The Power of Persecution
Published by Stanley Pouw in 2022 · 26 November 2022
In January 8th in 1956, five missionaries were massacred in Ecuador by a tribe of people known as Auca Indians. It appeared at the time to be maybe the greatest tragedy in missionary history in the Modern Era. But it didn’t seem that anything was a tragic as these martyrs because they were all so highly trained, so profoundly dedicated to the Lord, and with great potential.
The truth was that it was anything but a tragedy. For them, it was immediate entrance into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And through their death, a missionary movement exploded, starting really with their wives, and then their friends. Eventually that entire tribe of Auca Indians was evangelized with the gospel and a church was planted there that grew and influenced other tribes.
A book, Through Gates of Splendor, illustrates an important point, that what you might think is the darkest moment in missionary history, may really be an explosion of church growth and development. What happened to those Auca Indians in the establishment of a church and several generations of believers is one of the great stories of God starting a church in what looks like a backdoor way.
Well, that is precisely how the original church spread. Open your Bible to Acts 8. The early church started in Jerusalem, but the purpose of God was that the church would be planted in Jerusalem, then it would go to Judea-Samaria and the uttermost part of the world. That was the Great Commission of Acts 1:8. But the gospel did not just explode to the surrounding areas. The gospel was not popular.
There was a man, named Saul, who agreed with the killing of Stephen. Why did this mob of people do that? They heard a full explanation of the Old Testament to which they were ostensibly devoted, and they heard about the coming of the Righteous One, Jesus, that everybody in the Old Testament was waiting for. But then they were indicted because they killed the Righteous One.
They were cut to their hearts and began gnashing their teeth at him. They rejected Jesus, the Righteous One Himself. They rejected Him as their Redeemer, their Savior. They rejected the gospel preached by the apostles. Stephen preached one sermon and he became an instant martyr. The death of Stephen is the trigger that launched the slaughter of those new Christians.
A great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem and they were all scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house and dragging off men and women. He would put them in prison. Then verse 4, “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the Word.”
Philip went to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. The crowds, with one accord, were giving attention to what was said by Philip as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing; for many who had unclean spirits were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice, and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was much rejoicing.
Persecution of Christians is global. In the Western world, immorality persecutes the church. Devotees of homosexuality persecute the church. Those who are advocates of godless freedom to sin hate biblical Christianity. Even our own government has persecuted Christians who do not acknowledge certain immoral behaviors. And that persecution will continue.
Now Acts 8:1 says, “A great persecution began.” But this isn’t the first persecution in the book of Acts. Prior to this, there was persecution from Jewish leaders against the apostles. Acts 4:1, “As they were speaking, the priests, the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them being greatly disturbed because they were stating that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
They hauled them before the Sanhedrin. They told them not to preach, and they answered, ‘We must preach there’s no salvation in any other.’ They commanded them not to speak at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge, for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Stephen preaches the gospel to them. This infuriates the leaders and eventually leads to a mob slaughter of this preacher. Is this a crushing blow to the early church? It didn’t seem to stop it. But now it’s reached the level where they are killing the preachers. It’s like trying to stamp out fiery embers, and the stamping just sends them into the air and they start a fire wherever they land.
The persecution of the Christians led by Saul only causes the gospel to fulfill its intended purpose: “You will be witness in Jerusalem, and then Judea, then Samaria, then the world.” And that’s exactly what happens. Persecution began the missionary effort to the world. And here we have the first foreign mission effort about to begin to get out of Jerusalem, go to Judea, and then to Samaria.
Acts 8 is a critical turning point in the early history of the church. The gospel is now going to go to Judea, to Samaria; and before this 8th chapter is over, it’s going to touch a man from beyond this world, from Ethiopia. In this chapter, Acts 1:8 begins to be fulfilled, Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the rest of the earth. Now let’s look at three points, persecution, preaching, and productivity.
Ferocious persecution begins in verse 1. It starts with murder, martyrdom, and it goes from there. The leader of this is Saul. Why does it say they laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul? Because Saul was the instigator. He gives testimony to that in Acts 22:20 when he says, “And when the blood of your witness was being shed, I also was standing by approving.”
When they laid their coats at his feet, it’s a symbol of authority. What is interesting about that is that Saul himself, after his conversion, suffers a whole lifetime of treatment very much like Stephen. At the point of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9, the Lord says to Ananias about him, “I will show him what great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” What was done to Stephen really will be done to Saul.
The Jews disputed and resisted Stephen in the synagogue, and so they did with Paul. The Jews rejected Stephen’s preaching and teaching; so they did with Paul. Stephen was accused of blasphemy; so was Paul. Stephen was accused of speaking against Moses, speaking against the Holy Place, speaking against the law; so was Paul. They seized Stephen; they did the same to Paul.
Only God’s grace could transform the blood-thirsty Saul into a blood-washed Paul. And when Paul identifies himself as a murderer, as he does in his epistle, that all started with Stephen. There’s a note at the end of verse 1, “Except the apostles.” They’re like watchmen who remain at their post to confirm the souls of those disciples who were unable to flee and stay in the city.
Eventually, the apostles go, but not in the early days of the church when they need to care for these believers. And verse 2 ads, “Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him.” That’s an important statement, devout men, pious Jews. Not necessarily Christians because if you look at Acts 2:5, we have that same phrase which just describes the population of Jerusalem.
They were men who feared God. They were men who felt that it was wrong to kill Stephen for preaching. They were a nobler kind than Saul, who led the mob to do what they did. These men are saddened by this behavior. Perhaps, they are men who later come to faith in Christ. This is to remind us that though the Christ-hating leaders of Israel were in charge, there were other kinds of people too.
The Jewish law commands that the body of an executed person must be buried, so they buried Stephen. But the law also said when an executed person is buried, no public weeping is allowed. These men defied that tradition and they made loud lamentation over him. They were not going to join this action even though they were not yet believers, and maybe they’re open to the gospel.
So Saul comes and becomes the prime mover in the persecution. Verse 3, “He began ravaging the church.” Some translations would say ravaging is a brutal, sadistic kind of cruelty. His testimony in Acts 22 said, “I am a Jew educated under Gamaliel, according to the law of our God. I persecuted this way (Christianity) to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons.”
This persecution led to the second word “preaching.” Ferocious persecution leads to preaching. Verse 4, “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the Word.” They literally went through Judea and through Samaria. The verb used, “went about,” is talking about a missionary effort. What a sight this was, a stream of people in pain with nothing but their clothes on their backs.
They escaped with only what they could carry in their hands, pouring out of the city gates of Jerusalem, scattering everywhere, cast completely on the Lord without their livelihood, without their possession. And what did they do? They went everywhere preaching the Word. Persecution is good for the church. It disconnects the church from its comfort and sends it out in dependency.
Luke illustrates with just the story of one of them, Philip. Philip was chosen to be a deacon. This isn’t Philip the apostle, this is Philip the deacon. He’s one of the seven original deacons. But in Acts 21:8 he is called, “Philip the evangelist.” Because he went everywhere preaching the Word. He went 40 miles north of Jerusalem, straight north to Samaria.
The Samaritan people were viewed with hatred, as we know from John 4. They were viewed as heretics and their religion was heretical. It was a hybrid of Paganism and Judaism. Samaria was actually the ancient capital of the northern kingdom, established by a king named Omri in 1 Kings 16 when the kingdom split after Solomon. The Jews hated them because of 2 Kings 17:18.
The year 722 BC, the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and the capital Samaria. They transported the Jews back to Assyria, and then they brought in pagan invaders, and the Jews that were left intermarried with them and produced this hybrid group of heretics. This was an unforgivable crime. The southern kingdom was taken to Babylon. But they refused to intermarry.
The southern kingdom came back from 70 years of exile, to rebuild the wall under Ezra and Nehemiah. The Samaritans wanted to help them. But there was a tremendous conflict; and that just escalated to hatred between the two. But Philip, as a Jew, has none of that. He knows the gospel is to go to the ends of the earth, and so he preached. And he preached Christ to them.
In John 4:28 the Samaritan woman said to Him, “Are you the Christ? Are you the Messiah?” This gives the good news that the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ has come. And that’s what the people did, they went everywhere proclaiming Christ. Verse 6, “The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing.”
The powers to do miracles extended from the apostles to those associated with the apostles, this first generation of deacon evangelists. Philip does things that the apostles did, verse 7, “Delivering people from unclean spirits.” These devils were coming out of them screaming with a loud voice. That’s what demons do when they’re confronted by the power of Christ.
Why does Philip have the power to do this? To authenticate the message. There’s no New Testament. How do you sort a true teacher from a false one? False teachers were everywhere. By power over demons, power over disease, power over deformity. This is powerful, and they are fascinated. There’s a third word in verse 8, “There was great joy in that city.” We started with persecution, then preaching; and now productivity.
When it says, “There was much rejoicing in that city,” what does that tell us? The first fruit of salvation is joy. Isaiah 61:10 says, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord. My soul will exalt in my God, for He has clothed me with garments of salvation. He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. I will rejoice greatly.”
In 1 Thessalonians 1:6, Paul is giving thanks to God for what the Lord has done with the Thessalonians, and he says this: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the Word in much tribulation, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” Paul tells us in Romans 14:17, “The kingdom of God is joy in believing.” So we have preaching as the result of persecution, and that leads to salvation.
The gospel goes to the world because believers are persecuted. We don’t need to strive for persecution but on the other hand, we don’t have to fear persecution because persecution historically has accomplished the purposes of God. We need to expect it. We need to be courageous and bold. Do not ever underestimate the power of persecution to accomplish God’s purpose. Let us pray.