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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