In Acts 8, we see that the believers were scattered by persecution. But they didn’t let that defeat them! “They preached wherever they went” – just as Jesus had said!
Job, chapters 3-4; Acts, chapters 8-9
Acts 8:1-8 (NLT):
Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen.
A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.) But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.
But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went. Philip, for example, went to the city of Samaria and told the people there about the Messiah. Crowds listened intently to Philip because they were eager to hear his message and see the miraculous signs he did. Many evil spirits were cast out, screaming as they left their victims. And many who had been paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet Saul of Tarsus
The “that day” referred to in verse 1 was the day that Stephen was stoned to death (see Acts 7). “Saul,” who “agreed completely” with the killing of Stephen, is the same Saul who would later be known as “Paul.” But at this point, he was focused on arresting disciples, not making them. It’s interesting that the NLT says that Saul was one of the witnesses. None of the other translations that I normally use (NIV, NASB) refer to Saul as a witness. The word witness prompts the thought: does this simply mean that he was a witness to Stephen’s death? Or was he one of the “lying witnesses” who testified against Stephen (Acts 6:13)? Either way, he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen.
The Believers Were Scattered, But They Preached Wherever They Went
After Stephen’s death, a great persecution of Christians began in Jerusalem. Perhaps people were emboldened by the killing of Stephen. Maybe the whole proceeding “opened the door” for others who wanted to get rid of the followers of Jesus. Whatever their motivation, people were out to get believers – so they were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria.
Two interesting things come to mind from this phrase. First, all of the believers were scattered – except the apostles. How is it that the apostles were exempt from this persecution? They had been the first focus of the ruling council (see chapters 4-5). If persecution was expanding, why were the apostles excluded? The only reason I can imagine is that the ruling council was still following Gamaliel’s advice (Acts 5:38-39). The apostles had demonstrated that they were willing to suffer for Jesus, and nothing good (from the perspective of the religious leaders) had come from punishing them. So instead of going after the apostles, they focused on the other believers – the “rank and file” of the Church.
The other interesting thing is that the believers were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. Where have we heard that phrase before? Oh, yeah, in Acts 1:8, when Jesus said: “You will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. They had been in Jerusalem, and now they were being scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
The Believers Preached Wherever They Went
But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went (verse 4). Two thoughts come to mind. First, what looked like a bad situation – persecution in Jerusalem – ended up being the vehicle for God’s plan to move forward. The way the story unfolds, it’s clear that if there had not been a persecution, the believers would not have voluntarily scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. That doesn’t mean that the persecution was “good,” of course; it simply reminds us to look for how God is at work in every situation.
The other thought is that the believers didn’t just go throughout Judea and Samaria; they preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went. These were not “trained preachers.” Remember, the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. By this time, there were thousands of believers (see Acts 4:4 – over 5,000 at that time). There were twelve apostles, of course, and six deacons (that we know of). The Church had appointed seven deacons in Acts 6 – but one of those was Stephen, so there were only six left. Six deacons among those scattered – which leaves thousands of “ordinary believers” who preached the Good News wherever they went.
Application: They Preached Wherever They Went
The Gospel spread in those early days because everyone took seriously Jesus’ command to share the Good News. They didn’t just share it when it was convenient, or comfortable; they preached the Good News wherever they went. Do we?
Father, thank you for reminding us that you are at work in every situation – even the ones that look “bad” from our perspective. The early believers didn’t hide out, wringing their hands because they were persecuted and scattered. Instead, they preached the Good News wherever they went. Help us to do that too!
Jesus promised us the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 1:8, and we thank you for that incredible gift! But he also told us that the gift of the Spirit was to empower us to be witnesses – “telling people about me everywhere.” As we experience the Spirit’s presence, comfort, and strength, remind us that we’re called to be witnesses! Amen.