Chapter 17: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’
1 Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. 3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. 4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. 5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.
Persecution—helping to carry out the commission of Christ
After His resurrection, Jesus announced His mission statement for His church. In Acts 1:8, He said, ‘you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’. The preaching of the good news about Jesus Christ ‘here, there and everywhere’, started ‘here’ (Jerusalem) and must spread to ‘there’ (Judea and Samaria), and reach ‘everywhere’ (the end of the earth). The Holy Spirit empowers His disciples to live for Jesus, to witness for Him, to serve Him, and even to die for Him. The principle of ‘here, there and everywhere’ continues worldwide today. People from all nations who have been saved, forgiven, changed, and blessed by trusting Christ urge others to turn from sin and trust in Him too.
In Jerusalem, although many priests are converted, the religious leaders’ opposition is cruel, vicious and dishonest. Stephen’s martyrdom, consented to and supported by Saul, triggers great persecution ‘against the church’ here at Jerusalem. This scatters believers ‘throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria’. These radiant, born-again, Spirit-filled, witnessing, Christians live out and teach God’s word. They focus on the gospel of Christ’s cross and resurrection. So the good seed is also sown ‘there’, in the second target area of the church’s mission statement. God is in control of circumstances. We will see that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’.
Stephen is not forgotten. His body is carried to burial by ‘devout men’ who identify with him and his Saviour, despite rising persecution. They lament him greatly. Although those trusting Christ rejoice in the home-call to Heaven of loved ones or Christian friends, they understandably mourn their loss. It is not easy for bereaved families, friends, or fellow Christians. When the Lord’s followers mourn they know that God is in control and knows best, even when emotions tug them in various directions. He gives grace to help in time of need.1
Three factors in this Jerusalem persecution help the church to spread its gospel influence from ‘here’ to ‘there’.
First, the apostles set a brave example by staying in the place of duty and danger, Jerusalem. All are scattered ‘except the apostles’. Their two-fold task of giving themselves to prayer and to ministering God’s word has not changed.2 They oversee and help others, including those in danger or with loved ones in prison. A lost world of people must be reached with the gospel, so these brave leaders face persecution and martyrdom, and stay put. It can be right to flee persecution, but never right to flee from duty.
Second, Saul of Tarsus master-minds and leads the cruel persecution. This involves terrible ‘havoc’, going into ‘every house’ (no exceptions—all are opposed), ‘dragging off of men and women’, and committing Christians to ‘prison’. Some must think that Saul is a hopeless case and beyond conversion. But others will target his huge anti-Christian profile in their prayers. Christ’s followers today should also pray for well-known ‘public anti-Christians’. God’s saving grace is always needed to bring anyone to faith and forgiveness. No-one can be saved without God’s miraculous work in their heart. Saul is no different from modern day opponents and persecutors of Christians. But our God is the God of miracles for whom nothing is impossible.3 Saul will finally ‘lose’ this battle and yet eternally ‘gain’.4 Many will come to Christ through him. Millions through the ages will be blessed through his writing thirteen or fourteen5 New Testament letters under God the Holy Spirit’s influence.
Third, there is an amazing upside! Note the word therefore in verse 4. ‘Therefore, those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word’. The persecution of faithful Christians works to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. The ‘blood of the martyrs’ actually becomes ‘the seed of the church.’ No committee decides where to target its evangelistic work. Here, truly converted people, who have come to love Christ and flee persecution, simply want other people to know Him too. They cannot stop telling others they meet about Him. Their changed lives show that He really makes a difference. Obviously they would prefer a peaceful life, back home, but that has been taken from them for now. So they do all they can to spread the gospel. When they reach their eternal home with Christ, they will hear their Lord’s ‘Well done!’6 By ‘preaching the word’, the Bible no doubt means that they share Christ crucified with sinners and teach the Bible to Christians. They do what they have seen the apostles do in Jerusalem. Their example still challenges Christians today. Do we share our Saviour, wisely, sensitively, clearly and kindly with others?
Philip’s example, message and results
Samaria, once the capital of Israel’s northern kingdom when Jerusalem was the capital of Judah in the south, became apostate and idolatrous. The Assyrians conquered it in 722BC. This led to Gentiles of varying religious backgrounds moving there and intermarrying with the Jewish population. A sort of half-nation of people, known as Samaritans, resulted. Jews, especially from Jerusalem and the south, and Samaritans became hostile to each other. That is why Jesus’ taught that a ‘neighbour’ is anyone in need, irrespective of origin or religion, when he told of the ‘good Samaritan’ who saved and helped a wounded Jew.7
Philip leaves Jerusalem to go to Samaria with one aim and one message in mind. He preaches ‘Christ to them’. Amazing signs and wonders authenticate his close link with the apostles’ God-given message of salvation in Christ alone by personal repentance and faith alone. But he does not focus on those signs and wonders. He preaches Christ. Later in the chapter, when he meets the Ethiopian treasurer under Queen Candace, he preaches Jesus to him,8 just as he preaches Christ now. There is no other message to preach except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified and risen again! That is why the apostles insist about Jesus Christ that ‘Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’.9
If you are a real Christian, Jesus has saved you! He is the only Saviour who can save anyone. So Christians preach Him. ‘Multitudes with one accord’ listen to Philip attentively. As he casts out ‘unclean spirits’ and heals the ‘paralyzed and lame’, people are convinced that God is at work. ‘There was great joy in that city’. Turning from sin to Christ, from death to life, and from Hell to Heaven always brings joy! That is not only so for the person who is saved. It is true too for the person sharing the gospel—and even for the angels in Heaven who rejoice when a single person comes to faith in Jesus!10
‘Salvation is of the Lord!’11 It is His work. Do you have the joy of knowing Christ? Do you rejoice in sharing Him with others?
We will see more of how Philip is involved in this very soon.
Questions on Chapter 17
‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’—Acts 8:1–8
A. Under God’s overall control, what circumstances help to guide the Christians in the Jerusalem church? As guidance is not only a question of how we feel about something, what else is important in Christians being guided by God?
Acts 8:1–4, Romans 8:28, Proverbs 3:5–6, Romans 12:1–2, Genesis 50:20, Proverbs 27:1
B. In Acts 9, we will learn about Jesus speaking to Saul of Tarsus. What have you learned about Saul so far before his conversion? How is he like many non-Christians? In what ways is he different to most?
Acts 7:58, Acts 8:1–3, Acts 9:1–2, Philippians 3:2–7
C. Compare the spreading of the gospel through the persecuted and scattered Christians with the way it is spread through Philip’s preaching in Samaria. What similarities and differences are there? What good examples do they give us to follow?
Acts 8:4–8, 1 Corinthians 1:23–24, 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 (NIV), 1 Corinthians 2:2, Acts 8:35, Acts 4:12