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.
Have you ever had a good bad time? Children teething, sad weddings, and joyful funerals all qualify as such oxymoronic events. Following the death of Stephen, the Church lived the words of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.” Through persecution, Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled (Acts 1:8) as the story of the Church became a tale of two cities: Jerusalem and Samaria.
Great pain was endured (Acts 8:2). Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, was beloved and his death sent shock waves through all Jerusalem. Notice the contrast which Luke makes for his readers between the two competing kingdoms with their opposing passions: Ungodly men had become enraged and stoned Steven, but godly “men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.” Stephen was filled with the Spirit (Acts 7:55), but the stiff-necked Sanhedrin resisted that same Spirit (Acts 7:51). However, even as their persecution began, God was prosecuting His plan perfectly.
Great persecution was produced (Acts 8:1a). Religion without the Holy Spirit is the cruelest force in the world. The Sanhedrin raged against the Spirit and Saul ravaged the Church (Acts 8:3). Once again, it is important to see the contrasts drawn by Luke. While the Church appointed Spirit-filled, self-controlled, compassionate, and God-honoring men to care for widows and orphans, Saul of Tarsus was making widows and orphans. He not only attended and gave approval of (took joy in) Stephen’s stoning, he was also “ravaging the Church.” The word “ravaging” is a term used to describe the way a wild boar thrashes crops and violently slashes with its tusks anything or anyone in its way while foraging for food (Psalm 80:13). Like a ravenous wild boar, Saul went house to house dragging men and women off to prison and even killing some of them (Acts 9:1). Saints were scattered, but the Apostles stood their ground. Why?
Great progress was made (Acts 8:1b). The same group of men who abandoned Jesus to the cross did not abandon their post in Jerusalem even under the threat of imprisonment and death. Perhaps we misunderstand Jesus’ command to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth as a progressive, step-by-step order. However, the Twelve seem to understand the need to simultaneously reach each city and region. They did not want to give up Jerusalem to reach Samaria. Jerusalem became the front line of persecution against the Church and the Apostles perceived that they had been called by the Commander to operate inside the gates of Hell. With uncommon courage and supernatural power, the Church prevailed against Satan, Saul, and the Sanhedrin.
In the summer of 1998 forest fires ravaged Florida. How well I remember the acrid smoke which filled my home in the northern part of the state from fires which burned in central Florida over one hundred fifty miles away. Surprisingly, the fire “jumped” from one location to another because strong winds carried live embers great distances. Once I drove down Interstate 4 from Daytona to Orlando and witnessed the fire from a pine forest on the western side of the road leap about three hundred yards and set ablaze the eastern shoulder. Hundreds of thousands of acres were consumed by the great fires of 1998.
In Acts 8, the Holy Spirit blew on a small fire in the Jerusalem Church. With the hot breath of Saul’s Satanic persecution, live embers were scattered to the ends of the earth. Had the wind of persecution not blown, would the Church have left Jerusalem? God knows. How many missionaries have set Gospel sails by opposing gales? More than we would believe.
Christians were not made for lives of ease when all is right with the world. We are called to bear Christ’s light into a dark and violently God-hating world. If we stand in faithful solidarity with the Church of Acts, should we be surprised if we suffer her fate? When we do, through Christ—His barren cross and empty grave—we have the power to prevail in “the best of times [and] the worst of times.”