Persecution spreads the word

INDEX

Acts 8

Godly men buried Stephen and mourned his death. When those who follow God die, it is right that their deaths should be mourned. But the mourning is more of a celebration than a sadness. Certainly there is sadness when we miss close brothers or sisters in Christ, but there is also celebration, because we know that they have been welcomed into the loving presence of Jesus Himself and we know we will see them again. Just as Jesus had said to the thief on the cross: "Today, you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43), so Stephen was with the Lord. Luke tells us that "he fell asleep" - demonstrating to us that death is merely a transition into the promises that God has given us. 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.

life and death

Now, Jesus had already spoken to His church and explained what their priorities should be. 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 victorious lives. (Acts 1:8)

The church, however, was still hung up on what Jesus had said to them about waiting. (Acts 1:4) They had waited for the Holy Spirit who duly came, but then they continued waiting and continued waiting some more, until - finally - persecution drove them out into the work that God had prepared for them to do. The only people who stayed 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 them to sit at home, having a good time with their neighbours.

Today, 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 better 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... straight away! Otherwise, we may find problems heaping up around us and forcing us to be obedient. We should copy Philip’s example (which we shall turn to in a moment).

While Saul dragged off men and women and put them in prison, Christians were being scattered and found themselves all over Judea and Samaria. They couldn’t help themselves. This was their time – their calling in life - and 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 very opposite of what Satan had intended by it!

The fires of the gospel were now burning from southern to central Israel. Our enemy wants us confined in as small a space as we will allow him. Once we have become Christians, he can no longer affect our eternal destiny but he will try to limit our effect on others. If he can keep us at home, within our local church or 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.

Israel - political boundariesThe Jewish people really hated the Samaritan people, to the extent of avoiding them by not walking through their land, even though this lengthened their journey considerably. In the midst of the exodus from Jerusalem, a believer called Philip was listening carefully 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

The book of Acts now turns its attention to Philip and we see the effect of one man on an entire community. Philip was known as "The Evangelist". This indicated his calling from God. He undoubtedly had a gift to preach the God's word but, when it came to getting people saved, he wasn’t just doing the work of an evangelist (that God calls us all to do); he had one of the five-fold gifts of ministry (service) 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, we need to use it. If we are not doing what we are supposed to do, firstly, we shall be unhappy - like a fish out of water. Secondly, the church will suffer. We shall likely be meddling in things that we were never supposed to meddle in! We need to do what God has called us to do - no more and no less. Then we shall 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, 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 located its capital at Samaria, but it was conquered in 722 BC 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 race of "Samaritans". The Samaritans had used Mount Gerizim as an alternate place to the Temple at Jerusalem for their worship of God, but that was destroyed one hundred and fifty years earlier.

Jesus did not follow the prejudice of the Jewish people or their traditions, so He was happy to ask messengers to go ahead of Him and get things ready. (See Luke 9:52.) He then followed the shorter route. (John 4:4) He wanted His followers to preach the gospel there (Acts 1:8) and they did. Philip went there and a spiritual harvest followed! How do we know that 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 that 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 that we saw such things happening in the cities up and down our own nation? People need to hear clearly the good news about Jesus. When they do, they will respond. But, right now, the that good news is not being heard. The enemy 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. If we do that, God promises that He will hear us, forgive us 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 situation in our nation today is exactly the one that faced Philip in Samaria but he made no excuses or apologies; he just got on with the job. There was even a self-proclaimed "god" in that city: Simon. Not only did Simon 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" that they were looking for. These people were looking for truth, just as people do today. The trouble is that they have no idea what they are looking for so, when something out of the ordinary comes along, they all go after it. Our enemy 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) So, when Philip came along with the 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 uses all sorts of things, such as horoscopes, tarot readings, ouija boards, mediums and spiritualists. His ways always look entirely inoffensive until they have you hooked. Then they lead to more and more disturbance of heart and mind. (Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:10-13)

After his conversion, Simon followed Philip everywhere. He was amazed at the miracles that Philip performed. Everywhere that the good news about Jesus is shared, signs and wonders will follow. Jesus Himself tells us to expect this. (Mark 16:15-18) Philip had been obedient. He had gone out and preached the good news to everyone within hearing. People had been saved, baptised, and now Jesus' authority was seen and miracles were 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 more about how God works. As we watch how He works with others, we will see and understand how much He will do for us!

Samaria

Meanwhile, 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 for them was to place their hands on peoples' 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 Christians in the power of the Name of Jesus and in all that He has for us.

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 it all happened, but he was prepared to pay good money to acquire the ability to use this gift himself. Peter told him in no uncertain terms what he thought of such an offer. Not one of God’s gifts is 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. As such, we do not have to own anything to benefit from them. They are available simply for the asking.

Peter saw that Simon’s request was born of a sinful desire to make money out of God's power and warned him that there was only one thing to do: repent. Simon did that immediately. We also need to understand that, once we are aware of sinful attitudes in our lives, we need to turn back from them without delay. If we do, God will forgive us. Peter saw two problems behind Simon's response to seeing God at work: bitterness and sin. There is no explanation as to the reason for this bitterness. Perhaps it was because he had lost his business and his standing in the community, but he was penitent. (1 John 1:8-10) Perhaps he was fearful of all the things that Peter had suggested could happen to him, but he lost no time in repenting of his actions. (Acts 8:24) We hear nothing more in the New Testament of Simon, but the lesson is clear. We need to ask God for the next step of the way forward and we should not presume anything. We need to learn more about God from the very first point at which we become Christians. God does not want us to stagnate as believers. 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 throughout our lives. Peter and John continued their work of preaching and teaching through the Samaritan countryside as they went back to Jerusalem. 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; it will never be boring.

Read Acts 8:26-40

An angel spoke to Philip as he used his gift 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 us 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, it should not keep us from trusting God and being obedient. Acts 8:27 states simply that Philip started out. If he had never started out, he would never have kept his appointment on the way. If we never start out, we will never keep our appointments 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 Jewish, but he was also a man who was seeking and, as we have already said, 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 phenomenal, spiritual growth in Samaria. People were becoming Christians all around him. 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 the enemy trying to lead us astray?

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 explained the passage of Scripture that the Ethiopian official was studying, but he used many more relating Jesus to the Jewish faith and explaining how He was the promised Messiah. The official 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) Then the work was finished. Philip was caught up by the Spirit of God as he came up out of the water with the Ethiopian official. The new convert 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 gave him supernatural power to transport him away from there to Azotus, and that is where he found himself. We later read that he continued preaching the gospel from Azotus all the way through to to Caesarea.

Philip had four daughters who all had the gift of prophecy. God is into families. He is in a covenant relationship with those who are saved and that includes their families. Luke writes this as he returns with Paul at the end of Paul's third missionary journey (described 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! What legacy are we leaving to our children through our relationship with Jesus. Do our family watch us pray about everything? Do they see us reading and studying God's word, or do we only put on a show on Sundays? Check out your legacy!


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