And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.
On January 9, 1985, Pastor Hristo Kulichev, a Congregational pastor in Bulgaria, was arrested and put in prison. His crime was that he preached in his church even though the state had appointed another man the pastor whom the congregation did not elect. His trial was a mockery of justice. And he was sentenced to eight months imprisonment. During his time in prison he made Christ known every way he could.
When he got out he wrote, "Both prisoners and jailers asked many questions, and it turned out that we had a more fruitful ministry there than we could have expected in church. God was better served by our presence in prison than if we had been free." (Herbert Schlossberg, Called to Suffer, Called to Triumph, p. 230)
God Rules over Persecution and Suffering
There are thousands of stories like this to tell today. And even more over the centuries of Christian history. The lesson comes true again and again: God uses the persecution and suffering of his people to spread the truth of Christ and to bless the world (cf. Luke 21:12–13). Everyone I know in this church who has been to jail in the cause of defending the life of the unborn would say that great good came from it. And I don't doubt that the suit against us as a church and against some individuals will serve to advance the cause of Christ and his kingdom.
I want to encourage you this morning from Acts 8:1–8 that God rules over the sufferings of the church and causes them to spread spiritual power and the joy of faith in a lost world. It is not his only way. But it does seem to be a frequent way. God spurs the church into missionary service by the suffering she endures. Therefore we must not judge too quickly the apparent setbacks and tactical "defeats" of the church. If you see things with the eyes of God, the Master strategist (who cannot lose because he is omnipotent), what you see in every setback is the positioning for a greater advance and a greater display of his wisdom and power and love.
Four Encouraging Facts About Our God and Mission
This is the main point of Acts 8:1–8 (probably of the whole book of Acts). Let me break it down into four parts: four tremendously encouraging facts about God's way of guiding the church in its mission.
1. God Makes Persecution Serve Mission
First, verse 1b shows us that God makes persecution serve the Great Commission. "On that day [the day of Stephen's murder] a great persecution arose against that church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles."
Moving into Judea, Samaria, and Beyond
Up until now in the book of Acts all the ministry has taken place in Jerusalem. No one had moved out to Judea and Samaria. But Jesus had said in Acts 1:8 that the coming of the Holy Spirit was to empower missions in Jerusalem and beyond. "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth."
Now Acts 8:1 uses exactly those two unreached areas in that order: " . . . they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria." So whether the church may have awakened to her calling eventually without persecution, the fact is that God used persecution to move his people into the mission he had given them.
To confirm this missionary purpose of the persecution, look at Acts 11:19. "Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews." But in Antioch some spoke to Greeks also. In other words, the persecution not only sent the church to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) but also beyond to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19).
The Danger of Comfort, Ease, and Prosperity
I think there is a tremendous lesson for us here. The lesson is not just that God is sovereign and turns setbacks to triumphs. The lesson is that comfort and ease and affluence and prosperity and safety and freedom often cause a tremendous inertia in the church. Inertia is the tendency of something that is standing still to stay standing still and of something moving to keep moving. The very things that we think would produce personnel and energy and creative investment of time and money in the cause of Christ and his kingdom, instead produce, again and again, the exact opposite—weakness, apathy, lethargy, self-centeredness, preoccupation with security.
The Star Tribune had an article on Friday (May 3, 1991, p. 2A) showing that the richer we are, the less we give to the church and its mission proportionate to our income. (The poorest fifth of the church give 3.4% of their income to the church and the richest fifth give 1.6%—half as much as the poorer church members.) It's a strange principle, that probably goes right to the heart of our sinfulness and Christ's sufficiency—the principle that hard times, like persecution, often produce more personnel, more prayer, more power, more open purses than easy times.
I know it's true, from Jesus' parable of the four soils, that some fall away during persecution because they have no root. But it seems to be true that even more people are like the third soil—"the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things enter in and choke the word and it proves unfruitful" (Marks 4:19).
Persecution can have harmful effects on the church. But prosperity, it seems, is even more devastating to the mission to which God calls us. My point here is not that we should seek persecution. That would be presumption—like jumping off the temple. The point is that we should be very wary of prosperity and excessive ease and comfort and affluence, and we should not be disheartened but filled with hope if we are persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matthew 5:10). Because, as Luke shows us here: God makes persecution serve the mission of the church.
2. Stephen Is Honored, Not Blamed
The second encouraging thing to see in this text is that Stephen is honored and not blamed. The persecution in Jerusalem started because of Stephen. That's clear here; and it's clear in Acts 11:19—"the persecution that arose over Stephen."
I can imagine some cautious and prudent and well-meaning believers in Jerusalem saying: "Stephen's speech was utterly uncalled for. There are other less inflammatory ways to defend the truth than to call the Sanhedrin 'stiff-necked people who always resist the Holy Spirit' (Acts 7:51). It's always hotheads like this that get the church into trouble. Now the whole city is against us. Look at the waste of life and property and time. Look at the families that are being broken up. Look at the homes being lost and the children being taken away from all their friends. Now we have to live like refugees and exiles in Judea and Samaria. Why didn't Stephen think before he spoke?"
But when Luke tells God's version of the story, Stephen is a man full of grace and power (Acts 6:8). When he spoke his final words that enraged the council, Luke says he was filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:55). And here in Acts 8:2 Luke says that "devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him." Stephen is honored not blamed for the persecution—at least by devout men. Worldly people might be more worried about goods and kindred and status. But the devout people, who think the way Jesus thinks about life, they "let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God's truth abideth still."
So the second encouraging truth here is this: when persecution comes because of courageous, faithful, God-honoring obedience, godly people don't blame the servant of the Lord. They give honor.
3. Adversaries Can Become Advocates
The third encouraging thing to see here is that sometimes our worst enemies become our best friends. Verse 3: "But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison." This Saul is the one who would be dramatically converted and become the best friend and advocate Christianity ever had.
We need to live in this hope again and again: fearsome enemies can become precious friends. Adversaries can become advocates. Critics can become comrades. For most of us it's pretty easy to believe that an intimate disciple can become a deadly betrayer, like Judas. That's the way the world is. But we need to remember that a deadly persecutor can also become a great ally and partner in the cause of Christ. That's the way God is. That's the kind of power he has.
Look on your adversaries with the eyes of faith—that someday, by the power of God they could experience a turn-around as amazing and unexpected as Saul's.
4. The Word of God Is Good News and Brings Joy
Finally, the fourth encouraging thing in this text is that even though the Word of God brought persecution and exile, it is still good news and brings joy.
The paragraph that begins with verse 4 ends with verse 8. Verse 4 says that the scattered, persecuted Christians preached the Word wherever they went. They announced the very Word that brought persecution as good news (euanggelizomai). And verse 8 confirms that it was good news because it says, "So there was much joy in that city." The Word that brings persecution also brings joy—and the joy it brings is so much greater and longer than the trouble it brings that the trade-off is worth it.
Why? Well, verse 7 says that unclean spirits were coming out of people and leaving them free and whole and pure. It says that many that were paralyzed or lame were being healed. But the main reason there is joy is what we read in verse 5: "Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ."
Christ alone has the power to deliver from Satan and all his evil. Christ alone has the power heal our bodies now and finally in the resurrection. Christ alone has the right and power to forgive our sins and make us right with God (Acts 10:43). So if you have Christ, if you know him and trust him, then no matter how severe the persecution is, no matter how great the suffering of life, you have hope and you have joy. "There was much joy in that city" because Philip preached Christ.
So I urge you this morning to put your faith in Jesus Christ. Because if you do then all these reasons for encouragement become very personally true for you and not just generally true.
- God makes persecution serve the unstoppable mission of the
church—your mission, your ministry.
- If your faithfulness brings
trouble to the church (like Stephen's did), you will be honored and
not blamed—at least by the godly.
- Your worst critics can become
your precious comrades by the power of Christ's converting grace.
- And the very Word—the gospel—that brings persecution sometimes, brings joy always and forever.