Gospel Progress (Acts 8:1-25)

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As we come to Acts 8 in our exposition of this book we once again note how Luke gives a record of the advancement of the church in accordance with the Lord’s commission in 1:8. Luke was a gifted writer, who used events to introduce major personalities and epochs in the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. We see this in the record of Acts 8.

The church of Jerusalem had just experienced the loss of one of the Seven. Stephen, a man full of the Spirit, faith and wisdom had just been martyred, in a most cruel way, having been stoned. And yet no doubt the testimony of Stephen’s Christ-centred death had spread and served as an encouragement to the church to continue to gaze at the risen Lord. And as she did so, she received power for continued faithfulness. The reason that I say this is because there must have been a reason for the intense persecution that arose around because of this event, as recorded in Acts 8.

In this chapter we read that persecution, under the management of Saul of Tarsus, came upon the church in Jerusalem, and that it was so intense that “they were all scattered.” But as someone has said, the devil overplayed his hand because the net effect of the persecution was further progress of the gospel, the harvesting of more souls and, no doubt, the planting of more churches. As Bengel comments, “the wind increases the flame.”1 This is often how it is. In the words of an early church father, the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church. Perhaps there is no better example of this than what we have before us in Acts 8.

Our goal in this study is to consider the first 25 verses of this chapter. We will do so under two major headings. May we be encouraged to persevere in the Great Commission regardless of the problems and troubles that we face along the way.

The Persecution of the Church

Verses 1-3 tell us of the persecution levelled against the church in Jerusalem:

Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.

(Acts 8:1-3)

Persecution broke out as a direct response to the martyrdom of Stephen. This text gives us some insight into the man who will become the focal point of Acts from Acts 13 onwards.

The Means of the Persecution

Our introduction to Saul of Tarsus is simple: “Now Saul was consenting to his death.” Some critics of the Bible have asserted that this chapter proves that Luke was a fraudulent historian. They say that in 7:58 Saul is portrayed as an innocent bystander, but that a few verses later he is suddenly seen to be an active and agitating approver of Stephen’s death. Let me make a couple of brief comments here.

First, it is clear to anyone who knows their Old Testament that the fact that Saul was at the stoning as a witness was proof that he did approve of what was taking place.

Second, anyone who actually studies the text of Acts 6—7 in the light of the rest of the book discovers and discerns that no doubt Saul was of one of the Synagogues of the Freedman, and that he would have been directly engaged in head-to-head verbal conflict with Stephen. Further, he would presumably have been bested by Stephen! Therefore Acts 8:1 does not present any different picture of Saul than Acts 7:58. The text simply tells us that Saul agreed with the stoning of Stephen and, after the event, had no change of heart.

As we will learn in the record of his conversion (Acts 9), however, his intense approval was motivated by unresolved guilt. He just could not shake the image of Stephen dying with such confidence in Christ. No doubt, he was troubled by Stephen’s bold and believing (and therefore believable) testimony that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven! Stephen’s gaze was the means of Saul’s sense of guilt. And sometimes such guilt leads to even more sin and therefore more guilt. Thankfully, in Saul’s case, it also led to grace.

The Manner of the Persecution

We know from v. 3, as well as his testimony in Acts 22 & 26, that Saul received authority from the chief priests to enter houses (house churches?) to arrest anyone who was following “the Way.” Male or female, if they were disciples of Christ, were fair game for persecution. Some were forced to blaspheme while many were put to death. Saul consented and contributed to this horrible state of affairs.

Verse 3 says that Saul “made havoc of the church.” The ESV reads that he was “ravaging the church.” The term “made havoc” or “ravaging” refers to “a brutal and sadistic cruelty.”2 Barclay notes that the word “is used of a wild boar ravaging a vineyard . . . of a wild animal savaging a body.”3

But not only did Saul ravage the church, he also “committ[ed] them [i.e. believers] to prison.” Prison, in that time, was pretty much a holding cell for eventual execution. And so Saul was intent on destroying the church “but was unsuccessful. It proved indestructible.”4

This persecution was intense, and yet from God’s perspective, of course, it was intentional. That is, there was a purpose for it. We will see this soon, but first we need to examine the extent of the persecution.

The text tells us that “they were all scattered.” How extensively should we this? Let me attempt to give an explanation.

We are told in the opening verses that “devout men carried Stephen to his burial.” This statement follows on the heels of the statement about the persecution against the church. This appears to be a glaring disconnect.

The word “devout” is used in the New Testament sometimes to refer to devout Jews who were not (at least yet) followers of the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:5). It would thus be fair to interpret this as referring to those who knew Stephen and showed respect to him (much like Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus did to Jesus upon His death). If this is true then it is clear that not every Jewish leader and or devout person was opposed to the church. But it is also quite possible that these “devout men” were, in fact, believers. If so, then it would seem that they escaped persecution. Further, the text tells us that “they were all scattered except the apostles.” If the entire church was scattered, why would the apostles hang around? After all, they were tasked to feed and lead the sheep (see Acts 2:42ff).

I suspect that, in fact, when the persecution against the church in Jerusalem was probably aimed primarily at the Hellenistic element within the church.

As we saw in our study of Acts 6, the Hellenistic Jews were more cosmopolitan because they were Greek-speaking and had been influenced by Greek culture. Because of this, many of the Hebraic Jews looked down on them as being somewhat religiously and socially inferior.

But The Hellenists must have made up a significant portion of the church if we correctly understand the events of Acts 6. All of the Seven were Hellenists. Stephen was a Hellenist and was at the centre of this whole episode. The Hebraic Jews (of whom Saul was one) were extremely prejudicial and discriminatory, and therefore would be prone to vent their anger on those whom they deemed to be outsiders.

Acts 8 focuses again on a Hellenistic Jew, Philip. Those who were scattered seemed to have no hang-ups when it came to ethnicity because we see them establishing a multicultural church in Antioch (see Acts 11:19-30). In Acts 15 we see that the church in Jerusalem was still in existence and was seen as an important centre from which other churches looked to for help. Other passages in the New Testament show that various local churches sent offerings to help the church in Jerusalem.

I would therefore conclude the following: When the text says that all the church was scattered Luke was using hyperbole to emphasise the intensity of the persecution. The Hebraic Jewish believers were still functioning as old covenant believers (temple worship, etc.) and therefore they were not seen as “subversive” by the religious authorities. (Of course, the events of AD 70 would put an end to this once for all!) The Hellenistic believers were more prone to see clearly the discontinuity of the new covenant with the old covenant and so their allegiance to Christ was more conspicuous than that of the other believers in Jerusalem. “‘This was the beginning of the Dispersion of the New Israel,’ which led to the dissemination of the gospel. Stephen’s speech had been truly prophetic. Jerusalem and the temple now begin to fade from view, as Christ calls his people out and accompanies them.”2

The Hellenistic Jewish believers were persecuted first because of a mixture of hostility to their message as well as racism on the part of their persecutors. This was an example of xenophobia.

I once met a Christian man who was considered a friend and even as a hero in his country, which boasted a population of 100% Muslims. How could this be so? No doubt because blood is sometimes thicker than baptismal water. Not all persecution is strictly “religious.” In other words, not all persecution is purely about the message of grace; it is often mixed with issues of race.

The Lord was going to use these more cross-culturally sensitive believers to further His kingdom in Samaria. Ultimately, that is why this portion of the church was persecuted. God had a plan!

The Message of Persecution

Persecution is a part of God’s plan. It is His means to purge His church. It is also His means to further the progress of the church. We must therefore expect it (2 Timothy 3:12) and respond to it with biblical hope—as did these believers scattered from Jerusalem.

The Perseverance of the Church

The remainder of the text (vv. 4-25) records the perseverance of the church in the face of opposition. We read here something of the purpose of the persecution—from God’s side. God permitted the persecution for the purpose of accomplishing Acts 1:8. Their scattering was the means of sowing the gospel. God is so committed to His Son receiving all the glory that is His due that He will even use persecution to achieve it! You could say that this episode was part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer of John 17.

They Persevered in Evangelism

According to v. 4, these “scattered” believers “went everywhere preaching the word.”

The word “scattered” is “a word that means to scatter as seed is scattered on the ground.”6 This word was used no doubt by Luke deliberately to give us a word picture of what was really happening. God was sovereignly using this persecution for the purpose of the gospel message progressing beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem. Harrison suggests, “As the episode was viewed in retrospect by the church, it was seen as a providential event to facilitate the mission set before His followers by the risen Lord (1:8). The people went as missionaries more than as refugees.”6

“The violent dispersion of these earnest disciples resulted in a rapid diffusion of the gospel.”8 The text says that they went everywhere “preaching the word.” The word “preaching” means “to tell,” “to speak,” or “to talk.” It is the term transliterated as “evangelise.” They were not “heralding the gospel” as apostles. They were, as someone has put it, “gossiping” the gospel as they scattered.

I find this statement amazing in the light of how I often respond in times of trouble. Perhaps for some of us the text would read, “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere complaining, feeling sorry for themselves, telling everyone their woes, and murmuring against the Lord.” But these saints responded to losing everything in life as an opportunity to tell others that Christ was all they had and all they needed. He satisfied them!

Stott says it well, “Effective evangelism becomes possible only when the church recovers both the biblical gospel and a joyful confidence in its truth, relevance and power.”9 They were simply telling the old, old story to anyone who would listen.

This is what we are called to do—and we don’t need persecution to do it! Each of us is called to the task of evangelising everyone everywhere. Are you fulfilling this commission? You don’t require official sanction to do so. When Christ is our treasure then talking about Him to others will be the natural result. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34), and your treasure will be where your heart is (Matthew 6:21).

These believers were simply taking Jesus’ call to discipleship seriously. They had lost all for His sake and in return were blessed. They obviously learned that He was enough—even (especially?) in times of pressure—and so they evangelised.

How will you speak when you go to work after hearing that you have a new enemy, a terminal illness, or a financial setback? May we take our cue from these disciples!

They Persevered with the Help of an Evangelist

It is at this point that we are introduced to the only man in Scripture specifically named as an evangelist (see 21:8).

Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. And there was great joy in that city.

(Acts 8:5-8)

Like Stephen, Philip was a Hellenistic Jewish believer. He also was one of the Seven. And, like Stephen, he was a man mighty in word and works. Outside of the apostles, only these two men (and perhaps Barnabas, another Hellenistic Jewish believer) are recorded as doing signs and wonders.

As a result of the persecution, Philip was also “scattered” from Jerusalem, and he headed for Samaria. There he “preached” the gospel of Christ. (The word here translated “preached” is a word which means “to herald,” and is frequently used of the preaching ministry of the apostles.) The result was an awakening, much like that experienced in Nineveh under the preaching of Jonah. To a Jew, this was almost unthinkable!

We need to pause to consider the significance of the gospel message going to this region. This region and, more precisely, the people who lived there, were despised by the Jews. In fact, it is quite possible that the reason it took at least three years for the gospel to get from Jerusalem to Samaria (a very short distance by the way, perhaps only 40 kilometres) was because the church itself was guilty of racism toward them. Perhaps this was a reason for God sending persecution: in order to move the church beyond its ethnocentricity and sinful exclusivism. I would imagine that Acts 1:8 did not initially thrill them too much!

It is important to understand the reason for the hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans. It began with the splitting of Israel and Judah after the death of Solomon. The ten tribes, known collectively as “Israel” (as opposed to the two tribes known as “Judah”) were eventually assimilated by the Assyrians after they were conquered by Sargon in 722 BC. They intermarried and lost their religious identity (see e.g. 2 Kings 17:33).

When the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity and rebuilt the temple, they refused the offer of help from the Samaritans (see the book of Nehemiah). The Samaritans established their own temple at Mount Gerizim in opposition to the temple at Jerusalem. They joined the Sidonians in a military conflict against the Jews in 161 BC. The Maccabeans, under John Hyrcanus, destroyed the city of Samaria and its temple in 127 BC. The hostility is exemplified by the fact that, in 25 BC, the Samaritans refused the offer of help from Herod to rebuild their temple when they found out that he had also offered to help the Jews to rebuild their temple!

In short, the Jews saw the Samaritans as racially inferior and religiously schismatic. According to John 4, this was very much the common attitude of the day. Samaria was indeed the Nineveh of the day. Therefore, this record of gospel progress in Samaria is amazing to say the least.

This further illustrates why God providentially allowed the martyrdom of Hellenistic Stephen. It was, at least in part, to get Hellenistic Philip to a place where he would receive a hearing. His ethnic and cultural background made it far easier for him to be heard than it may have been for a Hebraic Jewish believer. “Doubtless a feeling of kinship was established between the formerly dispossessed Samaritans and the recently dispossessed Christian Hellenists because of Stephen’s opposition to the mentality of mainstream Judaism and its veneration of the Jerusalem temple—an opposition that would have facilitated a favourable response to Philip and his message in Samaria.”10

Let me pause for a brief point of application: Cultural sensitivity is a means of accomplishing the Great Commission. It is an essential quality of a fruitful missionary.

“There was great joy in that city” (v. 8). What a wonderful testimony to the power of the gospel! But the miracles and marvels of grace had not yet ended. We will return to this later.

They Persevered in the Face of an Enemy

The persecuted, persevering, and proclaiming church experienced God’s power in a marvellous way in Samaria. This was nothing less than an awakening—the kind for which we often find ourselves praying. But, like all movements of God, the devil notices what is happening and follows close at hand. It would seem from this passage that, although many demons were exorcised, at least one escaped detection. This one was dwelling in a man by the name of Simon.

But there was a certain man called Simon, who previously practiced sorcery in the city and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great, to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the great power of God.” And they heeded him because he had astonished them with his sorceries for a long time. But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptised. Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done.

Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.” Then Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me, that none of the things which you have spoken may come upon me.”

(Acts 8:9-24)

Simon Magus is infamous in church history. There is even a negative and despised term associated with his name: “simony,” a word that applies to the selling of ecclesiastical offices. This comes from the episode at hand.

“Simon the sorcerer” was famous in the region of Samaria. People even deified him (no doubt at his suggestion!). He was a sorcerer who was able to amaze the people. Because he could amaze them he could also manipulate them. They “gave heed” to him. He had this region under the power of his evil thumb—until the arrival of Philip, that is. When the evangelist came preaching Christ, Simon was no match. His master had been defeated by Jesus and now Simon was feeling the brunt of this.

Multitudes of those who had been following Simon were converted and followed the Saviour. Philip’s Spirit-empowered works made Simon’s look like cheap magical theatrics. I suppose Simon thought, “If you can’t beat them, join them!” Thus the text tells us, “Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptised he continued with Philip.” The one who had so amazed the people was now amazed himself. Unfortunately, it would seem that Simon was not amazed by grace. While New Testament language does not always distinguish between believing and professing to believe, vv. 14-24 make it clear that Simon’s profession was false.

Word reached Jerusalem that Samaria has not only heard but in fact received the gospel. Converts had been baptised and a church had been planted. In fact, the most (in)famous man in town had joined them!

Upon hearing about these things, Peter and John made the journey to Samaria to validate the reports. Then they arrived, they noted (I don’t know how) that, although the Samaritans had received the gospel, they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. And so the apostles laid their hands on Samaritans, and as they prayed for them the Holy Spirit manifestly came upon them. Though the text does not explicitly say so, it seems most likely that they spoke in tongues as evidence of the power of the Spirit.

Let’s pause to consider the valid question as to why the Holy Spirit did not come upon them immediately when they believed.

God probably sovereignly withheld the Spirit for the purpose of building unity between the Samaritan and Jewish believers. Had He come upon them immediately at their conversion, then perhaps the Hebraic church in Jerusalem would have been somewhat sceptical.

This progressive unity does seem to be a pattern, as we see it in Acts 10 and again in Acts 19. As the kingdom of God advanced in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost, the same gospel did the same work and the same Spirit indwelt those who shared this same experience of the gospel.

At this stage of the progress and development of the church, it was important that an apostolic connection be made. This whole episode would serve to be a great encouragement to an increasingly suffering church back in Jerusalem. The eyewitness account of the apostles would be a great blessing to the church there.

Following on the heels of this marvellous manifestation of grace upon the church Simon’s motives for joining Philip were clearly revealed. Though he “believed” in Jesus, it is apparent (as in John 2:23-25) that Jesus did not “believe” in him.

Simon evidently saw the power of the Spirit as a means to further his own agenda, and so he wasted no time (and paid no attention to protocol) in seeking to buy the power to bring the Spirit into the lives of others. “What is emphasized is the open-eyed wonder of one who was intent on studying Philip and his work, willing to be an apprentice in the hope of ultimately being a master.”11 By the way, the passage seems to indicate that he was a witness to others receiving the Holy Spirit while he himself had not received the Spirit. There is a good reason for this: Those who do not have the Spirit do not have Christ, and vice versa. It would seem that Simon was merely a pretender.

Peter was incensed with this blasphemer and rebuked him in the strongest terms possible (vv. 20-23). Many question whether or not Simon was saved, and with good reason. Sadly, many don’t question his profession of faith at all. But these words of the apostle Peter seem to clearly indicate that he was not in fact a believer.

Peter said that Simon was filled with poison and bound in his sins. He declared quite unmistakably in v. 20 that Simon was on the path to eternal destruction. He pointed out that his heart was not right with God and suggested that forgiveness, although it must be sought, was not guaranteed. None of these words, it seems to me, have relevance to a genuine believer.

Further proof that Simon was unregenerate is found in his response to Peter’s rebuke. Verse 24 records Simon asking Peter to pray for him “that none of these things which you have spoken may come upon me.” He did not cry out personally to God for forgiveness, and it would seem that he was remorseful rather than repentant. His was the sorrow of the world, which leads to spiritual death (2 Corinthians 7:10).

We can learn some important truths from this account

Throughout history, the church has always faced the problem of false professions of faith. Where Christ saves sheep, the devil sends goats; where Christ sows wheat, the devil sows tares. Wherever there are genuine conversions there are also counterfeits. Such is church life. But this should not detour us from proclaiming the gospel and from offering a judgement of charity towards those who seem to be the real deal.

At the same time, we need to beware of the enemy’s strategies to infiltrate the church and we must speak straight when they are detected.

Realise that there are many motives that may drive someone to identify himself as a believer. Don’t assume too much. Those who are the real deal feel the weight of their guilt. They sorrow with genuine repentance. The true believer looks at what he can give to the Lord more than what he can receive from Him.

Examine yourself: Why are you following Christ? Simon “was not really interested in bringing the Holy Spirit to others; he was interested in the power and the prestige it would bring to himself.”12

The Progress of the Church

Despite the persecution, the church was progressive—in a right kind of way: “So when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans” (v. 25).

Peter and John returned to Jerusalem to minister to a congregation that was primarily unicultural. But on the way home they preach the gospel “in many villages of the Samaritans.” What a wonderful revelation—especially when you consider that one of the evangelists to the Samaritans was John! This was the very same John who, not all that long ago, had suggested that he and his brother call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritans who, at that time, rejected Christ (Luke 9:51-56).

Is it not a wonderful thing to realise how the gospel can change someone?

Note also that Peter and John did not give up on trying to reach the Samaritans because of one bad apple. They did not judge the whole by the part. You see, not only was the church progressing geographically, she was also progressing spiritually. “The fact that Philip preached there, that the apostles came there, that the message of Jesus was given to these people, shows the Church all unconsciously taking one of the most important steps in history. Without realising it they are discovering that Christ is for all the world.”13 She was becoming more and more like her Master. And the same needs to be true of us.

As we grow in our outreach let us also grow upward. In fact, to the degree that we do so, to such a degree we will grow even more outwardly!

May the Lord grant us the grace to persevere under pressure so that we might faithfully proclaim the gospel and see the progression of the kingdom as we become more and more like the King.

Show 13 footnotes

  1. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 146.
  2. Stott, The Message of Acts, 145.
  3. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 64.
  4. Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 140.
  5. Stott, The Message of Acts, 145.
  6. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 139.
  7. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 139.
  8. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:102.
  9. Stott, The Message of Acts, 144.
  10. Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:355.
  11. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 147.
  12. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 68.
  13. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 66.