A Scripture Vignette on Acts 8:1-4
Saul approved of [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. But those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
— Acts 8:1-4 (ESV)
Things looked pretty bleak … and confusing.
Jesus had been murdered. But He’d rose again. But He’d gone away. But now, the Holy Spirit had come (in obvious power), and people like Stephen were becoming great preachers of the Word of God. And through their ministries, many were coming to know God and partake in His Kingdom. But then it all began to fall apart … again.
Stephen stepped on the wrong toes, so they stoned him to death. I suspect they hadn’t necessarily singled him out, but rather that he was the first of many. Though he was a godly man and an excellent example of a life lived for Christ, to be sure, I think it’s likely that Scripture focuses on him (tells his story in detail, but not others’) more as representative than as unique. (See Acts 7.)
At any rate, we know that this is where the train started downhill for the Church. At this point, a man named Saul enters the story. Saul was a zealous, powerful, well-educated leader in Israel. He was well-connected, had exceptional knowledge of the Scriptures, spoke many languages, and was even a Roman citizen. He was a Jew’s Jew, to be sure. And now, He began arresting and even killing people who followed Jesus, confident that he was acting on God’s behalf. In his mind (and the minds of the other Jewish leaders), He would wipe out the people who were God’s enemies. He knew who they were and what to do about them, and He knew that God would be pleased.
But he was wrong.
What looked to the rest of the world like the beginning of the end for Christians became instead the end of the beginning. On his way to initiate his reign of terror, Saul literally encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road and was radically converted (Acts 9:1-22). As a result, he became not only the most powerful voice that’s ever spoken for Jesus (writing 2/3 of the New Testament), but he also became “the Apostle to the Gentiles” (Gal 2:8; Rom 11:13). In other words, God’s mission for Paul (Saul was renamed to Paul when he was reborn for Christ) was not to wipe out the church, but to do what was unthinkable in the minds of Saul’s Jewish-leader advocates… to extend God’s invitation into His Kingdom to the entire world.
But not only that, the persecutions which were meant to stamp out Christianity instead scattered it out of Jerusalem. Within a few short years (maybe months) of Stephen’s death, the message of the gospel spread out over three continents. History traces the expansion of the gospel into India, E. Asia, Africa, and throughout the Roman empire back to this one moment in the life of the Church — a moment which, at the time, seemed about as dark and confusing as it could get. On that day, it might have been tempting to think that God had abandoned them, but the truth is that God was doing something far greater than they could have asked, imagined or thought (see Gal 3:20-21).
So is it with us today. Looking at the trouble in this world or even specifically in your life, you might be tempted to think that God doesn’t care or is asleep at the wheel or has lost control. Not so! But the truth is that God is doing something amazing that you just don’t yet understand .. and maybe never will, on this side of heaven. But that’s okay. You might find it disturbing, but I find it incredibly comforting to know that the God of the universe is about work too great, too spectacular for me to understand. That breads a trust and a worship in my heart that simply wouldn’t be possible if God spent His days trying to explain Himself to someone as finite and fragile and incapable as you and me.
My plan for 2017 is to lean into that, not rail against it. Hope you will join me.
Photo credit: Mark, One More Thing