Scripture Reading: Acts 7 - 8 …
Persecution was a reality for the early Church and over the past century has become and is a reality for a growing number of believers around the world. We need to earnestly pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ and to be ready for persecution as we stand firm in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Acts 7-8 give us the account of Stephen, who is said to be the first Christian martyr, and the first pictures of the Gospel being proclaimed to Gentiles, to those outside of the Jewish community. This was a huge transitional period in the history of God's plan of salvation in fulfillment of His promise to Abraham that in his "SEED" all nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). The religious leaders of the Jews, including Saul (who would become the Apostle Paul following his conversion), opposed the Gospel because they had rejected the possibility that Jesus was the Messiah and were greatly disturbed that the One they had crucified was being proclaimed as the risen and exalted Savior!!
Stephen became a target because of his preaching and the signs and miracles he was doing in the name of Jesus (Acts 6:8-15). Now, sitting before them, Stephen answered their charges by giving a long dissertation of the history of God's plan of salvation, from Abraham to Jesus. Remember, Stephen is talking to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council of leaders and teachers, and he is teaching THEM that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah, the One the prophets pointed to, the very Son of God!
He explains God's covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Israel, and how God made them into a great nation and delivered them from their slavery in Egypt through Moses. He recounts that Moses heard the Lord's voice on Mt. Sinai, as he received the commandments: "I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (7:31-32). They apparently let him go on for some time, but then he began to say things they didn't want to hear: "But our fathers refused to obey Him. Instead, they rejected Him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt" (7:39). These Jews were proud of their physical heritage and were not about to listen much longer to Stephen's words. Why? Because they were convicting them!!
Stephen talked about the tabernacle and the temple, but explained, "the Most High does not live in houses made by men" (7:48). The Jewish leaders believed God was confined to their temple and that no one else could possibly be accepted as God's people. Then came the last straw: "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears … You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now YOU have betrayed and murdered HIM … !!" (7:51-52).
They could stand no more. Stephen "looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 'Look,' he said, 'I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God'" (7:55-56). At that they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death … while Saul (Paul) looked on, giving his approval. "On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria" (8:1). But then we read that, "Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went" (8:4).
Rather than stopping the spread of the Gospel, persecution far more often serves to "prune the tree" of dead branches and produces a smaller but stronger body empowered by the Spirit of God to endure and to fulfill our calling. Jesus told His followers that those who hated HIM would hate US!! It was true then and it is still true today. After his conversion, as Paul went about preaching the very Gospel message he was trying to stop, he would write to his young friend, Timothy (as Paul himself was about to become a martyr for his faith in Jesus) …
"You know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings - what kinds of things happened to me … the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them, in fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived" (II Timothy 3:10-13). We do well today to examine our willingness to suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. Persecution comes in many forms and God's Word is clear that as we approach the return of Jesus Christ there will be a time of persecution unequaled in the history of mankind. Following Jesus Christ has never been for the faint-of-heart!
As Philip and others went out God began to reveal His plan to include those from outside Israel in His covenant people, the Church, the "called-out ones." Philip was led to Samaria and "as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" (8:12) some believed and were baptized. Having "testified and proclaimed the word of the Lord, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the Gospel in many Samaritan villages" (8:25). And so the Word of God continued to spread.
God gives us another illustration of His sovereign choice in choosing some to receive the message in Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-40). One random man who just happened to be reading a passage from Isaiah 53 that pointed to Christ … and God saved him through the Gospel as Philip shared it with him. How amazing and wonderful is that?
So it is with all those whom God has chosen to be saved: through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Spirit of God brings the new birth and we are born again and given the gifts of repentance and faith. It is that confidence that gives us strength to endure hardships, trials and persecution, for we know that we are heirs of God's eternal kingdom, that all of this is temporary … that God is with us now, and we will be with Him forever!! Therefore, "encourage one another with these words," as the spread of the Gospel continues, even in the midst of persecution.
"Heavenly Father, may we, like Stephen, be given eyes to behold Your glory and the glory of Your Son Jesus Christ! Fill us with a holy boldness that can only come from Your Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our world today. Lift up those who are facing persecution, Father, in some cases protecting their lives … and in others, carrying them home to be with You. We long for Jesus' return, and until then ask for Your strength to sustain us. In Jesus' name, Amen"