Following the martyrdom of Stephen, Saul led the persecution of the church in Jerusalem and many Christians left and went to Judea and Samaria. Philip begins his work as an evangelist and many Samaritans believe.
Following the martyrdom of Stephen, Saul led the persecution of the church in Jerusalem and many Christians left and went to Judea and Samaria. Philip begins his work as an evangelist and many Samaritans believe.
Welcome back. We are continuing in the very dramatic story that is unfolding at the beginning of this second series in the book of Acts.
Background and Introduction
If you’ve listened to the first two episodes, you’ll know that the story centres around a single preacher, called Stephen, who was speaking widely in Jerusalem. He became the focus of a controversy in the city when Jewish opponents started accusing him of overturning the Jewish religion. This ended with Stephen coming in front of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. I’ve mentioned these people on many occasions. They ruled over the religious life of the nation. In the last episode, in a very long speech, the longest recorded speech in the book of Acts, Stephen speaks directly to the rulers of Israel, going through aspects of their history and explaining to them that, all the way through the history of Israel, the leaders in particular, but the people in general, have often been unwilling to obey what God wanted them to do. He confronts them with the fact that that is exactly what they had done when they condemned Jesus Christ as a false messiah, and handed him over to Pontius Pilate, leading to his crucifixion. That is what they were continuing to do, by opposing the church in Jerusalem, opposing the Apostles and now questioning Stephen.
This speech led to the most dramatic possible outcome. The emotional response of the Sanhedrin was astonishing. They were so angry at this accusation. They were so filled with self-justification and self-righteousness that they couldn’t bear to listen to Stephen any longer. They wanted to cover their ears, and their whole faces were contorted with anger as they dragged him out of the meeting, through the streets of the city, outside the city wall and then spontaneously, members of this group started picking up stones and literally stoning him to death. So, the last episode ended very dramatically, with Stephen dying prostrate on the floor, outside the city walls, in public view. This is important to note. People around would have seen it. He was killed suddenly, dramatically and indeed illegally because the Roman authorities did not allow anyone to be executed in this way by the Jewish authorities. Here we have a most intriguing story. What is going to happen next?
Saul leads the Persecution
We must introduce to you a key character, who is going to shape this story in two very different ways. This character has appeared already and I mentioned him very briefly in previous episodes. In Acts 7: 58, as Stephen was being stoned it says,
‘the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’Acts 7:58, NIV
and in Acts 8: 1,
‘And Saul approved of their killing him’.Acts 8:1, NIV
A man called Saul, who has another name, Paul, is very supportive of the suppression of the church and even the killing of one of its spokesmen. We’ll come back to him in just a minute. But let’s just see what happens immediately afterwards, as we read Acts 8: 1 - 3:
1 ‘And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the Apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the Church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.’Acts 8:1-3, NIV
There was a very big change. The church buried Stephen; they mourned for him. He was a key spokesman and very much loved by the church community for all the kindness he’d shown to the widows in the distribution of food. There was tremendous sadness for the church. But here is a great persecution.
Now the religious leaders mobilise people to intimidate the church and to threaten them. As soon as one person is killed, immediately the thought comes into the minds of people, ‘Who will be next?’ That’s very often how persecution starts. A key event - putting some leaders in prison, or assassinating a leader, or something of that nature - leads to an intimidation, a sense of fear coming over a whole community. Many of you listening to this will understand and have experienced some of those emotions in your own community when something of this nature happens. That’s what happened in Jerusalem. The opposition to the church that had been simmering away for some time now came out into the open. The trigger had been the events around Stephen and Stephen’s martyrdom.
We see that this man, Saul, wasn’t just a witness to the martyrdom of Stephen; he appears to be a ringleader of the persecution. He’s actually at the very front. He is being systematic:
‘Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.’Acts 8:3, NIV
Now he didn’t do this on his own authority. He would have done this on the authority of the Sanhedrin, the religious leaders, and there would have been other people working with him. But clearly, he was very committed to the cause of suppressing the Church. He must have considered it a terrible heresy, a terrible misunderstanding. He must have considered Jesus to be a false messiah. He was an energetic man who volunteered to go through the city, knocking on the doors of known Christian families, and intimidating those people. He put some people in prison. In an earlier episode, we discovered that in the Temple compound, the Jewish authorities, the Sanhedrin, had a prison. We’ve seen it being used in the past for the Apostles, for overnight stays in prison, and we’ve seen that the Temple guard looked after this prison. We’ve even seen a miraculous deliverance from the prison through an angelic intervention. So, the prison here is probably that prison area associated with the Temple compound which, no doubt, filled up very quickly.
The other thing that obviously happened at this particular point is that people began to scatter. They began to leave the city. They were afraid of what was going to happen.
Saul has been mentioned before on a number of occasions but it’s at this point in our series on the book of Acts that we need to take a step back and think about this man. He becomes the central character. His Jewish name is Saul, but like many other Jews of that time, he had another name which was Greek, for use in the multicultural world in which they lived. His Greek name was Paul. He could be known by either name, and generally Luke uses Saul in the earlier chapters, and then he uses Paul in the later chapters.
We know from other parts of the book of Acts, and from things said in Paul’s writings, that he was born in a province called Cilicia, which is in southern Turkey, as we would understand it today. He was born in the capital city of that province, Tarsus. He was, what we have described in earlier episodes as, a Hellenistic Jew. In his family background, he didn’t live in Israel. He lived outside the country, in a prominent city with a university and an education system, and a place of trade and significance, with a good-sized Jewish population. He grew up in that context. He would have been a regular attender at the synagogue in Tarsus.
Then we find, from comments made in Acts 22, and in Philippians 3, that at some point in his life, he moved from Tarsus to Jerusalem to have a higher level of religious education. When did this happen in his life? Probably as a teenager. Maybe he was prominent and able, showing himself to be a talented young man, who was very committed to the Jewish religion. Maybe he was hand-picked for an elite education. Maybe his family wanted this to happen. Maybe some travelling Jewish religious leader noticed him. We don’t know the exact circumstances but what we do know is that he ended up in Jerusalem. We know that he studied under one of the most well-known teachers in Jerusalem, a man called Gamaliel, who was actually a member of the Sanhedrin, and who we have encountered in an earlier episode.
We also know that he became part of a group of religious enthusiasts known as the Pharisees, with whom you’re probably very familiar. They appear continually in the Gospels. These men were devoted to the Jewish religion in a very sincere way. Their particular focus was precise obedience to the Jewish law and all the other traditions that had come and been added over the centuries. They were very particular about the exact way that you should conduct yourself as a religious Jew.
If we imagine the situation now, knowing those things - that Paul is tremendously committed to Judaism, very much committed to the Pharisee way of life, hugely well educated in Judaism, a very intelligent man, a natural leader - what was he thinking whilst the Church was growing up around him, in these months and years since the Day of Pentecost? There he was in the city, watching what was going on day by day. He would have been listening to the Apostles speaking in the Temple courts. No doubt he would have encountered them; he would have encountered Christians in the street; he would have heard about miracles, he might have even seen them. He was in the city at the time but we know nothing about him until this point. It’s easy to imagine that this would have created in him a sense of tremendous concern, anger and frustration that his beloved religious system was being turned upside down, right there in the city of Jerusalem. He’s the sort of person who, at a key moment, will come forward and take a position of leadership. This is the key moment. Stephen’s death has changed the atmosphere in the city. The Church is now going through a moment of hesitation and uncertainty, and even fear. Paul steps forward and he volunteers to the religious authorities to lead the way in the persecution.
If you know the story of the Gospels, you will know that that is not the end of the story. Quite the contrary. Paul later on encounters Jesus Christ personally, in the most remarkable circumstances possible. But we come to that at a later point. For now, he’s the sworn enemy of the Church. We see in Acts 8: 4 - 8. What begins to happen in the second part of our passage:
The Scattered Church
4 ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.’Acts 8:4-8, NIV
Most believers in Jerusalem leave the city. This is dramatic. We’re talking about thousands of people exiting the city of Jerusalem. Where did they go? The description here is to Judea and Samaria. Jerusalem is in the southern part of the nation of Israel, which broadly speaking, can be divided into three regions at this time: the southern region is known as Judea; the central region is known as Samaria; and the northern region is known as Galilee, where Jesus and the Apostles came from. Jerusalem is in the south, in Judea, and it says that they scattered to Judea and a bit further north to Samaria. Interestingly enough, in Acts 1: 8, which is the central mission verse that shapes the whole of our understanding of the book of Acts, Jesus said to the Apostles,
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”Acts 1:8, NIV
This second part of that prediction is now being fulfilled through the hostile circumstances of persecution. It’s clear that they shared their faith and their stories wherever they went, with significant impact.
Philip the Evangelist
Then appears on the scene Philip, another very interesting character. He was a friend of Stephen. He was on the same team as Stephen, the team of seven that we saw in Series 1 Episode 10, who looked after the widows and organised the daily distribution of food. Philip and Stephen were on the same team serving the church. Philip here appears to have another dramatic gift that hasn’t been mentioned up to this time. He appears to be naturally gifted at sharing his faith, of being what we call, an evangelist. In fact, he’s named as an evangelist. Later on, in the book of Acts, in Acts 21: 8, Paul visits the house of ‘Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven.’ So, he’s actually got the title of an evangelist. He’s naturally got that ability. Here in Samaria, he preaches; people respond. He prays for the sick and many are healed. Many evil spirits are removed from people, by the power of Jesus, leading to great joy in that city. Philip is a very interesting character. Whereas Stephen started on the road, but it ended in martyrdom, Philip lived a long life. He lived a number of years and went to many places. He is seen here in Samaria. In Acts 8 we find him meeting an Ethiopian royal official on the road south from Jerusalem, heading down towards Africa. Later on, we find him on the coastal area on the Mediterranean coast, preaching in different towns. Then we find him settling in the North Western town of Caesarea. He spent a lot of time in different places as an evangelist.
An interesting question arises here about Samaria. Let’s think about Samaria and its people - the Samaritans. If you studied the Gospels, and if you’ve seen the ‘Life of Jesus’, and been through the Gospel episodes, you’ll know that the Samaritans appear on quite a number of occasions. But who were they? They were not wholly Jewish. They were half Jewish. What happened, some hundreds of years before, is that the northern district had been taken over, along with Galilee, by a foreign power, known as Assyria. The Assyrians had a particular ethnic policy with the territories they conquered. They often removed large numbers of people from the territory, and moved them elsewhere, and then they would move different ethnic groups into that territory. They had done this in Samaria to a significant extent, so that the ethnic basis of the Samaritans was part Jewish, part non-Jewish. The rest of the Jews did not treat them as wholly Jewish, because of this ethnic mix. There was tension between the Jewish people and the Samaritan people. But the Samaritans did hold on to some parts of the Jewish faith, notably the first five books of the Old Testament. They also continued worship in a temple, but they formed their own temple - not in the city of Jerusalem, but further north in Samaria, in a place which they called Mount Gerizim. It appears in the Gospels, in John 4. Jesus engaged with Samaritans from time to time. Some of them came to believe in Jesus; a few of them at the time that Jesus was ministering and he sent teams of people out to evangelise in that area, as recorded in Luke 10. When he sent seventy people out to evangelise, the area they were in was partly Samaria. They’d heard about Jesus.
Now they are confronted with the Church in a completely new way; into their district came literally hundreds of Jewish people who were refugees. They had left the city of Jerusalem; they were on the move. Maybe some of them were travelling further north and they stopover in Samaria on the way. Bear in mind there’s ethnic tension between these two groups. The Samaritans know enough already for them to be able to respond quickly. Jesus passed through their district a few years ago; John the Baptist preached in their district; some of Jesus’ evangelistic teams had been through the district; rumours of what Jesus had done would have reached them from different parts of the country; and people who had experienced healing and miracles would have passed through. There was a lot of information there for them, from the last few years. But now the Church has arrived. A spokesman arrived, Philip - somebody who could communicate to them reasonably effectively about what was going on and talked to them further about Jesus as the Messiah. The Samaritans had an idea that there was going to be a special deliverer coming. They didn’t have the Old Testament prophetic books because they didn’t believe in them. They didn’t have access to the most significant information but they had a general idea that God was going to send a Redeemer, a Saviour, a Deliverer, or a Messiah, and Philip said, “Jesus is this person. Some of you believed Jesus when he walked through this district. Now is the opportunity for the whole community”. He started performing miracles and other people who came with Philip shared their stories and their testimonies. They responded and there was great joy in that city.
As we reflect on this amazing story and we see a great tragedy and setback, now beginning to turn out to be an opportunity, we can learn a few things. There are one or two things I want to highlight as things that you and I can learn from this passage.
The first one, of course, is that the reality of opposition to the Gospel is always there. We should face up to it as a fundamental fact of the Christian faith. There will be people who oppose the Gospel, sometimes severely.
The second important point here is that opposition can be an opportunity. The opposition of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leaders, led by Saul, as they were trying to dismantle the Church, turned out to be an opportunity. All these thousands of Christians were congregated in a very small geographical area. They were staying in Jerusalem. They would be more effective if they scattered, but they had not done so of their own free will, up until this point. This opposition turned out to be an opportunity because they began to spread the message in all sorts of other places, notably in Samaria and in Judea. We hear more about Judea later on, and we will find that Luke records that many churches have been formed in the different towns and villages of Judea, and that Peter used to spend time visiting them. That’s another part of this story, but our focus at the moment is on Samaria. We can use opposition as an opportunity to share our faith if we trust God, and work out what opportunities come our way.
Another reflection is this. When one leader is removed, God can easily raise up another. Stephen was removed, but Philip rose up quickly. The development of the Church to a great extent is never dependent on individuals. It’s always a team effort. God is always able to bring people to the forefront to advance his Kingdom if others are unable to continue: maybe they are martyred; maybe they’re put in prison; maybe they stumble in their own lives and things go wrong; maybe they have health difficulties. There’s all sorts of reasons why people can’t continue. But it’s clear here that as one leader was sacrificed and died, another leader rose up, and Philip proved to be an incredibly successful evangelist.
Another learning point is, again, to notice the power of miraculous events. When miracles are commonplace, the Church will generally have tremendous opportunities to share the faith.
Another point to mention briefly, is that this passage tells us something about the sovereignty of God. He knew that this was going to happen. What appeared to be a disaster turned out to be something that God is going to use for the good. Many of us in our different nationalities and our different countries and situations will know that sometimes things have gone badly wrong for the Church. Opposition has come; difficulty has come. But God is still sovereign in those situations. I want to really encourage you; he’s always got a purpose. He’s always got a way forward for the Church, even when there’s a setback. Many people get in the mindset that the setback is the determining feature of the situation; it isn’t. There’s always an opportunity for God’s Kingdom to advance.
My concluding comment is to quote an Early Church theologian writer, known as a father of the Church, to you. His name is Tertullian and he came from North Africa. Commenting on martyrdom, he said, famously, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. The blood of Stephen, as he died, turned out to be the seed of the growth of the Church beyond Jerusalem, because immediately afterwards, something very dramatic happens as the Gospel spreads out to totally new areas. The story continues very dramatically in Samaria in our next episode and I hope you’ll join us for it.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Jesus is described as Redeemer, Saviour and Deliverer. What do those words mean to you?
- How can opposition to the gospel give opportunities?
- Pray for more miracles today.
- The Church is not dependent on individuals. How are new leaders chosen?
- What were the differences between Samaritans and Jews? Use The Life of Jesus material to help.