Persecution of the Church
In the previous chapter we read about the beginning of the persecution of the church as Peter and the Apostles were arrested and beaten, and Stephen was stoned to death. This violence will continue as a persecution of the entire church, not only its leaders, ensues. Let us check with our outline to situate where we are in our study.
- Peter's First Sermon – Acts 1:1-2:47
- Peter's Post-Pentecost Ministry – Acts 3:1-4:37
- Persecution of Peter and the Apostles – Acts 5:1-42
- Persecution of the Church - Acts 6:1-7:60
- Persecution of the Church Part II - Acts 8:1-9:43
We pick up the story in chapter 9 with the introduction of Saul, an early persecutor of the church.
Persecution and Scattering of the Church
1Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. 3But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.
- Acts 8:1-3
Note what Luke says about Saul's attitude and actions:
- He enthusiastically agreed with the killing of Stephen.
- Since this was so, it was natural for him to want to destroy all Christians in the same manner.
- On the day of Stephen's death, Saul begins a persecution campaign without restraint or mercy. Both men and women are dragged from their homes and imprisoned.
Luke mentions that it was this persecution that sent Christians fleeing from Jerusalem to other, safer parts of the country (i.e. Samaria where the Sanhedrin had no authority). Stephen is properly buried and the Apostles, not afraid of Saul, remain in Jerusalem because that is where the bulk of the church remains and where their work is centered.
Philip in Samaria (8:4-40)
4Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. 5Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. 6The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. 7For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. 8So there was much rejoicing in that city.
- Acts 8:4-8
Luke now introduces another main character of the early church: Philip, who along with Stephen was one of the original seven deacons. The persecution sends him to Samaria (a place he would not have visited as a Jew). However, as a Christian, he not only travels there but begins to share the gospel with these people that the Jews had no contact or dealings with. The Holy Spirit empowers Philip to perform signs and healings (a power he received through the laying on of the Apostles' hands - Acts 6:6) as a dynamic way to confirm the Word that he spoke, and the people there responded.
9Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; 10and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, "This man is what is called the Great Power of God." 11And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. 12But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. 13Even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.
- Acts 8:9-13
At this point Luke focuses on one convert in particular, Simon, a magician. He was highly regarded as a practitioner of the black arts. Magic is the attempt to manipulate or influence the "spirit world" for your benefit or the harm of others by doing something in the material world (i.e. carrying a lucky penny thinking the spirits will bring good fortune).
The Bible forbids all forms of magic and the occult (Exodus 7:11-12; Deuteronomy 18:9-12; Galatians 5:19-21). Here are some general definitions of these practices with Scriptures that forbid them:
- Enchantments: Practice of magical arts – Deuteronomy 18:10-12
- Witchcraft: Soothsaying/magic – II Chronicles 33:6
- Sorcery: Same as witchcraft – Jeremiah 27:9
- Divination: Fortune telling – II Kings 17:17
- Wizardry: Male witch – Exodus 22:18
- Necromancy: Seance/communication with the dead – I Chronicles 10:13-14
- Charming: Casting spells – Isaiah 19:3
- Star Gazing: Astrology – Isaiah 47:12-15
- Imagery: Use of images from these practices for logos/decoration
These are forbidden by God because whether they realize it or not, the people who use magic are actually appealing to Satan and his power to accomplish their desired ends. The only appeal to the spirit world blessed by God is prayer offered to Himself through faith in Jesus (Luke 11:9; John 14:13). God refers to all occult practices as an abomination (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).
Luke writes that like all disciples, Simon believes the gospel and is baptized as a result (verse 13).
14Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, 15who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 8:14-17
This passage is better understood if we review again the meaning of the two terms describing the work of the Holy Spirit:
- Indwelling: The Holy Spirit dwells within the believer. This takes place at baptism (Acts 2:38).
- Empowering: The Holy Spirit empowers someone to do miracles, speak in tongues, etc. (Acts 2:1-13).
Sometimes the writers use an expression (i.e. receiving the Holy Spirit) that refers to one of these two things (indwelling or empowering) but the reader has to examine the text to know which he is referring to. In verses 16-17, Luke writes that the Samaritans had been baptized in the name of Jesus, therefore at that moment, according to Acts 2:38, they also received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This being so, the other blessing of the Spirit (that they "receive the Holy Spirit" refers to the "empowering by the Holy Spirit"), since they had already received the "indwelling" at baptism. Note that they received empowerment at the laying on of the Apostles' hands. Philip sent for the Apostles because he could administer the water baptism that would bring them the indwelling of the Spirit, but only the Apostles could transfer the empowerment of the Holy Spirit through the imposition or laying on of their hands.
This is an important point to understand because it is the basis for the teaching on modern-day miracles. Here is the breakdown of this teaching:
- The Holy Spirit empowered only the Apostles (and, as we will learn later in chapter 10, Cornelius) with the ability to speak in tongues, heal and do miracles.
- The Apostles (as we see here) also had the ability to transfer this empowerment to speak in tongues, heal, etc. to other disciples through the laying on of their hands.
- These disciples, however, who had received this empowerment from the Apostles, did not have the ability to empowered others by the laying on of their hands. This is why even though Philip himself could perform signs and wonders, he could not enable other disciples to do the same. Only the Apostles could do this and for this reason they came to help Philip and empower his converts to practice spiritual gifts. With the death of the Apostles the performance of miracles diminished and eventually ceased because the way to receive the empowerment ended with their passing.
18Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, 19saying, "Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." 20But Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. 23For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity." 24But Simon answered and said, "Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me."
- Acts 8:18-24
- Simon sees that the transfer of spiritual power is accomplished by the laying on of hands. He realizes this when he notices that those on whom the Apostles laid hands began speaking in tongues and doing the things that Philip had done. He makes the connection between the laying on of the hands of the Apostles and empowerment.
- Since the disciples who were empowered could not pass on this spiritual gift, and the Apostles eventually died, with time there was no one left in the church who had the empowerment or could pass it on to others.
- Paul teaches that these abilities and powers would eventually disappear once the full revelation from God was recorded and preserved (I Corinthians 13:8-10).
This is the short teaching version of the reason we do not believe that God empowers people today with the ability to speak in tongues, heal or do miracles. He can if He wants to, but according to Scripture, He does not. The Bible contains all that we need to win souls, build the church and mature Christians (II Timothy 3:15-16; II Peter 1:3; Romans 1:16). Those who claim to have this power do so in opposition to Scripture and have difficulty in demonstrating objectively that their power and healing are similar to that demonstrated in the New Testament. For example, the miracle of tongues in the Bible is described as the ability to speak in various human languages not known or studied by the speaker. Modern day Charismatics do not and have never been able to do this.
We read that Simon makes the mistake of trying to purchase this power from the Apostles, falling back into his old ways where magicians bought and sold their tricks and deceptions from one another. Peter severely rebukes him and admonishes him to repent immediately for such a serious sin (to buy the blessing of God). He was probably spared because he was a young Christian and acted impetuously. The gall of bitterness and the bondage of iniquity are two references that mean the same thing, Simon's sinful attitude (gall of bitterness - bad fruit) is a bond that firmly holds him. His response shows that he takes this seriously and appeals to the Apostles for their help in prayer.
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:25-40)
Luke includes a second account of Philip's ministry, this time to a Gentile convert to Judaism from Africa. We read that Philip's evangelism ministry was quite dynamic in that he was already reaching out beyond the boundaries of the Jewish nation with the gospel message, first to the Samaritans and now to this foreign Gentile proselyte to the Jewish faith. He is directed by an angel to this man who was a "keeper of the treasure" for the Queen of Ethiopia. This person was not only a convert to Judaism but of a different race as well.
Luke recounts how Philip rode along with this person and answered his questions concerning the Scripture he was reading. Philip uses this opportunity to preach the gospel to him and the eunuch responds immediately.
34The eunuch answered Philip and said, "Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?" 35Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. 36As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" 37[And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."] 38And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him.
- Acts 8:34-38
Note that the eunuch's initial response after hearing the gospel was to inquire about baptism. This shows three things:
- The command to be baptized is part of the preaching of the gospel.
- Being baptized is part of one's response of faith to the gospel.
- The baptism taught and administered was a water baptism. Also, an immersion since both men went down into the water.
One other point not mentioned was that his deformity as a eunuch only allowed this man to be considered a "proselyte of the gate" by the Jews and thus barred from entering the courtyard area where other Gentile proselytes could worship (Deuteronomy 23:1). The eunuch's conversion to Christianity, however, transformed him from being one who could only go to the gate of the Temple but no further, to becoming the actual temple of the Holy Spirit through Christ (I Corinthians 6:19-20).
The Conversion of Saul – Acts 9:1-19
Luke now shifts the focus of his narrative from the work of Peter and the early church to the conversion of its chief antagonist leading the persecution against them, Saul of Tarsus.
1Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
- Acts 9:1-2
Saul was not merely an opponent of the religion and had theoretical objections to Christianity, he was out to destroy it as a religion and kill or imprison those who practiced it. He had been confining his attacks in and around Jerusalem, but was now expanding his attacks outside of the city and nation. That he sought authorization from the Jewish leaders to arrest and imprison Jewish converts in another city confirms two things:
- The Jewish leadership was complicit in the persecution of Christians.
- Saul was their official leader in charge of this effort.
3As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" 5And he said, "Who are You, Lord?" And He said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do." 7The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. 9And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
- Acts 9:3-9
God chose the gospel's chief enemy to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul's encounter with Christ stops his persecution and renders him helpless. He spends several days fasting and praying, as a devout Jew would do in these circumstances. God gives him three days to ponder Jesus' question, "Why are you persecuting Me?" Saul was so sure of his mission (destroy Christianity because it is false and a threat to Judaism) that he was willing to kill and imprison both men and women, all in good conscience. Saul must have also wondered what God would have him do.
Luke now introduces another character and the task he is given to perform.
10Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." 11And the Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight." 13But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name." 15But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake." 17So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; 19and he took food and was strengthened.
- Acts 9:10-19
In this section Luke gives some background information on Ananias, and his struggle to believe God concerning Saul and what He wanted Ananias to do. In chapter 22 we find out that Ananias preached the gospel to Paul and baptized him. Yet another biblical example of a person immediately responding to the gospel with baptism as the initial expression of their faith in Jesus.
If you put this account together with the one in chapter 22, there is an order in Saul's conversion that emerges:
- He is called (miraculously).
- He is taught (the gospel).
- He is baptized (to remove sin, especially the murder of Stephen and others).
- He begins to minister (too soon).
By removing Saul as an aggressor, the church once again enjoys a period of peace and growth.
Saul Begins His Ministry
20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." 21All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, "Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?" 22But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
23When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, 24but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; 25but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket.
- Acts 9:20-25
Saul, because of his notoriety and grasp of the Scriptures, immediately becomes a defender of the faith and is successful as a preacher. Just as Jesus and Peter did (not Philip because he preached in areas where the Jewish leaders had no authority: Samaria and Damascus), Saul runs into opposition from the leading Jews who are plotting to kill him for preaching Christ. They resort to this because they are unwilling and unable to debate, humiliate or distract him. Luke describes how Saul became stronger as their attacks grew more vicious. Eventually it becomes necessary for him to escape and his friends lower him over the city wall in a basket so he can leave Damascus and safely make his way to Jerusalem.
Saul Joins the Disciples in Jerusalem
26When he came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. 28And he was with them, moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. 29And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they were attempting to put him to death. 30But when the brethren learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus.
31So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.
- Acts 9:26-31
Some scholars believe that Saul returned to Jerusalem after a one to three year period. Communication being what it was in those days, the news of him and his conversion may have been carried back in bits and pieces. Suddenly, however, he reappears and immediately wants to worship and associate with the saints but they were afraid, not believing that he was converted. They may have thought that this was a trick to spy on them and continue the persecution.
Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37), who has access to the Apostles, brings him before them to substantiate his story. Once they give him their blessing, Paul is accepted and continues his teaching ministry among the Jews as he had done in Damascus. Of course the same thing that had happened there, a plot to kill him, takes place in Jerusalem this time organized by the Hellenistic Jews (same group that attacked Stephen). Luke writes that the brethren brought him out of the city and sent him back to the friendlier confines of Tarsus, his home town.
Luke finishes this section by describing the peace and growth the church experienced now that their chief opponent, Saul, had been converted and was ministering far away in the north. Saul had stopped persecuting the church and by his absence was no longer a lightning rod for his previous masters among the Jewish leadership in attacking the believers in Jerusalem. Without Saul to create friction the church could grow in peace.
Peter's Ministry Continues – Acts 9:31-43
Luke now switches back to focus on Peter and his ministry. He will take up Saul's progress again in the future but there are still important events in Peter's ministry he wishes to record.
The first of these is the healing of a paralyzed man who is made well as Peter invokes the name of Jesus. This occurred in the town of Lydda and the people there believed in Jesus at the preaching and healing ministry of Peter. He was then called to Joppa, a town nearby where a disciple named Tabitha (Greek - Dorcas) had died. The brethren appealed to Peter to come despite the fact that she was already dead. Peter arrives and immediately, to the joy of the disciples, raises her from the dead. This news causes many in that town to believe in Jesus as well.
These two scenes give us insight into the apostolic ministry carried out by Peter:
- He travelled throughout Judea preaching and performing miracles.
- His miraculous powers were unlimited. He healed an unbeliever with a word. He brought a believer back from the dead with only a word.
- He was not an administrator/CEO type of leader, he was a shepherd and proclaimer type of leader.
In the next session Luke will describe one of the most significant events in Peter's ministry as an Apostle.
All Roads Lead to Jesus
In teaching the eunuch, Philip began in the book of Isaiah and showed how his prophecies pointed to Jesus. Everything in the Bible is about, supports, leads to and explains the person and ministry of Christ. If, after reading the Bible, you arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is not the divine Savior, you have read the Bible incorrectly.
We All Become Christians in the Same Way
You will note that all the way through the book of Acts people became Christians by faith in Christ expressed in repentance and baptism (i.e. the 3000 at Pentecost were baptized - Acts 2:41; the Samaritans were baptized - Acts 8:16; the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized - Acts 8:26-40; Saul the Jewish Pharisee was baptized - Acts 9:18). The argument over the necessity of baptism is not one that the early church had. The New Testament is very clear on this topic and provides at least ten examples in the book of Acts alone that show people who are converting to Christianity being baptized.
- In your opinion, what are the major differences between the deacons we read about in the book of Acts and the deacons in the church today? Why is this so?
- What is the difference between the indwelling and the empowering of the Holy Spirit? List the way that the Holy Spirit influences us today as Paul explains it in Romans 8.
- Many claim that baptism is a "work of the Law" and thus not necessary to be saved. How would you answer this teaching (use specific scriptures)?