Many people have lost their lives because of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Book of Hebrews records the Hall of Fame, listing many people of faith, but also those who were severely persecuted for their faith. Try and get your head around the following three verses:
[because of their faith,] Heb 11:36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Where this would mainly be believers from the Old Testament, Stephen was the first Christian Martyr. He was the first to be executed (stoned to death) because of faith in Jesus. Please read on:
Ac 8:1 On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
1) Church Persecution.
Ac 8:1 On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem.
The term “on that day” means that from that day onwards. The persecution was not a one day event but many days. Where did this start? With Stephen’s martyrdom which was supervised by Saul of Tarsus. The word “approval” in Acts 8v1a is somewhat weak. It ought to include that Saul (Paul) was pleased with Stephen being stoned to death! Once a follower of Jesus, he confessed that he persecuted Jesus’ Church:
Phil 3:6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
Many of us, whilst lost and trying to find answers to questions about God and religion also blatantly persecuted the Church. Therefore, let’s not think too badly of Saul.
2) Gospel Explosion.
All except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Stephen’s death fueled the persecutors who intensified their war against the Church that it opened the floodgates to the point where all the believers were scattered and only the apostles remained at their post in Jerusalem. At times we wonder how it is that flowers or trees tend to jump up in places they were not planted. Both the birds and wind tend to “scatter” seeds, dropping them in places where they germinate and grow and become flower bushes, trees or fruit trees. That is the meaning of the word “scattered” here. It is not desertion but “organized” distribution! The early believers were told by our Lord:
Ac 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Notice that the word “will” is used twice. “Will” receive power and “will” be Jesus’ witnesses. We saw how they received power in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit came … but right up to Stephen’s martyrdom they had not been witnesses outside of Jerusalem. Judea and Samaria did not yet have Gospel representation. As one teacher on missions said … God sent the persecution to enact Acts 1:8 in Acts 8:1. Now the blood of the martyr become the seed of the Church! The scattering of Gospel Workers was to Judea and Samaria! Beloved, when God commissions us to do a specific ministry or task, let’s do it eagerly and willingly before He needs to create some hardship to cause us to follow His instructions.
3) Reverend Burial.
Ac 8:2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.
It is uncertain as to whether these were Christian men or a mixture of Christians and devote, God-fearing Jews who were not opposed to the movement of people following Jesus Christ as Stephen did. The word “buried” includes the concept of carrying the corpse to the burial site. Some suggest it also includes closing the eyes, washing and anointing the body but this is less likely. Jewish Law prohibited open mourning for someone who had been executed, so the term “mourned deeply” seems to mean these men publically repented of Stephen’s murder. Biblically each person needs to repent of their own sins, yet there is a time and a place where a group of believers could confess the sins of others seeking these others to repent. This might be the way to pray for a nation!
4) Individual Persecution.
Ac 8:3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
Look at Saul’s strategy to annihilate the Church … one Christian at a time. We read further on:
Ac 9:1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
The essence of this is that Saul sought authority from the high priest to extradite the followers of Jesus that he found in the synagogues throughout Damascus and return them to Jerusalem from where they fled (were scattered). He had one mission … in his fanatical, legalistic Pharisaic blindness, he was murderous going from house to house to find Christians and capture them.
5) Sowing Gospel Seed.
Ac 8:4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
Even with Saul’s persecution hot on their trails, they knew why they were scattered to the places they landed up in. It was to bring the glorious Gospel of salvation through faith and not works. They preached Jesus (the Word) boldly and unashamedly. Where Saul had pleasure in supervising Stephen’s murder, these early Christian preachers received pleasure in preaching the lifesaving message of Eternal Life and the escape from Eternal Death.
Many Christians wrongly believe that it is not their responsibility to preach the Gospel. Maybe preaching is a strong word … what about testifying? I believe that all believers are called to share their faith with non-Christians … and it’s so easy!
Living in a house without a fridge or microwave has a few challenges when it comes to food. Today a good friend and I went to a new restaurant nearby called Rocco Mammas. We had the day’s main meal there. The waiter was a lovely young man who soon told us his father was a pastor. We asked if he was a believer. He said yes. I asked what he would say to God’s question … “why should I allow you into me heaven” should it be asked. He answer was about all the good things he had done for people. My friend immediately told him it was the incorrect answer. “You must believe in Jesus” my friend said. Was that so hard?
Our Father, motivate us Your children to willing share Jesus with all we come into contact with and may some follow Jesus all the way Your Heaven. Amen.