Acts 8:1b (NIV)
1 On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
On the same day that Stephen was stoned, a huge persecution against the Church broke out in Jerusalem. Acts 8 and 9 go on to tell us that a young man named Saul was instrumental in moving this persecution forward, going from house to house, dragging off men and women and putting them into prison. Later on Saul (Paul) would state that when these men and women were put to death, he had cast his vote against them (Acts 26:10).
It would be very easy for the Church, under these circumstances, to wonder what was going on. Weren’t they God’s special people? Hadn’t He promised to never leave them or forsake them? This surely didn’t seem right. You can see the same kind of mindset in the Church today. When seemingly bad things happen to Christians, there is a lot of mental hand-wringing that goes on, trying to figure out why God has allowed this terrible thing to happen.
But I think that there is more here than meets the eye. Before Jesus left, he told the disciples who were wondering when He was going to restore the kingdom to Israel, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” Acts 1:7-8 (NIV) Many scholars have noted that this statement/command is actually a good outline of the entire book of Acts: the Church began in Jerusalem, and then expanded into all Judea and Samaria, and then finally, through the apostle Paul and the other apostles, expanded out to the ends of the earth.
But we often have a problem seeing HOW this expansion got started. We are not given an exact timeline, but this persecution seems to have taken place a few years after the day of Pentecost, when the Church was birthed. During that time the number of Christians had grown, even among prominent Jews and priests, and the administrative issues of the Church had grown (see Acts 6:1-7). But in all of this time, there never seems to have been any great motive to move out of Jerusalem. And then came the showdown with Stephen and the subsequent persecution. Things became so terrible that everyone except the apostles were scattered. And where did they scatter to? Throughout Judea and Samaria, exactly as Jesus had foretold.
We see the same kind of thing after the flood. God’s commandment to Noah and his sons was, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” Genesis 9:1 (NIV) So did they obey that command? In Genesis 11:1-4 we are told: Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” In other words, even though God had told them to scatter out and fill the whole earth, their plan was to build this city and tower specifically to keep that from happening! But of course, God confused their languages so that they couldn’t understand each other, and then they broke up (probably by language groups) and scattered over the whole earth (Genesis 11:8-9).
Now some people may have a hard time believing that God would use a persecution just to get the disciples to scatter out into Judea and Samaria. But we have to remember that God’s plan was NOT to form a Church in Jerusalem that anyone in the world could come to if they wanted to. It was to take the good news, the Gospel, to everyone wherever they lived (Matthew 28:19-20). That’s why the first word of the Great Commission is GO, not STAY. And if the Church wouldn’t go, if they got so occupied with their own doings in Jerusalem that they forgot the very reason that they had been brought into existence in the first place, then it would be reasonable for God to do whatever it took to get them back on track. And there is no reason why that wouldn’t include allowing a great persecution to break out.
We need to think about this as we go about the business of our local congregations. So many of us are so occupied with what is going on within the walls of our churches that we really don’t think about the GO part of the Great Commission. If we consider it at all, we usually think about it in terms of worldwide missions to Africa or Asia or some ohter foreign country. But in a very real sense, if our congregations are our Jerusalem, then the places in which we work and shop and play are the Judea and Samaria of our lives. We are directed to reach out into these areas with the good news of the Gospel. If we don’t, then I think God is justified in doing whatever it takes to knock us out of our comfort zones and into the world so we will spread the message of reconciliation.