Saul Ravages the Church

Acts 8:1-4

In the first seven chapters of Acts we get a good picture of what the church was doing in Jerusalem. They had gained the attention of the masses of the people through the extraordinary working of the Holy Spirit in their midst. The apostles had been used of the Lord in healing some individuals, so that those events opened doors for the Gospel. The church continually gathered:

And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42 NASB)

They met together, ate meals together, worshiped together, and prayed together. The church was pure and unified and was growing; thousands of Jews were being saved and brought into the Kingdom of God.

Then in a remarkable chain of events, a problem arose, the Hellenistic widows were being neglected, this problem was solved by the appointment of seven men. Prominent among them in Luke's account are Stephen and Philip. Stephen's ministry exploded and expanded beyond overseeing the care of widows to the powerful proclamation of the Gospel accompanied with signs and wonders. This ministry led to opposition, which ultimately led to his execution:

And they went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" 59 And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" And having said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59-60 NASB)

That's it, Stephen is dead! Doesn't this seem like a waste? Here is this Spirit filled man of God who intimately knows the Tanakh and can debate with the best of them. He could have been a tremendous asset to the church, but now he's gone.

Stephen's death seems sort of meaningless at first glance. His ministry also seemed to end in failure­no one was immediately saved, and all that came forth was more persecution against the church. Stephen's death snowballed into a massive reaction to the entire church in Jerusalem. This intense persecution that broke out against the church caused the saints to scatter. All but the apostles fled. All this because some widows were being neglected? But as always, God was in control.

Throughout the Bible we find ourselves constantly reminded of the sovereignty of God. His rule, reign, and exercise of authority over all of creation can be seen throughout the events of history:

The LORD of hosts has sworn saying, "Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand, (Isaiah 14:24 NASB)
"For the LORD of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?" (Isaiah 14:27 NASB)

Our world does not have a haphazard existence. Things do not just happen by chance. Behind the workings of history remains the master strategy of our great Sovereign God. God's sovereign providence stands over and above all our actions. He accomplishes His purpose, even in the death of a great man of God like Stephen.

During Stephen's execution we are introduced to a man named Saul:

And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:58 NASB)

Guarding the coats indicated a position of some authority, and direct identification with the deed, even though he did not participate. In 8:1 we are told that Saul was all for the death of Stephen:

And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. 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. (Acts 8:1 NASB)

Who is this Saul? What do we know about him? You might be thinking, "Well in Acts 9 he is saved and becomes one of the greatest Christians who ever lived." I agree with that, but we're still in chapter 8, and he hasn't been saved yet, so who is Saul?

Before he was known as Paul, the Apostle of Christ, he was known as Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of the brethren. According to tradition, Saul was born the same year that Jesus was born. He was born in Tarsus. Tarsus is at the southern tip of Asia Minor in what is now Turkey. It was a bustling seaport 2000 years old when Saul was born. As part of Asia Minor, this is a Greek-speaking town. It is also within the Roman empire, and this family is distinguished enough to have been granted Roman citizenship.

As a young man Saul learned the trade of tent making. At 13 he was sent by his father to Jerusalem to study under the leading theologian in the world at that time, Gamaliel. Gamaliel was the most respected Pharisee of his day. Saul studied under him for 7 years and received what was the equivalent of two PhD's. By the time he was 21 he was the most educated Jew in Palestine. He had mastered the Tanakh and all the Rabbinic interpretations of the Tanakh. Saul becomes closely linked with the religious authorities in the city and zealously helps to suppress the Jewish heresy which is being spread by the followers of the crucified Jesus. He was well known in Jerusalem by the time of Stephen's death.

If you were among the earliest of Christians at the time just after the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the name "Saul of Tarsus" would very likely bring out strong emotions in you. Dislike and fear would be quite normal­and justified. Saul's view of Christianity was really quite simple­he wanted it, and everyone involved in it, destroyed. He traveled far and wide to have men and women arrested.

Now notice something interesting here­Saul was from Cilicia:

But Paul said, "I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people." (Acts 21:39 NASB)

So it was very likely that he was in the argument with Stephen that went on back in chapter 6, when Stephen was moving from Synagogue to Synagogue, arguing with the Hellenistic Jews:

But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. (Acts 6:9 NASB)

It is very likely that Stephen got into some debates with this man Saul, who was, as we said earlier, the most educated Jew in Palestine. And yet he could not handle Stephen:

And yet they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. (Acts 6:10 NASB)

Let me ask a question here. "Since Saul was such a student of the Tanahk, why was it that he didn't see that Jesus was the Messiah? With all of the Bible that he knew, why didn't he get it?"

Speaking of the two disciples from the road to Emmaus and "the eleven" and others who were with them, it says that Jesus:

Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, (Luke 24:45 NASB)

The word "understand" is the same Greek word used in:


No one understands the things of God unless God opens their understanding. Saul could not understand the Scriptures until the Lord opened his mind:

and are not as Moses, who used to put a veil over his face that the sons of Israel might not look intently at the end of what was fading away. 14 But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. 15 But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; 16 but whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:13-16 NASB)

This "veiled" nature of the Old Covenant was misinterpreted by the Jews to the point that they missed their Messiah. Because the nature of God's Kingdom and the ministry of the Messiah was not what the Jews were expecting, most denied that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies that they were looking for.

According to Luke's account, the persecution of the church in Jerusalem which brought about the Samaritan revival was, in large measure, the result of one key individual--Saul. He was one of the driving forces behind the persecution of the church in Jerusalem:

And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. 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. (Acts 8:1 NASB)

"Hearty agreement" is from the Greek word suneudokeo, which means: "to approve, gladly consenting, to be pleased with." Some people are reluctant persecutors, but Saul wasn't one of these; he took pleasure in his murderous work of attacking Christians.

"And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem"­ "That day"­is emphatic in the Greek text, referring to the day of Stephen being stoned to death. On that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem. That day became not only the day of Stephen's stoning, but the day of great persecution of the church.

The word "great" is megas in Greek; it is a mega-persecution, vicious, widespread, thorough, and aggressive. Men and women are torn from their homes. Friendships are destroyed. Parents are dragged off to jail, their children orphaned. And God doesn't protect the church from descending into this dark experience of persecution and loss and violence. He doesn't restrain the hate-filled persecutors.

But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. (Acts 8:3 NASB)

Not one to wait around, he had followed up his actions at the stoning by seeking authority from the high priest to act against the new church:

"And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. (Acts 26:10 NASB)

Comparing this with:

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 and 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 NASB)

Confirms that he also later obtained the sanction of the high priest to go to Damascus. Then taking with him a band of men, possibly temple police, he began to enter the houses of Christians and drag men and women to prison. He also arranged for many of them to be examined and beaten in synagogues:

"And I said, 'Lord, they themselves understand that in one synagogue after another I used to imprison and beat those who believed in Thee. (Acts 22:19 NASB)

He sought to get them to blaspheme, possibly by making them renounce Christ:

"And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:11 NASB)

Saul was torturing and killing Christians, God's people, and all the time believing that he was serving God:

For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure, and tried to destroy it; 14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. (Galatians 1:13-14 NASB)

The idea of "beyond measure" is that he went to the limits. He was a 100% sort of guy. He did nothing half-way. In this case, he hunted and pursued (the meaning of the Greek for "persecute") those who were part of the body of Christ. Then for good measure, he said he tried to "destroy it" [the church]. The term comes from the realm of soldiers ravaging a city and bringing it to ruin. That was Paul's passion in life. He would do anything to ravage the little congregations of believers scattered throughout Palestine.

Through the first few years of the infant church, they had suffered a few minor discomforts, but they had come through those triumphantly, and the church had continued to grow and grow. Jerusalem was "filled with their teaching."

Then it was like a spiritual earthquake­suddenly there was devastation among the people of God. Many were being dragged off to prison, others recognized that they had no alternative but to flee for their lives and the lives of their families.

But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. (Acts 8:3 NASB)

"Ravaging the church" is from the Greek word lumainomai, which literally means: "he exercised brutal and sadistic cruelty." It's used of a wild boar ravaging a vineyard in some old Greek literature. Another old Greek writing has it: "an animal savagely tearing a body apart," and it's the same word here translated: "ravaging." You could say, as for Saul, he tore the church apart. Here was religious zeal in its most twisted form.

"Dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison."­this word "dragging" is used in John 21:8 of dragging the fishnet in with all the fish. That's what Saul did. He grabbed them, dragged them out into the street, and threw them in jail.

Things just weren't bad, they were VERY bad. Stephen had been executed. Others were being arrested and imprisoned. Prison wasn't a very pleasant place. There were no air conditioners and color televisions in these prisons. They were disease-infested, cold, dark, and damp.

This was a reign of terror that precluded all civil rights. Remember Hitler's Gestapo? This was a similar situation. Jewish Christians were being dragged away to concentration camps. Saul of Tarsus was to the Christians what Hitler would be to the Jews.

Let me ask you a question, "If you had been a Christian in Jerusalem in the first century and were now being tortured and persecuted, how would you feel about Stephen?" Remember it was because of Stephen that the whole avalanche came down. It was his public testimony that unleashed the anger of Saul. Look at what Stephen said to the Sanhedrin:

"You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. (Acts 7:51 NASB)

I can just hear some first century Christian saying, "That wasn't very nice! There are other less inflammatory ways to defend the truth than to call the Sanhedrin 'stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart.' If he hadn't been so hard on them we would still be in our home in Jerusalem and not running for our lives. Look at the waste of life and property and time. Look at the families that are being broken up. Look at the homes being lost and the children being taken away from all their friends."

If Stephen would just have preached like Joel Osteen nobody would have gotten mad, he would not have died, and the church would not have been persecuted!!!

The persecution in Jerusalem started because of Stephen. That's clear here; and it's clear in Acts 11:19--"the persecution that arose over Stephen." To some it may have seemed like Stephen messed up, he overstepped his boundaries. But behind the scenes God was working His plan. Verse 1 goes on to say, "they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria"­Up until now in the book of Acts all the ministry has taken place in Jerusalem. No one had moved out to Judea and Samaria. But Jesus had said:

but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth." (Acts 1:8 NASB)

So Stephen's death and the church's persecution had a missionary purpose in the plan of God. To confirm this look at:

So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. (Acts 11:19 NASB)

The persecution not only sent the church to Judea and Samaria, but also beyond to the Gentiles:

But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. (Acts 11:20 NASB)

As a result of the martyrdom of Stephen the Christians, who were now established and taught in the faith, were driven out of Jerusalem in all directions in accordance with:

And many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways, And that we may walk in His paths." For the law will go forth from Zion, And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3 NASB)

Within a few short months the Good News, which up to this point had been almost limited to Jerusalem, would spread to all the neighboring countries round about, and would establish a platform for reaching out to the rest of the world. And all as a result of this heart numbing catastrophe combined with the power of the Holy Spirit and the sovereign activity of God.

Notice the end of verse 1:

And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. 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. (Acts 8:1 NASB)

"Except the apostles"­the apostles didn't leave Jerusalem. Perhaps they were seen as still under the protection of the Sanhedrin's edict that they be left alone. And the authorities would probably think twice before they actually attacked these twelve men who were so popular among the people because they continually healed and cast out evil spirits.

It is significant that no attempt seems to have been made at this stage to arrest the apostles themselves. Maybe this was because the Hellenistic Christian Jews were the most prominent target of the persecution, a persecution probably largely pursued by their antagonists in the Hellenistic synagogues, as well as especially by Saul, who was himself one of the Hellenists.

Hellenistic Jews were those who were by nationality and religion Jewish, but nonetheless adopted much Greek thinking and language. It seems as if Saul is directing the persecution against Stephen's group, and they are being scattered now throughout Judea and Samaria.

And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. (Acts 8:2 NASB)

The passage does not say that these "devout men" were Christians. This same expression is used in:

Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. (Acts 2:5 NASB)

It does not refer to believers. The Greek word translated "devout" (eulabeis) means: "cautious, reverencing God, pious." They may well have been Jews who did not approve of the actions of the Sanhedrin in stoning Stephen. The Mishnah states that when a man who has been stoned is buried, there is to be no mourning on his behalf. These men were in direct violation of the Pharisaic tradition. They did not approve of the decision to murder Stephen, and so they mourned. This is a courageous witness to Stephen's innocence, for Jewish custom forbade public mourning of one executed for blasphemy (m. Sanhedrin 6:5-6).

The word "buried" in verse 2 is from the Greek word sugkomizo. This word is only used here in the New Testament. It literally means: "to carry together"; hence, to bring the dead to the company (sun) of the other dead. The word is used of bringing in harvest.

Luke wants us to recognize that Stephen was honored in his death. His body was not tossed onto the burning rubbish heap outside Jerusalem in the valley of Hinnom. It was given decent burial. And the man it represented was deeply mourned.

Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. (Acts 8:4 NASB)

These persecuted believers didn't run and hide. They didn't go underground. They didn't shut up. Rather, they responded to this persecution by continually proclaiming the very message that got them into this situation to begin with.

What would you do if you were run out of town for being a Christian? Would you keep sharing your faith? When persecution comes, and it has come to millions of believers in our century, those facing it can run away and hide; or they can deny the faith; or they can accept persecution with grim resignation; or, as the case of our text, they can see what God is doing providentially and get involved in the work of God. The proper way to face persecution or trials of every sort is to see it as a God-ordained opportunity for growth.

When we understand that we live by divine design, that "the steps of a righteous man are ordered by the Lord," then we can face all of life with the joy of the Lord. God is working in our circumstances, whether by trial, adversity, or persecution. He is positioning us to be used by Him for His eternal purpose.

God had a purpose in allowing the crisis to come upon the church in Jerusalem. The purpose was to scatter these individuals throughout the region around Jerusalem. It says in the first verse that they were all scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

It is interesting to note that the word for "scattered," both in verse 1 and in verse 4, is the Greek word diaspeiro. It is a compound word made up of dia ("from") and speirw {to scatter}. What is interesting is that speirw is used in Matthew 13 to describe the actions of the sower who goes out to sow his seed, literally, the scatterer who goes out to scatter his seed. Our paragraph begins with persecution and ends with proclamation. The proclamation was due to the persecution.

As the ringleader of the persecution of the church in Jerusalem, Saul was instrumental in the first "missions thrust" of the church. This was not his intent, but it was the result. God uses the "wrath of men to praise Him" (Psalm 76:10). We often think of the evangelization of the world of that day as the result of Paul's "preaching," but it all started as a result of Saul's "persecution." The sovereign God can just as easily employ the intense opposition of an unbeliever to spread the Gospel as He can the faithful preaching of His saints.

Remember what we said the theme of the book of Acts was? This book is about the "Redemption of Israel." In this book we see God fulfilling all the promises He made to Israel­that is true Israel, not physical Israel. And in our text for today we see God, through the persecution of the church, fulfilling a prophecy made to Israel. As the church moves out of Jerusalem and proclaims the Gospel in Judea Sameria and the world, what First Testament passage comes to mind? We could site many, but I see these believers leaving Jerusalem and going into the world, all of them talking about Jesus Christ as a fulfillment of:

Then he brought me back to the door of the house; and behold, water was flowing from under the threshold of the house toward the east, for the house faced east. And the water was flowing down from under, from the right side of the house, from south of the altar. 2 And he brought me out by way of the north gate and led me around on the outside to the outer gate by way of the gate that faces east. And behold, water was trickling from the south side. 3 When the man went out toward the east with a line in his hand, he measured a thousand cubits, and he led me through the water, water reaching the ankles. 4 Again he measured a thousand and led me through the water, water reaching the knees. Again he measured a thousand and led me through the water, water reaching the loins. 5 Again he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not ford, for the water had risen, enough water to swim in, a river that could not be forded. (Ezekiel 47:1-5 NASB)

And then in verse 9 we read:

"And it will come about that every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live. And there will be very many fish, for these waters go there, and the others become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. (Ezekiel 47:9 NASB)

This water starts out in the temple (Pentecost) and flows out to all the nations.

Stephen's death and Saul's persecution of the church were part of the Master's plan to carry the life giving Word of God to us­Gentiles. It is the clear teaching of Scripture that suffering is evidence of neither God's disfavor nor his withdrawal. He knows what He is doing. Our perspective on suffering and persecution is very important. To many, suffering is a sign of a cruel God who enjoys seeing people suffer, or suffering as a result of a helpless God who cannot relieve His people's afflictions. But to the person of faith, suffering and affliction are seen as the hand and purpose of an almighty and loving God moving His children toward maturity.

Justin Martyr, who was beheaded for the faith in A.D. 165 said, "The more we are persecuted, the more do others in ever increasing numbers embrace the faith and become worshipers of God through the name of Jesus" (Dialogue with Trypho 110).