February 8, 2014

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe                                          

 

Lesson II.E.4: The Church is Scattered (8:1-3)                           

Acts 8:1-3 (KJV)

 

1And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.

2And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

3As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

 

Introduction

There are only three verses to this lesson, yet it is a very important passage, because it records the first missionary outreach of the Church of Jesus Christ. It is impossible to overstate the importance of individual witness in the spread of the Gospel. Those who were scattered preached the Gospel everywhere they went. Hundreds of individual evangelists were giving the Gospel to thousands of souls, and the message became known over the whole area. When the preaching of the Word of God becomes ‘professionalized’, a large part of the Christian vitality is lost.

Jerusalem had been thoroughly evangelized under the protection and leadership of the Holy Spirit. God fulfills His purposes in many ways, even passing through the wrath of men. Now it was time for phase 2 of God’s plan—to take the Gospel to Judea and Samaria (Acts 1:8).

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world,” wrote Victor Hugo, “and that is an idea whose time has come.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is much more than an idea. The Gospel is “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). It is God’s ‘dynamite’ for breaking down sin’s barriers and ‘setting the prisoners free.’ Its time had come and the church was on the move. The ‘salt’ was now leaving the churches ‘saltshaker’ to be spread over all Judea, and Samaria, just as the Lord had commanded (Acts 1:8).

 

Commentary

1And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.

Some believe that the words ‘Saul was consenting’ (expressing hearty approval), means that Saul was a member of the Sanhedrin. This is not necessarily true. However, since he was from Cilicia, he was undoubtedly a member of the synagogue that debated with Stephen—“Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen” (Acts 6:9). [The synagogue of the Libertines; or free men is a Roman name, and signifies the sons of free men. They were Jews whose parents were born free, or had obtained their freedom at Rome, or in some free city under the Roman government, which is the case with Saul of Tarsus.]

Saul’s zeal for the Law of Moses was displayed most vividly in his persecution of the church—“For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.…” (Gal. 1:13-14; see also Phil. 3:6). When he said, “I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it,” the meaning is that he persecuted the saints in a most violent and outrageous manner, beyond all others that were also persecuting Christians. He really thought that persecuting believers was one way of serving God, so he did it with a clear conscience (2 Tim. 1:3). He obeyed the light he had and, when God gave him more light, he obeyed that and became a Christian!

In what ways did Saul persecute the church? He made havoc of the church” The stoning of Stephen, which Saul approved, showed the lengths to which he would go to achieve his purpose. He persecuted both men and women “unto the death” (Acts 22:4), entering both houses and synagogues (Acts 22:19). He had the believers imprisoned and beaten (Acts 26:9-11; Acts 22:19). If they renounced their faith in Jesus Christ (‘compelling them to blasphemy’—Acts 22:11), they were set free; if they did not recant, they could be killed. But what Saul did, he did it ‘ignorantly in unbelief’ (1 Tim 1:13), and God showed him mercy, and saved him. Saul was the last person in Jerusalem you would have chosen to be the great apostle to the Gentiles.

The ‘persecution’ probably affected the Hellenistic Christians (because Stephen was one) much more than the Aramaic speaking disciples who were faithful to all the religious customs of the Jews. They would have been easily identifiable and would have been associated with Stephen. From this time until A.D. 135 the church in Jerusalem seems to have been composed mainly of ‘Hebrews.’ The Apostles were probably respected because some of the aura of popularity created by the working of miracles persisted.

The consequence of the persecution that occurred in ‘Jerusalem’ was that ‘they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.’ Though the Savior had instructed them in how they were to evangelize, they probably would have lingered in Jerusalem for a long time had they not been swept out by persecution. His instructions were, first, “. . . that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). And His final words to them, just before He ascended back to His Father was, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). How often has ‘the rage of Christ’s enemies ‘turned out rather to the furtherance of the Gospel’—“But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the Gospel; So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places” (Philippines 1:12-13). Persecution in one place has often been the means of carrying and spreading the Gospel in many others; and has been God's means for the conversion of multitudes of souls, especially where it has been the fiercest and hottest. It became a common saying in primitive times, that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. Had there not been a persecution to drive the Christians from Jerusalem and eventually to the Gentile world, the likelihood remains that the Christian movement would have been little more than a sect.

The sweeping statement, “they were all scattered” was probably made to emphasize the great extent of the persecution and the flight of the believers. The leading Christians, particularly the preachers, fled from the persecution of the Jews, which agreed with their Lord’s commands—“When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23); though without a doubt many remained, and others returned, as we learn from Acts 9:26-30. Why the apostles did not leave the city is not stated. Certainly, the Twelve would not have stayed unless there was a flock for them to care for, and many Hebrew Christians were found in Jerusalem later on. We should assume the apostles stayed because they possessed rare courage and faith. Obviously the church became more Jewish with the evacuation of those who would be more sympathetic with Stephen. At the same time the persecution deepened the gulf existing between the church and Judaism.


2And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

The ‘devout men’ were pious Jews, probably impressed with Stephen preaching and his faith and courage as he faced death. They may have been secretly inclined to Christianity, but were not yet willing to declare it openly.

3As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

Some versions, instead of ‘made havoc,’ have ‘laid waste,' which has the idea of ‘ravaged,’ as a wild beast does with the body of its victim.

Saul was convinced that this new religion that claimed a crucified criminal to be the Messiah could not possibly be of God. This opinion was probably based upon the curse the Old Testament pronounced upon anyone who was hanged upon a tree. This was scriptural proof, so far as Saul was concerned, that Jesus was a fraud and this new movement blasphemous. This was a young man full of zeal. Later on he wrote about himself—“as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Philippians 3:6)

Stephen’s martyrdom together with the ensuing persecution of the church confirmed Israel’s unbelief and their obstinate refusal to accept Jesus as her Redeemer.

Though persecution should not drive us from our work, yet it may send us to work elsewhere. Wherever the established believer is driven, he carries the knowledge of the Gospel, and makes the preciousness of Christ known in every place.

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