Persecution Scatters the Church

“And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.  And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentations over him.  But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.  Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.”  (Acts 8:1-4)

 We now come to a passage that has several possible interpretations.  The facts (observations) are straightforward:

  • “And on that day” — the same day that Stephen was stoned
  • “A great persecution arose” — an extension of the stoning of Stephen, probably an exercise of the rage in the High Council against his statements
  • “against the church in Jerusalem” — the persecution was directed at the believers who gathered in the Temple and scattered homes in Jerusalem daily, probably over 10,000 people
  • “and they were all scattered” — they fled from persecution, leaving Jerusalem
  • “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” — Israel was divided into three regions in Jesus’ day, Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle (both of which constituted the old Northern Kingdom) and Judea in the south (the old Southern Kingdom, which included Jerusalem)
  • “except the apostles” — the Twelve remained in Jerusalem in spite of the persecution
  • devout men buried Stephen and vocally lamented his death
  • Saul began ravaging the church
  • He did so by invading the homes where believers were meeting in small groups
  • He violently removed believers from their homes and threw them in prison, men and women alike

Interestingly, Luke makes no mention of the fate of those Saul threw in prison.  His focus is on those who fled from Jerusalem, where they went, and what they did.  In the next post we’ll consider a specific example — Philip, who was one of those chosen along with Stephen to organize the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:5)

We also should make note of a significant change.  Peter, John and the other apostles had confronted the High Council and taught openly in the Temple since Pentecost with relative impunity.  Peter and John had been imprisoned twice, appeared before the High Council twice, and been flogged once for teaching in Jesus’ name.  No one had been seriously harmed (okay, flogging is serious, but not deadly), let alone executed.  And what of Jesus’ promise to the disciples that “not a hair of your head will perish?”  (Luke 21:18)  I’m sure that it was a sudden realization in the Jerusalem church that believing that Jesus was the Messiah had become a matter of life and death!  (By the way, Jesus did not promise that they wouldn’t die — see Luke 21:16 — but that if they did, not a hair of their head would perish.  But that’s a whole ‘nuther study!)

Before we address the interpretations of this passage, we should consider carefully one more term used here — “church.”  This word today invokes an immediate image of the modern church, an assembly of “believers,” whether Protestant or Catholic.  Since this is the only church we have experienced, we tend to think that when the Bible uses the word “church” it must mean the church as we know it.  We assume, then, that when Jesus says to “tell it to the church” in Matthew 18:17, Luke describes the believers in Jerusalem as the “church”, and Paul describes Christ as the “head of the church” in Ephesians 5:23, they all must be talking about the same church.  However, the Greek word used in all of these cases (uniformly translated throughout the New Testament as “church”) is ekklesia, which simply means the “called-out ones.”  What they have in common is that they all have been “called out” of the world-system by God into His eternal plan.  But this word has an exact Hebrew counterpart in the Old Testament as well, always translated as “congregation” [of Israel].  It is used to refer to the people that Moses led through the wilderness and the people that gathered in Jerusalem for the High Feasts and the people that were present when Solomon dedicated the Temple.

If we are discerning students of God’s Word, we should realize that different people have been “called out” by God at different times in history for different purposes.  Under Moses, Israel was “called out” of Egypt to inherit the land they had been promised in Abraham.  It is our contention that when Jesus taught that unrepentant sinners be exposed to the entire “church” during His earthly ministry, His instructions were given in the context of His ministry to Israel – calling them out of the expected Tribulation into God’s promise of the earthly Millennial Kingdom.  That church has yet to be “called out”, for Israel’s program has been set aside by God for now and the Tribulation is still in the future.  (We are in the process of studying a foretaste of that church.) On the other hand, believers today are called out of this world to a heavenly hope.  Different times, different people, different promises, different destinies — different dispensations.  The churches that Paul will found among the Gentiles belong to another dispensation, the Age of Grace.  It is a failure to “rightly divide the Word of God” if we try to practice principles given to other churches in other dispensations, and that includes prinicples taught by Christ in His earthly ministry to the lost sheep of Israel and principles practiced by the church in Jerusalem as described so far in the book of Acts.  Local churches today that build their form of government and develop their techniques for dealing with sin in the church on the basis of the four Gospels and the first eight chapters of Acts (unless they are restated by Paul in his letters to the Gentile churches) are trying to live in the wrong dispensation, following instructions that were not meant for them.  We have described in earlier posts the dangers and harm that can be done by trying to live in the wrong dispensation.

Finally, let us note that the scattering of believers happened to the Jerusalem church, a Kingdom church, whose leaders were still under the authority and instruction of the Great Commission.  That commission had a very specific order for the spread of the Gospel — it was to begin in Jerusalem, then proceed into Judea, then Samaria, and then to the remotest regions of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

Interpretations of the Passage

I have heard this persecution and scattering explained as God’s chastising of the believers in Jerusalem for failing to obey the Great Commission, and God’s method for forcing them out of Jerusalem and into Judea and Samaria.  Luke presented observations (what happened).  Efforts to explain the facts rise to asking why they happend, and that is interpretation.   Luke’s account doesn’t include an explanation.  If it did, it would carry the weight of inerrancy and inspiration.  Since it does not, we must consider this interpretation to be the uninspired and potentially errant explanation.  It should be advanced as a possibility, not a fact, and the passage is open to other possible interpretations as well.  That is one of the main reasons for the existence of this blog site, which is virtually filled with a very specific human interpretation of the facts of Scripture — to encourage and admonish you, the reader, to search the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so.

How do we decide which interpretation is “right?”  We determine, through our own process of study and reason, which interpretation we believe fits the largest number of facts in the most accurate manner.  Let me give an example.  How do you know atoms exist?  They’re too small to be seen!  An ancient Greek philosopher (a Greek “scientist”) proposed their existence to explain the nature of matter.  During the early years of the Scientific Revolution, his idea was used develop the science of chemistry and molecular structure.  As scientists became more adept at observing the behaviors of chemical compounds, new facts came to light that required improving the “atomic theory”.  When the Perodic Table was introduced, it was based on an understanding of the parts of atoms (protons, neutrons and electrons) — more new facts that required improving the model again.  In every case, the model became more accurate and more able to describe the behavior of things we can see on the basis of things we cannot see.  Today we have powerful electron microscopes that show us individual atoms in crystals, arrayed like soldiers on a parade ground.  But how do we know that the electron microscope isn’t just a tool we’ve inadvertently designed to show us what we want to see?  (I’ll leave the answer to that one to scientists who specialize in the design of scientific instruments!)  The point is that we have only developed an imaginary model that needs constant improvement as more facts come to light — not a perfect photograph of the real thing.  We move forward on the basis of the model that best fits the known facts.  No one today is a proponent of Isaac Newton’s concept of gasses, regardless of his intelligence and sway over the scientific community of his day.  A century after his passing, other facts came to light that made it perfectly obvious his theory no longer fit the facts.  So it is when we are left to explain the Scriptures when they themselves do not provide an explanation.

The interpretation described above is entirely possible, and it was not given by the speaker as absolute truth.  He rightly offered it as a possible interpretation.  I’m going to offer an alternative possible interpretation.  You will have to decide which best fits the facts.  Just remember what we have already established.

I believe that God was not punishing or even chastising the believers in Jerusalem.  He was not upset with them for not moving beyond Jerusalem.  Recall that the Great Commission (with the specific geographic order) had been spoken directly to the apostles on the occasion of Christ’s ascension.  Note here that these same men did not flee Jerusalem, but remained there apparently under God’s good pleasure and protection.  On the other hand, the High Council in Jerusalem had made it clear that they would not repent of murdering their Messiah, having now also murdered one of His prominent followers.  God would thus begin speaking to the very people outside Jerusalem that He had identified in the Great Commission, and in the same order — as described precisely by Luke in these verses.  But is this God turning to the Gentiles?  And if so, is it part of Israel’s expected Millennial Kingdom, or part of the mysterious hidden Age of Grace to follow?  Or is it all one age of the church with no difference in programs at all?

We have gone to great lengths in this blog to establish that there is indeed a difference between Israel’s expectation and ours.  God has not revealed the hidden mystery as yet at this point in Luke’s narrative.  The context of the entire book of Acts up to this point has been laboriously shown to pertain to Israel’s earthly kingdom, where the Gentiles would be blessed through Israel, and as long as God has not revealed the mystery, we must conclude that Israel’s earthly kingdom is still the context.  The “preaching of the word” (8:4) was still a message of the coming Kingdom.  It had now gone forth into two very specific regions (8:1), Judea and Samaria.  Judea, of course, was populated by Israelites.  Samaria was populated by people detested by Jews, but they were still at least partly their kinsmen.  They also claimed descendancy from Abraham (see John 4:12).  The prophetic promises were as much to the Northern Kingdom as they had been to the Southern Kingdom, and God was able to raise up a new Kingdom from both, in spite of the history of the Northern Kingdom’s ignorance and idolatry (which God showed the Southern Kingdom to be just as guilty of and more).

I’m not saying God did not use the evil circumstances of Saul’s persecution to effect a spreading of the message of the Kingdom outward from Jerusalem — He did.  I object only to the notion that God did it to chastise the Jerusalem church for failing to carry out the Great Commission, that somehow this represents God’s turning to the Gentiles, and that believers today should be motivated to share the Gospel out of fear of chastising for of failure to obey the Great Commission. 

Surely no one in the Jerusalem body would have been more taken aback by the stoning of Stephen than his six fellow servers, and none of them would have had greater incentive to flee Jerusalem than they did.  In fact, the very next passage we will consider is the story of one of them — Philip — and we shall see that the word he preaches and the circumstances of his ministry are still very much in tune with Israel’s Kingdom promises.

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