The Church Dispersed

Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  31:25
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PRAY: God of all glory and grace, the Scripture tells us that you know our needs even before we ask. And there is nothing we need more than more of you. By the power of your Holy Spirit, use the truth of your word to show us more of your radiant glory, and your perfect goodness, and your beautiful grace. Teach us more of your holiness, your justice, and your love. Use that knowledge to draw us closer to you and to grow us into the likeness of your Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
INTRO: What does God know about trials that we do not? Only everything.
Did you know that there are trees that thrive and reproduce precisely because of periodic fires? What seems like it would bring their ultimate destruction serves God’s purpose. This is particularly true of certain types of pines, which have serotinous cones that are sort of glued shut with resin. The mature seeds remain inside until severe heat from a fire melts the resin and opens the cones. As the seeds later fall out of the now dry and open cones, wind and gravity disperses them to germinate elsewhere. (from National Forest Foundation website -
The stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem sparked a fire of persecution that did not destroy or diminish the gospel of Jesus Christ, but instead caused the church to spread and grow beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem. The second-century North African theologian Tertullian is quoted as having written that ‘the blood of Christians is the seed’ of the church’s growth. (Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, Ac 8:1.)
Stephen’s death (at the hands of the Sanhedrin) becomes the turning point that triggers a broader persecution against the church. And it appears that Saul spearheads this attack. But Saul’s efforts are no match for the plan of God and the power of his Spirit to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, what Saul meant for evil, God meant for good. (Yes, you should hear echoes of Joseph’s words to his brothers.)
This persecution moves the church in the exact direction of God’s command, and the scattered message yields great fruit. Philip’s early ministry highlights the Spirit’s work beyond Jerusalem.
Acts 8:1–8 ESV
And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 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. 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. So there was much joy in that city.

Following Stephen’s Death, Saul’s Persecution Scatters the Church (vv. 1-3)

Stephen’s stoning sparks the first severe persecution of the church, and young Saul becomes the tip of the spear.
You remember Saul—the young man who was present as the Sanhedrin stoned Stephen, and not merely a coat hanger (cloak watcher - 7:58), but also quite clearly approving of their action (8:1a). Saul was a devout Pharisee and student of the respected rabbi Gamaliel, the very same who had advised the Sanhedrin (himself a member) to leave the Apostles alone (Acts 5:34-39). The council seemed to have listened to Gamaliel’s recommendation up to this point with Stephen, but this violent action against one of the Jesus’ followers opens up the floodgates. (I picture a dam being broken and the water under pressure gushing forth in destructive fashion.) Nearly all the Christians are in danger now, except possibly with the exception of the Apostles themselves.
The Apostles stayed. I think of three probable reasons: They were less of a target, less afraid (having learned that lesson), and still establishing spiritual roots in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem church would remain influential if not central to the broader church as it spread.
(Back to the first reason, that they were likely less of a target...) As Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew, the Hellenists likely felt the most initial heat of persecution. Not only are the Apostles Hebraistic Jews, but they are also prominent, and the Sanhedrin has demonstrated repeatedly that they fear the people.
In his youthful zeal, Saul can likely justify himself that they are still kinda following Gamaliel’s wisdom, while at the same time being able to run wild in a holy war against the Christians. Luke’s readers may have some idea, but Saul himself does not yet know that he is on the wrong side of this holy war. He is in fact fighting against God, so he has completely missed the point of Gamaliel’s advice: “if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (5:39).
Right in the middle of this is a note that Stephen was not dishonored in death, even here on earth. Mention of this may seem strange without cultural context. Two opposing forces are in play here. “Dying unburied was the greatest dishonor possible in the ancient Mediterranean world; even risking one’s life to bury the dead was considered honorable and heroic.” However, “Jewish law forbade public mourning for a condemned criminal, but for anyone else it was considered a pious duty. Stephen’s pious friends ignore the illegal ruling of the highest Jewish court to honor their friend.” (Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, Ac 8:2.)
No doubt this bold action by the believers only gives Saul more excuse and motivation for his actions.
In Saul’s misdirected zeal, we find him making every effort to ravage, to lay waste to the church, to devote it to destruction. It is not as if Saul would have been doing this simply of his own accord. He would have needed permission and authorization from the Sanhedrin to take temple guards with him to go into people’s homes and arrest them (Gk word meaning to lead someone away by force against their will)… dragging off… anyone he questioned who would not deny their allegiance to Jesus and anyone accused of such by others. In prison (some place where they were held captive under guard) they would likely await trial.
As if going from house to house isn’t bad enough, Saul is extreme in the sense that he is dragging off women as well as men, which is beyond what “most of his contemporaries would have felt necessary.” (Keener, IVP Background Commentary on Acts 8:3)
With Saul carting everyone off to jail to await trial (the kind of trial which they have just seen result in Stephen’s stoning), anyone who has even the faintest whiff of Jesus on them, both men and women, you can imagine how this scatters the church out of Jerusalem to get some breathing room from this persecution.
But what Saul and the Sanhedrin would count as success, Luke is sure to show that God is providentially at work even in this.

The Dispersed Disciples Spread the Gospel Beyond Jerusalem (v. 4)

Although the persecution is intended to silence the followers of Jesus and deter others from joining them, this crazy upheaval in the personal lives of the believers turns out to be the very thing that fulfills Christ’s command to them.
From what Luke says in v. 1c and v. 4 (“and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria”… “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”), what would he undoubtedly expect us to remember from the beginning of this book?
Acts 1:8 ESV
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.”
Again, this is precisely how their scattering from persecution is then described. [map of Judea and Samaria, and Idumea (south)]
A what happened when they were scattered (v. 4)? Everywhere they passed through, they evangelized (that’s the word in Gk)—proclaiming, announcing good news, specifically “the word,” which is here certainly understood to mean the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ (who makes us right with God and invites us into his kingdom).
This same map leads us forward into how, in vv. 5-8…

Philip’s Faithfulness in Particular Highlights the Spirit’s Fruitfulness in Samaria (vv. 5-8)

Here Luke gives Philip as a prominent example of how God used this dispersion of the believers out of Jerusalem to fulfill Christ’s promise and imperative. (This Philip is not the apostle, but the Philip who was chosen as one of the seven, just like Stephen. He is distinguished from Philip the apostle by being called Philip the evangelist.) It also allows Luke to highlight the Spirit’s work through yet another faithful servant in the line of the Jesus, and the Apostles, and Stephen.
So we are told that Philip goes down, as they would say, not south but down in elevation from the higher city of Jerusalem down to the main city of Samaria, or a key city of Samaria (some manuscripts say, a instead of the).
[another map] He likely went either to the city of Samaria (also called Sebaste at this time, an extremely pagan city with much Greek influence), or to the ancient town of Shechem (which was the religious center for the Samaritans). On this map Shechem would be located right at that point where the red path northward hooks to the west (left). That’s the location of Shechem. Either way, Philip journeyed straight into the heart of Samaria.
You’ve probably heard it said, in other teaching concerning the life and times of Jesus, that the relationship between Jews and mixed-breed Samaritan Jews was strained, to say the least. The beginning of these issues dates all the way back to the divided kingdom, a history worth reviewing to see God’s superintendence and to put these relationships in perspective.
Jeroboam was a military commander under Solomon during his reign. But because Solomon intermarried with foreign women, who worshipped foreign gods, and Solomon allowed this, God told both Solomon that discipline would come and God told Jeroboam that he would make a kingdom from him as well. When Solomon heard this, he sought Jeroboam’s life, but Jeroboam fled to Egypt.
When Solomon died and his son Rehoboam became king, Jeroboam returned.
[map of Jeroboam’s return and divided kingdom]
Because Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) foolishly over-taxed the people, the northern ten tribes split off and made Jeroboam their king. Jeroboam knew it would be impossible to worship now in Jerusalem, so he established a couple different sites of worship in the north. Dating all the way back to this point, then, the northern tribes worshipped separately from the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
Later, when Omri was king in Israel, he set up Samaria [previous map again] as the capital. Such would have been the ruling center of power for the likes of the infamous King Ahab after him (& Queen Jezebel). Fast forward through many more godless kings in Israel, to around 720-722 BC when the Assyrian Empire laid seige to Samaria. During this time period, Jews from the northern tribes were not only deported, but forced to intermarry with other peoples under Assyrian control so that assimilation would weaken any potential threats of uprising. This deportation and assimilation resulted in what is sometimes called “the lost ten tribes of Israel” and eventually to a mix of Jews with other nations in the north that would become known as Samaritans.
The Assyrians rebuilt Samaria to be a provincial capital, and it remained so even as new empires rose to power: the Babylonian, then the Medo-Persian, then the Greek.
Even though Judah was conquered by the Babylonian empire (586 BC) and many Jews led into captivity less than a century and a half after the Assyrians took Samaria, the people were able to maintain their identity as Jews. When they were allowed to return rebuild under the Medo-Persian King Cyrus, their identity and worship was intact. During this same era, the Samaritans broke off and created their own sect of worship, making for themselves a temple on Mount Gerizim. That clear religious distinction continued to the time of Christ, as you’ll recall the Samaritan woman at the well having a conversation with Jesus that referenced distinct mountains for worship (Jn 4:19-24).
Just for historical reference regarding the capital city of Samaria before Philip preached there, it experienced a change of hands 3 more times before the days of Christ and the early church. In the Hellenistic Period (remember the Greek Alexander the Great quickly conquering the Persian Empire), the Samarian governor rebelled and the city was destroyed and rebuilt as a Hellenistic city. But later when the Greek Empire was divided in four parts after Alexander, a Jewish High Priest and ruler in Judaea, John Hyrcanus, destroyed the city and regained control of it for the Jews (around 110 BC).
But then came the Roman Empire. “When Pompey seized control of Syria-Palestine for Rome in the middle of the first millennium bc, Samaria again fell into foreign hands. After Rome annexed Samaria into the larger region of Syria, it was given to King Herod, who rebuilt the city as a Roman city and renamed it Sebaste.” (David B. Schreiner, “Samaria,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).)
That’s a lot of history of hurt feelings between the Jews and Samaritans, and it cut both ways.
But one of the key features of Acts is that God is breaking down barriers as to who can come into God’s kingdom, who can join the people of God, because of the way that Jesus Christ fulfills OT promise. Philip is at the front, leading this charge. Thank you, Philip, for trusting Jesus enough to see people through his eyes, putting away all prior prejudice and fear, and pursuing them for Christ as people who are made in God’s image and who need rescuing because of their rebellion.
As we look at vv. 6-8, we are reminded of several things that we have seen repeatedly so far in Acts after Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit is the source. He is the power behind the miraculous signs he is the persuasive worker behind the proclamation, both in the preacher (Philip) and in the hearers who are converted (in this case the Samaritans on this storied city). Let’s peek ahead to the evidence of this in Acts 8:12
Acts 8:12 ESV
But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
Whole crowds of people are listening to the message and are greatly impacted quickly and dramatically because of the Spirit’s work at this time through Philip to cast out demons and to heal. Can you imagine being there in a situation where people are bringing the demon-possessed, and those who are plainly disabled, and such people are instantaneously and completely healed? There is never a hint of doubt that these miracles are truly taking place, and they are confirmation of the message being preached: Jesus was the promised Messiah, and he remains the risen Lord, and he has poured out this Spirit upon his people, whose power you are now experiencing. - It’s no wonder that they listened to what he said, and its no wonder that many become disciples of Jesus, joining His Church.
Finally, doesn’t it make sense that from this miraculous work, and with people coming to faith in Jesus, that here is an “out of the ordinary degree and magnitude” of joy (the emotion of great happiness and pleasure) in that city? There is great rejoicing at the work of God and saving faith in Jesus.

What do the fires of persecution do to Christ’s church?

Stephen’s martyrdom became a shining beacon of Spirit-filled comfort and courage to the finish line.
Persecuting the Christians wouldn’t stop Christ from building his church. One of the primary perpetrators of this evil, Saul, would soon be won by Christ to become the premier missionary and foundational builder of doctrine for the church.
Killing Stephen wouldn’t stop Jesus from raising up Spirit-filled men to take his place. Philip became a primary example of faithfulness and fruitful ministry in the Spirit, spreading out beyond Jerusalem, fulfilling Christ’s own plan and command for His church.
So how should we think about the fires of persecution?
The fires of persecution prove the genuine article, whom God has transformed through faith in Jesus. … The fires of persecution purify by burning away our baggage. … The fires of persecution place us in situations beyond our comfort to depend on God and push us beyond our self-imposed boundaries to show the mighty work of God to make for himself a people for his own possession, from every ethnicity and language and nation.
Praise God for the truth of his word give us some perspective on our trials.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, we thank you for your revealed truth. We thank you for the plain evidence that you take godless & rebellious individuals and make them a bright beacon of the transforming power of the gospel of your Son. We pray that you will make us into Stephens, and Philips, and Pauls, that we may be always growing to be more like Jesus, and always proclaiming that in him is the only true salvation—the single means to be perfectly restored in relationship to you, God. And may you receive all the glory for building your Church, Amen.
For Further Application & Discussion:
Try to pull from anything you know of the Apostle Paul, and consider how this phase of his life might have impacted who he became (see Ac 22:4-5, 26:10-11; 1 Cor 15:9, Gal 1:13, 23; Phil 3:6; 1 Tim 1:13, 16). How does God use a combination of dramatic transformation in our lives (conversion) plus our past experiences to shape the way that he uses us? (Not just Paul from this context, but also Moses, Joseph, Stephen)
What does Saul’s persecution in the context of this gospel advancement teach about God and about us? (For example: Explain why it should comfort us to know that God providentially supersedes (overrules) even what men devise for evil to accomplish his good purposes?)
What new dimension does this developing persecution of the church and dispersion of the gospel add to Stephen’s legacy? (Consider “pivotal man a for pivotal moment,” consider Philip, consider how others might have increased in courage and clarity. See also Jesus’ words in John 12:23-25.)
Prayerfully meditate on what God might have you apply from this passage. How does it help you know God better (Father, Son, & Spirit)—to gratefully appreciate him more, to express adoration and dependence, to admire and trust in his perfections and power? Is there any sin this brings to the forefront that you need to confess? What practical steps might you need to pursue, with accountability, that will help you walk in faithful obedience to God?
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