And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.1
In the second volume of Craig Keener’s commentary on Acts, he brings to his reader’s attention the theme of persecution-proclamation, which is a prominent theme in Luke-Acts. This proclamation-persecution theme illustrates for the reader of the New Testament that the Kingdom of God will be advanced despite oppression or opposition. Acts 8:1-3 exemplifies this theme as Keener points out; “The theology of the passage is part of Luke’s larger theme of persecution in the setting of proclamation.”2
It should be noted first that Saul’s indictment against the church was a great persecution. This was not a separate or unrelated instance, but a great (μεγας) persecution. The oppression faced was enough that it provoked people to leave their homes and even more, Jerusalem. Specifically, Luke includes Saul here as the main propellant of the Christians in Jerusalem.
What is even more significant is the ramification of Saul’s persecution. It causes people to leave Jerusalem and proclaim the gospel in other areas of the Near East region. Yet despite their imminent danger, they were not dissuaded from proclamation. Instead in the face of oppression they count the cost and proclaim, thusly fulfilling the mandate to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”3 Considering the extent that Saul had gone to in order to stop the “the Way”, this would be counterproductive; this is exactly what he didn’t want to have happen.
In Luke’s overall narrative the next pericope is even more interesting because the gospel for the first time goes to Samaria. The gospel had now been sent to a place the Jerusalem-Jews vehemently opposed. The newly appoint deacon Phillip is the one who, being part of the diaspora, brought the Gospel to that region. Luke continues in the passage, “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.”4 (Φίλιππος δὲ κατελθὼν εἰς [τὴν] πόλιν τῆς Σαμαρείας ἐκήρυσσεν αὐτοῖς τὸν Χριστόν.) Now Philip has gone to an area that was reviled among his peers and brings them the good news about “the Christ.”
The expansion of Christ’s kingdom here on earth has gone beyond a Jewish boarder. The expulsion of the Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem has led to a wide spread Gospel. What Luke has communicated to us is that the expansion of the Gospel is not of our own doing but is a divine prerogative. The measure of success that the church may experience is only due to the sovereign appointment of Christ.
The fact that the church’s success is not measured by programs, events, number of members, or “getting back to the fundamentals” should comfort us. No matter how hard the world presses in against the Church of Christ, the success she reaps is only due to the Lord’s initiative.
Today many American Christians have this embedded fear of the surrounding culture. The fact is, the world has not become any more “Christian” or any more anti-Christian. When the world is pressing in on issues like homosexuality and the trustworthiness of scripture, it is exactly what we should expect from the world. We need to be confident enough that our union with Christ and his faithfulness to the covenant of grace will sustain our life. Becoming syncretistic and adopting the practices of the world that we imagine might be appealing only communicates that we are scared and confused.
The light of the Gospel will provide exactly what we are looking for; comfort in the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ac 8:1–4.
2 Craig Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013) pg. 1466.
3 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 28:19-20.
4 Ibid, Ac 8:5