The Great Persecution
Acts 8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him.
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Acts 8:4 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7 for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
The highs and the lows of life can be felt in the life of the disciples. The ministry had been expanding greatly since the day of Pentecost but now Stephen had just been martyred. A young man, Saul, was in a great frenzy, determined to persecute these followers of Jesus. But somehow God was at work in the midst of this great persecution which became the way in which the gospel was sewn. Saul’s later encounter with Christ on the Damascus road transformed his frenzy into an all-consuming passion for Christ. Philip spread the gospel to Samaria and the results were spectacular as the power of God was revealed. The providence in the persecution was witnessed by great joy in Samaria. The sadness on the part of the believers was replaced by joy as people embraced Jesus as the Messiah.
Who could imagine that persecution could actually be a good thing? Isn’t it something that we avoid at all cost? And yet, God used the great persecution for the benefit of the gospel. People were strengthened in their faith and the good news about Jesus was spread in ways they could not have imagined.
Persecution is often defined contextually. While there may be those who would say that intolerance of Christian faith is persecution, there are other who are losing their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ. The context varies around the globe. There is, however, a bit of reality in the fact that when we face persecution, we are also confronted with our own convictions. If our faith is never questioned, we never have to hone what it is that we really believe. In some ways we can become undisciplined Christians, almost sloppy because there is so little required of us. When the pressure is applied and we are hard-pressed for responses, then we must know what it is that we really believe. What are we willing to die for?
The early Christians had to embrace a faith which they knew was unpopular. They were willing to suffer the consequences of their belief in Jesus, the Messiah and as a result, spread the gospel throughout the world.
Embracing unpopular opinions has always been the way of Christianity. If we are looking for acceptance by the world, we are looking in the wrong place. Living into the life and calling of Jesus is counter-cultural and will not result in the praise of society. Radical obedience to the gospel is what is required and in living this obedience we become instruments, sharpened for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom business.
Christians around the world are suffering and may be brought into our midst. May we embrace those who are a part of the diaspora, for God may have sent them to light our path.
Lord, please help me not to fear the difficult times of life, but may you use them to sharpen me for your kingdom’s use. Amen.