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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

Persecution Is a Hard Gift {Acts 7:54–8:8}

by William Boekestein posted March 23, 2023

This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here.  

For many Christians, the threat of religious persecution has always felt hypothetical. Many twentieth-century commentaries on Acts acknowledge that Western believers no longer face persecution as described in Acts 7:54–8:8.

Will commentaries written in the coming decades say something different? An increasing number of countries has recently criminalized the preaching of biblical sexual ethics. Persecution could become as familiar to Westerners as it has been for believers around the world since the beginning of Christianity.

The report of the first persecution of believers can help us prepare for opposition and the unexpected gift it often brings.

The First Martyr

Stephen chose martyrdom; he could have responded more tactfully to the charge of blasphemy. To avoid persecution, keep your convictions to yourself; ensure that Jesus makes no practical difference in your life.

Instead, Stephen’s powerful testimony cut his hearers to the heart (Acts 7:54 NKJ; cf. 2:37). People respond to conviction by either repenting or resisting. Luke contrasts the council’s fury with Stephen’s composure: “They were enraged, … ground their teeth at him … cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him” (Acts 7:54, 57). Unbelief degraded their dignity. Stephen, on the other hand, was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55). God reinforced his willingness to die for the faith by opening heaven and revealing “the glory of God, and Jesus standing” at his right hand (Acts 7:55). Jesus is standing with us, too, in our struggles of faith. What Stephen was privileged to see we must believe.

The Lord also prepared Stephen to die like Jesus. Required by law to cast the first stones (Deut. 17:7), witnesses dragged him out of the city, threw him down a hill, and begin to pulverize him. So rigorous was the exercise that council members shed their coats. As Stephen was “falling asleep,” he entrusted his Spirit to Jesus to whom he belonged whether living or dying (Rom. 14:8). Like Jesus, Stephen prayed for his murderers’ forgiveness. He knew the penalty of sin and didn’t wish it on anyone. He truly wanted God to pardon these sinners as he had been pardoned. Grace kills a vengeful spirit, replacing it with pity.

The Great Persecution

Stephen died under the approving watch of Saul, a young man with greater aspirations than quieting one follower of Jesus. Even as Stephen’s body was being laid to rest, Saul began ravaging the church. Ironically, Saul was educated by Gamaliel, who warned against persecuting Christians (see Acts 5:34–39). But Saul surpassed his peers in zeal, misguided as it was (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:6; Acts 26:10, 11).

As a result, the church was “scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). This sounds bad. And it was. But at the same time, Jesus was fulfilling his command that people should witness for him not only in Jerusalem but also “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Without persecution the church could have become complacent—like young birds too comfortable to leave the nest. So far the Jerusalem church was like a campfire safely contained in a fire pit. Saul and others tried to stomp out the flames. Instead, they scattered embers across the dry grass. The fire began to spread.

We don’t want persecution. But God has often used it to advance the renewing flames of the gospel. In the ministry of Philip, Luke illustrates and personifies persecution’s unexpected gift.

The Spread of the Faith

Somehow, the apostles were able to remain in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). So the Christian faith began to spread through the faithful witnessing of “non-professionals.” Philip was a deacon, a servant. He was not an apostle. He was just a “just” a Spirit-filled, wisdom-endowed believer who was forced to leave his home as Saul ravaged the church.

Philip fled to Samaria, preaching Christ and doing good works (Acts 8:5–7). Saul and many of the Jewish leaders weren’t ready to listen yet. But others were. God has people in our lives who want to listen. We can find them by sharing the exile mentality of Philip and the other Jerusalem Christians—we should both gather to be energized and scatter to cast light into the world (Matt. 5:14). Some Christians today have few meaningful interactions with unbelievers. But God wants us to get out of the fire pit and spread the flame. As God forced the relocation of Jerusalem believers, we can commit to meeting new people and talking about what really matters. Philip didn’t proclaim politics, religion, or sports. He didn’t preach his trade or his opinions. He and his fellow exiles evangelized (Acts 8:4). We can also validate our love for our neighbors by caring for their needs; Philip helped the sick and practiced hospitality (cf. Acts 21:8).

Luke concludes his persecution report in a beautiful but surprising way. “There was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). We can’t ensure that others will find joy in persecution. But we can find it ourselves. We can “count it all joy” when we meet trials of various kinds (James 1:2). When we suffer for doing what is right, remain faithful under opposition, and continue to believe and proclaim that Jesus is the answer to every problem, persecution can truly be a hard but fruitful gift.

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