At the end of chapter 6 Luke tells us that Stephen was arrested. And in chapter 7 we have his speech to the Sanhedrin which culminates in his accusation that they’re just like their forefathers were: Your forefathers used to resist the Holy Spirit — and so have you. Your forefathers killed the Lord’s prophets — and you have killed the Lord Jesus. And the Sandehrin were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. And they dragged him from the city and stoned him to death. But as he died, he saw the Lord Jesus, standing at the right hand of God, waiting to receive him into glory.
Luke tells us in chapter 7 and verse 58 that those who had witnessed against Stephen in the trial, and were stoning him, laid their clothes at the feet of Saul. And the commentators think this means that Saul was already considered their leader. And we’ll hear a bit more about Saul at the beginning of chapter 8 and of his opposition to the church. But in this chapter we also read about how the good news of the gospel began to spread. Remember that, first of all, the good news had been confined to the Jews in Jerusalem. And in previous chapters we read about the church in Jerusalem and how they cared for one another. But in this chapter we see how the good news was taken out of Jerusalem to the Samaritans who were kind of half-Jews and half-Gentiles. And they believed the message and were baptised and filled with the Holy Spirit. And then in chapter 10, we see that the good news was taken to the Gentiles. And so, Luke is showing us that that the Lord Jesus Christ, from his throne in heaven, was extending his kingdom throughout the world.
Verses 1 to 4
In verse 1 of chapter 8 we read that Saul approved of Stephen’s death. And then Luke tells us that on that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea in the south and Samaria in the north. It’s not clear why the apostles were not forced to leave Jerusalem. Perhaps, since they were well-regarded by the people, they escaped this persecution and only general believers were being targeted. We read as well in verse 2 that godly men took Stephen’s body and buried him. And they mourned deeply for him.
And notice, in passing, that it is no sin to mourn deeply for our loved ones who have died. I need to say that because, from time to time, I meet believers who say that it’s wrong for Christians to mourn. Some say that since we believe in the resurrection of the body and everlasting life with God, to grieve the loss of a loved ones betrays a lack of faith or assurance. And they appeal to a verse like 1 Thessalonians 4:13 where Paul says he doesn’t want his readers to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope. There you are, they say: It’s wrong to grieve. But Paul isn’t saying it’s wrong to grieve. He’s saying that the grief of a believer differs from the grief of an unbeliever because the believer has the hope of everlasting life to comfort them in their sorrow. But still we grieve, and still we’re sorrowful, and like Stephen’s friends who mourned deeply for him, we will mourn deeply whenever a friend or relative dies because we loved them and we miss them. And so, we read that these friends of Stephen buried him and grieved for him.
In verse 3 we’re told that Saul began to destroy the church. He wanted to wipe it out of existence and to dismantle it, piece by piece. And so he went from house to house, dragging off men and women and putting them into prison. And, then in verse 4, Luke tells us that those who had been scattered by the persecution preached the word wherever they went. The word Luke uses for ‘preaching’ means ‘preaching the good news’. And if you glance down through the following verses you’ll see other descriptions of what they preached. Verse 5: Philip ‘proclaimed the Christ’. In verse 12 we’re told that he ‘preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Christ’. In verse 14 it’s called ‘the word of God’. And in verse 25 it’s called ‘the word of the Lord’ and again we’re told they ‘preached the good news’. So, if we put all those things together we can say that those who were scattered, and Philip is a prime example, preached God’s word which is the good news about Jesus Christ the King.
There are several things we can learn from these four verses. First of all, as John Calvin says, in this narrative the condition of the godly in this world is shown to us: that they are like sheep destined for the slaughter; and especially when the Lord gives freedom of rein to his enemies. Beginning on that day, when Stephen was killed, the church of Jesus Christ has been continually persecuted and opposed. And so it shouldn’t surprise us to hear of persecution today in other countries around the world. This has always been the case. And it shouldn’t surprise us when the world around us despises us and rejects us and when laws are passed which disregard the revealed will of the Lord. This has always been the case. And yet, the Lord Jesus continues to guard and to keep his church and to ensure that the gates of hell will not prevail. I know that many Christians are very distressed by what our own government agreed yesterday. It seems they have no regard for the Lord and his revealed will. But this is nothing new. This shouldn’t surprise us. And it shouldn’t worry us either, because Jesus Christ is still the King and he still rules over all.
And that leads me to the second thing we can learn from this passage. And again, John Calvin is very helpful here. He says that in this narrative we are made to see the effect that persecutions have: that they do not so much break off the progress of the gospel, but rather become aids to its advancement, according to God’s wonderful purpose. In other words, instead of preventing the spread of the gospel, the persecution helps the spread of the gospel.
Think, for a moment, of the story of Joseph from the Old Testament. His wicked brothers intended to do wicked things: they hated him and wanted to get rid of him. But God intended it all for good: the salvation of many lives and the preservation of the line of Abraham. Think of the Lord’s crucifixion. Wicked men intended to do wicked things: they hated him and wanted to kill him. But God intended it all for good, because by dying on the cross the Lord Jesus has paid for all our sins so that sinners like us can have peace with God for ever. And so, here in Acts 8, wicked men intended to do wicked things. Saul hated the church and he wanted to destroy it. He wanted to dismantle the church. But God intended it for good, because by this persecution, believers were scattered. And wherever they went, the gospel was preached and men and women believed and were added to the church. Saul wanted to destroy the church. But his actions led to the expansion of the church. Saul wanted to stop the spread of the gospel. But the gospel was broadcast even further afield — and the church grew. That’s why we shouldn’t worry or be afraid. God is able to bring good out of what seems like us to be a disaster. We think he needs to stop bad things from happening. And often that’s what he does. But he’s so great and mighty and wise that on other occasions he’s able to allow those bad things to happen because he intends to turn the tables on his enemies and to bring good out of evil.
Some of you will know the story of the missionary Jim Elliot who was killed in 1956. He was only 28. He and four friends were trying to bring the good news to a remote tribe of Indians in Ecuador who could only be reached by aeroplane. After spending months flying overhead, calling to the Indians and dropping gifts down to them, they finally worked out how to land their plane near the Indian village. All seemed to be going well, until a group of warriors from the tribe arrived and killed Jim and his four friends. Of course, it seemed like a disaster. And it seemed like a waste of five young lives. But Elizabeth Elliot, Jim’s widow, wrote later about some of the good God brought out of what happened to them. People who turned to the Lord in repentance and faith. Others who prayed for the widows and their children. And those who prayed for the Indians, that they might finally be reached with the gospel and saved from their wickedness. And then, so many others who heard their story and who afterwards volunteered for missionary service and went to give their all for the sake of Christ and his gospel. To so many it seemed a waste and a disaster. But God brought great good out of it. Saul wanted to destroy the church, but the Lord Jesus turned the tables on Saul and used this persecution to make the church to grow. And so, we must not be afraid or overly-anxious no matter what men and women and governments decide, because the Lord Jesus is still ruling and reigning from heaven.
And then the third thing we can learn from these verses is how the church grew. Look at verse 4 again:
Those who were scattered preached the word wherever they went.
Then verse 5 again:
Philip went and proclaimed the Christ in a city in Samaria.
Philip, we discover in chapter 21 verse 8, held the office of evangelist in the church. And therefore, holding this special office, he was able, like the apostles, to perform miraculous signs to accompany his preaching. But look at verse 12. What does it say? They believed Philip as he did what? As he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. And then in verse 25 we read how Peter and John also preached the gospel in many Samaritan villages. So how did the church grow? The church grew through the preaching of the message of Jesus Christ. And preaching, of course, involves preaching to large groups of men and women. But it also involves, as we’ll see later in this chapter, speaking to individuals like the Ethiopian eunuch and explaining the good news about Jesus Christ. And through the reading and preaching of his word, the Lord Jesus gathers his people into the church.
Verses 5 to 8
We won’t go much further this evening. Just notice in verse 5 that Philip went to a city in Samaria. Remember, the Jews and Samaritans hated one another. But if you recall what we read in chapter 1, you’ll know that the Lord Jesus told the apostles that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. And you might also recall Joel’s prophecy which Peter quoted in Acts 2. Joel prophesied that the day was coming when God would pour out his Spirit on all people. In Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit was for the Jews only. But now the gospel is for everyone, because Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And the Holy Spirit is sent to all kinds of people to enable them to believe the gospel. And so, Philip ends up in this city of Samaria. And he preaches to them. And he tells them about the Lord Jesus, the Saviour of the world. And, because he holds this special office and is able to perform miraculous signs, he performs them there. Those who are possessed by evil spirits are set free. Those who are sick are cured. And there was great joy in the city.
Think about the sorrow in Jerusalem because of the death of Stephen and the joy in Samaria because of Philip’s ministry. In this world, we still have troubles and difficulties and disappointments. And there is still so much sorrow and sadness. The church of Jesus Christ is still opposed and despised and often persecuted. But there’s also so much joy, because Jesus Christ is enthroned in heaven and he is still building his church throughout the world. And there is nothing that men and women and governments may do to stop Jesus Christ the King from gathering his people into the church and preparing us for glory.