When Life Falls Apart

Acts 8:1-8       |      Sermon Resources           1 March 2020


“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  This is perhaps the most well-known quote about the persecution of the church.  It was written at the end of the 2nd century by Tertullian, an early church father, who was attempting to explain why the Christian movement could never be destroyed by force.

This is a thought that brings comfort to us and though we wouldn’t pray for persecution, we rejoice in how God is able to use even this to build his church.  Ironically, this quote comes from a document called Apologeticus in which Tertullian argued for the cessation of persecution and the legal toleration of Christians in the Roman empire.  In other words, while Tertullian believed that God could use persecution, he did not want to see it continue.

This should be our attitude as well.  We don’t like it, but we praise God that he can use it.  And sometimes God uses it to build his church, as we will see in our passage this week, but at other times he uses it to shrink his church.  Remember that Jesus told us in his parable of the sower, that persecution and affliction separates true believers from false believers (c.f. Mark 4:17).

In our passage this week, we see the first case of wide-spread persecution in the church.  There were perhaps those who were nominally connected to the church who fell away as a result, but Luke’s focus here is on how affliction actually led to the building up of the church.



#1 The Cause of their Affliction

-1- A beloved leader is dead. Stephen was a great leader and beloved by the entire church.  Remember that before he was appointed by the apostles to look after the widows, he was selected by a gathering of the church.  The church collectively recognized him as a wise man with a good reputation and full of the Holy Spirit.  And now he was dead.  A man named Saul was involved and approved of his execution (v.1).  Even though they risked the same thing happening to them, devout men buried Stephen (v.2).  This was a risky step to publicly identify with Stephen and their next move was even more remarkable – they made loud lamentation over him (v.2).

This was a generation defining moment for the church in Jerusalem.  Just as anyone alive at the time could tell you exactly where they were when they found out JFK was killed, so these believers could recount in detail where they were when they heard news of Stephen.  So far the authorities were actually afraid to do anything too brash to the church leaders (c.f. Acts 5:26), but now they’ve carried out a public stoning.


-2- Great persecution broke out.  It is remarkable how quickly the climate changed in Jerusalem.  The Jewish authorities went from being afraid to publicly handle the apostles too harshly (again, c.f. Acts 5:26) to stoning Stephen to persecuting the entire church. History often does turn on a dime.

It would seem that the stoning of Stephen emboldened the Jewish authorities.  Luke tells us that it was on the very day Stephen was murdered that a great persecution broke out against the church (v.1).  The persecutors found a leader in Saul who was said to be ravaging the church even going house to house to drag off men and women to prison (v.3).  Just as the apostles had gone “house to house” to preach and teach that Jesus is the Christ (c.f. Acts 5:42), so Saul went house to house in a vain attempt to undo their work.  Saul will later reflect on this and share that he did more than just commit these Christians to prison, he actually sent them to their deaths (c.f. Acts 26:10).


3- The sheep have scattered.  As a result of the intensifying persecution, the believers were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (v.1).  Everyone scattered –everyone that is, except the apostles (v.1).  We need to ask whether or not this was a good thing.  Was it good that the church scattered?  Was it good that the apostles did not?

Earlier this week, my kids and I watched an episode of Hostile Planet which pretty much National Geographic’s version of an action movie.  Besides being thoroughly entertained, I learned something about how wolves operate (and in graphic detail too).  There was a large herd of buffalo out on the grasslands doing what buffalo do, when they were confronted with a pack of wolves.  The narrator said if they stuck together as a herd, they would be safe.  The wolves’ tactic, therefore, was to create panic to get them to scatter.  Only if they could single out a lone buffalo, would the wolves win.  I won’t ruin the episode for you, but I’ll tell you the wolves won!

This is what happened in Jerusalem when the wolves attacked the church.  Earlier the authorities were afraid of the people, but now they’ve succeeded in creating chaos and the believers have scattered.  For those who did not scatter but were left behind, Saul went house to house and sent them to prison.  It is was easier to single Christians out after they scattered.



#2 The Consequence of their Affliction


-1- The Word of God spread.  While the scattering of the church may have been bad news for those who stayed behind in Jerusalem, it was good news for the people of Judea and Samaria.  Remember Jesus had told his apostles that they would be his witnesses in “Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (c.f. Acts 1:8).”

People have a tendency to want to stick together.  Bible scholars have pointed out that this was the issue at the tower of Babel and just as God had scattered those people, so he scattered the early church.  They enter into the new diaspora – to be dispersed to share the good news of Christ.

Luke tells us that those who were scattered went about preaching the word (v.4).  This preaching of the word was not done the way we might picture it – in a church behind a pulpit.  No, this was the everyday preaching of the word in all their various contexts.  Can you imagine some of the conversations?  Are you new town?  Where did you come from?  Why did you move here?  Well, I am glad you asked, let me tell you…

As interest in the gospel grew Philip went down to the city of Samaria (v.5).  Samaria was north of Jerusalem, but whenever you left Jerusalem, you were said to be going down from it.  Philip was appointed along with Stephen to look after the widows in Jerusalem, but now here he was proclaim[ing] Christ to the people Samaria (v.5).


-2- People were helped.    As those scattered believers began sharing their faith, people were helped.  While the people were scattered in lots of places, Luke focuses on what was going on in a certain city in Samaria.  Samaria was an unlikely place for revival to begin.

The Jews had disdain for the Samaritans viewing them as half-breeds who had left the true faith, but that contempt was certainly mutual.  It is interesting, then, that Samaria was the very first place the gospel spread outside of Jerusalem.

The Samaritans enthusiastically received Philip as we are told the crowds with one accord paid attention to what he had to say (v.6).  We’ll see later that many Samaritans were coming to faith in Christ.  People were being healed of unclean spirits and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed (v.7).


-3- Great joy came to Samaria.  We can’t help but compare the turmoil going on in Jerusalem with the revival going on in Samaria.  Life was coming to Samaria just as death was coming to Jerusalem.  Shouts of praise were happening in one city while shouts of lamentation were happening in another.  Luke summarizes the situation in Samaria well: so there was much joy in that city (v.8).



#3 The Lessons they Learned from Their Affliction


-1- Ministry is not just for the “professionals.” 

When persecution broke out against the church, the believers scattered but the apostles remained.  What’s interesting is that the first “evangelism explosion” to take place outside of Jerusalem was led by ordinary Christians.  It wasn’t the work of the apostles; it was the work of the scattered flock who went about preaching the word (v.4).

Charles Spurgeon was right when he observed that “scarcely anything has been more injurious to the kingdom of Christ than the distinction between clergy and laity.”  What a powerful lesson to learn that God uses all kinds of people to build his kingdom.  Peter tells us to “always be ready” to share with others the hope we have found (c.f. 1 Peter 3:15).  Those first believers were ready.  And maybe they weren’t the most articulate bunch, but they knew enough to share with others.  We are each responsible to share what little or great understanding we have.


-2- Anything can be redeemed by Christ.

It’s one thing to believe that God can overcome any obstacle, but another thing entirely to know that he uses those obstacles.  This is the point that Tertullian was making when he said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  It’s not just that God can work around the murdering of Christians, it’s that he actually uses their deaths to build his kingdom.

 This is what it means that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  He is sovereign over all his creation and is able to work for good what others intend for evil.

In the Old Testament Joseph gives testimony to this, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (c.f. Genesis 50:20).”  It’s not just that God overcame the evil done by Joseph’s brothers, it’s that God actually used their evil to accomplish good.

Of course, the most important and obvious example of this is the cross.  The apostles have been very clear in their preaching in Acts, that Jesus was put to death by wicked men.  And God not only overcame this evil act, he actually used this evil act, to bring salvation to his people.  As Peter puts it very succinctly (quoting Isaiah), “By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).”


-3- Faith means trusting even when it doesn’t make sense.  

We sometimes romanticize life in the early church.  But as we are seeing there were plenty of challenges facing those first believers.  What would it have been like to be forced from your home?  Having to abandon your way of life?  To have to leave your community and your career?  All to ensure you were safe from those who wanted to murder you.  Can you imagine having to live as a refugee in a foreign city?  To have to start life all over again?

At some point after this great persecution the scattered Christians must have gathered for worship.   Can you imagine these believers, sitting in a worship service together, coming to a verse like Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever”? As believers we know the end of the story.  We will live with our Savior in his house forever.  But what about now?  Life feels quite messy now.  Can you imagine these believers singing “God is good all the time” even as they grieved the death of Stephen and dealt with being uprooted from their homes and lives?  This is part of the mystery of our faith.  We don’t have all the answers.  Sometimes life does not make sense.  We don’t always see the good thing that God is doing.  And yet we can affirm that God is good.  There must be space for mystery in our faith.  There are times we will struggle to understand but even in that struggle we can worship!


Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think it would have been like to have lived through the persecution described in this passage? Has your faith ever been tested in this way?
  2. What do you think is a greater threat to the church – affliction and suffering or prosperity and comfort?  How so?
  3. The first “evangelism explosion” outside of Jerusalem was not led by the apostles but by ordinary Christians who “went about preaching the word.” Share an opportunity you have had to share your faith with someone.  How did it go?  Do you believe that God really can use you?
  4. What is the difference between believing God can overcome affliction and believing God can use affliction to accomplish good? What did God do in this passage?
  5. If you were among those Christians who been uprooted from their homes, what difficulty might you have had in singing a song like “God You’re So Good”?