Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Myers
1. Persecution by Saul (8:1-3)
2. Preaching in Samaria (8:4-8)
3. Persecution Summary
Most Christians would prefer not to face persecution. Are any of you just dying to be persecuted? Probably not. But the fact is that many Christians in the world are dying in the midst of persecution. The Voice of the Martyrs website states that 200 million Christians worldwide are currently facing persecution because of their faith, and they estimate that about 170,000 Christians are put to death every year because of their faith (http://www.persecution.net/faq/stats.htm).
We learn in Acts 8 that persecution is not a bad thing. I am not sure we should pray for persecution, but we can learn from persecution that God is in control. That He can turn even bad things into opportunities for His glory, and for His Gospel to be spread. In Acts 7, we learned of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. At the end of the chapter, we learned of a young man named Saul who was there observing the stoning of Stephen. We now learn in Acts 8 that this Saul takes the persecution further in Jerusalem. Verses 1-3 tell us about the persecution by Saul.
1. Persecution by Saul (8:1-3)
A. Saul Persecutes (8:1, 3)
1Now Saul was consenting to his death.
Verse 1 tells us that Saul approved of the death of Stephen. He certainly thought that these Christians were heretics, blasphemers and dangerous to Judaism. And so, down in verse 3, he doesn't stop just with Stephen, he tries to destroy Christianity.
3As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
Saul was zealous for his beliefs (Php. 3:6). He wanted to stamp out Christianity. He found out who the Christians were, and went about from house to house, arresting them and dragging them off to prison. It was not just the men he did this to, but the women also. And his actions, according to verse 3, made havoc of the church. Imagine if half of our church got arrested and put in prison. What would that do? It would cause havoc. People would be afraid for their lives. They would be afraid to come to church, or to even go visit those who were in prison. Some of the leaders would certainly be arrested. The apostles weren't arrested, as we learn at the end of verse 1, but many other people were, and this caused so much turmoil in the church, and naturally, people began to flee for their lives. In the rest of verse 1, and on into verse 2, we see the result of this persecution: it scatters the people.
B. Scatters People (8:1-2)
At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.
The result of this persecution is that the church that was in Jerusalem scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. Notice the apostles don't leave Jerusalem yet. They stay in Jerusalem to help the church there stay strong in the face of persecution. And at this time, they take Stephen and bury him. Up to this point, the church in Jerusalem had kind of just stayed there. They hadn't gone out into other regions to spread the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ. And remember, Christ's last words on earth were that they were to take the Gospel from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8).
This persecution comes along and gives them a little bit of incentive to do what Jesus had asked them to do. Some even believe that God sent this persecution so that the church would obey. Thatís possible, I suppose, but I tend to think that God was using this opportunity for the good, to encourage the Christians to get going on what they eventually would have done anyway. But God has to prod us sometimes, and use circumstances in our life to encourage us to obey Him. And so He uses this persecution to scatter the Christians, and send them to the regions of Judea and Samaria. And verses 4-8 tell us what they did when there.
2. Preaching in Samaria (8:4-8)
They didn't go and hide out. They didn't think to themselves, "Well, teaching others about Christ sure got us in trouble in Jerusalem. I think that now we'll keep quiet about him."
No, they keep preaching. When the Word of God gets a hold of you, when you come to understand the riches of the Gospel of God's grace, you cannot help but speak about it. And this is what they do. Verse 4 tells us that they preached everywhere.
A. Sermons Preached (8:4-5)
4Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.
Notice that they went everywhere preaching the word. Christians always should be preaching the word. If you are going to teach someone something, make sure that it is comes from the Word, not from some church fad, not from history, not from current events, or psychology, preach the Word! And of course, true preaching of the Word will always go hand in hand with preaching Christ. This is what we see in verse 5. When we preach the Word, we also preach Christ because the entire Word of God speaks of Christ.
5Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them.
This is one of the deacons we were introduced to in Acts 6. He takes the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to the city of Samaria and preaches it there. Now remember, most Jews despised the Samaritans. They were considered to be a half-breed between Jews and Gentiles. But this didn't stop Jesus from ministering to them, and it doesn't stop Philip either. He loves the Samaritan people, and knows that they need the Gospel just as much as anyone else. So he goes to their capitol city and preaches Christ to them. And just as with the apostolic preaching to the Jews, signs are performed among the Samaritans to show them that what Philip preaches is the truth.
B. Signs Performed (8:6-7)
6And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed.
The message was well received, and it says that the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken to them by Philip. There was great hunger among the Samaritan people for the truth. Remember the woman at the well in John 4? She indicates that the Samaritan people were looking for the coming of the Messiah, and knew that when He came, He would tell them the truth. Philip has now come to tell them that the Messiah had come, and that though they were outcast from Jewish culture, they were accepted by God in heaven. This was a welcome message for them, and so the multitudes responded and believed. It was a great spiritual harvest in the city. And because of this, they all rejoiced.
C. Celebration Party (8:8)
8And there was great joy in that city.
When people hear that God loves them and accepts them and offers them the free gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, and people respond to this, it is a great relief. Many of them probably had wanted to go to Jerusalem to worship God (John 4:20), but couldn't because the Jews would not let them.
Certainly Philip had told them that they didn't have to go to Jerusalem. They could now worship God anywhere they wanted (John 4:21). They didnít have to offer sacrifices in order to receive forgiveness of sins. All of their sin was paid for by Jesus on the cross. They didnít have to feel insignificant in comparison to the Jews anymore. In Christ, they were all equals. All of this was cause for a great celebration.
Isn't this an amazing result of persecution? As a result of persecution, Christians go out and share the Gospel with those who need to hear it, and the result is great rejoicing by the new believers. In fact, there are many wonderful results of persecution. Several weeks back we talked about how to prepare for persecution. From Acts 8, let's look at several blessings and results that come from persecution.
3. Persecution Summary
The Bible never tells us to pray that persecution will end. Rather, it says that persecution will come if we follow Jesus (Mark 10:29-30; Lk. 21:12; John 15:20; 1 Thess. 2:15; 2 Tim. 3:12). This is the first blessing of being persecuted. It allows us to share in the sufferings of Christ and lets us know that just as the world rejected Him, it is rejecting us because we are like Him. Persecution is a sign of a disciple. Half-hearted followers of Jesus Christ will never face persecution. When times of trials come, they wither up and die, and cease to live for Jesus (Luke 8:13).
Another blessing that comes from persecution is exactly what we have seen here in Acts 8. It causes Christians to be scattered (Acts 8:1-8). This is not a bad thing. It is what Jesus commanded (Matt. 10:23). Some Christians, when they face persecution, think that it is denying Jesus to run. And sometimes we do need to stand - like Stephen did, and give a defense for what we believe. But other times, God wants us to run so that we can share the Gospel in new areas.
Another possible result of persecution is the salvation of those who persecute us. Nowhere in the Bible are we told to pray for persecution to end. Rather, we are to pray for the salvation of those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44; Rom. 12:14). As we pray for their salvation, this will encourage us stand strong for Christ, and speak the truth boldly because we know that they are watching and listening and that through our witness, the Holy Spirit is working on them to draw them to Jesus Christ. So persecution can result in the salvation of the persecutors.
In regard to the Christians facing persecution, it helps them get stronger in the faith and in their reliance upon Jesus Christ. Again, we shouldnít pray for persecution to end. Rather, pray for strength and courage and perseverance of those who are facing persecution (2 Cor. 12:10; Heb. 13:3).
Related to this is the holiness and Godliness that is a natural result of persecution. When Christians face death every day, they quickly get their priorities straightened out, and realize that things of this world have got to go (James 1:1-18). Persecution makes us put God and His Word first in our life so that we become more like Christ and walk in the Spirit more fully day by day. Persecution gives the process of sanctification a turbo-charge.
F. Spiritual Riches
Finally, there is great spiritual riches to be had in facing persecution. Not only now, but in the life to come. Christ promises eternal reward for those who undergo persecution (Matt. 5:10-12; Mark 10:29-30; 2 Thess. 1:3-12; 1 Pet. 4:12-19).
So all of these reasons together are why we can count it all joy when we face various trials (James 1:2). There are great benefits and results that come from persecution. Many Christians around the world are facing persecution right now. Maybe you are facing persecution right now from a family member, or a co-worker. But we know for a fact that millions of Christians in other countries are facing serious persecution, and thousands are dying every year for it. The Word of God remains our best guide for knowing how to pray for our persecuted sisters and brothers worldwide (http://www.persecution.net/prayer.htm).
As you come to the Throne of Grace on behalf of the Persecuted Church, pray:
That persecuted believers will stand firm in their faith. (1Peter 5:8-10)
That they will not be fearful but trust God. (Rev. 2:10)
That they will not seek to retaliate, but entrust themselves to Him who judges justly and seek to live in peace with everyone. (Rom. 12:17-21, 1 Peter 2:23)
That they will be enabled to rejoice, even in suffering. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
That they will be able to actually love and forgive those who persecute them. (Matt. 5:43-44; Luke 23:34, Col 3:13)
That they will bless those who have persecuted them. (Rom. 12:14,21)
That they will keep their eyes on Jesus, persevere in their faith, and not grow weary or lose heart. (Heb. 10:32-39; Heb.12:1-3)
That they will trust God to enable them to proclaim the Gospel even while suffering. (2 Tim. 4:16-18)
That they will rely on the Lord's strength and not on their own. (2 Cor. 1:8-9)
That those who oppress Christians may experience repentance and salvation, just as Paul did. (Acts 9:1-19)
For the provision of Bibles and other Christian literature to reach the most remote and needy areas where they are in the shortest supply. (Psalm 119:42-43)
That those who suffer tremendous physical pain and trials will be delivered by the Lord from their agony. (II Corinthians 1:9-11)
That local leaders of the persecuted churches around the world would continue to faithfully fulfill their God given responsibilities. (I Peter 5:1-4)
That those of us who have religious freedom will understand what it means to suffer with other members of the worldwide church. (I Corinthians 12:26)
That we who have religious freedom would have the boldness and courage to speak out and seek to make changes in the name of the Lord, on behalf of persecuted believers. (Proverbs 31:8-9)
That we who have religious freedom would faithfully remember and pray for our Christian family worldwide who are in prison and suffering for their faith. (Hebrews 13:3)