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Acts 8:1-8 – How Persecution Grew the Church

In the past, I have heard about church growth seminars. I am not big into that kind of teaching because it seems to always focus on methods instead of what the Bible says. To plant a church do this. To revive a church do this. To evangelize a community do this. While some of the methods used by others may be helpful in reaching some of those goals, we need to be careful that we aren’t relying on the methods instead of following what Jesus told us to do.

So what is the method prescribed by the Lord? If we were to go by what we read in Acts 8, we might say that the best way to spread the gospel around the world would be… wait for it… persecution! Really? Well, take a look at our passage and consider how God used persecution to accomplish his purposes in the early church.

  1. What does it say?

    The Great Persecution (Acts 8:1-3)

    We find out that Saul was consenting to the death of Stephen. After his death a great persecution was raised against the church at Jerusalem. The believers were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. But the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. Devout men carried Stephen’s body away to be buried and grieved over his death. But Saul caused great damage to the church. He entered every house and dragged the believers to prison.

    The Great Results (Acts 8:4-8)

    The persecution caused the believers to be scattered everywhere but they preached the word. Philip went to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. As they heard his preaching and saw the miracles done by him, the whole crowd heeded what he said. During his time there, demons came out of possessed people with loud cries. Many paralyzed and lame people were also healed. This caused great joy in that city.

  2. What does it mean?

    Persecution was against the church (Acts 8:1-3).

    The church at Jerusalem had become a great force. According to Acts 4:4, the number of believers there had grown to five thousand. The apostles met with them at the temple and probably also in homes. You can imagine what the Jewish religious leaders thought about this. In fact, we don’t have to imagine because the Book of Acts records their response. They had imprisoned Peter and John and told them to stop preaching. But that didn’t stop them. They refused to stop talking about Jesus. However, it all came to a head when they accused Stephen of blasphemy and then killed him. After this event, persecution became very fierce against the church at Jerusalem.

    The persecution was not against other people. It was against the church. The church is the body of believers which has been tasked with serving the Lord as His body on the earth. The church is made up of all believers and at this point it included the disciples and all those who had become believers since the Day of Pentecost. It was against the church that the religious leaders hurled persecution.

    But was this not to be expected? Jesus had told the disciples that they would face persecution.

    John 15:20 – “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”

    Jesus was right. This was something that the church was supposed to expect. There was a bullseye on the back of Christians because they were the servants of the Christ whom the Jewish religious leaders had hated and killed.

    Persecution scattered believers (Acts 8:1b,4).

    The Bible tells us that persecution caused the believers to be scattered throughout the surrounding area. “The word ‘scattered’ (diesparesan), also used in 8:4, comes from the verb speiro, used to refer to sowing seed.”1 It was if God had gathered up all the believers in Jerusalem and then flung them out like seeds into the surrounding areas. They fled to Judea and Samaria. Later we see that they were scattered everywhere. This was not a lack of courage but was part of God’s plan. Believers were scattered in other areas to escape persecution and also to put them in places where they would be useful.

    There have been times when I have wondered about the believers who fled persecution. Wouldn’t it have been better to be like the apostles who didn’t leave? Wouldn’t it have been better for them to stand up to the corrupt religious leaders? Wouldn’t it have been better to trust in the Lord and take what came their way?

    The record of Scripture seems to indicate that there are times to stand firm and times to flee. On the one hand, Peter and John stood firm and kept preaching whether the religious leaders liked it or not.

    Acts 4:18-20 – “So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.’”

    But on the other hand, Jesus told the disciples (whom he had sent on a ministry trip) to preach to those who would listen and leave when rejected.

    Mark 6:11 – “And whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!”

    Matt. 10:23 – “When they persecute you in this city, flee to another.”

    Because of these verses, we should be careful how we judge those who fled persecution. There are times to stand firm and there are times to run. Both responses to persecution can be used by God to accomplish His purposes.

    Persecution spread the gospel (Acts 8:4,5).

    It is interesting to see how good came from what was bad. When the people were scattered into Judea, Samaria, and everywhere, they actively preached the gospel to those they met. One example was what happened with Philip in Samaria, with the Ethiopian eunuch, and in the cities he preached in between Azotus and Caesarea. Persecution accomplished God’s plan for the gospel to be preached all over the world.

    Matt. 28:19 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

    Acts 1:8 – “And you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

    While persecution was not something the believers enjoyed, it did accomplish God’s purpose to spread the gospel to other people in the world. Think of how persecution limited Paul’s time in Philippi or other cities. He wasn’t allowed to stay in one place for very long. But the circumstances kept him traveling to more and more places where the gospel needed to be preached.

  3. How does it apply?

    We should prepare ourselves for persecution.

    When we think of persecution, we often think of Stephen being stoned to death. But persecution can also be something that happens from time to time. But in either case, it is something that each of us should expect.

    Mark 4:16-17 – “These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble.

    In this passage, Jesus says that persecution often reveals the true character of professed believers. When someone only endures during the good times, it is a good indication that they were never truly saved.

    Mark 10:29-30 – “So Jesus answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.”

    You may remember this from a previous message. Jesus promised to reimburse believers who left family and possessions for His sake. But along with these reimbursements, He also promised that believers would face persecution.

    Do you think that you will face persecution this week? If not, why? Didn’t Jesus tell us that we would face it? If not, then it may be that we are not doing what we should be doing. This isn’t a plea for you to look for persecution but to do God’s will whether you are persecuted or not. It will eventually come.

    We should see God’s plan for persecution.

    When we looked at the scattering of believers during the persecution in Jerusalem, we were given a helicopter view of what happened. The persecution caused them to travel away from Jerusalem to other places. Oftentimes, when we face opposition, we see it as something that should produce perseverance. But we must also consider that God has a greater plan that might be different than what we thought should happen.

    When John Paton tried to reach the cannibals on the New Hebrides islands, he wasn’t very successful. He had to leave his house in the middle of the night and even had to jump from a cliff into the water far below during the night. That persecution led him to go to another place where people were more receptive. Did he lack courage or was he to see this as God’s plan to move him to a more fruitful field?

    Phil. 1:12 – “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel.”

    As you face persecution and are questioning what to do, how will you respond? I would suggest that you take time in the moment and regularly throughout the day to ask God for His will in each situation. Don’t get so focused on what you want to do that you fail to see God’s plan even in what seem to be failures.

    We should use the opportunity provided by persecution.

    Did you notice how God used persecution to accomplish His plan for spreading the gospel throughout the world? The church at Jerusalem suddenly became smaller but the Christians were going places where God wanted them to preach the gospel. They used their difficult situation to preach the gospel wherever they went.

    Evangelism should not be limited to good times or to bad times. It ought to be something that continues every day. When you are in familiar territory or in a new place, you should be preaching the gospel to others. If we only talk about Jesus when we are in a comfortable situation, we are not being completely faithful to the Lord.

    What will you do this week? I hope that each of us will use the opportunities God gives us. But I hope that we will make opportunities as well. Who knows how God will use our faithful preaching of the gospel wherever we go?

Conclusion

In the end, we are not told what will happen tomorrow. We are to expect persecution. But we don’t know if or when it will happen. Our country had laws that are designed to protect us from governmental intrusion into our lives or churches. But even that seems to be eroding at times.

Perhaps we should not leave this chapter trying to figure out whether we are being persecuted today. Instead, we should just roll with the punches. Be faithful every day. Trust in the Lord each day. Preach the gospel as often as possible. And when persecution happens, ask the Lord how you ought to respond. But keep being faithful.

Bibliography

Custer, Stewart, Witness to Christ A Commentary on Acts, Greenville: BJU Press, 2000.

McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. 4, Matthew through Romans, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983.

Toussaint, Stanley D., “Acts” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983.

Footnotes

  1. Toussaint 372. ↩︎