It was January 8th in 1956, a long time ago, when five notable missionaries were massacred in Ecuador by a tribe of people that have become known as Auca Indians. It appeared at the time to be maybe the greatest tragedy in missionary history in the Modern Era. Persecution did occur in some places in the world, and there were very dangerous mission fields. But it didn’t seem that anything was a tragic as this particular set of martyrs because they were all so highly skilled and highly trained, so profoundly dedicated to the Lord, and had such tremendous potential.
They had just landed with a plane on a beach by a river in Ecuador only to have their lives immediately snuffed out; a deadly kind of persecution of what people said was as noble of group of missionary men as had ever been assembled together – gifted men, lives with usefulness ahead of them, and it seemed like it was a horrible tragedy. The truth of the matter was that it was anything but a tragedy. For them, it was immediate entrance into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And through their death, a missionary movement exploded, starting really with their wives, and then their friends.
Eventually that entire tribe of Auca Indians was evangelized with the gospel and a church was planted there. That church grew and flourished and stretched across tribal areas. It was a powerful, powerful, exploding church. In fact, not too many years ago, the very airplane itself was parked outside our worship center right here at Grace Community Church, and we saw what was left of that airplane that flew those missionaries down there.
One of their killers was also here to give his testimony; and some of you will remember him standing in this pulpit with Steve Saint, the son of Nate Saint who was one of the missionaries martyred. And that man gave his testimony of his faith in Christ, and then he gave to me a gift. He gave to me a necklace handcrafted by his tribal people, which was a treasured gift to me.
Most people who’ve been in the church for any time know something about the story of the five missionary martyrs in Ecuador. In fact, there have been a number of books produced out of that event. Perhaps the most familiar, Through Gates of Splendor. If you can find one, you’d do well to read it. It illustrates a very important point, that what you might think is the darkest moment in missionary history, or the darkest moment for the church, may really be an explosion of church growth and development. What happened among those Auca Indians in the establishment of a church and the establishment of the gospel and several generations of believers coming out of that part of the world is one of the great missionary stories of God starting a church in what appears to be a very backdoor way.
Well, truth be known, that is precisely how the original church spread. Open your Bible to the 8th chapter of the book of Acts. The early church started in Jerusalem – we all know that – but the purpose of God was that the church would be planted in Jerusalem, then it would go to Judea-Samaria and the uttermost part of the world. That was essential in the Great Commission of Acts 1:8, “You shall be witnesses unto Me after the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and from there, the gospel will go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.”
One might think if one stopped reading at that point that the gospel was so wonderful, so inviting, so welcomed, so acceptable, so precious, so valuable, so attractive, that the sheer popularity of the gospel sent it out of Jerusalem. It was just too wondrous, too powerful, the fact that a Savior had come and that full forgiveness was offered to all sinners who would believe in Him, and they didn’t have to do some spiritual work to achieve that. It was a free gift of grace, and that forgiveness was forever, and that salvation was forever and could not be taken away. And what that salvation meant was blessing and joy in this life; and in the next life, glory and bliss forever in the heaven of heavens. A story that is so wonderful, so rich, so full of hope that its sheer popularity would have catapulted it out of Jerusalem as people thrilled by the story rushed everywhere in the world to tell it. That didn’t happen. It was anything but popular; absolutely anything but popular.
We start reading in the 8th chapter with a name of a man, Saul, who was in hearty agreement with the killing of Stephen. He was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. “He was stoned, “ verse 59 says. They crushed his life out with stones. Why? Why did this mob of people do that? Verse 54, “They heard his sermon on the gospel.” They heard a full explanation of the complete Old Testament with which they were familiar and to which they were ostensibly devoted, and they heard about the coming of the Righteous One that everybody in the Old Testament was waiting for. And then they were indicted because not only had they killed the prophets through the Old Testament, but they killed the Righteous One. The were cut to the quick and began gnashing their teeth at him. They rejected the Righteous One Himself. They rejected Him as their Redeemer, their Savior. They rejected the gospel preached by the apostles.
Starting on the Day of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts, they began to preach the gospel, and soon they filled Jerusalem with their doctrine. Thousands of people were saved as the Lord gathered in those who were His chosen ones. But the gospel was anything but popular. Stephen preaches one sermon and he becomes an instant martyr. The death of Stephen is the trigger that launches the slaughter of Christians.
That’s where we pick it up in chapter 8. Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day, a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house and dragging off men and women. He would put them in prison.
Then verse 4, “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the Word.” Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. The crowds, with one accord, were giving attention to what was said by Philip as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing; for in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice, and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was much rejoicing in that city.
Persecution has always been a reality in the church since the book of Acts, always. Persecution has always been against the true church. The true church, the true gospel, the true Lord is hated by the ruler of this world; and he is the ruler of this world system, and all men who don’t belong to him are a part of that system. They are of their father, the Devil; and, consequently, the true church is always under attack. This is no surprise.
In fact, in John 15 as our Lord gives His final words to His followers, He says this to them starting in verse 18: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. But because you’re not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this, the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you; a slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. Expect that.”
In the 16th chapter He said essentially the same thing: “They will make you outcasts - ” verse 2 “ - from the synagogue. An hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he’s offering service to God. These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me. But these things I’ve spoken to you so that when their hour comes, you may remember that I told you of them. These things I did not say to you at the beginning because I was with you. Now that I’m leaving, I need to warn you. I have been preventing any persecution. I have been protecting you from it. Now I’m leaving; persecution is to be expected.”
Persecution of Christians is global. It has always been a reality wherever the church has been planted, wherever the gospel has gone. And now persecution of Christians, of course, is global; it is escalating. Mostly in the Modern Era, we might think at the hands of Muslims. We read about that all the time in the news. And by the way, they are doing that because they think they are pleasing God, the very same confused motive that the Jews in the book of Acts who persecuted the Christians had as well. But persecution’s coming from a lot of other quarters beyond just Islam or forms of false religion.
In the country in which we live in the Western world, devotees of immorality persecute the church. Devotees of homosexuality persecute the church. Those who are advocates of godless freedom to sin hate biblical Christianity. They hate Scripture. They hate those who hold to Scripture. This persecution comes from individuals; it comes from groups; it comes from governments. Even our own government has engaged in persecuting Christians who do not acknowledge certain immoral behaviors. That persecution will continue.
But this is new to us in America. Where we’ve always prided ourselves on our religious freedom, and our openness, and our willingness to accept any religion. We’ve always sort of felt that America was established on a biblical morality. But biblical truth has become very unpopular. Unbelievers now have defined morality in their own terms, and anything that speaks against that is to be rejected - and that, of course, means the Bible. The satanic kingdom is exercising freedoms in America and in the West that it once didn’t have the opportunity to exercise.
Now I don’t know what the future looks like; I can’t predict the future. Time will reveal how far this anti-biblical persecution will go. Time will tell what they will do to the church, what they will do to believers, what the price will be that we will pay. But it is to be expected. It is to be expected.
I just read you John 15:18-20. We’ve had a bit of a reprieve in our country from what is more normal. Certainly, there’s been individual persecution; there have been maybe group persecution. But to have the government now joining the persecution of the church is kind of a new era for us. We don’t know how far it’s going to go. Persecution of Christians is widespread all over the world.
I think I mentioned a few weeks ago I was recently on FOX television answering questions about how Christians respond to persecution, and trying to give them an understanding that is biblical. I said, “We expect it; we expect it. The Lord said it would happen. They hated Him; they killed Him. We expect them to hate us and kill us because they reject His Word; they reject the Bible; they reject the truth.” That’s a little hard for them to understand because there’s a kind of mentality among some people that expects Christians to fight back. We don’t do that; we expect this.
Now we come to chapter 8 and we see the words in verse 1, “A great persecution began.” But this isn’t the first persecution in the book of Acts by any means. Prior to this, there was persecution, but the persecution came from Jewish leaders against a very small group of people – the apostles and those associated with them.
We saw that back in chapter 4, for example, and verse 1: As they were speaking to the people, the priests - ” the apostles were “ – the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them and put them in jail until the next day where it was already evening. Many of those who had heard the message believed, and a number of men came to be about five thousand. The next day, we know they gathered together. They hauled them before the counsel. They threatened them not to preach, and they answered by saying, ‘We must preach there’s no salvation in any other.’”
They were confident and they were bold, as verse 13 indicates. Verse 17: “So that it will not spread any further among the people - ” they are warned again “ – let us warn them to speak no longer to any man in this name, the name of Jesus. And then they summoned them. They commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge, for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.’”
So verse 21: “They threated them further.” Verse 29: “And now, Lord, take note of their threats and grant that Your bondservants, Your slaves may speak Your Word with all confidence.”
We come to chapter 5, verse 17 – I won’t go through all of it. The high priest rose up along with his associates, the sect of the Sadducees. They are filled with jealousy, they lay hands on the apostles, they put them in jail again, and you know the rest of the story how the Lord let them out of that jail. Persecution has been going on.
You go to the end of chapter 5: “The apostles are called in, they are flogged, they are beaten in the way that Jesus was beaten before His crucifixion, they are ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then they are released. And they went on their way from the presence of the Council rejoicing they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And everyday from the temple, and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as Christ.” This is the apostles and those associated with them. So persecution has already been going on.
Now chapter 7 is the first martyr, the first person that we have record of actually being executed for preaching the gospel. He’s one of the apostles, or associates of the apostles. He is Stephen who was a prominent, spiritual influence in the churches. Chapter 6 tells us, “One of select men chosen for their godliness and their character.”
He preaches this great sermon. He is a Hellenistic Jew, meaning he’s a non-Israeli Jew; he’s from a Gentile country. He has come into Jerusalem for the Feast of the Pentecost, and he’s still there. He takes on the mission field of going back to Hellenistic synagogues that are organized in the city of Jerusalem and preaching the gospel to them. This infuriates the leaders and eventually leads to a mob slaughter of this preacher.
And at this point, we would ask the question that I posed at the beginning, “Is this a crushing blow to the early church?” The persecution of the apostles – and they just preached more. It didn’t seem to stop it. But now it’s reached the level where they are killing the preachers. Is this death sentence to Stephen a death sentence to the movement? The answer is no. It’s like stamping out a fire, or trying to stamp out the fiery embers, and in the stamping you just send them into the air and they start a ring of fire wherever they land.
The persecution of the Christians in this ravaging effort led by Saul only causes the gospel to fulfill its intended purpose: “You will be witness in Jerusalem, and then Judea, then Samaria, then the world.” And that’s exactly what happens.
Back to verse 1: “On that day, a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles, except the apostles.” Mark it. Persecution began the missionary effort to the world. Persecution launched the missionary effort.
Persecution had driven the missionary effort in Jerusalem because from the very outset, after the Day of Pentecost in chapter 3, in chapter 4 they’re already persecuting the believer. But they’re continuing to preach, and five thousand men – plus we could add women and young people to that as well. The gospel fills Jerusalem, fueled by the message of the persecuted church. And here we have the first foreign mission effort about to begin to get out of Jerusalem, go to Judea, which is the area in which Jerusalem exists; and then to the area north, which used to be the northern kingdom, the area of Samaria. The first sort of outreach, to the city of Jerusalem. The population, both Jews from Israel and Hellenistic Jews; people from all different tribes who heard the wonderful works of God in their own language on the Day of Pentecost – all in Jerusalem. And now it goes beyond.
The murder of Stephen triggers the first missionary movement. It also launches the greatest missionary in Scripture, a man named Saul, a man named Saul. Whatever we think about the short career of Stephen, whatever we might wonder he might have been if he hadn’t died after that great sermon, we do know this, that the man most notably influenced by Stephen became the greatest missionary ever.
This Cilician Jew, Jew from Cilicia by the name of Saul from the actual town of Tarsus. He is a Hellenistic Jew, which may be a little bit of an explanation of his rage over Stephen who is a Hellenistic Jew, along with the other deacons who have Hellenistic or Greek names even though they’re Jewish. And Stephen’s ministry, again, was in the synagogues of the Hellenists, so he is particularly infuriated by this effort to preach this resurrected Christ to his people. His hatred is so unrestrained that he desires to extinguish completely the church; literally stamp it out. Stephen’s faithful preaching, some might think would lead to the death of the church. It didn’t. It led to the scattering of believers who left Jerusalem to protect their lives and to fulfill their calling.
The Holy Spirit had very different plans. The leaders of Israel wanted to stamp out the church; they just spread it. Saul wanted to stamp out the church; he just spread it. Chapter 8 then is a critical turning point in the early history of the church. The gospel is now going to go to Judea, it’s going to go to Samaria; and before this 8th chapter is over, it’s going to touch a man from beyond in the world, from Ethiopia. In this one chapter, Acts 1:8 begins to be fulfilled – Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth.
Now let’s look at three points, simple points in sequence - persecution, preaching, and we’ll call it productivity. Ferocious persecution begins as we saw in verse 1. It is a fierce persecution. It starts with murder, martyrdom, and it goes from there.
The leader of this is a man named Saul. And I have to stop here to say you need to understand that Saul demonstrated that he was a leader in this effort in the death of Stephen. If you go back, you will see in verse 58 of chapter 7 that, “When they had rushed at Stephen, the mob with one impulse and driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man name Saul, the feet of a young man named Saul.”
I told you when we went through that, they took off their robes so that they could be freer to throw the rocks with more force and more accuracy to crush out his life. But why does it say they laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul? That identifies Saul as the instigator. That identifies Saul as the instigator of this entire act. He is behind it.
He gives testimony to that in the 22nd chapter of Acts when he’s reporting his testimony, and he says in verse 20: “And when the blood of your witness was being shed, I also was standing by approving and watching out for the coats of those who were slaying him.” This young Pharisee wanted to slaughter the church, and he no doubt launched the effort against Stephen. That’s why they laid their coats at his feet. It’s a symbol of authority. Let me give you a parallel.
In the 4th chapter and the 5th chapter of the book of Acts, when people brought their offerings, they laid them at the feet of the apostles. They were literally recognizing the authority of the apostles to care for their money, their resources, their gifts. This is a symbolic way to identify the man in charge.
Saul, you could say, was behind the murder of Stephen. He is involved from the very beginning. He perhaps was involved from the moment the disputes began in Hellenistic synagogues, and he was getting angrier and angrier at this man, Stephen, and finally is behind his death.
What is so interesting about that is that Saul himself, after his conversion, suffers a whole lifetime of treatment very much like Stephen. In fact, at the point of Saul’s conversion in the next chapter, in the 9th chapter, the Lord says to Ananias about him, “I will show him what great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” What was done to Stephen really was done to Saul. Let me tell you what I mean.
The Jews disputed and resisted Stephen in the synagogue, and so they did with Paul. The Jews rejected Stephen’s preaching and teaching; so they did with Saul. Stephen was accused of blasphemy; so was – we’ll call him Paul. Stephen was accused of speaking against Moses, speaking against the Holy Place, speaking against the law; so was Paul. They rushed on Stephen with one accord and seized him; they did the same to Paul. Stephen was dragged out of the city; so was Paul. Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin; so was Paul. Stephen was stoned; so was Paul. Stephen suffered martyrdom; so did Paul.
Really an amazing parallel. Stephen passes off the scene short order; we have a long history of Saul, who became Paul. Only God’s grace could transform the blood-thirsty murderous Saul into a blood-washed Paul. And when Paul identifies himself as a murderer, as he does in his epistle, as a murder, that all started with Stephen. The death of Stephen sets off the full fury of persecution, and Saul is the leader, and the people are scattered and driven.
There’s a note at the end of verse 1, “Except the apostles, except the apostles.” They’re like faithful watchmen and they remain at their post to confirm the souls of those disciples who were unable to flee and stay in the city. There’s still a church there; that church is still important there. There are other souls to come into the kingdom in the city of Jerusalem. There are others to be won by the gospel, and they are to shepherd that church, and so they remain faithful to stay there. Wonderful testimony to the apostles.
Eventually, the apostles go, but not yet, not in the early days of the church when they need to care for them. And then verse 2 adds an interesting note: “Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him.” That’s a very important statement. Devout men, pious Jews – devout men. Not necessarily Christians because if you go back to chapter 2, verse 5, we have that same phrase.
In chapter 2, verse 5, it just describes the population of Jerusalem and it says, “Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.” So devout men simply meant pious people, pious Jewish people who came to Jerusalem whenever the feast was to be held. They were dutiful, traditional Jews.
You might say that they were the best of the Jews. They were men who feared God to some degree. They were men who felt that it was wrong to kill Stephen for preaching. They were a nobler kind than the one, Saul, who led the mob to do what they did. They would be like maybe Simeon, a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. He was devout, pious.
These men are saddened by this behavior. Perhaps, they are men who later come to faith in Christ. This is to remind us, folks. This is to remind us that though the Christ-hating, murderous leaders of Israel had the stage in these scenes, there were other kinds of people too. There were people with some sense of right and wrong, with some devotion to God not yet in the kingdom, and they show their sadness by making loud lamentation over him.
Let me tell you something about Jewish law. The law commanded that the body of an executed person be buried, that the body of an executed person be buried, so they buried Stephen. But the law also said – and you can find this later in the Mishnah – when an executed person is buried, and he must be buried, no public weeping is allowed, no public weeping is allowed. These men defied that tradition and they made loud lamentation over him. They were not going to join the horror of this action even though they were not believers. And I just say it’s important to be reminded of this, that sometimes we might think that the hating crowd is all there is out there, when the fact of the matter is there are people who still see that kind of hatred for what it is even though they aren’t believers; and maybe they’re open to the gospel. They would be fertile soil for the ongoing work of the apostles who stayed in Jerusalem.
So Stephen comes and goes, but Saul comes and stays. He becomes the prime mover, first of all, in the persecution. Verse 3: “He began ravaging the church.” That is a very interesting word. It’s what we call in Greek hapax legomena. It appears only here; nowhere else in the New Testament. It is a word, therefore, that you can’t sort of define by comparing it to other uses in Scripture and context; it’s very important in getting usage right. But for this word, we have to outside the New Testament, and what we come up with, some very interesting uses.
It is used in extra biblical literature of a wild bore ravaging a vineyard. It is used of a wild animal mangling, tearing apart, or shredding a body to ribbons. Some lexicons would say it’s a brutal, sadistic kind of cruelty. It’s a very strong word and it describes exactly what Paul was doing. He was doing everything he could to rip and tear and shred. He raged against the church like a wild beast.
When he gives his testimony again in chapter 22 he said, “I am a Jew born at Tarsus of Cilicia, brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our Father, zealous for God, just as you all are today. I persecuted this way - ” meaning Christianity “ – to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons.” He was vicious, even to women.
Verse 19 of chapter 22: “I used to imprison and beat those who believed in You,” he says to the Lord. “I used to imprison and beat those who believed in You.” It gets even more detailed. He ravaged the church like a wild bore, tearing and shredding everything in sight, entering house after house. He went on a house to house search for Christians – this sounds like Nazi Germany – house to house search, and wherever he found men or women who were Christians, he dragged them off and put them in prison. This is his ravaging.
In Hebrews chapter 10, verse 32 we read this: “Remember the former days when after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulation, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated; for you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one.”
What happened? He went into houses; he took the people out; he beat them, dragged them off, threw them in prison, confiscated their property. There was just no end to the ravaging, and no exemption for the weaker sex.
What did this cause? This persecution led to the second word “preaching.” Ferocious persecution leads to preaching. Verse 4: “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the Word, went about preaching the Word.” They went about - literally went through districts, went through Judea, went through Samaria. A verb used – by the way, that verb translated, “went about,” is used a number of times in the book of Acts – think I counted six times – and every time it’s used, it’s talking about a missionary effort. It’s like a verb, a simple verb sort of isolated to refer to missions.
What a sight this must have been, a stream of people in pain with nothing but their clothes on their backs, escaping out the backdoor of a house with only what they could carry in their hands, pouring out of the city gates of Jerusalem, scattering everywhere, cast completely on the Lord without their livelihood, without their possession, with only what they could carry in their hands and wear on their backs. And what did they do? They didn’t hole up in hills, they didn’t hole up in caves, they didn’t retreat to some isolated place in the desert; they went everywhere preaching the Word. Everyone was a preacher. Everyone was a preacher.
I just remind you folks, it usually takes persecution to do this. When there is no persecution we settle into a comfortable place in the culture. And we aren’t all preachers and we aren’t preaching all the time, and we aren’t going everywhere, and we’re hanging onto our stuff. But everywhere, they went. They were preaching the Word, proclaiming the Word. Euaggelizō, to preach good news, to proclaim good news – all of them. A company of scattered believers with nothing but what they could carry, going abroad, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere they went.
Persecution, we learn, promotes the very thing which it means to destroy. Persecution is good for the church. It turns the church loose. It disconnects the church from its comfort and sends it out in dependency.
We also see here that it’s right and proper for all of us to be preaching the gospel. It should be the desire of all of us to take the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Luke illustrates with just the story of one of them, just one of them – Philip. Philip was one of the scattered. Philip was significant.
Back in chapter 6, verse 5, he was a deacon. He was chosen to be a deacon. “They were men who had a good reputation - ” verse 3 said “ - full of the Holy Spirit, of wisdom.” These were the best of the best. They were Hellenists.
Philip was one of them. This isn’t Philip the apostle, this is Philip the deacon. He becomes a key figure. He’s one of the seven original deacons. But – I love this – in Acts 21:8 he is called, “Philip the evangelist.” He starts out as a deacon and he becomes an evangelist.
How did he become an evangelist? Because he went everywhere doing what? Preaching the Word. He went everywhere preaching the Word. This is faithful over little, lord over much. He was a faithful deacon, but his epitaph is, “He became a faithful evangelist.”
He went 40 miles north of Jerusalem, straight north to Samaria. The Samaritan people were a mongrel race. They were viewed by the Jews with hatred, as we know from John, chapter 4. They were viewed as heretics and their religion was heretical. It was a hybrid of Paganism and Judaism.
The city of Samaria was actually the ancient capital of the northern kingdom, and that ancient capital was established by a king named Omri back in 1 Kings 16. So Samaria was essentially the capital city of the northern kingdom when the kingdom split after Solomon. The Jews, John 4:9 says, had no dealings with Samaritans, none. They hated them. It all went back to, well, 2 Kings 17:18.
The year 722 BC, the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and the capital was Samaria. They transported the population of the northern kingdom out back to Assyria, and then they brought in invaders and strangers, pagans of various sorts, and the Jews that were left intermarried with them and produced this hybrid group of heretics. The Jews intermarried with them, thus corrupting their pure Jewish line. This was an unforgivable crime, an unforgivable crime. By the way, the southern kingdom was taken to captivity into Babylon. They refused, for the most part, to intermarry.
You remember when the southern kingdom came back, when the Jews came back from 70 years of exile, came back to rebuild under Ezra and Nehemiah, the Samaritans wanted to help them. And there was tremendous conflict; and that just escalated to hatred between the two. But Philip, as a Jew, has none of that. He knows the gospel is to go to the ends of the earth, and so he preached. Kērussō means to proclaim like a herald, to shout the message. And he preached Christ to them. He proclaimed Christ to them.
Well you say, “Well, why would he preach the Messiah to them?” Because they believed in the coming of the Messiah. To whom did Jesus reveal His messiahship first? A Samaritan woman by a well.
Did they have a view of Messiah? Absolutely. She said to Him, “Are you the Christ? Are you the Messiah?” Literally, “This is not the Messiah, is it?” That is evangelism, announcing the good news that the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ has come; and that’s what the scattered people did, they went everywhere preaching the Word, proclaiming Christ, heralding Christ.
“The crowds - ” verse 6 “ - with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing.” The powers to do miracles extended from the apostles to those associated with the apostles, this first generation of deacon evangelists. Philip does things that the apostles did, verse 7, “Delivering people from unclean spirits.” They were coming out of them screaming with a loud voice. That’s what demons do when they’re confronted by the power of Christ.
You remember back in the first chapter of Mark when our Lord confronted the man with the demon, and the Lord confronted that man and began to address that issue and cast out that demon? The demon was screaming back at Him. They don’t want to be uncovered and exposed. He has power that belonged only to the apostles and their associates. There were people who had been paralyzed and people who were lame, and they were healed.
Why does Philip have the power to do this? To authenticate the message. There’s no New Testament. How do you sort a true teacher from a false one? False teachers were everywhere. By power over demons, power over disease, power over deformity. This is stunning, this is powerful, and they are fascinated.
There’s a third word - and we’ll stop at that point - in verse 8. We start out with ferocious, you could say, persecution; and then some forceful preaching; and then some fruitful productivity.
“So there was much rejoicing in that city.” This is just the story of one of the scattered believers. Stephen dies; Saul launches a massive persecution. Instead of killing the church, it spreads the church. One testimony of one man by the name of Philip and an entire city begins to rejoice.
When it says, “There was much rejoicing in that city,” what does that tell us? Listen, the first fruit of salvation is joy. The first fruit of salvation is joy. When people believe the gospel and are saved, their experience is an experience of joy.
Do I need to remind you about the story of Paul and Silas in the prison in the 16th chapter of Acts, and the jailer and all of that, and the family of the jailer? Verse 30: “‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ he asks. And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household. If you believe, you’ll be saved. Your household believes, they’ll be saved.’
“And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, Paul and Silas, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into this house and sat food before them and - ” what does it say “ – rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household. Rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.”
This is nothing new. Back in Isaiah 61:10, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord. My soul will exalt in my God, for He has clothed me with garments of salvation. He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. I will rejoice greatly.”
That’s what Mary said in her Magnificat as she contemplated the Savior. When the angels announced the arrival of Christ in chapter 2 of Luke’s gospel – you remember this – the angel said, “Don’t be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great - ” what “ – joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David, there has been born for you a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” It is the initial response of a believer to be joyful.
In John 15:11, our Lord says, “These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” He repeats the same thing in the 16th chapter. He repeats it again in the 17th chapter. John tells us in 1 John 1, “These things are written that you might have joy.”
It is the experience of believers to be joyful. If I had time, I could take you through all kinds of passages. But let me just give you one, 1 Thessalonians 1:6. Paul is grateful, giving thanks to God for what the Lord has done with the Thessalonians, and he says this: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the Word in much tribulation, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” Paul tells the Romans, “The kingdom of God is joy in believing, joy in believing,” Romans 14:17. So we have here preaching as the result of persecution, and that preaching leads to salvation, spiritual fruitfulness.
The gospel goes to the world because believers are persecuted. Now we don’t need to be eager to be persecuted. We don’t need to create situations where we get persecuted. We don’t need to strive for persecution as if it’s some noble badge. But on the other hand, we don’t have to fear persecution because persecution historically has accomplished the purposes of God. We need to expect it. We need to embrace it. We need to keep courageous and bold, and proclaim the truth in the midst of persecution and know that God will use persecution to accomplish His divine purpose. Do not ever underestimate the power of persecution to accomplish God’s purpose.
Father, we thank You for our time all day really, but tonight especially. And looking at this wonderful passage, remind ourselves again of the uniqueness of Stephen; and being introduced to Saul, who on the Damascus Road has his name changed to Paul, and becomes our beloved writer of 13 epistles, and our hero through so much of the book of Acts. We thank You for what we’ve learned about them and what we’ve learned about persecution and what it accomplishes.
Father, may we not necessarily wait for persecution to be faithful to you; may we be faithful now. But as persecution comes and escalates in this time and in times ahead and generations ahead, may we understand that Your kingdom advances through the persecution of your churches as church fathers said, “The blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the church.”
It’s always been that way. We embrace that reality with hope and joy. Thank You for the instruction that comes to us in this passage, in the name of Christ we pray. Amen.