Acts 8: 1 – 8 The church persecuted and scattered
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in 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 both men and women and put them in prison.
Philip in Samaria
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
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For the last four days I’ve been looking at Stephen’s trial and martyrdom. Today, we move ahead to the immediate aftermath of Stephen’s stoning to death. However, we will need to refer to the previous posts to understand what today’s reading can teach us.
The first thing I personally have to come to terms with is that God allowed Stephen to be brutally murdered. That’s not to say God was responsible, because he wasn’t; the responsibility lies firmly with those who killed Stephen. But God, knowing what was to happen, let it happen. Stephen didn’t even seem to get the chance to decide whether he was prepared to be martyred; once he’d started preaching to the Sanhedrin his martyrdom was pretty much inevitable.
But, actually, his decision to be prepared to be martyred was made considerably earlier, right from the moment he decided to follow Jesus.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ” (Matthew 16: 24)
“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ” (Mark 8: 34)
“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ ” (Luke 9: 23)
All three of the synoptic gospels spell out Jesus’ statement of the cost of being a disciple. We need to be prepared to give up possessions, reputation, comfort and even life itself, if we are to be a disciple of Jesus. The possibility of martyrdom isn’t something covered in the small print – it’s in bold print, and worded in the strongest way possible.
Stephen had accepted that possibility, had opened himself to the Holy Spirit, who had used him powerfully.
Consider what happened as a result of Stephen’s death.
The church was persecuted.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Saul was a leader in persecuting the church.
But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
What was the result of the scattering of the followers of Jesus?
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
What was the result of Saul’s experiences while persecuting the church? Saul became a follower of Jesus and ultimately became St Paul.
If Stephen had not been martyred, would the faith have spread beyond Jerusalem? I wonder…
And, when we’re thinking about the cost of discipleship, we can remember the words Stephen spoke at the conclusion of his speech: ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ The strength and encouragement of that vision enabled him to remain at peace, forgiving his murderers, and committing his spirit to the Lord Jesus.
May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Please help me to play my part in the coming of your kingdom. Please help me to be willing to put your will before everything else.
In Jesus’ name, Amen