Last week, Pastor Zane told us that Stephen was murdered for his faith at the hands of the people, yet he remained full of faith. Christlike to the end, he prayed forgiveness for the actions of the ignorant people. We see one man’s life ending and we were introduced to a young man named Saul whose story was just beginning. This morning, we’ll see what happens when a man full of self-righteousness and misaligned zeal goes on the offensive.
Take a couple of minutes and read Acts 8:1-8.
In Georgia, you can be charged with a crime simply because you knew it was going on. You can ask my buddy, Pastor Zane, for details because that’s what happened when he was convicted. We have Saul being in, “Hearty agreement with putting him to death.” The Council, led by the high priest, found Stephen guilty of the crimes to which he was falsely accused and drove him out of the city where he was stoned to death. While Saul agreed with putting Stephen to death, it had a profound effect on him as we’ll see later in Acts. This martyrdom of Stephen ushered in widespread attacks against Christians living in Jerusalem. “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.” When we read Scripture, we tend to think in periods of time, but all that we have been looking at the last several weeks occurred over a two-day period.
Stephen’s dead body was still warm when Satan went on the offensive against God’s holy plan for humanity. Every believer in Messiah was driven from the place most of them likely had lived their entire lives, and fled to places unfamiliar to them. They literally ran for their lives. Believers were scattered in the regions of Judea and in Samaria. Scattered mean to sow throughout. Now that’s pretty interesting. It’s the same word used when scattering seed. What happens when you scatter seed? It grows. The seed of the gospel left Jerusalem just as Jesus commanded in Matt. 28:19-20. But, the apostles remained in Jerusalem and we’ll see them mentioned again several times in Acts. Stephen is dead and, “Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentations over him.” This is not some misplaced parenthetical thought. These men took a real chance burying Stephen. Jewish law prohibited funerals for convicted criminals and Stephen was convicted of blasphemy and speaking against the temple and against the Law. They buried him, cried and wept loudly and beat their breasts.
It goes from bad to worse for believers. Saul, “Began ravaging the church, entering house after house, dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.” Ravage comes from the same word that is used to describe what lions, and tigers, and bears do to their prey. He was vicious in his attacks against believers. He burst into houses and was an equal opportunity destroyer dragging men and women out. Saul would stop at nothing. How he put them in prison, we don’t know, but remember how many people turned to Christ in the first six chapters. There were thousands in Jerusalem and just because Luke says they were scattered doesn’t mean that everyone got out safely. Imagine sitting down for a meal or to unwind and the door to your house is kicked in and before you can react, a man grabs you and literally drags you out. Don’t think Saul was by himself in this, there had to be others that were working with him to bring such widespread destruction on the church.
The narrative takes a startling turn here. In v. 4, Luke says, “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” Do not read this verse lightly. Understand what is going on. Family members, loved ones, friends, people they knew had been dragged off to prison or worse, and yet they preached the word. How can these believers, who are suffering such hardship, continue on the mission before them? I think it’s not only a fair question, but a stark contrast to how we react to adversity today. One of the seven men that the apostles chose to relieve them of the responsibility to feed the widows had been falsely accused, wrongfully convicted, and was stoned to death. These new believers who were forcefully driven from their homes fleeing for their lives went on doing the very thing that got Stephen killed. How can these things be? The only conclusion I can draw is that they truly believed that Jesus was the Messiah, that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of old, that Jesus was Emmanuel meaning God with us, that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for sin, that new life is found in Christ, that all hope is found in Christ, that Jesus is the avenue to reconcile a sinful people to a holy and perfect God. It seems to me that they genuinely loved the Lord and that love moved them to action – to tell other people about Jesus. It’s not enough to say you love Jesus. If there is no action, then your love is just words. You love your children? You work a job to support them, to provide a place to live, food on the table, clothes on their back. You scrimp and save to give your kids a chance for a better life than you had. All this is motivated by your love for them. You say you love Jesus, but why don’t you share what Jesus has done for you with people that may not know anything more than we celebrate His birth on December 25th?
These believers are scattered throughout the land and they preached the word. Luke calls out Philip who was one of the seven mentioned in Acts 6:5 as, “Being full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Verse 5 says, “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them.” Samaria was the region northwest of Jerusalem and that’s where Philip ended up. The them refers to the people in the city. Philip took to heart the message that he heard and saw and wanted to share that with others. So, he begins by, “proclaiming Christ.” The Samaritans were largely considered half breeds by the Jews so they were neither Jew nor Gentile. Samaritan lineage goes back to the northern tribes of Israel when God divided the land to each tribe. The northern tribes were known as Israel and the southern tribes were Judah. Israel was taken captive by Assyria in 722 B.C., but not all the people were taken captive. Those that were still in the land intermarried with the native population and did things that were detestable to God like installing their own version of the high priest to conduct worship in the temples they built in the high places. Idolatry was widespread in Samaria. So, for Philip to begin ministry there is pretty incredible, but it wasn’t the first time a Samaritan would be shown the love of Christ. Remember the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well?
Let’s take a quick look at Jo. 4:5-26. This is the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. V. 20 gives us some insight into the misguided notions the Samaritans have. She tells Jesus that her fathers worshiped on Mt. Gerizim, but the Jews say you have to worship at Jerusalem. Jesus then gives her the bombshell that there is coming a time that worship will not occur at a place. She tells Jesus that her people are looking for Messiah who is called Christ, but she doesn’t know that she is talking to the Messiah until Jesus reveals it. Jesus had to clear up some wrong teaching the woman received at some point. So, we fast forward to a time when all that Jesus said has been fulfilled. Remember that Philip is “proclaiming Christ” and for all the misunderstanding and idolatry in Samaria, the message Philip shared was exactly what was needed in that area. Luke says, “The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed.” The crowds paid attention to Philip and the message that he preached was confirmed by corresponding signs. Demons were cast out, the paralyzed and the lame were healed. Don’t put the cart before the horse here though. The gospel was preached and that’s what the people responded to. Miracles are great and awesome and they can provide a draw to the truth of Jesus, but they do not take the place of genuine faith in Christ. The miracles are not the point of this story – the gospel is the point of the story.
The conclusion: “There was much rejoicing in that city.” The gospel is the great cycle breaker. The unclean are made clean under Christ. The lame are healed under Christ. Half-breeds are adopted by God. People of questionable backgrounds are made new. Racism eliminated; hatred replaced by love. I believe it can still happen today. There was much rejoicing just as was promised in Lk. 2:10 when, “The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.”
The good news really is for all people. It seems that the Samaritan people were ready to hear the life changing news of the gospel. Believe it or not, there are still people today that are waiting for the message. Be like Philip. Even in the midst of persecution and suffering, he proclaimed the Christ.