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Acts #26 (chapter 8:1-8)
The Book of Acts
The Power of Persecution
Acts 8:1–8
 
We have been blessed here in America, really for all our history, to have the freedom of worship and religion.  In fact, if anything, and we are now beginning to see some kickback against it, those not a part of the church are the ones who have been oppressed and silenced. 
 
We've heard about persecution and read about it from a distance.  In more recent history, the imprisonment of the pastor from Utah by Iraq stands out. 
 
Back in 1956, five missionaries, including Jim Elliot were killed in Ecuador by the Auca Indians. They had just landed their plane on a beach by a river in Ecuador when they were met by the Auca's and killed. 
 
And yet, from that apparent tragedy, eventually that entire tribe of Auca Indians was evangelized with the gospel and a church was planted there.  That church grew and flourished and stretched across tribal areas. 
 
And that illustrates a very important point that we find here in the 8th chapter of Acts.  What we might think is the darkest moment in missionary history, or the darkest moment for the church, may really be the catalyst for an explosion of church growth and development. 
 
 
That is exactly what we discover happening as a result of the death of Stephen.   Even though the church started with a bang and thousands were saved, it didn't take too long for Satan to put the machinery of opposition into gear to stop the spread of the gospel. 
 
And by the time we get to the 6th, 7th and 8th chapters of Acts, there is open hostility to those who are preaching in the name of Jesus and it ultimately comes to a head with the stoning of Stephen.   Stephen preaches one sermon, becomes the first Christian martyr, and then his death becomes the trigger that launches the slaughter of Christians everywhere.
 
Much of that is initiated through a young man we meet at the beginning of chapter 8 whose name is Saul.
 
verses 1-8
 
In this strange twist of events, the murder of Stephen triggers the first missionary movement, including the salvation of the greatest missionary in Scripture. 
 
Whatever we think about the short career of Stephen, whatever we might wonder he might have been if he hadn’t died after that great sermon, we do know this, that the man most notably influenced by Stephen became the greatest missionary ever.
 
There is an important lesson that needs to always be kept in mind when it comes to the work of God.
 
God doesn't work according to our plans and expectations.  We think missionaries should always be protected and never experience any difficulties or problems. But the Holy Spirit very often has different plans. 
 
And as we see in this case, He takes what appears to be a tragedy and turns it into this amazing spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
 
In fact, the leaders of Israel wanted to stamp out the church.  Instead, they just spread it.  Saul wanted to stamp out the church.  But he he just spread it. 
 
Chapter 8 then is a critical turning point in the early history of the church.  The gospel is now going to go to Judea, it’s going to go to Samaria; and before this 8th chapter is over, it’s going to touch a man from the uttermost parts of the world in the Ethiopian. 
 
So in this one chapter, through this one tragedy, we see the beginning of the fulfillment of Acts 1:8 Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth are touched with the gospel.
 
There are three simple points to the outline of our study.  First is
 
1.  Persecution
 
This fierce, ferocious persecution begins as we saw in verse 1.  It starts with murder and the martyrdom of Stephen and grows from there. 
 
The leader of the movement is a man named Saul.  And I want to stop here and clarify something that is often misuderstood.
Remember, back in chapter 7, verse 58, when the crowd had enough of Stephen, they took off their robes and rushed him.  And obviously, they took off their robes so they could have more freedom of movement and therefore, more force and accuracy as they threw. 
 
But we are also told they laid those robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.  So why Saul?  Some teach that he was just a young man and that's all he was qualified to do.  He was just available and handy. 
 
No, in fact, just the opposite is true.  Laying their robes at the feet of Saul identifies him as the instigator of the murder.  He is behind it.  In fact, he gives testimony to that in
 
Acts 22:20
 
Laying those clothes at his feet is an indication of his authority.  We've already ween that modeled in the life of the church. 
 
Remember in the 4th and 5th chapters when the people brought their offerings?  What did they do with them?  They laid them at the feet of the Apostles.  Why? Because they were recognizing the authority of the apostles to care for their money and resources and gifts.  Laying something at the feet was a symbolic way to identify the man in charge.
 
This young Pharisee named Saul wanted to slaughter the church.  We will see him become the principal force in the persecution against the church in the next verses, and here we have an indication that he is the one who launches the effort against Stephen. 
That’s why they laid their coats at his feet. Saul was the man behind the murder of Stephen.  He is involved from the very beginning.  He very likely was involved from the moment the disputes began in the  Hellenistic synagogues that we read about in chapter 6, verses 9-10. 
 
There we read they were not able to resist the wisdom of Stephen.  And if Saul was involved, and I think he was, all this time he's just been getting more and more angry, until finally he seizes the moment and instigates the death of Stephen.
 
And lest you miss the irony of that, think about this:  once Saul becomes a Christian, he suffers a whole lifetime of treatment very much like he called for with Stephen.  In fact, at the point of Saul’s conversion in the next chapter, in the 9th chapter, the Lord says to Ananias about him, “I will show him how much he's going to have to suffer for My name’s sake.”  What was done to Stephen really was done to Saul. 
 
The Jews disputed and resisted Stephen in the synagogue, and so they did with Paul. 
 
The Jews rejected Stephen’s preaching and teaching; so they did with Paul. 
 
Stephen was accused of blasphemy; so Paul. 
 
Stephen was accused of speaking against Moses, speaking against the Holy Place, speaking against the law; so was Paul. 
 
They rushed on Stephen with one accord and seized him; they did the same to Paul. 
Stephen was dragged out of the city; so was Paul. 
 
Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin; so was Paul. 
 
Stephen was stoned; so was Paul. 
 
Stephen suffered martyrdom; so did Paul.
 
There is this amazing parallel between the two even though Stephen's career is very short and Paul has a long history. 
 
And later on, when Paul will identify himself as a murderer, it all started with Stephen.  And the death of Stephen sets off the full fury of persecution with Saul as they primary leader, and the people are scattered and driven.
 
Before we leave this first point, notice a couple of little details there in verse 1. First, there’s a note that everyone was scattered "except for the apostles".
 
They don't leave town even though this open persecution of Christians has begun.  They’re like faithful watchmen who remain at their post to ministry to those who are unable to flee. 
 
Remember, there's still a church there in Jerusalem and there is still ministry and work to be done.  Eventually, they will leave also, but not yet.  So they remain faithful and stay there. 
 
The second detail is found in verse 2 where we are told about the burial of Stephen.
That’s a very important statement.  Devout men, most likely pious Jews who aren't necessarily Christians.  We find the same phrase in chapter 2, verse 5 where it describes in a general way the population of Jerusalem. 
 
You might say that they were the best of the Jews.  They were men who feared God to some degree.  They were men who felt that it was wrong to kill Stephen for preaching.  They were a nobler kind of men than was Saul. 
 
No doubt, they are saddened by this behavior.  Perhaps, they are men who later come to faith in Christ.  This is to remind us that these Jewish leaders didn't represent the common Jew.  There were a lot of people around with some sense of right and wrong, with some devotion to God who are not yet in the kingdom, and they show their sadness by making loud lamentation over him.
 
By the way, Jewish law required the body of an executed person to be buried, but it prohibited public weeping or emotion for the death.  And yet, these pious Jews make loud lamentation over the body o Stephen.  No doubt, his godly testimony and preaching has already begun to make an impression on those who knew him. 
 
We need to be reminded of that, those of us who live in a country where civility and common courtesy and respect has been abandoned by those who govern and rule.  Aren't you glad to know there are still a lot of good, decent folk around?  Some of them are even Democrats!
 
Well, Stephen comes and goes, but Saul comes and stays.  He becomes the primary mover and shaker in the persecution.
 
verse 3
 
"Made havoc".  This is the only place in the New Testament where this phrase appears.  There isn't any way to try and understand it by comparing it to other uses because there are none.  So if we want to rightly understand it, we have to look outside of Scripture and there we see some very interesting uses. 
 
For instance, it is used in literary and historical writings to describe a wild boar ravaging a vineyard. 
It is used to describe a wild animal mangling and tearing apart or shredding a body to ribbons.  Some lexicons would say it’s a brutal, sadistic kind of cruelty. 
 
It’s a very strong word and it describes exactly what Paul was doing.  He was doing everything he could to rip, tear, shred and mangle the church like a wild beast does its prey. He is a terrorist in the fullest sense of the word. 
 
In fact, when he gives his testimony in chapter 22 of how he persecuted the church, he said, “I persecuted them to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.”  He was vicious, even to women.
 
He continues in verse 19 of chapter 22 by telling how he told Jesus, “In every synagogue, I imprisonrf and beat those who believed in You.”
He ravaged the church like a wild boar, tearing and shredding everything in sight.  He went on a house to house search for Christians, just like in Nazi Germany, and wherever he found men or women who were Christians, he dragged them off and put them in prison. 
 
And if one were reading about all this without the benefit of history, one would be tempted to believe the end of Christianity was near. 
 
Instead, this persecution led to the second word.   This ferocious, fierce persecution leads to
 
2. Preaching 
 
verse 4
 
By the way, that little two-word phrase, "went everywhere" is used frequently and almost exclusively to talk about missionary effort.  It is found about six times in the book of Acts and it's almost like the Holy Spirit separates this little phrase off to refer specifically to doing mission work.
 
Now don't read that so literally that you miss the picture it is painting.  What a sight it must have been as this stream of people who are being persecuted, perhaps in physical pain from being beaten and whipped, with nothing but their clothes on their backs, sneaking out the backdoor of a house with only what they could carry in their hands, pouring out of the city gates of Jerusalem, scattering everywhere, cast completely on the Lord, leave, and immediately start telling people about Jesus.
 
They didn’t hole up in hills, they didn’t find a cave in which to hide, they didn’t retreat to some isolated place in the desert.  Instead, they went everywhere preaching the Word.  And apparently, by what the text says, all of them were preaching!
 
It is one of those interesting products of persecution that it brings the courage to witness out of us. When there is no persecution we settle into a comfortable place in the culture.  We aren’t all preachers, we certainly aren’t preaching all the time, and we sure  aren’t going everywhere. 
 
We are protective of our time and our health and our possessions and our stuff.  But everywhere, they went, they were preaching the Word.  And in one of those paradoxical teachings of Scripture, we learn that persecution produces the very thing it is intended to destroy. 
 
And in that way of looking at it, persecution is actually good for the church.  It turns the church loose.  It disconnects the church from its comfort and sends it out in dependency.  It promotes and produces obedience to the Lord.  And everyone is affected by it.   
 
There is a reminder here that that it’s right and proper for all of us to be preaching the gospel.  It should be the desire of all of us to take the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. 
 
Luke illustrates that with one individual he pulls out of the crowd whose name is Philip. 
 
verses 5-7
So one of those who is scattered is named Philip.  Back in  chapter 6, verse 5, he was a deacon, a servant, one of those who had a good reputation and was full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” 
 
later, in Acts 21:8 he is called, “Philip the evangelist.”  He starts out as a deacon and he becomes an evangelist.  So how did he become an evangelist? 
 
It happened right here in chapter 8, verse 4.  He went everywhere preaching the Word. According to verse 5, he went 40 miles north of Jerusalem to a place called Samaria.
 
As you know, the Samaritan people were a mongrel race.  They were viewed by the Jews with hatred and without going into all the history, they date all the way back to 1 Kings 16 when Samaria was the capital city of the Northern Kingdom, 
 
And down through the years, there had developed this bitter hatred for the Samaritans by the Jews.  They were viewed as heretics and their religion was heretical.  It was a hybrid of Paganism and Judaism.
 
But Philip doesn't care about any of that.  as he flees from the persecution, he heads to Samaria to preach the gospel.  So why would he go to Samaria?  Some of it was very likely, purely human.  After all, no God-fearing Jew is going to go to Samaria.  They wouldn't even cross their land.  They would go out of their way to avoid Samaritans.  So it should be safe there.
 
But we also have indication that the Samaritans were looking for the coming of Messiah.
Do you remember who was the first to whom Jesus revealed He was the Messiah?  It was the Samaritan woman at the well. Did they believe in the Messiah?  Absolutely.  She said to Him, “Are you the Christ?  No doubt, they would rejoice to hear that Messiah had come!
 
But also, Philip goes to Samaria in obedience.  Jesus said His witnesses would carry the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the world.  And Philip goes in direct fulfillment of that command and prophecy.  And notice the response he gets
 
verses 6-7
 
Just as with the apostles and Stephen, Philip is given the power to do miracles and perform healings, all as an authentication of his message, and the response is overwhelming!
 
And that leads us to the third word which is
 
3.  Productivity
 
verse 8
 
Only God could do that!  After all, at the beginning of the chapter, Stephen has been killed, Saul launches a massive persecution and the church scatters.  But instead of killing the church, it spreads the church.  And as a testimony to the power and grace of God, one man named Philip winds up in one pagan, outcast city and because of his faithful, obedient preaching, the entire city is filled with joy!
 
So why was there joy?  It was because salvation had come to town!  The first fruit of salvation is joy.  When people believe the gospel and are saved, their experience is an experience of joy.  Over and over again through the book of Acts we have the privilege of looking into the lives of those who come to Christ and are filled with joy.  And very often, the joy that new believers experience is found on the heels of difficult circumstances for those who bring the message.  
 
In the 16th chapter of Acts, Paul and Silas find themselves in prison.  But about midnight, they decide to have a little worships service and start singing!  Before it's over, the jailer and his family are saved. Do you remember how the story ends?  The jailer takes them home for supper, sat food before them and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household. 
 
That's nothing new!  Back in Isaiah 61:10 we read,  “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord. My soul will exalt in my God, for He has clothed me with garments of salvation.  He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.  I will rejoice greatly.”  In fact, that’s what Mary sang her Magnificat as she contemplated the Savior. 
 
When the angels announced the arrival of Christ in chapter 2 of Luke’s gospel, the angel said, “Don’t be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David, there has been born for you a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”  It is the initial response of a believer to be joyful.
 
In John 15:11, our Lord says, “These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”  He repeats the same thing in the 16th chapter.  He repeats it again in the 17th chapter.  John tells us in 1 John 1, “These things are written that you might have joy.”
 
It is the experience of believers to be joyful.  No wonder, here we find believers, in spite of the persecution, preaching a gospel that leads to salvation and brings joy.
 
One final word: Even though it is true that salvation and effective evangelism is the result of persecution,  I don't intend to go out and look for it.  And I don't recommend that you do either. 
 
We don’t need to be eager to be persecuted.  We don’t need to create situations where we get persecuted.  We don’t need to strive for persecution as if it’s some noble badge. 
 
But on the other hand, we don’t have to fear persecution because persecution historically has accomplished the purposes of God.  We need to expect it.  We need to embrace it.  We need to keep courageous and bold, and proclaim the truth in the midst of persecution and know that God will use persecution to accomplish His divine purpose. 
 
Let's pray.
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