When Stephen was being murdered for speaking the truth to the Sanhedrin, a young man named Saul was on hand for the festivities; he seemed to be watching over the cloaks of those who wanted to free up their throwing arms to really let Stephen have it, and according to 8:1 he fully approved of what was going on that day:
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 from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
It would seem that not only did Saul fully approve of Stephen’s cold-blooded murder, but he also took the murder to the next step, dragging believers from their homes in an effort to thwart God’s purpose. Of course, he had been blinded so thoroughly to the truth that he actually thought he was doing God a favor, as hard as that might be to fathom. As a result of this raging persecution of the fledgling church, believers began to flee from Jerusalem, moving out into both neighboring Judea and Samaria.
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
Notice that wherever those who fled the Jerusalem persecution went, they proclaimed the Gospel; this is an important contextual statement, for if “those who had been scattered” were proclaiming the Gospel, then the account of Phillip in Samaria actually serves as an example of what they were all (or at least most of them) were doing: Can we even begin to imagine the dramatic impact this would have had in the surrounding areas?
From the point of view of the Jewish leadership, this was a total disaster. Not only had they murdered a man in their “righteous” indignation, but the result was that they had caused his message to explode across the countryside around them; yet as a political leadership, because of their foolish treatment of Stephen and the believers of Jerusalem, they were now in so deep that there was now no going back. In essence, they had added an exclamation mark to their own ultimate doom.
From the point of view of the Jerusalem believers, the persecution was terrible, especially for the ones swept up by Saul, yet they were sustained in their ordeal by the Holy Spirit. For those who escaped, they were participating as never before in God’s eternal purpose as more and more people came to believe, to the glory of God.
From God’s point of view, the Gospel was not intended to be a local phenomenon, but as a worldwide movement of the Holy Spirit for the redemption not just of one town, but of all Mankind; things were moving along according to plan.
From our point of view, what could possibly be more inspiring than these verses? Let’s not forget that persecution is still in the world today, and all too often we see this from a purely human point of view, asking God to take it away and feeling sorry for our brothers and sisters who suffer. While there is nothing wrong with this reaction, we must also recognize that it is incomplete, because when persecution is taking place we need to see that it is happening because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is actually making headway; it’s become a threat to an entrenched spiritual adversary, and that is a very good thing.
In the next section, Luke records a rather bizarre incident, and we’ll follow the action next time; see you then!