The flame spreads
Last week we read through chapter 7 of the book of Acts. This chapter is the response of Stephen to the false accusations being made against him by the members of the Freedman’s Synagogue and by the members of the Sanhedrin itself. They were accusing him of blasphemy. They said he had threatened to destroy the temple and was advocating changing the Law which had been handed down to the nation of Israel by God through Moses. And if you read through that chapter like we did last week you’ll see that Stephen doesn’t directly speak to the accusations. What he does is to give the people gathered there a history lesson. He reminds them of the history of their nation. He reminds them of God’s covenant with Abraham. He reminds them of Joseph saving his family from the famine. He reminds them of their time as slaves in Egypt and of God using Moses to lead them out of that slavery. He reminds them of all the times that the people had turned their backs on God down through the years. But He also reminded them of all the times that God had saved them. And he turned the accusations around on them and reminded them that God didn’t dwell in the temple and he showed them that it was them who were changing the Law by adding so many layers of their own rules on top of it. He reminded them that God had sent saviors for them down through the years and many times they had rejected these saviors, at least at first, as they had done with Moses. And then he showed them how God had sent the ultimate Savior, Jesus, and he reminded them that once again they had rejected God’s savior, and this time they had even had him killed.
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And what happened? When Stephen reminded them of all these things, what did they do? Let’s turn back and read the end of chapter 7 again this morning.
51 “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit. As your ancestors did, you do also. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They even killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. 53 You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.”
So here’s Stephen telling them they have uncircumcised hearts and ears. And last week I told you that this is referring to the fact that they were so concerned with the outward appearance of righteousness, of following the Law and the covenant that God had with the nation of Israel, that they had forgotten that this covenant and this Law, was simply an outward sign of the relationship that God wanted to have with them. They focused on the signs of the relationship and let the actual relationship fall by the wayside. Stephen points this out to them and look what happens as we continue reading with verse 54
54 When they heard these things, they were enraged and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 He said, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 They yelled at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. 58 They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 He knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And after saying this, he died.
As usual, the Sanhedrin gets mad. But remember from a couple of weeks ago, it’s not just the Sanhedrin this time, it’s the people also. And the Bible tells us that the people rushed at him, drug him out of town and threw rocks at him until he died. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was the first person in history to die because of his faith in Christ. And that’s where we ended last week. So let’s pick up reading now with the beginning of chapter 8.
1 Saul agreed with putting him to death. On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him. 3 Saul, however, was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison.
Now I know I’ve been saying for a few weeks now that we are at the end of the first phase of Christ’s mission to the church and transitioning to the second phase. Well here is the beginning of that second phase. Remember before Christ ascended into heaven back in chapter 1 he told the apostles that they would be his witnesses. In he said
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Up to this point in the book of Acts the witness has been confined to the city of Jerusalem and, as we’ve seen, almost exclusively to the Temple Mount. But now that Stephen has been killed the Christians are scattered throughout the country and the witness begins to spread. In fact verse 1 tells that one that very day, when Stephen died, was when this scattering began.
The second part of verse 1 reads “On that day a sever persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria. So here we go. This is the beginning of phase 2. The believers have left Jerusalem and gone into the rest of Judea and into Samaria. The gospel is beginning to spread.
Now one question typically comes up here when we read these verses. People read this and see that it says “all except the apostles were scattered,” and the question is, why weren’t the apostles driven out. And the answer is that it probably wasn’t all believers, all Christians, who were driven out of Jerusalem. We’ve already talked about how there were basically two groups of believers. You had the Jews who had been born and raised in Jerusalem or at least in Israel who spoke Aramaic and had been raised within the Jewish culture. Then you had the Greek speaking Jews, the Hellenist Jews, who had been raised in the prevailing Greek culture of the day and who had migrated back to Jerusalem. While they were both Jewish by birth, they had been raised in different cultures and there were disagreements between the two groups. Stephen was part of this second group, he was a Hellenist believer and it was likely these Christians who were persecuted and driven out following his death. The Hellenist believers had a vision of an “unbounded God,” a God who was for all people. This clashed with the nationalistic view that the traditional Jewish people had. They saw God as being the God of Israel and in order to follow him one had to convert to Judaism. Since the Aramaic speaking believers followed the traditional Jewish customs and culture more so than the Greek speaking believers they were probably spared the brunt of this persecution. That’s why the apostles were able to remain in Jerusalem and to continue the witness there. Because the mission Christ gave wasn’t to go to Jerusalem and then the to stop witnessing there and move to Judea and Samaria and then to stop there and move on to the rest of the world. No, the mission is to witness in Jerusalem, continue there and spread to the other places. So that’s what we see happening here. The apostles remain in Jerusalem and the Hellenist believers move out to Judea and Samaria.
One other thing happened, however that would have angered the Jewish authorities. It’s listed here in verse 2
2 Devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him.
So why is this such a big deal? Why would that anger the authorities, the Sanhedrin? It’s because Jewish law forbade funeral observances for anyone condemned of a crime. Since Stephen had been put on trial in front of the Sanhedrin and had been executed by stoning he would have been considered a criminal and under the law was not entitled to a proper burial. Now a case could be made that he was actually the victim of mob violence, but that was semantics that the Jewish authorities weren’t typically very apt to listen to. So these devout men who buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him were showing great courage in doing so. They actually risked the same fate.
Now before we get in to the things that happened in this second phase of the mission I want to look a little deeper at the mention of Saul here in the end of chapter 7 and the beginning of chapter 8. He is mentioned 3 times quickly in just a few verses and I want to look at the escalation of his involvement.
The first time we see Saul is in chapter 7 verse 58 and he seems to be simply a bystander.
58 They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
This seems like a minor detail but there’s actually quite a bit in this simple sentence, “And the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” First it establishes the fact that Saul was trusted by the witnesses and by the Jewish authorities. We’ve already talked a couple of weeks ago about the fact that Saul studied under Gamaliel. He was an up and coming leader with the Jewish power structure and the fact that he is the guard for the cloaks shows not only that he was present, but that he was on the side of the Jewish authorities. Now it also shows that he did not actively participate in the stoning of Stephen. He didn’t throw a rock, but he was there. He witnessed the whole thing.
But the second thing I want you to see is, I think, even more interesting. At that time, in that culture, they would have typically worn a simple light weight tunic covered by a heavier outer cloak. As they began to stone Stephen many if not all of them took off the outer cloak and laid it at the feet of Saul. So what’s the big deal about that? I mean, it’s only logical that they would take it off to avoid getting it sweaty, to avoid possibly getting blood on it, or just to be able to move easier right? And that’s all true, but what’s interesting is that under Jewish law it’s the criminal who is to be stripped down before execution, not the executioners. Since these witnesses bore false testimony against Stephen, under Jewish law, they are guilty and they are the ones who should be the subjects of the stoning. So the fact that they strip down themselves speaks to their guilt. They likely didn’t think of this, but it’s still an interesting parallel in the story.
So we first see Saul as a bystander, but then chapter 8 begins by acknowledging him as an agreer. And I know that may not actually be a word but we’re going to use it anyway because it fits in the outline.
Chapter 8 begins by saying:
1 Saul agreed with putting him to death. On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria.
Here we see that although Saul didn’t participate in the stoning, he agreed that it was the right thing to do. In other words he agreed with the people who were bearing false testimony against Stephen. Now I want you to remember something I brought up last week. Saul was a Cilician Jew. And as such he was likely a member of the Freedman’s Synagogue. These were the people who were bringing the false testimony against Stephen. So it’s possible that Saul himself had argued with Stephen in the synagogue. And remember that no one could stand up against him, because Stephen was speaking in the power of the Holy Spirit. So assuming that Saul had argued against Stephen and that he was defeated in his argument, he was probably pretty mad. And while he wasn’t one of the one’s chosen to bring the false testimony this verse shows us that he agreed with the decision. Stephen needed to be silenced and if it took killing him, so be it. Saul was alright with that.
But then we keep reading to verse 3.
3 Saul, however, was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison.
So Saul, in just a few verses, goes from being a bystander, to being an agreer, to being a persecutor. And more than just persecuting Christians, it says he was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house and drag the believers, both men and women, out an put them in prison. This likely refers to house churches. Way back in chapter 2 we read this verse
46 Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts,
The believers would meet in the temple but they also gathered together in their homes for times of worship. It was these house churches that Saul was attacking. He would rush in, with the temple police during their worship times and arrest everyone in the home.
And it was this persecution, this house to house search by Saul and the temple guards that led so many to flee Jersualem and to spread out to other parts of Judea and Samaria. But they didn’t just flee, they brought thee gospel with them and they continued to be witnesses to the gospel just as Jesus had told them they would. So in a sense, the persecution helped to spread the gospel. And Saul, even before his conversion was helping the gospel to spread. Even before he became Paul and actively shared the gospel and before he wrote the majority of what we now know as the New Testament of the Bible, Saul was working to spread the gospel of Christ throughout the world. Granted he wasn’t trying to, he thought that he was actively working against God, but we have to remember that God’s plans are much bigger than our own. He sees the bigger picture. He sees the full picture whereas we only see a brief moment in time. Saul saw this new faith encroaching on the long held beliefs of the Jews. So he wanted to stamp it out. He wanted to crush the church in its infancy and keep it from spreading. But remember the subtitle to our series here? “Acts of the Apostles: The Church Set Aflame” What happens when you try to put out a fire by kicking at it? Typically all you succeed in doing is spreading the fire. And that’s what we’re going to see as we continue into the rest of the book. As we move from this first phase of the mission the persecution has begun. The Jewish authorities are kicking at the flames that have sprung up in the form of this new church, but they only succeed in spreading the flame outside of Jerusalem and outside of Israel itself.
Would you pray with me?