Last week we finished the powerful sermon of Stephen, who was martyred for his defense of the Christian faith. A great crowd held their ears and rushed upon him and stoned him. We noted that he followed the example of Jesus in forgiving those who were stoning him as Jesus had forgiven those who crucified him out of ignorance. The seventh chapter of Acts ends with the note that those who stoned Stephen left their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. This Saul who would later be called Paul the Apostle and become one of the greatest missionaries for the church.
Exposition of the Text
Chapter eight begins with the note that Saul was a willing accomplice to the murder of Stephen, He would soon prove himself to be a great adversary of the church. The text mentions that a great persecution of the church broke out. Up to this time, the church had remained in Jerusalem. As a result of this persecution, the believers were scattered all over the villages of Judaea and Samaria. The word for “scattered” here is similar to how the seeds of a dandelion are dispersed when one blows on it. These missionaries carried the seed of the gospel with them and proclaimed the Lord Jesus.
In Acts 1:8,, the last words Jesus said to the eleven on earth was that they were to be witness of Christ, first in Jerusalem, then in Judaea and Samaria, and then to the uttermost parts of the earth. The Book of Acts itself is written to show how this commission was carried out. The church had seemed perfectly content to remain in Jerusalem. It wasn’t until the winds of persecution blew that the believers on Jesus scattered with their message of salvation. The next step in Jesus’ plan for evangelism was put into place.
Verse three seems to be out of sequence. We would think it belongs after verse one. The wailing for Stephen and his burial by godly men would seem to follow immediately upon Stephen’s death. So why is it here? Perhaps it indicates that the start of the persecution of the church started immediately upon Stephen’s death, even before there was opportunity to bury him. When we consider that burial had to be before sunset, this means the anger against Stephen was immediately applied to the believers. Only the Apostle’s stayed behind. Perhaps their previous miraculous escapes from custody made the officials and the mob hesitant to arrest them again.
Verse three logically follows verse one. It say that Paul began to severely persecute the church with great zeal. From Paul’s own words elsewhere, he claims to have wasted the church Here it says he hunted the believers down from village to village and cast both men and women into prison. Elsewhere, it says that Paul voted the death penalty against them. Prison in Paul’s day was only a holding pen until the trial upon which punishment was meted out against those found guilty.
Perhaps by now you have wondered how the title for this sermon “Paul Sends out Missionaries” has to do with the text we just explained. You would think it out of place. It seems that a sermon by this title would fit better later in Acts or in his epistles where Paul sends out Silas or Titus, or another of his coworkers. But I intentionally chose this title for this reason. This is actually Paul’s first missionary journey. His persecution of the church caused the believers to scatter. But as we have noted, they preached the Lord Jesus wherever they went. God was using Saul to cause his message to be proclaimed as much as He later used him to actually proclaim the message. The word about Jesus went out into Judaea and Samaria. Soon it would go out to the uttermost parts of the earth, a mission that Paul would be extensively employed. One of the results of Paul’s first missionary journey as the great Samaritan revival, the account of which immediately follows this text. Paul created a great revival by making the church suffer. Later God would use Paul’s suffering to promote the gospel.
What we learn from a passage like this it that God’s sovereign plan for redemption cannot be set aside, even by the opposition of men. Those who oppose the Gospel can only end up promoting it. God used the unwilling Saul to advance the gospel as much as He later used the willing Paul. We face today increasing opposition to the Gospel. Many have risen up and tried to silence our voice. Militant atheists have risen up in America, a land which many Christians hold to be our own little Jerusalem to trouble us. We have been too long secure in our sanctuary. All the persecution of the church was “over there”.
Instead of feeling threatened by our opponents, we should see this as an opportunity to evangelism in what is not the uttermost parts of the earth. If God can use Saul, the worst persecutor of Christianity to spread the good news, then He can also use those who trouble us to advance the gospel in spite of their evil intentions. Perhaps God will give our opponents a Damascus Road experience. It is so much better personally to advance the gospel willingly then to advance it with evil intentions. Paul in Philippians mentions that some preach Christ out of a contentious spirit and others from good will. Either way, Paul rejoiced that Christ was proclaimed.
How can the militant Atheist promote the Gospel of Christ when they are doing everything in their power to make public proclamation of Jesus illegal in this country? One answer is that it should stir up the believers from the sleep of lethargy to become bold and intentional in proclaiming Christ. We have the only message that can save those who are perishing. What message of hope can an Atheist bring? The very best message they can bring is “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. One song from the seventies echoes this thought: “Na,na, na, na, na, na, live for today, and don’t worry about tomorrow.” Of course this is not the end of the story. We are reminded that we are appointed to die, but after that comes the judgment. But even form the atheists ground, if we are born with nothing and die to nothing, what does it matter how high we rise or fall in this life. The only conclusion of the Atheist’s claim would be what Solomon discovered so long ago: “Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless.”
We should be emboldened that out adversaries have no message but despair. They only have death as the meaningless end to a meaningless life. We have nothing to fear from this message other than their convers are bound it the thralls of death in this life as well as eternally. We know that our death in this world is no death at all, but eternal life. For since life is a short mixture of good and bad, and eternity is forever, a place where God will wipe away all tears, what have we ultimately to fear in the way of opposition or even persecution. Let us then be bold witnesses to the truth.
The Atheist has to affirm the existence of God in his very denial. If one truly did not believe in God, why would he spend the time and effort to oppose Him? Why would a rational person spend time fighting against the wind? Why would any human being want to destroy someone else’s hope without having any meaningful alternative? Atheists have claimed that Christians are hateful and intolerant, but what can be more intolerant and hateful to try to replace hope with despair? But we do not have to fear. God will use the venom of the atheists to promote the good news. And by God’s grace, some will see the utter futility of their position and believe in Christ. They can be raised by the hand of God even as Paul to become the willing and powerful evangelists for the Gospel.
We see in the rest of the Book of Acts that God’s infallible and predestined purpose was carried out for the church, promoted by the advocates and opponents of Christianity. The same God is carrying out his purpose for the church today as much as He did then. Sometimes His hand is invisible, and sometimes it is powerfully demonstrated. I am thankful for millions being won to Christ in Africa, Asia, Central and South America. And although I lament the growing apostasy in America and Europe, I have not given up hope. For God is God of all the earth.
Let us then go into all the world and make disciples everywhere.