Previously we have been looking at the Book of Acts and noticed a foundational theme based on our Lord’s words to His disciples as recorded in Acts 1:8. Here, He commissions the geographical spread of the gospel as it was to move from Jerusalem to Judea, Samara, and the ends of the earth. We have seen an emphasis on Jerusalem through the first seven chapters, with mention of the apostles, Jews from a multitude of nations (Acts 2:), and Hellenistic Jews (Acts 6:). This localized emphasis is about to change with the death of Stephen and subsequent persecution of Christians.
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.Acts 8:1
Notice above what the effect of the persecution on the early Christians was, scattering throughout Judea and Samaria. In other words, as a direct result of Stephen’s death and subsequent persecution of Christians, they were scattered into the very regions that our Lord had commissioned in Acts 1:8. Pressing further, the sovereignty and providence of God orchestrating the events surrounding the gospel in Jerusalem, the death of Stephen and the persecution of believers, led specifically to the advancement of the gospel throughout Judea and into Samara. Is it any wonder then why Tertullian (155-220 AD) is able to proclaim, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Remarkably, this expansion from Jerusalem throughout Judea and Samaria does not include the apostles…yet. This point of connection with our Lord’s commission earlier in Acts might otherwise be lost on us if not for the following clarifying statement, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4) Those who were scattered as a result of the persecution weren’t simply fleeing out of self-preservation, they were scattered with the gospel in tow, preaching the word as they went. The example given of this is Philip, who we initially encountered as one of the chosen seven in Acts 6.
The entirety of Acts 8 is devoted to the ministry of Philip in the city of Samaria. Far from being relegated to a “deacon” or table-waiter, Philip is empowered by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel with boldness, accompanied by signs and wonders. As a direct result of the gospel’s advancement in Samaria, the apostles in Jerusalem come to verify the validity of what was taking place. Not because they distrusted Philip, but because to this point the connection had not yet been made that salvation was indeed spreading from Jew, to Jews and proselytes, Hellenistic Jews, and now to half-Jews by way of the Samaritans. When the apostles arrived, namely Peter and John, they find true faith and subsequently pray that the people of Samaria might receive the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean that Philip’s ministry was incomplete or invalid nor does it mean that this is the normal pattern of salvation. Instead, this is related to the original commission of Acts 1:8 and the apostles were to be instrumental in the gospel spread from Jew to Gentile. Said differently, their participation in Samaria was as much for the Samaritans as it was for the apostles going forward that they might witness the expanse of the gospel.
After the laying on of hands, again not a pattern, the giving of the Spirit, and baptizing them in the name of Jesus, the apostles “returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.” Acts 8:25b This reaffirms the point above that the apostles needed to witness and experience first-hand the spread of the gospel so that it would embolden their ministry outside of Jerusalem. Lest we think that the Lord’s use of Philip had expired, we next find him directed by the Holy Spirit to go to a desert place along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. In exactly the middle of nowhere, testifying yet again to the providence of God, he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch in a chariot reading a passage from Isaiah. As we are told, the Ethiopian is returning from worshipping in Jerusalem, which serves as one of the few times that Jerusalem actually did function as a light to the nations. Philip explains further that the passage is about Jesus and then baptizes him. This episode is not to be overlooked because again we have a preview of gospel expansion, this time to an Ethiopian gentile. It perfectly frames for us what happens next and the anticipation of the gospel spreading to the ends of the earth.
In Acts 9, we arrive at yet another transition indicated for us by the phrase, “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. This brings us back to Jerusalem and back to the ongoing persecution, still specifically at the hands of Saul (later Paul). Chapter 9 details the confrontation of Saul by our Lord because of his zealous persecution of Christians. This encounter with the risen Lord leads to Saul’s loss of sight, but also to his conversion. The Lord sends Ananias, not an apostle, to find Saul and convey the message that Saul was a chosen instrument to suffer and proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles! This cannot be overlooked. The Pharisee of Pharisees from the tribe of Benjamin who had been responsible for the persecution of Christians, literally dragging men and women from the homes, and who had overseen the execution of Stephen is now told that he is to be the one to breach the divide between Jew and Gentile by means of the gospel.
After placing his hands on Saul, who then regained his sight, Ananias baptizes Saul. He then begins his ministry in the synagogues, certainly fitting the pattern of “To the Jew first and also the Gentile” as well as the commission from our Lord that we have been referencing in Acts 1:8. Eventually Saul makes his way to the apostles in Jerusalem and we read the following summary statement concerning his ministry inauguration (vs. 28-30) as well as the spread of the gospel (vs. 31).
28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.Acts 9:28-31
With this, we have somewhat of a parenthetical that returns us back to an emphasis on Peter and relatedly back to Jerusalem. In Acts 9:32, we read that Peter is going “here and there” signifying the spread of the gospel beyond the city. Specifically, we find mention of him going to the saints at Lydda, which was about 8 miles from Jerusalem. Of note is that the passage says there were saints in Lydda, indicating for us still again the sovereignty of God to already have believers in this city, either as a result of those who had been scattered or from the influence of our Lord’s earthly ministry. After healing Aeneas in Lydda, Peter is summonsed to Joppa, 32 miles further West towards the coast, because of the death of Tabitha/Dorcus, a disciple. Through the Holy Spirit, Peter raises Dorcas from the dead and remains in Joppa for some time. As we have already gathered, these events are not happening by chance or luck, rather it is the sovereignty of God on full display as He orchestrates events that He has ordained. In other words, Peter remains in Joppa for a purpose. That purpose, as we will see next time, is to launch the spread of the gospel to the ends of the world.