Read: Acts 8:1-4
Just a few verses in this passage set the stage for a major shift in the book of Acts. The Sanhedrin opened Pandora’s Box when they stoned Stephen. They released the anger and tension pent up at the Christ-followers in Jerusalem. Like a wild animal that gets a whiff of fresh blood, this event ignited a movement against those who proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. It’s now open-season and an opportunity to go door-to-door to effect persecution.
Commentators point out that the Sanhedrin “had no choice” but to stone Stephen for blasphemy. Citing Levitucus 24:10-23, they must take him out and kill him for this great sin. The image of these learned men covering their ears, shouting at the top of the lungs to block out the words of the blasphemer, and dragging him out to a place to be stoned to death is incredibly sad.
Have we learned so much that we could behave in this manner? Sure, we don’t pick up stones and kill another for offensive words, but do we effectively reject those whose opinions differ from ours? Do we kill the relationship and terminate those we don’t understand? In the same context as the Levitical law for stoning we read:
The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion Numbers 14:18
And yet we see anger, no chance for forgiveness, no love. Lord, help us when anger boils from within. Don’t take away strong emotions, but don’t let us be consumed by feelings that betray You in the process.
The last thing the Sanhedrin wanted was to propel the Gospel beyond the walls of Jerusalem, but that’s exactly what happened as a result of their actions. As they tighten their grip, the people scatter.
But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Acts 8:3
In typical fashion, Luke includes women in his narrative, men and women are persecuted. In addition, Saul gets more attention as Luke builds his case for the next chapter.
Have no doubt, this is an ugly episode in the life of the early church. Those who responded to the Gospel felt the radical change within their hearts and now their very lives are threatened. Many flee the scene.
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Acts 8:4
They’re not cowards running from persecution, they’re messengers released to preach throughout the region.
Stay or go? When times are really difficult we all have to make a choice to stay and fight or move away from that which oppresses us. It’s never easy and rarely clear which choice is best, certainly not at the time of hardship. It’s only in hindsight that we look back and appreciate the trial and decision.
In this case, Christianity grows rapidly by those who run and for those who stay and are persecuted. Both were required. If Saul and his band would have simply scattered the people, it would have looked bad, but people could have held onto their Levitical stronghold. By putting those in prison for preaching the Gospel, they actually accelerated the impact of the message. All God’s design.
Lord have Your way in everything we do and say. When we run, go with us. When we stay, comfort us. When we stumble, pick us up. In all things, have Your way. Teach us how to do the same for our brothers and sisters. May we never struggle alone, isolated, insulated, or abandoned. Give us eyes to see those who are in these very same battles and words to move them from fear to acceptance. All for Your glory.