Ever felt in danger because of what you believe? Ever wonder who you can trust? Keep on believing, even boldly proclaiming what you know to be true. Such was the case of the early Christians. ◊
Things kicked into a different gear after the brutal death of Stephen (see Acts 7). Throughout Jerusalem widespread persecution broke out against the apostles and early Christians. People fearfully scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.
…Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:3)
Normal people’s simple worlds had suddenly changed. Lives were in real danger with real persecution because new faith and belief in the risen Jesus were contrary to that of the Jewish authorities.
They thought the Romans were the oppressors. Now it’s their own people coming after them.
Saul (later renamed Paul) is the same guy who watched and approved Stephen’s stoning and who would have his own major turnaround in chapter 9. What we see here is God doing amazing things even in the midst of very bad circumstances. We see ample evidence of God’s higher purpose for mankind pushing through even dire settings and unlikely odds.
But God always wins.
It just doesn’t always look that way in the heat of the raging battle.
Christian Expansion to the North – Philip and Simon
In Acts 8 we get two significant, fascinating, and encouraging stories involving another one of the original deacon/servants first mentioned in Acts 6, a man named Philip. He fled Jerusalem and went north to Samaria. But he didn’t run and hide. Quite the contrary:
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city. (Acts 8:4-8)
This was in the old capital city of the old northern kingdom of Israel, long ago destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. The dispersed Jewish people had shamelessly intermingled with their pagan neighbors and were since then despised by those “pure” Jews in Judah living in and around Jerusalem. Recall the “Good Samaritan” story told by Jesus.
Philip makes quite an impact here and impresses a sorcerer named Simon, a man who practiced magic and witchcraft in the city and wooed the crowds.
But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw. (Acts 8:12-13)
Given the response of these gentiles in Samaria, the apostles Peter and John were sent to Samaria to pray for the people so that:
…they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen on any of them…. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:15-17)
Simon the sorcerer foolishly offers the disciples money in order to acquire this power. Peter strongly admonishes him:
“May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.” (Acts 8:20-22)
The Bible makes no further mention of Simon the Sorcerer as to whether he himself truly repented and ceased his spiritual practices in the occult. A lesson here is the spiritual discernment of Peter and the full freedom that Simon had to repent and truly put all his faith in Christ, not just for a point in time, but for the rest of his life.
We all have that same free will to respond in true repentance.
Christian Expansion to the South – Philip and the Ethopian
Then this same Philip is involved in an intriguing incident that demonstrates the Holy Spirit’s prophetic power, God’s reach to all humanity beyond the Jews in Jerusalem, Isaiah’s prophetic words in the Scriptures, and Philip’s simple evangelistic model:
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him…. The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. (Acts 8:25-38)
Philip, filled with the Holy Spirit, like any of us can be filled, was used as an instrument of God. He was given a directive (“Go south…” and “Go to that chariot...”) and he responded in obedience. He simply asked a question of the reading Ethiopian (“Do you understand what you are reading?”), disregarding the ethnicity or faith background of the man.
Philip then did not push or preach but merely explained the Scripture passage and its prophetic reference to the risen Jesus. The Ethiopian believed and then was baptized to give testimony of his faith.
Like Stephen before him, Philip had no fear, even in the face of persecution and pressure from the authorities. He knew the truth and was truly set free to operate in the power of the Living God, regardless of any potential consequences.
Have you ever been persecuted for your beliefs? In whom do you trust?
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. – Acts 8:1