I believe that every word of the Bible was inspired by the living God. That is, I believe that the Holy Spirit inspired each and every word of the original manuscripts of the Bible, just as the Scriptures say in 2 Timo-thy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” According to that verse, not only is every word of the Bible inspired by God, each word has great value in the spiritual growth of every true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. The words of the Bible teach us how to live righteously, confront us when we fail to obey God’s truth, correct us to walk in the right path, and train us to live by faith.
Believing in the complete divine inspiration of the Bible does not mean all Christians automatically under-stand each word. We often discover challenges to applying every verse to our lives. For example, when the Apostle Paul wrote, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,” in Romans 8:28, we sometimes find difficulties in understanding how some things work together for good in our lives. We sometimes question how sorrow, sickness, and failure can work for our good. Often, from our perspective, some things only seem evil or bad. However, Christians have a unique advantage: we are given the privilege to see things from God’s perspective. And, from God’s sovereign and omniscient perspective, He does make all things work together for good to those who love Him.
For the moment, things had taken a distinct turn for the worse for the Lord’s church in Jerusalem. Earlier, Peter and John had been arrested but the Jewish leaders had released them. Later, all of the apostles had been arrested and imprisoned for preaching the gospel, but during the night, an angel from the Lord had released them from prison. But now, the worst event of all had happened. Stephen, a bright, young believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, had been arrested for preaching God’s Word and had ultimately been executed by an enraged Jewish mob by being stoned to death. Now one of their own had died for his faith in Jesus. To make matters worse, the Jewish leaders began to persecute Christians from the Jerusalem church. How can any good come from these events?
But something good did come from these events. I believe that God used these events to show His church down through the centuries His amazing power to show His sovereign power and plan to reach the world with the truth that Jesus came to save the lost and that that message must go to the ends of the earth. We begin with the church being persecuted and scattered and then discover the evangelistic outreach of another young church leader who begins reaching communities beyond Jerusalem with the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.
SAUL PERSECUTES THE CHURCH. Acts 8:1a, 3
Saul. We find that Saul was present when Stephen was illegally murdered by the Sanhedrin and he heartily agreed or consented to his death. It is possible that Saul had been part of the synagogue where Stephen had preached that Jesus Christ of Nazareth was God and Messiah and that the Jewish leaders had crucified their own Messiah who had come to save them. It is also probable that Saul had debated with Stephen, but, like the others, had lost those debates.
Most Christians are familiar with Saul. Most know that in the next chapter, Saul, who will be on his way to Damascus in Syria to arrest and imprison Christians, will have a supernatural encounter with Jesus Christ, and choose to accept Christ as his Lord and Savior. Soon after, the Lord will change his name from Saul to Paul, and Paul will go on to write much of the New Testament, travel thousands of miles in the ancient world, establish hundreds of churches, and lead multitudes of men and women to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. But for now, he is a relentless persecutor of Christians.
Saul himself will later write about what motivated him to persecute Christians. “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Galatians 1:14). It was because he had fully absorbed those traditions that he had Christians persecuted and arrested. Saul claimed he was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5b-6). Clearly, Saul saw Christianity as a profound threat to Judaism so he zealously tried to destroy the church.
Destroying the Church. Verse three tells us that destroying the church was exactly his plan. The word in the original is translated “destroy,” ravage,” or “made havoc;” it has the idea of using physical injury as well as oppression or indignation. Saul’s zeal was so great against Christians that it was as if he were wildly and furiously raging against them. According to later passages in Acts, Saul did these things with the full approval of the Jewish ruling body: the Sanhedrin. These Christians were not even safe in their homes–Saul entered into their homes to arrest them and drag them off to trial.
Persecuted and Imprisoned. Saul went into their neighborhoods and dragged both men and women off to trial while their families and neighbors watched. His fury was matched by his anger over their message of faith in Christ. The only offense of these people was that they had believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Messi-ah. The persecution that had targeted only the apostles, now included every Christian of the Jerusalem church. Remember that all of these victims are Jewish. There were few Gentile church members at this point. Saul was putting his fellow Jews in prison because they had trusted in Jesus as their Messiah. It is possible that only those who were Hellenistic Messianic Jews were imprisoned, but we cannot be sure of that. Clearly, anyone who confessed Jesus as Lord was the object of Saul’s wrath.
THE CHURCH SCATTERED. Acts 8:1b-2
Scattered Throughout the Regions of Judea and Samaria. With arrest and potential imprisonment raging around them because of this aggressive persecution, many believers in Christ chose to leave Jerusalem and move to other places in Palestine. I am sure you remember that in Acts 2, three thousand came to Christ and in Acts 4, another five thousand trusted in Jesus to save them, bringing the number of men, women, and children in the church to about twenty thousand. Many of these new Jewish believers in Christ had moved to Jerusalem from other places in the Roman empire.
The Bible specifically tells us that they now moved from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. This reminds us of the Lord’s command in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” This movement of believers from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria is the beginning of taking the gospel to the “remotest part of the earth.”
The word “scattered” is used of sowing seeds by throwing them into the wind. While the world sees this as people being randomly scattered, God sees it as people being planted so that they can spread the good news of salvation in Christ to others. Wherever the Christians went, the mission of reaching souls for Christ followed.
Except the Apostles. The Scripture says that the apostles remained in Jerusalem. We know from Acts 15 that the apostles stayed in Jerusalem for quite some time. There was likely a large number of native Messianic Jews from Jerusalem whom the apostles stayed to serve. Eventually, all of the apostles left Jerusalem. James would be the first apostle to be martyred for his faith and tradition tells us that all but John followed James in martyrdom. For now, the apostles stayed in Jerusalem as the church continued to grow.
PHILIP PREACHED THE WORD. Acts 8:4-8
Preaching the Word; Proclaiming Christ. We find something remarkable about these Christians who were being persecuted. They were not cowering in fear; they were not living in terror; instead they were preaching the Word. They were preaching that Jesus Christ was Lord and Messiah to other Jewish people; the same message for which they were being persecuted. So completely convinced that this was God’s truth they preached the Word.
Now that the gospel message was outside of Jerusalem, we find that the message did not change. They continue to show how Jesus fulfills every biblical expectation and promise in His Person and work. They insisted upon highlighting God’s Word and proclaiming the continuing narrative of salvation in Christ. This is the outworking of God’s saving plan for Israel and the nations. These Christians were preaching the same message and were engaged in the same activity of winning people for Christ. This is still the mission of the local church and its people.
We met Philip in chapter six as one of the seven chosen to become leaders in the church. Now he does the work of an evangelist by preaching the gospel to the people of Samaria. It is very noteworthy that Philip does not invent some new message for this new group of listeners. They were lost just as were the people of Jerusalem, and they needed the same message: Jesus Christ saves sinners. So, Philip preached Christ to them. Jesus is the only way of salvation. Unless these people came to trust in Jesus alone, they could not be saved.
The Crowds Were Listening. Samaria was a region just north of Jerusalem. It had a history that went all the way back to Israel’s divided kingdom. We do not know for sure to which city Philip travelled, but we do know the crowd that gathered listened intently to Philip’s preaching of the gospel. There was a reason for their interest. The Lord Jesus had gone to that very region Himself. Jesus went to Sychar, a city in Samaria. There He met an unnamed woman beside a well. In the course of the conversation, the woman seemed to ques-tion whether or not Jesus was the Messiah God had promised. In an amazing admission, Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He” (John 4:26). With that news, the woman returned to the town and told the people there that she had met the Messiah. Large numbers of townspeople came out to the well to meet Jesus. We find in John 4:39 that “many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the testimony of the woman.” They concluded in verse forty-two, “We have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Sav-ior of the world.” Many of the Samaritans to whom Philip preached had already met Jesus.
They had met Jesus as Savior and Messiah, but now there was more to the story. Jesus had left Samaria and eventually returned to Jerusalem, where he was crucified, buried and raised again. That was the part of the good news the Samaritans had not yet heard and was now proclaimed to them by Philip the evangelist. Now they heard the full gospel message and many of them completely trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
There Was Much Rejoicing. To validate this message of salvation in Christ, Philip, like the Lord Jesus and the apostles, performed amazing signs. Those who had unclean spirits of lust, hatred, iniquity, and immorality, were delivered by receiving Christ as Savior. The unclean spirits shouted and even those who were para-lyzed and lame were healed. This gave clear proof that salvation in Christ was real. Jesus was still alive and His miraculous power worked through His servants.
No wonder there was much rejoicing in that city. They had met the Lord Jesus some time earlier but now many had received Him as Savior. They’re sins were forgiven forever. Though they, like all of us, had been enemies of God, they now were part of His forever family. They had been redeemed, justified, and completely reconciled to God. Philip’s obedience had made him an ambassador for Christ and now multitudes were saved because he was faithful.
From this passage we can take away several things. First is the power of the Word of God which, then and now, is mighty to save. Christians went about preaching the Word and Philip proclaimed Christ. The message of truth has not changed–the Word of God is still living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword. It is that which brings the truth of man’s great need because of sin and God’s great remedy in Christ. Even while these early Christians were being persecuted, God sent them out with this life-changing message. God in His wisdom and sovereign grace still sends His people out with His truth.
Second, we find that salvation through Christ is the only message of the church. In taking the gospel to the Samaritans, the gospel message did not change–salvation was still only in Christ alone. Philip could have changed the message but he didn’t. The only message of hope for our world, then and now, is that Jesus Christ saves souls. The world’s greatest need; your greatest need and my greatest need, is the forgiveness of sin and being made right with God and that is possible only in Jesus Christ. Jesus died, was buried, and was raised again on the third day so that you and I may be saved. Are you saved? Have you received Christ? If you have not, it is your greatest need. If you have salvation in Jesus, it is your greatest joy.
Third, taking this gospel message to the world is still the ongoing mission of the church. It is why we are here. All people, young and old alike, need to hear the truth that Jesus saves. Of all the things this church ever does, the most important is telling people that Jesus saves. May the Lord empower us to continue to preach His word of salvation until He returns.
Updated by Pastor Vernon Welkner, 3/14/2023