The Gospel Spreads Through Persecution
Key Verse 8:4
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
Stephen’s martyrdom set off a wave of violence against the church, which caused many believers to scatter. One of these was Philip who went first to Samaria and then to a desert road and then to Caesarea. In all of the events in chapter 8, the common thread is how God was working to spread the gospel rapidly. God worked through persecutions, he used miraculous signs, he sent the Holy Spirit, and he sent an angel. It was God working. Despite the opposition of the Sanhedrin, or sorcery, or anything else, God was sovereign over his church.
Acts can be divided into three phases, summarized by Jesus’ words at the beginning of the book, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”(1:8) This chapter begins phase 2, as the gospel spreads from Jerusalem to the surrounding Judea and Samaria and to other Jews, but not yet to the pagan Gentiles. We all want to be fruitful like Philip and the early church. Today let’s learn the power of God to advance his kingdom rapidly.
Part 1 They preached the word wherever they went.
Look at v 1b-3. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Stephen’s murder set off angry mobs and a wave of persecution. In particular, there was a young Pharisee named Saul. He was an ambitious student of a prominent Sanhedrin member, and he had a great zeal for the law. Stephen’s death affected him profoundly. He could not forget Stephen’s words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” These words challenged his self-righteousness and convicted him of sin. Stephen’s peaceful expression haunted his sleep. He became so angry that he decided to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. But he could not stop the work of God, rather God used his attacks to advance the church to the next stage.
Let’s see how by reading verse 4. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. God used persecution to spread the church. This may sound paradoxical. How can God use the martyrdom and arrest of his children to advance the gospel? Here we want to think about three things.
First, in all things God works for the good of those who love him. (Rom 8:28) God never persecutes, but he allows persecution to exist for his own good purpose. What could that purpose be? In this verse, we see that it was to spread the gospel as quickly as possible and save many souls. Sometimes God raises up missionaries by giving them a calling and opening up a job opportunity and leading them step by step. For instance how Missionary Abe Lee went to China. But at other times, God uses persecution to raise up missionaries. The Jerusalem church enjoyed beautiful fellowship and charity, powerful preaching, mighty wonders, and a good reputation. It would be difficult to leave all of this and go to a foreign country. But persecution caused the church to grow throughout Judea and Samaria.
Second, persecution also grows the Christian himself. It would seem that if God loves us, he would keep us from suffering. But Christians suffer a lot. Stephen was martyred for his faith, others were imprisoned, and many would be killed. Those who fled the persecution also suffered greatly. They did not relocate to a new city for a better job; they fled, with only a few belongings, leaving their families, homes and careers. In an unfamiliar place they had to overcome homelessness and poverty, yet they preached the word wherever they went. Persecution helped them to be bold. It is true. We are afraid because we don’t want to loose what we have in this world. But persecution strips away what we have, then we realize that we never really did have anything in this world, but our only hope is in the kingdom of God. No one wants to suffer, but at the same time we all do, some more than others, myself very little. We should not avoid suffering for Jesus, but view tragedy from God’s point of view. How can God use my difficult situation to spread the good news? Hebrews 12:7 tells us to “endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.” 1Peter 1:7 “These [sufferings] have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Suffering is not pointless but part of God’s plan to refine your faith. The early church was so powerful, because they knew that at any point they might be arrested and have to give their lives. So also in places like North Korea, the remnant of underground Christians have a bold spirit of martyrdom that we can learn from. When we are spiritually mature, we can even rejoice in our sufferings. 1Peter 4:13 says, “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
Third, we are to grow into independent preachers of the word wherever we go. At first, Jesus told the disciples to remain in Jerusalem. God wanted to establish Jerusalem as the strong training center for the church. At this phase, the Christians were young and untrained, so God protected them like a mother bird protects her chicks with her wings. They learned fellowship and caring for one another, and they were taught to be excellent Bible teachers.(8:35) But as a mother bird pushes her chicks out of the nest and forces them to fly, so the time came for the believers to go out. Yet, like chicks we are reluctant to leave the safety of the nest and begin to fly. There are still many parts of the world where the people have never heard the gospel. Are we ready to go? For many, it does not seem the right time. I have to finish my PhD. Some own a house and have a family. Also, we become comfortable with our fellowship here. Then something has to happen to stir us out of complacency.
Grown through fellowship in Jerusalem and trained through suffering, the Christians of Jerusalem were ready to go anywhere God sent them. Fleeing for their lives like fugitives, they did not go into hiding but preached the word wherever they went. “When you are persecuted in one place flee to another.”(Mt 10:23) They were bold witnesses, and great conversions began to happen throughout Judea and Samaria.
Part 2 Philip in Samaria
One of these scattered Christians was Philip. He was not the only evangelist. But his ministry serves as an example of the kind of work God was doing throughout Judea and Samaria. Verses 5-40 are an expansion of verse 4. Who was Philip? Philip had been one of the seven men in charge of food distribution, along with Stephen. So he may have been Stephen’s close friend. Stephen’s murder did not cause him to shrink back, however, but to grow bold. Look at verses 5-8. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
Philip was filled with the Holy Spirit. He proclaimed Christ and a whole city accepted. God performed miraculous signs through Philip, to support his message. Demons were cast out and the sick were healed and there was great joy. This city was eager to hear about the Christ. They had lived without hope and under the oppression of Satan for a long time. In the next verses, we learn more about how Satan had harassed these people.
Let’s read verse 9-12 “Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized both men and women.”
Simon was a sorcerer. We do not know whether he used demonic power or whether he was just good at fooling people with tricks, bending spoons and pulling rabbits out of hats. But his favorite trick was making people’s money disappear. In any case, he used his control over people for his own benefit. He liked to be called, “the divine power known as the Great Power.” All people both high and low gave him their attention. And he had been deceiving them for a long time. How dark was his heart to trick people and lead them astray, just so that he can enjoy wealth and the honor that is due only to God. And how dark and hopeless he had made that city. But when Philip came with the true gospel, everyone turned from Simon and listened to Philip. This shows the superiority of Philip’s message and power. As Philip entered into the stronghold of Satan, God enabled him to perform miraculous signs. God’s power was being opposed by Satan’s power, but in such a contest God always wins. Not only did God bring healing and great joy to the city, but he also used Philip to preach the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. And the people were baptized. Even Simon followed Philip. Usually these people cause the greatest resistance, but God was working powerfully. Still, Satan was not through with Simon, as we will see.
Today, there is a renewed fascination with the occult. From horoscopes to the psychic friends network to Wicca, magic is in fashion. One popular daytime TV show features a man who claims to be able to contact your dead relatives. Maybe they are all just tricking people or maybe it is even more sinister. But we who know the truth must not behave like the lost who will grab onto and follow anything. To some of us, this may seem too obvious to mention. But as we meet students on campus we find how widespread it is. Let’s take a clear stand for Christ and have nothing to do with the occult. Throw away any such thing you might own, do not watch that TV show or follow horoscopes. Some argue that horoscopes work. But whether they work or not is not the point, the point is whom do you serve. Have nothing to do with them and live by faith alone. What if you horoscope reads: “Sagitarius: beware of strangers today.” Will you obey the horoscope or the Bible that calls us to preach. Satan uses mysticism to ensnare people. But God is the all powerful. Nothing in the occult can match to God’s mighty acts of deliverance. Christ rose from the dead proclaiming even victory over death, and opening the way to the kingdom of God. When Philip preached the kingdom of God, the people were filled with a joy that Simon’s tricks had never brought them.
Now look at verses 14-17. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. When the apostles heard about the great work occurring in Samaria, they were joyful. Their two highest leaders were sent by the church to see and encourage the work of God. Jews hated Samaritans, but Jesus broke down all barriers between people. Once John had wanted to call down fire on an unrepentant Samaritan city, but now he and Peter wanted to go and see the great work in Samaria for themselves. In this visit, there is coworking between Philip and the mother church in Jerusalem. Peter and John do not come to take over but to encourage and see how they can help. Such visiting is beneficial to everyone. In two weeks missionary Jacob will visit Missionary Augustine and Christine Yun in Tennessee to encourage them. Last spring I was invited to Guatemala to help train the conference messengers. They were so busy doing many things, that it was a joy to go and encouraged them and help as best as I could. And I was also encouraged by their passion and sacrificial serving. In fact we have sent many people on visits and we all have the same blessed experience.
When Peter and John arrived, what did they find? The Samaritans needed the Holy Spirit. Philip was fully capable of bringing the Holy Spirit, as with the Ethiopian eunuch. But God had a special purpose here. He delayed the Holy Spirit until the apostles came, so that they could participate in, and see for themselves God’s work in Samaria. Then they had a heart for once-despised Samaria, and they preached there too. In verse 25, they did not go straight back to Jerusalem but proclaimed the word of God and preached the gospel in many Samaritan villages on the way.
Next, we learn about Simon’s problem. In verse 13, “Simon
himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere,
astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.” It looked good, but
there was a hidden problem that suddenly popped out and when he saw the Holy
Spirit given at the laying on of hands. He wanted to buy this power and Peter
told him, “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is
not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps
he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I
see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
What was Simon’s problem? Looking carefully at verse 13, we see that he was astonished at the miracles of Philip, but not necessarily by the message. He had practiced magic for years, and he thought of Philip as a master magician. He never came to personally know Christ, even though he was baptized. Actually, he never repented of deceiving the people and stealing god’s honor for himself. Before Philip came to town, everyone worshipped him. He lost a lot when the people turned to God, so deep down he remained bitter towards God. Then he saw the Holy Spirit as his chance to become a somebody again. People would follow him if he could give the Holy Spirit.
Simon is a warning to all of us. Here is a man who is inside of the church. He has been baptized and is following Philip everywhere. But in fact, his heart is not right before God, and he is full of bitterness and captive to sin. He is not even saved, because Peter said to him, “you have no part in this ministry.” But there was no human way of knowing this until some event caused his problem to pop up. In 1John 4, we read of people who we thought were Christian, but they abandoned the faith because they were never really right before God. For a time they looked OK, but eventually the problem came out. Maybe we all know someone that went to church, but today is not Christian. A common feature in these people is that they are full of bitterness and captive to sin. We loved them without expectation, but when they leave they are bitter and accusing. Actually the problem is that they are captive to sin and this makes them bitter without reason. How tragic it is that Jesus came to set men free, but they would choose to remain a captive to sin! Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching then you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” But the tragedy that men would be like the Israelites, who after God set them free from captivity in Egypt, they kept complaining and wanting to go back. So they never entered God’s rest. And how tragic to harbor a heart full of bitterness, which can only make us miserable. On the cross, Jesus would have right to be bitter at the injustice, but he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus was full of grace.
In an audience this large, it is quite possible that some do not have a heart that is right before God. If this convicts you, then accept Peter’s rebuke: Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. Notice that Peter did not condemn Simon but showed him what he needed to do to be right with God. Repent and pray. Not praying presumptuously, but praying in humility for God’s mercy, “perhaps he will forgive me.” Simon’s reply was to ask Peter to pray for him, not that he would know God, but that he would escape the penalty. "Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me." In fact, others can pray for you, but you have the primary responsibility to pray. One Bible student asks his Bible teacher to pray for him. His Bible teacher always challenges him to pray himself, but for the past two years, he could not even pray one hour, because deep down, he enjoys being a captive to sin, and wishes only to enjoy this life and yet escape hell. This is not said to judge him, but to warn all of us about our responsibility to pray and be serious, working out or salvation with fear and trembling. (Ph 2:12)
Part 3 Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch
Suddenly God called Philip away from his fruitful Samaritan ministry. There was one truth seeking man who was confused and could not find the truth. He came to Jerusalem, but left without finding the truth. He was reading the Bible, but he could not understand and there was no one to explain it to him. And he was going back to Ethiopia, still confused. God sent Philip to catch him quickly and teach him the Bible. It is a new event, but it is a continuation of how God was using the scattered church to preach the gospel to all people. Lets read verse 26. Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." We do not expect to meet many people on a desert road. But even one man can be precious, the hope for all of the nations of Africa. Once a missionary went fishing during spring break, because he did not know about the break. There was only one student there. But that student grew as a disciple. So Philip obeyed God’s direction and he found one lone chariot. In it was an Ethiopian eunuch returning home. The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it." Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He was in fact reading one of the most powerful prophecies of Jesus. This was not by chance. For Philip to meet this one man, reading this particular passage at that very instant is the power of God. This event shows clearly that God orchestrated the growth of the. When we go fishing, may God lead us to such people, and may God cause many Jews to read Isaiah with a learning mind. Often when we ask a Jewish person to study the Bible, they replied, “I am a Jew,” which seems to be used to mean, “no.” But may God lead many Jewish people to contemplate Isaiah and ask us to teach them. May we also accept that fishing is not random, but carefully orchestrated by God, who oversees the gospel work.
Philip asked him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip was ready to teach. You do not ask such a question unless you are ready to teach. It was an invitation for 1:1 Bible Study. The eunuch answered, "How can I, unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch was a high official but he was not too proud to be a good student. He was reading about the crucifixion of Jesus. "He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. After just one Bible Study, he was baptized and filled with joy. Because I took so long to believe, I think that we need years of Bible study. But rather we need the Holy Spirit. Even one study, God can work. Philip did not have a chance to prepare for this Bible study, but he was always ready to teach. Then the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away to Azotus (or Ashdod) and he traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached the large city of Caesarea, where he settled and established a church (21:8). God was working dynamically through Philip. And he can work dynamically through us, if we are obedient to his calling.
In this passage we see that God is eager to spread the gospel. God went ahead of the early Christians to reach all Judea and Samaria according to his own plan, even into the strongholds of Satan, such a city under the influence of sorcery. God also wants to reach America’s campuses. God hears the prayers of the truth seeking and wants to raise up Bible teachers for them. We must see what God is doing and be prepared to preach the name of Jesus Christ, wherever we go. When we do so, may God use us to liberate many young Americans as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.