brought joy to the nations as the blessings of God reached them. Although the believers couldn’t see God’s purposes in their suffering, it is clear God’s plan was moving forward. Persecution fuels mission.
We have many reasons for not sharing the gospel with others, but all of them fail when considered alongside this passage. God is sovereign over your present situation and His mission remains the same.
First, we will look at Saul’s Persecution in Jerusalem (1b-4). Second, we’ll see Philip’s Ministry in Samaria (5-8).
Saul’s Persecution in Jerusalem (1-4)
Saul links Stephen’s death to the “great persecution” that followed (v.1). Although Luke only provides a brief description of the persecution, we should not minimize their suffering. Many families were separated from their loved ones. The humiliation and public spectacle that Saul made of the Christian community would have been terrifying.
V.2 seems out of place between two references to persecution. But Luke knows something you and I need to understand. Jewish tradition discouraged lamentation over those executed. The public display of mourning by these “devout men” was an act of defiance. It was a statement of opposition to Stephen’s execution. Luke is suggesting that their actions added fuel to the flames.
The Church throughout history has suffered all forms of persecution (physical, verbal, social, and mental). Scripture encourages us to respond by making a greater commitment to God (1 Pet. 4:19), rejoicing in the heavenly reward (Mt. 5:12), while developing patience (1 Cor. 4:12) and perseverance (Heb. 10:36). Paul told the Philippian Church that they were granted the privilege of believing and suffering for Christ (1:29).
Picture the scene in Jerusalem. Saul’s “ravaging” had a physical and emotional impact upon the victims. He was barging into house after house, dragging men and women off to prison (8:3). He was “breathing threats and murder” (9:1) as he bound and delivered them to prison (22:4), often times beating them himself (22:19). He would attend their execution so he could cast his vote for their death (26:10). He even chased them into foreign cities (26:11).
Saul was the central figure driving the saints out of Jerusalem. We often think of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles as beginning in ch.13, but God was using his persecution to begin reaching Gentiles during the height of the persecution. Saul is the prime agent of both the persecution and the expansion of the church!
The word “scattered” in v.4 links back to v.1. Those who were scattered by the persecution were “preaching” or, better yet, they were “announcing/spreading/sharing the good news of the word.” They were literally “evangelizing”. This was not preaching in the formal sense.
Faced with the situation of running for their lives, they were unable to keep quiet. Think about this. How many movies have you seen where people are fleeing. If someone is chasing them, the last thing to do is draw attention to themselves. The safest thing is to act normal and be quiet. This persecution was made even easier because these early Christians were so bad at keeping their faith a secret!
When persecution increased so did the strength of the church. John Stott points out that “instead of smothering the gospel, persecution succeeded only in spreading it.”
We saw the same thing when communists ran all of the missionaries out of China in 1949. Scratch that. Some of you saw the same thing… The church in China grew 30-40x! 286 of the missionaries were redeployed in southeast Asia and Japan, extending the influence of the gospel even further.
Yale historian Kenneth S. Latourette writes,
“The chief agents in the expansion of Christianity appear not to have been those who made it a profession…but men and women who carried on their livelihood in some purely secular manner and spoke of their faith to those they met in this natural fashion.”
If we want revival like this, we must take the gospel with us wherever we go-speaking to whoever we’re with. It is possible that we needlessly complicate evangelism. The scattered saints simply brought the gospel with them. They spoke of God’s work wherever they were. When they were in Jerusalem the church grew there. When they were in Judea and Samaria the church grew there too.
We should strive to be intentional throughout the day. Before pulling out my phone, why don’t I prayerfully scan the room for opportunities? When I take my kids to the park there might be other parents to meet. Is my demeanor one that invites conversation? Or am I in such a hurry, or so distracted that people assume I want to be left alone? I recommend reading Get Real: Sharing Your Everyday Faith Every Day by John S. Leonard.
We should also commit to sharing the good news regardless of our situation. There is never a season of life when we can legitimately place evangelism on pause. Not if we take this passage seriously! You might be parenting young children, or teens, or even grandchildren. You might be dealing with a job loss, or a loss of health. You might have recently moved or preparing to move. You might be going to school at home, or transitioning to a new school. You might be dealing with a very stressful and difficult issue. In every situation, the mission of God remains the same—Go and make disciples…
The first missionary stop might have actually been the most difficult.
Philip’s Ministry in Samaria (5-8)
This next section serves as a summary of Philip’s ministry in Samaria. It parallels what was happening through the apostles in Jerusalem. Preaching, healing, and exorcisms lead to the city experiencing much joy. “Signs” are a visible confirmation of the authenticity of the message. They clearly serve to draw attention to the message (v.6).
For all that Philip’s ministry entailed, it was his evangelism that he was best known for (21:8). The miracles served to bring attention to his message which was the catalyst for transformation.
James Boice comments:
“There was a long-standing and very deep-seated hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans, going back to ancient times. When the Assyrian army had overthrown Samaria and carried the Jews of the northern kingdom away to Assyria, some Jews were inevitably left behind. These soon intermarried with the foreigners who had been settled in Samaria in their place, which made the Samaritans both ethnic and religious half-breeds, and they soon compounded the problem by setting up a rival temple on Mount Gerizim. This was prohibited in the Old Testament but the Samaritans solved the problem by rejecting the Old Testament except for the first five books. The Jews looked down on the Samaritans and had no dealings with them (John 4:9). So it was a very novel thing for Philip to lead in the evangelization of this area.”
They were considered syncretistic and heretical. This was not the obvious choice for Philip’s evangelism to begin. Philip’s ministry to Samaria was a “bold move”. It posed a tremendously difficult scenario, and yet the gospel took root there.
Philip preached Christ. Good news transcends every human barrier. The content of Philip’s preaching is Christ-centered (vv.5, 12). Later on we will see that includes the Kingdom of God (v.12). As we’re learning in Sunday School, the Kingdom of God is one of the primary and most foundational themes in Scripture. It is defined as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.”
“There was much joy in that city” (v.8) because they were the beneficiaries of God’s blessing. Christians have much to rejoice in and yet we often find ourselves to be a melancholic and pessimistic group of people.
God desires to bless the nations through the words, hand, and feet of His people. This is precisely what God had promised He would do through Abraham, “I will bless you so that you will be a blessing.” Blessings are intended to be multiplied. We receive so that we can give!
For the Jews, it would seem that the Samaritans were the least likely group of people to receive God’s blessing. We have a similar mindset at times. We think of language, culture, background, personality, education (levels & methods), religion as barriers to sharing the gospel.
Are we implicitly assuming that God can’t save them? Have we failed once in the past and we don’t want to be “that guy” who keeps pestering them? I think, when we enter eternity we are going to realize just how weak that argument is.
The paradox of the gospel is an important worldview shift. The greatest work takes place when we find ourselves at our weakest/lowest point. That is true in every sphere (married/single, parenting/no children, work/job loss, etc.) God often does His greatest and deepest work in our lives through the severest trials. And that work is not merely personal—it will have an impact on others. Just as the Church grew and flourished under “a great persecution,” so your Christian walk can thrive while you are in the midst of a severe trial.
Maybe you have been brought low by your circumstances recently. Church has never really been a priority in your life, but you find yourself at the end of your rope. You need to hear that God can do His best work in your life when you turn to him in humility.
Maybe you consider yourself to be a strong Christian. You are growing in the Lord, active in the church. But you’ve never really been good at sharing Christianity with others. The idea of witnessing is terrifying to you. If that describes you, I hope this is precisely where Christ is challenging you this morning.
We could summarize the theme of this text in this way: Persecution results in preaching and preaching results in joy.
What we see in Acts over and over again is the transforming power of the gospel. The lame are healed. The doubters are given faith. The weak in the spirit are strengthened by the Holy Spirit.
Your response (or lack of response) will not change God’s plan, but it will impact your sense of assurance and usefulness. God remains sovereign whether you acknowledge Him or not. The only question is whether you will submit to His will or fight against it.
Jesus says, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” You do not have to remain in the same mindset you began with today. You can rest in the work that Christ has accomplished on your behalf. You do not have to continue to walk in rebellion against your Creator.
But know this: When you come to Christ, your suffering might increase. Think about it. These scattered believers would have had a simpler life if they stopped believing. Their acceptance of Christ meant that they were also willing to count the cost of discipleship. And they now understood—having just buried Stephen-that this truly was a matter of life and death.
At the same time, we see from the response of Samaria, that there is “much joy” when we hear the proclamation of the gospel and enjoy the blessings that follow faith and repentance.
Next week we will see the impossibility of faking the work of God (at least in His eyes).