Sermon: The Paradox of Persecution (Acts 8:1-8)

The Paradox of Persecution

Acts 8:1-8

Introduction

The Hebrew Bible ends with 2 Chronicles, which states the privilege Jews, have to consistently make the trek to the Holy City, Jerusalem.  This last paragraph of the OT contains the edict of King Cyrus explaining the importance of the Holy City and the command for all to, Go up.

In the Old Covenant Jerusalem and the Temple served as a central magnet, as it were, for God’s people.  Come and see was the Old Testament call.  Come and see the glory of God, Come and see this Holy City, Come and see the Temple, Come and see.

Now, because Jesus Christ is the New Temple giving His people the New Covenant, fulfilling all that the Old Covenant pointed to, declares that God’s people must Go into all the earth preaching the Good News…there is salvation offered to all who place their trust in Jesus Christ for the Jew first and then to the Gentile.

Now, the call is not come and see but Jesus declares that His followers must Go and tell.  As we pick up the account in the Book of Acts, Jerusalem is still the central location but in a very different way.  Now it serves as a missionary sending center.  The Apostles stay to teach the massive Church in Jerusalem so that others will be equipped to go into the entire world preaching the Gospel to all nations.

This central theme and command Jesus gave shows us that being devout in a certain religion is not sufficient.  A person can be convinced and dedicated but if they are dedicated to a false god then the true God doesn’t accept them but rejects them.  All the nations must release their gods and turn to the only true God whose Son is Jesus Christ.  Only in God through Jesus can anyone be saved from sin and hell…this is why God sends His church on the mission field.  If all religions led to God then why would Jesus give us the Great Commission, which is His command to Go into all nations and share with them the truth about sin, repentance, and the truth about the Savior.

In our text today, notice with me that persecution was what moved the Church outside Jerusalem.

I want us to also see as we survey the Book of Acts, that this persecution is God ordained to push His beloved Church out into the world with the Gospel.

Finally, notice the result of this persecution in the last verse…

Primary Claim of the Text

God ordained persecution resulted in evangelism, God being glorified, and the church’s maximum joy.

Acts 8:1-8 (ESV)
1 And Saul approved of his execution.
2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.
3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.
6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.
7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.
8 So there was much joy in that city.
1
.  The Paradox of Persecution

1 And Saul approved of his execution.
2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.
3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
There is a strange thing that happens when the Church undergoes persecution and trials.  One might initially think that when threats are made and imprisonment carried out, the church would be silenced and run for cover.  What happens, however, is the very opposite.  Rather than running for cover the Church becomes bold and willing to suffer all losses for the sake of her Lord Jesus Christ.

This seemingly peculiar response really is not strange at all.  If, in this world, the only real and lasting possession one has is Jesus Christ then everything else can be stripped away and the result is boldness and joy.

Many new believers were escaping the threat of death and find themselves waking up in foreign lands.

Where did you and your family come from?  Jerusalem.  Why did you move here?  We were forced to move because there were those in that city who hated us and tried to even kill us because we are Christians.  We heard of Stephen and that they killed him, are those the same people who were after you?  Stephen must have really believed all Jesus taught.  You and your family must really believe too.  Let me tell you about Jesus…

When Saul began to incorporate his strategy to rid Jerusalem of the Church, he only succeeded to help spread Christianity to other places that had never heard the Gospel message before.  What a frustrating endeavor to try to work against God, you only succeed in accomplishing God’s purposes much like Saul.

 

The famous observation of Tertullian that, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church has a depth of insight that is all too often lost on believers today. We have no trouble thinking of persecution and martyrdom as a great obstacle to the spread of the gospel, which will not, however, be successful in hindering Church growth. We would have no problem affirming that the blood of the martyrs is a hurdle which, by God’s grace, can be overcome. But to say that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church is an altogether different concept. [1]

 

From last week, we read about the murder of one of the church’s greatest preachers and servants, Stephen.  Stephen’s death marked a great wave of persecution that swept over the church.  Like a great tsunami that washes everything away, this wave of persecution took with it believers who, as it were, found themselves washed up on the shores of other lands and they then did what came natural, praised God and spoke of Jesus.  God was in fact building the Church through the tyrannical efforts of her enemies…what a strange paradox?

Look at verse 2…

Devout men buried their beloved Steven and lamented greatly over their loss.  This in itself took courage.  By burying and morning Steven they were showing they’re loyalty to Stephen’s God, whom Saul and the others were fighting against.

What was going on with these new Christians who were scattered?

We must understand that to be scattered as Luke reports is to say good-by to your Family, Friends, Job, Home, and all your possessions.  They left everything behind except Jesus.  They were not bitter toward Stephen for starting their struggle at all.

While God ordained this struggle, Stephen did get the ball rolling…

Ordained Trial-
Acts 1:8 (ESV)
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Here, Jesus is sharing with His followers what will take place before it happens.  The Great Commission, as this passage is often called, is not so much a call to evangelism, but a prophetic utterance by Jesus as to what WILL happen.

His followers WILL receive power when the Holy Spirit descends…CHECK

His followers WILL be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem…CHECK

His followers WILL be His witnesses in Judea…

His followers WILL be His witnesses in Samaria…

His followers WILL be His witnesses to the end of the earth…

Those who were scattered went to the region of Judea…

5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria
Then if we are allowed to jump a little bit ahead to Acts 11…
Acts 11:19-22 (ESV)
19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.
20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.
21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.

We see from this point Judea, Samaria, the beginning of the uttermost parts of the world as those being scattered because of the persecution that started with Stephen’s death, traveled up the coast to the area of Phoenicia to Antioch.  Then they set sail to the large island nation of Cyprus.  Later, the Apostle Paul (Saul himself) would travel to the far reaches of the earth with the Gospel of Christ.

This Gospel proclamation thrust was ordained by God, it would happen.

2.  From Great Persecution Comes Much Joy
5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.
6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.
7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.
8 So there was much joy in that city.

We should remember Philip as one of those selected to care for the widows early on in Acts 6.  He along and Stephen are the only ones Luke speaks further about.

When Philip is run out of Jerusalem through the great persecution, he heads straight to Samaria.  Perhaps Philip remembered Our Lord’s directive…Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria or perhaps he just simply went there.  Whatever drove him there, we understand the Orchestrator of it all is God.

Philip takes the Gospel to a land where there were those Lesser-Jews.  We remember the problems that existed between the Jews of Jerusalem and the Jews of Samaria.  They were not fond of each other at all.  Samaritans were not welcome in Jerusalem, but the Gospel was welcomed in the land of Samaria.

What happened when Philip began to preach the gospel?

6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.
7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.
Philip was preaching the message that every person is a sinner and will suffer God’s just judgment for sin.  Every person is absolutely guilty and it is right for God to punish them.  They have sinned against an eternal God and so this punishment will last for an eternity.

That message is not one that would bring great joy to anyone.  That message would bring great fear and worry to those who hear.

The amazing part is yet to come!  God because of His great grace and mercy extends forgiveness to all who love and trust in the work of His Son Jesus Christ.  God sent Jesus into the world, not to condemn the world but to offer forgiveness to everyone who believes.

When Philip preached Christ to those that day, everyone agreed… And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip

God so mercifully accompanied the Gospel message with visible signs of healing; being again the answer to the Apostle’s prayer for boldness and God wrought healing.  They listened, agreed with, and saw the manifestation of God’s presence as many who were demon possessed were freed and many who were sick and lame were healed.

What a day that was in Samaria!

8 So there was much joy in that city.

So we come full circle.  The paradox of persecution is that when Christians are forced to leave their home and go to another place, leaving everything behind, it doesn’t result in anger, bitterness, resentment, or depression but in joy.  The very message that caused them all the trouble in the first place was the message they preached.  It seems to me that these early followers truly believed and lived what they said they believed.

If Jesus was nothing more than a crutch for weak minded people who are afraid of life, as I’ve heard many say who oppose Christianity, then don’t you think when trouble started because of their faith in Christ that they would have renounced Jesus when He no longer brought them comfort?

These believers were genuine.  They loved Christ more than anything or anyone else.  So, all the stuff they had to leave behind, in a sense, freed them to love Jesus even more.

The question we should consider is, why is it that we connect wealth and prosperity with God’s blessings and think that those poor people in other lands are not so blessed as we are?  It may just be the other way around.

Should we some day experience trials and persecution for standing up for Jesus and speaking the Gospel, always remember God is at work.  Persecution WILL result in much joy.

Primary Claim of the Text

God ordained persecution resulted in evangelism, God being glorified, and the church’s maximum joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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