Acts (Week 3)
The Persecution of the Church (Acts 8:1-3)
One thing that I don’t think a lot of you know about me is that I’m a huge fan of the greatest sports franchise in the history of sports. I’m of course talking about the Calgary Flames. This might be new information for you because I rarely talk about the team or my love for them.
A few years ago I turned 30 and my family had the idea of flying Karly and I down to Denver in order to see the Flames play the Colorado Avalanche. The game was about a week after my birthday and the location was ideal since my sister and her family live in Denver, my dad lives an hour south and my mom and brother live about 5 hours north of Denver. The whole family could come to Denver for this game.
Furthermore, Karly and I had just started dating about six or seven months before that and things were pretty serious, so it would give everyone a chance to meet this amazing woman. The only problem with this plan was that the game was on a Saturday night and Karly worked on both the Thursday before and the Monday following this game. Which means we had to fly over on Friday morning, which if you’ve never made the trip out to the midwest it takes about 12 hours to get there once you consider layovers and changing planes and all that. So we would fly there early Friday morning, get in Friday afternoon, and go to the game Saturday evening. Then, first thing Sunday morning get back on a flight to Halifax. All told, we would have been on the ground in Denver for about 36 hours.
I say “would have” because the trip never happened. Instead, the Friday morning in question I overslept. Not by a lot, but just enough. By the time we got to the airport here in Halifax, we had missed check-in for the flight by 5 minutes. We didn’t miss boarding by five minutes… check-in. We didn’t have any checked bags, it was first thing in the morning which meant security would have been easy to get through. But the woman at the check-in counter said that the check-in system was closed and there was nothing she could do.
Later that morning I had to call my mom and tell her that we missed the flight and there was no way to get to Denver in time for the game. And I said, “I’m just really disappointed. I really wanted you guys to meet Karly.” And my mom responded with, “I know Jerry but you know… everything happens for a reason.”
Is that true? Does everything, in fact, happen for a reason? If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, go ahead and turn with me to Acts chapter 8, we’re going to look at verse 1 through 3 this morning. “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. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”
When studying Scripture, there are two overarching methods we can use. The first is to examine a verse or a passage up close. You would do this by maybe looking at each word in the original Greek or Hebrew. Maybe you would look at why the author chose to arrange the text the way that they did. You know, like if you’re looking at Paul’s fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5, why did he list it as love, joy, peace, patience… and so forth.
Or you might ask, especially in the narrative passages like in the gospels, if there are particular details that stand out? Is this happening in a particular location or on a specific day? Is there a detail the author chose to include that might be important? In this way, it’s like you’re looking at Scripture under a microscope, trying to look at all the little details.
The other way to study Scripture is to try to zoom out and look at how sections of a book relate to each other. You could ask questions like, “What came before this section? What came afterwards?” Why did the author choose to arrange the text in the way they did? For example, the book of Ephesians has six chapters. In the first three chapters, Paul spends almost all of his time telling the Ephesians who they are in Christ. It’s about identity. Then in the second half, chapters four through six, he instructs them in how to live. It’s like Paul is telling the Ephesians that their identity in Christ is most important and that their behaviours will flow out of that if they truly understanding it. This is something you would miss if you were just looking at a particular passage of Ephesians under a microscope.
Sometimes you want to study Scripture up close, looking at it through a microscope and trying to understand a particular passage. Other times, it’s important to take a 30,000-foot view and look at how the different parts of a book relate to each other. I bring this up because this morning we’re going to try to take a step back and look at this passage of ours, Acts 8:1-3, from the 30,000-foot view. I want to see how this passage related to the rest of the book.
We’ve skipped ahead quite a bit from last week when we were in Acts 2. Since then, Peter and John have continued to preach and heal people. In response, the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body, has told them to stop telling people about Jesus. The church has continued to grow and as the church grows we’ve seen a couple problems. In Acts 5 there was Ananias and Sapphira, two believers who sold some of their property and then lied about the value of it when they turned that money over to the apostles. In chapter 6, because the church has been growing, there have been some complaints that the Hellenistic, or Greek, Jews weren’t being taken care of as well as the Hebrew Jews. So the apostles decide to appoint seven men as deacons to oversee the distribution of resources. But what can be easy to miss when looking at each individual passage is that everything in Acts 1 through 7 takes place in Jerusalem.
Two weeks ago, when we started this series, we talked about how Jesus gave the church its mission in Acts 1:8. Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The mission of the church is to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In Matthew 28, Jesus says it this way in verse 19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Go and make disciples of all nations.” “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And yet, in the first 7 chapters of Acts, the church has not yet left Jerusalem.
Jesus has commanded his disciples to go and bear witness to the ends of the earth, to make disciples of all nations, and yet here we see the church stuck in Jerusalem. It’s growing. It’s thriving in Jerusalem. But that’s it.
Suddenly, in Acts chapter 7 we see Stephen, who was one of the seven deacons chosen in Acts 6, deliver a great speech about Jesus and the religious leaders stone him for blasphemy. This event, the stoning of Stephen, is what lead to the great persecution we’re told about in Acts 8. And as a result, we’re told that all except the apostles were scattered through Judea and Samaria. What’s interesting is that this persecution ended up as the catalyst for the spread of the gospel outside Jerusalem.
Richard Thompson, in his commentary on Acts, says it this way, “This persecution drove them out of the city. The entire incident involving Stephen functions as a narrative hinge in Acts. The focus of the story begins to turn from Jerusalem and the Jewish people to other areas that include Gentiles.”
In chapter 8, we see that Philip is preaching about Jesus in Samaria and then to an Ethiopian eunuch and finally all the way up to Caesarea. In chapter 9 we see that the church has spread to Damascus, the capital of Samaria and areas of Galilee. And in chapter 10, Peter goes and preaches to a Roman centurion. In the immediate aftermath of the death of Stephen and this persecution, we see an explosion of church growth outside of Jerusalem.
Acts 1 through 7, we see the church thriving in Jerusalem and nowhere else. But suddenly, because of this persecution, the church is scattered and more people in more places here the good news of Jesus for the first time.
Which should force us to ask the question… does everything happen for a reason? Did God cause the persecution of the church? Did God want Stephen to be killed in Acts 7 in order that the church would scatter outside of Jerusalem and finally start to witness in Judea, Samaria and the rest of the world? And if so, if God wanted those things to happen or intentionally caused those things to happen, what does that ultimately say about God?
This question, both on a societal level as well as in our lives personally, forces us to confront how God works and what he’s doing. Does God cause bad things to happen in order to bring something good out of them? Does God cause wars, droughts and depressions? Does he cause dictators to rise? Did he cause hurricanes Harvey and Irma? Or on a more personal level, does God cause cancer? Was it God’s will that you lost your job? Did God want your divorce to happen? Was it God who cause Karly and I to miss our flight to Denver? Does everything happen for a reason?
If you were here for either of the hope sermons in our These Three Remain and One series, then it won’t surprise you that my answer is no. No, everything doesn’t happen for a reason. No, God did not cause the death of Stephen. No, it was not God’s perfect will that the church was persecuted and scattered. These things happened, and God allowed them to happen, but he didn’t cause them to happen.
Here’s the crux of the matter, God doesn’t cause everything to happen, but he can use everything for his glory and our good. God has a unique ability to redeem situations. To take something bad and turn it into something good.
Look at verse 3 of our passage, Acts 8. “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” Saul’s goal was the destruction of the church. But God used it to send believers out of Jerusalem and into the rest of the world where more people heard about Jesus. It’s not that God causes everything to happen for a reason, but he has an ability to take even the worst of situations are turn them into something good. And we see this happening again and again in Scripture.
Think about the creation story in Genesis 1-3. Before Adam and Eve sinned, what did they know about God? They knew he was powerful. They knew he was creative. Maybe they even knew he was loving? But they knew nothing of his mercy or his compassion or his grace. God didn’t cause them to sin, but he used it to reveal more of his character which in turn brings him more glory.
And this is what God does constantly. He doesn’t cause the trial and tribulations in our lives, but he uses them for his glory and our good. This is what Paul is talking about in Colossians 2:15 when he says, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” The cross was the world’s attempt to silence Jesus and his revolutionary movement. But God used it as his tool of redemption for the world.
Every time sin strikes, God uses it, turns it around and does something even better with it. Adam and Eve sinned for the first time. Now we know more about God’s mercy. The world tries to kill Jesus. Now we have redemption and forgiveness from sin. Saul tries to destroy the church. Now the church scatters and more people know Jesus and are transformed by him.
Not everything happens for a reason, but God can use everything for his glory and our good. Or as James says in his epistle, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” The question we have to ask ourselves is, what are the trials and tribulations we’re experiencing in our own lives? How might God want to use those for his glory and our good?
So often, I think we view trials and tribulations as something to endure. And so we get into a fight with our spouse or we lose our job or the cancer returns and we think, “I've just got to put my head down, pray and get through this.” But I wonder if we need to shift our perspective. What if trials and tribulations aren’t just something to be endured but an opportunity to thrive? What if God wants to use these kinds of events to make a public spectacle of the powers and authorities of this world? And so these hardships in our lives aren’t just something to get through but are a profound opportunity for growth.
The question we have to ask is, will we let him? Will we open ourselves up to the redemptive power of Jesus in our lives to transform all the trials and tribulations and hardships we go through into something beautiful and life-giving? Not everything happens for a reason. God didn’t cause the persecution of the church. But he can use everything for his glory and our good.
Let’s close in prayer.