When God Scatters

Why does God allow difficult suffering into the lives of his people? Why does he allow his church to be persecuted and scattered? While you need to beware of simplistic answers, the events of Acts 8:1–8 show God sovereignly using even the attacks of the enemy to accomplish his purposes.

God builds his kingdom his way. Great persecution threatens the church. The early years of the church in Jerusalem were marked by growth (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:41; 5:14, and 6:7), despite opposition from the leaders of Israel. The martyrdom of Stephen triggers persecution, led by Saul, which Luke describes as “great.” The term, “dragged off” is used of a beast of prey and its victim. The believers flee Jerusalem, though the apostles remain there. You might expect the church to face a time of decline, a reversal of the growth it had seen.

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Forgiven — Because of the Faithful Witness

Although you may never face the kind of persecution that Stephen did, God calls you to be a faithful witness to his glory, Acts 7:54–8:1. The passage deals with the heart of forgiveness and equips you to be the Lord’s witness.

Stephen’s prayer contrasts with unforgiven sins. Zechariah had prayed for justice. A clear example of a request for sin to be held against someone is Zechariah’s prayer for justice, 2 Chronicles 24:22. This priest, son of Jehoiada who had saved the life of King Joash, was, by order of the king, stoned to death after rebuking the people for their idolatry. Does this sound like what happened to Stephen? His dying prayer was that the Lord would see this and call the murderers to account. God heard that prayer, and the death of Joash (2 Chronicles 24:25) was a result, though, of course, the final judgment is in the life to come.

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The God of Glory Appeared

Stephen, one of the original seven, powerfully proclaimed the Word of God. He saw more clearly than some the implications of the work of Christ. False accusations were brought against him, but his “defense” in Acts 7 was a proclamation of the glory of God.

God summons you to live in covenant fellowship with him. The God of glory appeared to his people. Take an overview of Stephen’s message, which is a significant element in Acts. It is the longest sermon or speech that Luke records, and it sets the stage, theologically as well as chronologically, for the dispersion of the church and the beginning of the Gentiles being brought in. Look at what false charges had been brought against Stephen—speaking against the temple (“this holy place”), the law, and the customs of Moses. “Stephen’s speech in 7:2–53, one of the longest speeches in Acts, taps into a key story line that is prominent throughout the book—God’s desire to dwell with his redeemed people.” “In response to the climax of Solomon building a temple for God, Stephen says, ‘However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands’ (Acts 7:48). He supports this idea by quoting Isaiah 66:1–2: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?’ The reference to Isaiah indicates that Stephen remains unconvinced that King Solomon completely fulfilled the divine promise that a son of David would build God a temple.” (G. K. Beale & Benjamin L. Gladd, The Story Retold: A Biblical-theological Introduction to the New Testament, p. 163) Stephen begins with the historical account of God’s dealing with his people, something that the Sanhedrin may have listened to with interest. He shows that God had repeatedly shown himself to his people (often outside the promised land) and had entered into a covenant with them. That prepares for the end of the message where he, as a covenant messenger like the Old Testament prophets, will challenge the disobedience and unbelief of his hearers. God was with Abraham in Ur and in Haran. He was with Joseph in Egypt and the oppressed people there. He never had been confined to the geography of the land of Israel.

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Full of Faith and the Holy Spirit

Thus far in Acts Luke has reported the conversion of thousands. Some time has passed. The number of believers is increasing. But a little matter of food distribution is threatening to divide the church. Acts 6:1–7, in describing the solution, sets the stage for one of the permanent offices in the church.

God calls you to serve. He expects you to be concerned about the practical affairs of life. Tensions arose in the church over perceptions of inequity between Grecian and Hebraic widows in the distribution of food. Yet the problem was an outgrowth of the church’s practical concerns for its members, and the solution points to a permanent way of dealing with the issue. God expects his people to be concerned about the poor, especially those of the household of faith (Deuteronomy 10:12–22; Acts 11:29; 2 Corinthians 8; 9; James 1:27. This contradicts a false notion of spirituality” in the church. That rediscovery is part of the Reformation. Compassion needs to be guided by the Word of God. The tensions arose because of diversity in the church, but the diversity is part of God’s plan for his people. “These early Christians found, however, that the differences that threaten division can be God’s prod to look beyond oneself, beyond the circle of ‘our kind of people,’ to see the rich diversity of people ‘from every nation, tribe, people, and language,’ being woven together by the Spirit into a multicolored many-textured tapestry (Rev. 7:9–10). If we try to keep the peace by filtering out folks who are not ‘like-minded,’ or who will not or cannot adjust themselves to our comfort zone, then the artificial and superficial unity that results will rest on the shifting sands of culture, tradition, and familiarity. God has a way of unsettling this comfortable ‘fellowship,’ challenging us to pursue the real thing instead: ‘He himself is our peace, who made both [Jew and Gentile] become one, dismantling the dividing wall, the enmity, in his flesh… in order to create the two [Jew and Gentile] into one new man in himself, making peace, and to reconcile both [Jew and Gentile] to God in one body through the cross, by which he killed the enmity’ (Eph. 2:14–16).” (Dennis E. Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, p. 88)

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We Must Obey God!

The state sponsored Reformed Church in the Netherlands had fallen on bad times. Open unbelief was tolerated. In the years following 1834 a group of “Seceders” began organizing for worship. But the state began enforcing a Napoleonic code which prohibited the assembly of more than 20 unauthorized people for worship. The faithful began meeting in the countryside and in barns. “The large barn of Jochem Van der Wege was filled to the rafters.” Dr. Cornelius Van der Meulen, one of the Seceder leaders, “stood on the farm wagon which served as pulpit. The service was just begun when two armed officers of the law approached the minister and said: ‘In the name of the king of the Netherlands we forbid your preaching to these people and command you to leave this place.’ Whereupon the preacher made answer: ‘You have done your duty in the name of the king of the Netherlands but now in the name of the King of kings, I tell you that I am under orders to preach the gospel to these people.’ Three times that day he preached, and, at the close of each service, deacons stood at the door to receive the offerings. The fines aggregated two hundred sixty guildens and the collections amounted to approximately the same.” (Jacob Van der Mulen, Hollanders, p. 24). Similar stories could be told of the Covenanters in Scotland, Huguenots in France, or believes in some African (and other) countries meeting for worship today. What do you do when you are pressured by men to disobey God? Look at Acts 5:29–32.

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