Study 10: Persecution spreads the word – Acts 8
Godly men buried Stephen and mourned his death. When men who follow God die, it is right that their death should be mourned. But the mourning is more of a celebration than sadness. Certainly sadness, because we miss our close brother or sister in Christ; but celebration because we know that they have been welcomed into the loving presence of Jesus Himself. Just like Jesus said to the thief on the cross. ‘Today, you will be with me in Paradise’, Luke 23:43, so Stephen was with the Lord. The Bible says that he fell asleep demonstrating to us that death is merely a transition into the promises that God has given us, and death no longer has a victory, rather Jesus has conquered death for us so that its power no longer applies to us, 2 Timothy 1:10.
Read Acts 8:1-3.
Even as Stephen looked up to heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem. This was not just a little bit of squabbling between friends. This persecution was real. Saul (soon to become Paul) dragged people off to prison. He followed the example of the growing church by going from house to house, but instead of life, he brought death; instead of freedom, he brought imprisonment. He did not let the embryo church settle down into comfortable ways. Ahead of this wave of persecution were people fleeing for their very lives into Judea and Samaria.
The strange thing was however, that Jesus had already spoken to His church, instructing them about their priorities. He had said that all authority in heaven and earth had been given to them, so they were expected to go and make disciples and encourage them to live for the one true God who would be with them all the time, Matthew 28:18-20. Before He left the earth He reminded them about the Holy Spirit who would give them power to live the victorious life, Acts 1:8
The pressing problem with the church was that they had heard Jesus say wait, Acts 1:4 So they waited, then the Holy Spirit came, then they waited, and they waited some more, and again they waited until finally persecution drove them out into the work that God had chosen for them to do. The only people who waited behind were the apostles. God had work for these people to do. He wanted them to take the Gospel from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the earth, and He wasn’t content for these people to sit at home having a good time with their neighbours.
God has work for you and me to do. If we require a little bit of assistance to go out and get it done, well God will find a way. Sometimes, that way is not pleasant, but it is much more pleasant to be in the centre of His will. God never intended any part of His church to be isolated from and insensitive to the rest of it, neither does He expect the Gospel to be preached only in one part of a nation or world and not in another. If God calls you to go, then be excited enough to do it, now. We do not want to have a problem to force us to be obedient, look at Philip’s example.
While Saul dragged off men and women and put them in prison, Christians were being scattered. The men and women who were scattered now affected all parts of Judea and Samaria. They couldn’t help themselves. This was their time – their calling in life. They just would not keep quiet. ‘Those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went’. Acts 8:4
What an exciting time this was. The people outside Jerusalem wanted to know about what had happened to change the lives of the Believers just as much if not more than those in Jerusalem, so the effect of the persecution was the opposite of what Satan intended by it!
The fires of the Gospel were now burning from southern to central Israel. Satan wants us confined in as small a space as we will allow him. Since we became a Christian, he can no longer affect our eternal destination; he will try to limit our effect on others, and if he can keep us at home, in our local church, in our town, or anywhere else that constricts our effectiveness, that is exactly what he will try to do. Our job is to be bold enough to overcome his attempted restrictions.
The Jews really hated the Samaritans to the extent of avoiding them by not walking through their land, even though this lengthened their trip considerably. Even though there was Revival, Philip was listening to God. It is absolutely essential that we as Christians listen to what God is saying to us. If we do not, then we will miss out on the most challenging and exciting events that God has planned for our lives.
Read Acts 8:5-8.
Now the Book of Acts turns its attention to Philip and we see the effect of one man on an entire community. Philip is known as ‘the Evangelist’. This relates to his calling by God. He undoubtedly had a gift to preach the Word of God, but when it came to getting people saved, he wasn’t just doing the work of an evangelist as God calls us all to do, he had one of the fivefold ministry gifts referred to in Ephesians 4:11-13. God gives these gifts to us:
“…….to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the Body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Ephesians 4:12-14
If we have one of these gifts, use it. If we are not doing what we are supposed to do, first, we will be unhappy because we are like a fish out of water, second, the church will suffer. We will be meddling in things we were never supposed to meddle in! Do what God has called us to do no more and no less, and enjoy the fruits of our labours. A year in the right job doing the right things will seem just like a day!
Philip went down to the city of Samaria. In those days, this city was a bustling and major centre for the Samaritans. The hill now known as Samaria had been bought by King Omri (1 Kings 16:24). The Northern Kingdom of Israel had its Capital at Samaria but it was conquered in 722 B.C. by the Assyrians who took captive the majority of the Jews leaving only the poor. The inter-marriage of the foreigners and the Jews produced this “mixed-bred” race of Samaritans. The Samaritans had used Mount Gerizim as an alternate place to the Temple at Jerusalem to worship the Living God but that was destroyed 150 years earlier.
Jesus did not live by this prejudice or tradition so asked messengers to go ahead of Him to get things ready, Luke 9:52. He went the shorter route, John 4:4. He wanted His followers to preach the Gospel there, Acts 1:8. They did. Philip went there and there was Revival! How do we know something exceptional happened in that place?
* The Gospel was preached
* The crowds listened
* The crowds paid close attention to what Philip said
* The crowds saw the miraculous signs Philip did
* Evil spirits came out of many people (with shrieks)
* Many paralytics and cripples were healed
* There was great joy in the city Acts 8:6-7
Isn’t it about time we saw those things happening in the cities up and down our nation? People need to hear the clear and certain sound of the Gospel. When they do, they will respond, but right now the sound is so quiet and uncertain. The devil is shouting louder and the trouble is that most people are listening to him. This is wrong. We must humble ourselves; pray fervently; seek His face; and turn from our wicked ways as the people of God and He promises He will hear, forgive and heal our land, 2 Chronicles 7:14. What a day that will be! ‘Great joy will come to the city’ Come Lord Jesus in Your Glory.
Read Acts 8:9-25.
The way our nation is today was exactly the situation that faced Philip in Samaria. He made no excuses, no apologies; he just got on with the job. There was even a self-proclaimed god in that city, Simon. Not only did he believe in what others said, he believed in his own publicity! Simon had practised sorcery and witchcraft in Samaria for several years. He was good at it, and had all the people convinced that he was a god, the Great Power they were looking for. These people were looking for some Truth, just as they are today – the trouble is that they have no idea what they are looking for, so when something out of ordinary comes along they all go after it. The devil specialises in ‘out of the ordinary’. If you are looking for excitement, then that is what you will get!
However, if you are looking for God, He promises that you will find Him. How? ‘…. In those days when you pray, I will listen. You will find Me when you seek Me, if you look for Me with your whole heart. Jeremiah 29:11-13.How?How So when Philip came along with the One True Answer to what they were looking for, they had no difficulty in acknowledging that they had found Him! Even Simon saw the Light and like all those others he was baptised. When you have been bound for some time, and you find the means by which to be set free, you don’t hesitate, you accept it. We need to say here that Satan’s plans are always evil. They may look rosy on the surface, but beneath the shiny exterior, there is a bitter pill to swallow. If you follow him, you ultimately pay the price. If you permit him, he will steal your very being and send it to hell. Today he is seen in so many ways like horoscopes; tarot readings; Ouija boards; consulting mediums and spiritualists. His ways always look so inoffensive until they have you hooked, then they lead to a more and more disturbed heart, Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:10-13.
Now Simon went everywhere that Philip went. He was amazed at the miracles that Philip performed. Everywhere the Gospel is preached, signs and wonders will follow. Jesus Himself tells us to expect this, Mark 16:15-18. Philip had been obedient. He had gone into the world, and preached the Good News to everyone within hearing. People had been saved, they were baptised, and now the authority of the Name of Jesus was doing its work – miracles were being performed.
When we come to Christ we may not understand exactly what has happened. We just have to believe that God is doing amazing things in our life, and that His plans for us are for the best. As we become involved with other Christians, we will learn how God works, and as we watch how He works with others we will see and understand how much He will do for us!
Word of what was happening in Samaria came to the Apostles in Jerusalem. Wherever God’s Word is changing lives, the message of what is happening will encourage Christians all over the world. Peter and John were despatched to see what was going on, and to see what they could do to help. The first job to do was for them to place their hands on people’s heads and to pray for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
1. These people had been born again
2. Once they became believers, they were baptised and
3. they were now being filled with the Holy Spirit.
That is the way it should happen for us too. These three steps are essential for us to begin to walk as a Christian in the power of the Name of Jesus and in all that He has for us but the order is not essential.
Simon was utterly amazed that there was so much more to it than what he had so far experienced. His mind could not understand how this new development happened. He believed that there had to be money involved in acquiring the ability to bestow this gift. He had plenty of that and so naturally offered as much as they needed to give him this power. Peter explained in no uncertain terms what he thought of such an offer. None of God’s gifts are available for sale. They cannot be bought and they cannot be sold. They are free gifts from the Giver of all good gifts, God Himself, and as such we do not have to own anything to benefit from them. They are there for the asking.
Peter explained that Simon’s request constituted wickedness. There was only one thing to do. Repent. Simon did that immediately. You and I need to understand that we need to do that. If we do, God will forgive us. Peter immediately saw what the root of Simon’s problem was. It was a twofold problem – bitterness and sin. There is no explanation as to the reason for this bitterness. Perhaps it was because he had lost his ‘business’ and had no ‘following’, but he was penitent, 1 John 1:8-10. Perhaps Simon was fearful of all the things that Peter had suggested could happen to him; however he repented, Acts 8:24. We hear nothing more of Simon, but the lesson is clear. We need to ask God for the next step of the way forward and we do not presume anything. We do need to learn more about God from the very first point at which we become Christians. Lack of growth is not God’s design for us. Everything in God’s Kingdom works by faith. In fact, ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God’. Hebrews 11:6 Therefore, we need to learn how to operate in faith in this lifetime. Peter and John continued their work of preaching and teaching as they went back to Jerusalem through the Samaritan countryside. Meanwhile God had not finished with Philip. If we want to carry out God’s plan for our lives, we need to understand that we will never be still. We will have an exciting life, but it will never be boring.
Read Acts 8:26-40.
An angel spoke to Philip as he ministered in Samaria, and told him exactly where to go and at what time. Philip was instantly obedient. He didn’t wait for an appropriate time. He just went because it was the right time, Acts 8:26. God wants you and me to be in that position. He wants to know that we will respond without asking questions because we know that it will be an adventure with Him. Whatever He does with us and through us will be for our own good now, and in the future, as well as for His Glory and for His Name. If things look difficult, don’t worry. God will work out the details. Just because we have never heard of things being done that way, keep trusting God but obey. Acts 8:27 explains that Philip started out. If he had never started out, he would never have met his assignment on the way. If we never start out, we will never meet our assignment on the way! God wanted Philip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer for Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man was a Jew, but he was also a man who was seeking, and as we have already explained, if you seek with your whole heart, you will find. God has people in every walk of life ready to do His bidding. I doubt whether Philip had ever had contact with a high official of any sort, but this day was his day. It was also the Ethiopian eunuch’s day. Today he would become a Believer all because of the obedience of one man. As Philip walked along the road, the Holy Spirit identified a specific chariot and told him to stay near it. Just at that moment, Philip had his opportunity and took it, Acts 8:27-34. His opportunity was to lead this man to Jesus.
What would you and I have done? Would we have acted in obedience? Philip was in the middle of his most exciting assignment to date. He was in the middle of a Revival in Samaria. People were becoming Christians all around him. He was entirely in the centre of God’s will. If that had been you or me, would we have heard what the angel said to us, or would we have thought that it was Satan?
Because Philip left what he was working on to do what God asked, he remained in the centre of God’s will and an entire nation was affected as the result. Philip not only shared this passage with the eunuch, but he used many more relating Jesus to the Jewish faith, explaining how He was the promised Messiah. The eunuch believed, but he didn’t stop at that. Philip had already explained the next step to him. He saw the water and was instantly obedient. Let’s get on with it! Acts 8:35-38. The work was done. Philip was caught up by the Spirit of God as he came up with the Ethiopian eunuch out of the water. The eunuch never saw Philip again, but he rejoiced – probably all the way home to Ethiopia and then for the rest of his life. Philip on the other hand had more work to do. The Spirit supernaturally lifted him away from there to Azotus, and that is where he found himself, and he preached the gospel from Azotus to Caesarea.
Philip had four daughters who were all prophetesses. God is into families. He is in covenant with those who are saved, and that includes their families. Luke writes this as he returns with Paul at the end of his third Missionary Journey in Acts 21:8-9 ‘Then we went on to Caesarea and stayed at the home of Philip the Evangelist, one of the first seven deacons. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy’. What a legacy Philip had left in obedience to the Spirit of God. Check out our legacy we are leaving to our children about our relationship with Jesus. Do our family watch us pray about everything? Do they see us reading and studying the Word or do we only put on a show on Sunday? Check out your legacy.
Suggested watching is the film ‘Transformations’ about four cities, Calvi in Columbia; also in Kenya; Guatamala and USA; where the Spirit of God moves after unity and prayer among the leadership and the people, but at a high price. Today there is the same high price to pay as Stephen paid if we want the same result as in the early Church. (NB not sure this film is still available on the web ask churches)
Study 10: Persecution spreads the word – Challenge Questions
1. Read the Notes and the Bible Verses referred to in them. Highlight the points that ‘speak’ to you.
2. Why was Philip’s journey so important to the growth of the Church? From what you have read about the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch, please comment on how Jesus sees the growth of His Church.
3. Has reading the first 8 chapters of Acts changed your life? If it has, would you share this with the group? Have you been able to help anyone that you would not otherwise have spoken to?
Read Acts 9:1-9.
4. Why was Saul persecuting the church? What did he intend to do according to these verses? Was he justified in his stand against Christianity? Explain your answer.
5. Describe in your own words what must have gone through Saul’s mind when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. When did Saul become a Believer?
Read Acts 9:10-19.
6. What did Saul do immediately after his encounter with Jesus? Why was that important? What were Saul’s physical symptoms? And why do you think he suffered them?
7. Describe in your own words what must have gone through Ananias’ mind when he received the Vision from Jesus. Who else had a Vision at about the same time? Do you think that Jesus does the same things today?
8. Do you think that we should remind Jesus where we live so that He can use us? What does the Bible teach us about what God knows about us? Do you believe it?
9. What plan did God have for Saul’s life? Did it involve any changes to his existing life?
10. Are you prepared to die for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus? Was Saul prepared to die for the Gospel before his encounter with Jesus? Was there any change afterwards?
Read Acts 9:20-31.
11. According to Isaiah 61:1-3, what will happen to the poor after you have preached the Gospel to them? What is good news to captives? What is good news to prisoners? What is good news to the broken-hearted? Do you have any good news to tell these people?
12. In what way have the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives and the prisoners been robbed? What can you do about it? What will Jesus do about it? Read Proverbs 6:30. Who is the thief in your life, and what does he owe you? Have you claimed it from him?
13. Saul had to flee from Damascus in a hurry. Why? What happened to him in Jerusalem? Where did he go as a result?
Read Acts 9:32-43.
14. Peter travelled around visiting the Believers. What happened at Lydda? Describe any differences between this encounter with Aeneas and the man at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem in Acts 2.
15. According to Mark 16:16-17, why should we not be surprised at Aeneas’ healing? Should people be healed in the same way today?
16. Dorcas was also healed. What was her daily activity? Which event during Jesus ministry on earth are we reminded of when we read about Dorcas? Why were her friends kept out of the room while Peter prayed?
17. Do you intend to change anything in your life as a result of reading Acts Chapter 9? If so, can you share it with the Group?