Summary: Stephen has just been stoned, Saul is ravaging the church, and many believers are going to rancid prisons getting beaten and fighting off the rats, just because they love Jesus. is the basis for my Thanksgiving sermon. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Bear with me.
Here in chapter 8 of the book of Acts we are finally introduced to this Pharisee named Saul. Perhaps no other religious person in Israel had more of a zealous hatred for Christ and Christians. Let’s pay close attention to the very first verse of Acts chapter 8: “Saul approved of his (Stephen’s) execution”. He was probably smiling as he watched an innocent man be pelted to death with big rocks.
Now we see that he wasn’t the only one, an angry mob ensued. “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.” Hallelujah we’re all homeless!
Do you understand what that’s saying? We established last week that the church in Jerusalem had grown to between 5 and 10 thousand families, all of whom lived in and around Jerusalem. They had homes, probably jobs/farms, belongings, and so on. All of them except the twelve apostles fled to other places, and as we will see, Saul chased after them with permission slips from the religious leaders, so that he could bring them back to Jerusalem bound, so they could be imprisoned or executed. Praise the Lord, thank you Jesus!
We know that by the time Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD probably most of the apostles were elsewhere too, and we know that around 70 AD, many Jerusalem believers had fled to the caves near Pella knowing the prophecies that Jesus gave them in passages such as Luke 21.
Why am I giving hallelujahs to all these horrible events? Because of verse 4, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word”. I beat this one to death last week, but there it is again. We hear about this preaching 5 or 6 times in chapter 8. They didn’t set up soup kitchens and homeless shelters, they were probably homeless themselves, they preached the word, they proclaimed the good news of Jesus death, and resurrection.
Why is this so important? Because I can just imagine what would have happened if the church stayed in Jerusalem, they convert everybody who can be converted, the apostles die, the church starts getting comfortable, the signs and wonders dramatically slow down, they build some big worship centres, and pretty soon they’re no threat to anyone and the church shrivels up. Does that sound familiar?
That has eventually happened in every flourishing Christian culture since the first century, just take Turkey for example. And we are currently in the middle of it here in North America. Just quietly going about their business singing songs, reading about the past, and continuing on with their everyday activities in the culture where the majority of people don’t believe what they do, but are willing to put up with them if they stay in their place and keep quiet.
You and I owe our salvation to Jesus yes, but also to this persecution that Jesus himself prophesied, and we especially owe a lot to the zealous hatred of Saul. We owe him even more when he becomes Paul. Stephen died for us and all those thousands of people were displaced ultimately for our sake. That is why we can be thankful for what we read in this passage.
Next we hear about the former waiter turned evangelist, Phillip. The crowds that gathered around his preaching down in Samaria paid attention with one accord.
They were seeing Phillip cast out evil spirits and healing people so that there was much joy in that city.
Now they probably hadn’t seen much of this stuff since Jesus was with the woman at the well. But that was a few years ago now and they probably figured that was all they were going to get. So they must have been extremely thankful to see that this Jesus thing had not come to an end, and they were being included as the outcasts of both the Jews and non-Jews.
I’ll talk more about what happened in Samaria but first I want to look at the continued adventures of Phillip. Clearly God was pleased with Phillip, and Phillip must have been so grateful, first of all to still be alive and free, but also that even though he wasn’t an apostle, he was given all the power of the Holy Spirit and was seeing many people believe in Jesus because of him.
So in verse 26, he must wonder what’s going on Let’s watch….
An angel of the Lord comes to him and says, “Hey Phillip go walk down the dusty road to Gaza.” Phillip must have been thinking, “What? Have you seen my ministry here in Samaria, man I am singlehandedly taking this city for you Jesus, let me set up a church here. I don’t really want to go wander off into the bleak desert, what are you going to do with me out there? This is the thanks I get?”