Summary: 1) Persecution (Act 8:1–3), which led to 2) Preaching (Acts 8:4-7), which led to 3) Productivity (Acts 8:8).
On Sunday, January 8, 1956, on the shore of a lonely river deep in the Ecuadorian jungle, five missionaries were murdered by primitive Auca Indians. News of the massacre shocked the world. To some, their deaths seemed a senseless tragedy. Many decried the promising missionary careers cut short, the five young wives bereft of their husbands, the children left fatherless.
Quote: Those with deeper spiritual insight saw things differently. Nate Saint, one of the five martyrs, had written: "As we weigh the future and seek the will of God, does it seem right that we should hazard our lives for just a few savages? As we ask ourselves this question, we realize that it is not the call of the needy thousands, rather it is the simple intimation of the prophetic Word that there shall be some from every tribe in His presence in the last day and in our hearts we feel that it is pleasing to Him that we should interest ourselves in making an opening into the Auca prison for Christ". (Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor [Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1981], 176)
At first glance, Stephen’s death in Acts 8, may also seem pointless. Here was another promising career cut short. He was a powerful, miraculous preacher, with a deep knowledge of the Old Testament. Such was the godly character of his life that he was one of the seven chosen by the church to oversee its daily affairs. Why was it necessary that one so gifted have such a brief ministry? Further, his ministry seemed to have ended in failure. Not only was he killed as a heretic, but his death also triggered the first persecution against the entire church. That persecution, spearheaded by Saul of Tarsus, scattered the Jerusalem fellowship. Such a skewed view of Stephen’s death, however, betrays a lack of understanding of the way the Holy Spirit works. The persecution, which seemed to be a negative, was in reality a positive factor. It led to the first great missionary outreach by the early church. Satan’s attempt to stamp out the church’s fire merely scattered the embers and started new fires around the world. In the words of the early church Father Tertullian, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church.
The church’s first missionary effort, beginning in this chapter, was foreshadowed in chapter 5, when people from the cities near Jerusalem brought their sick for the apostles to heal (5:16). Stephen’s outreach to the Hellenistic Jews, those from foreign lands, was a step toward world evangelism. In chapter 8, the church is seen reaching out to Judea, Samaria, and even to a Gentile. They were carrying out their Lord’s mandate to “be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).Acts chapter 8 marks another turning point. Jerusalem, which has dominated the story up to this point, begins to settle into the background, illustrating the truth that opportunity ignored is opportunity lost. The church there continues, but the explosive days of apostolic miracles and exponential growth fade. Paul wrote that the gospel came “to the Jew first” and then “to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). The murder of Stephen almost surely fixed a point of the gospel’s final rejection by the Jewish leaders, and God’s design for the gospel to move out into new territory began.
The question, then, is how important knowing Christ is to us. If it is our consuming passion, we will not resent suffering because amidst the pain we have the underlying assurance that it is leading us to achieve our deepest ambition in life. John and Betty Stam were missionaries in China who were martyred by the communists in the 1930s while they were still in their late twenties. John Stam once said, “Take away everything I have, but do not take away the sweetness of walking and talking with the King of glory!” Those who find such joy in their union with Christ will find that suffering is indeed a blessing, for it leads them to greater depths of the greatest pleasure one can know. We need to redeem pleasure from the stranglehold of emptiness to which the world has condemned it (Fernando, A. (1998). Acts. The NIV Application Commentary (267). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.).
In the opening verses of this critical chapter three progressive features show "How God uses Evil for Good", describing: 1) Persecution (Act 8:1–3), which led to 2) Preaching (Acts 8:4-7), which led to 3) Productivity (Acts 8:8).
1) Persecution (Act 8:1–3)
Acts 8:1-3 [8:1]And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions 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. (ESV)