Bible Gemz 1485 - The Death of Stephen, the First Martyr, Marks the Beginning of Persecution (Acts

Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria.

(Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.)

But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.

But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went. (Acts 8:1-4)

Before we begin the focus on persecution, I will respond to a couple of questions that came in, regarding the last Gemz related to Saul the Radical. I have been asked, "Was Saul at that time a member of the Sanhedrin or not?" And, "What is the meaning of house to house?" Those are two very good questions. I am pleased that some of you have got into the habit of asking your questions along the way. I am glad my prompting and prodding is paying off.

Was Saul an official member of the Sanhedrin?

From the passage before us in Acts, we don’t have to assume that Saul was officially on the Sanhedrin. [Seneudokon] "consenting” doesn't necessarily imply that Saul officially took a part in the vote or was active on the Council. However, it doesn't rule out the possibility. Add to these verses in Acts 8 the following segment from Acts 26.

"I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the very name of Jesus the Nazarene. Indeed, I did just that in Jerusalem. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities." (Acts 26:9-11)

Clearly after the events surrounding Stephen’s martyrdom, Saul was conscripted to be the Sanhedrin’s chief agent to destroy the church. But as to whether he was a member of the Sanhedrin at the time Stephen was stoned is a moot point. However, in the time following Stephen’s stoning, Saul wasauthorised by the Sanhedrin. This could mean either that he was conscripted as an ex officiomember of the Sanhedrin or he was already a member of the Sanhedrin and given a specific role of leading the persecution. It is unclear from the words used whether he was a member of the Sanhedrin or not. What is clear is that Saul became the chief agent to destroy the church.

What is the meaning of "house" ?

The word [oikos] could refer to private homes or it could refer to places of worship which in those early days were indeed private homes. The New Testament church began as house churches. There were no official buildings marked as churches. Rather, people would gather in private homes and hold their meetings there. So again, both possibilities are true and were taking place at the time. It was likely that the known house churches were the ones at first sought out and christians dragged off to be ravaged (or laid waste). The word used [lumaino] means to harm, injure, spoil, ruin, ravage or destroy. But in essence, it is a word used of the mauling or savaging of wild animals. It is also used in the imperfect tense suggesting that this was an ongoing action on Saul’s part. As the verses from Acts 26 tell us, Saul went everywhere to stamp out the church. He was a radical man on a mission. He would have fitted in well with ISIS.

It is also highly likely that this campaign of terror extended to all homes of Christians at the time. At any moment any and all Christians were likely to be carried off. Hence they ALL flee, with the exception of the apostles, as Luke tells us in the text. The Apostles themselves didn't flee. They stayed on in Jerusalem to lead the believers and provide encouragement. They had been the centre of interest of the religious leaders up until now. So nothing necessarily changed as far as they were concerned. Neither does it mean they were exempt from persecution but felt it was their responsibility to provide leadership, help and care for others. The other meaning which could come from these words are that the Apostles were essentially Jews and not Hellenists or converts to Judaism. It is highly likely that the persecution broke out primarily against Hellenists because of the nature of Stephen’s speech reinterpreting history. As a result, the reaction of devout Jews specifically targeted non-Jews.

Whichever of these facts was at the centre of this persecution is irrelevant because the persecution soon extended to anyone who was a follower of Jesus. In fact at this time and later in the time of the Roman persecution, the symbol of the fish (ichthys) became a symbol for believers and the Christian Church. The symbol combined the Greek letters ΙΧΘΥΣ was an acrostic for the words "Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ", (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr), which translates into English as "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour".

In times of intense persecution the Christians did not meet in set homes but moved around so the authorities didn't know where they were meeting on any particular day. Later in Rome at the height of Roman persecution of Christians, they met down in the Catacombs secretly. There are even stories that the Christians didn't advertise where they would meet but that each believer had to be sufficiently in touch with the Holy Spirit in order to know where to meet for each particular day of worship.

All the Believers were scattered

A conservative estimate of the believers or the followers of Jesus at the time of Stephen’s martyrdom, suggest there were as many as 25,000 Christians involved in this scattering. And yes, the possibility that Saul and his band of followers went house to house searching for believers. It is highly likely that Saul had a band of soldiers of the temple guard or Levitical police at his disposal to find these “blasphemers". The extent of the search is indicated by the words used to indicate the breadth of this initial persecution, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers . . . were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. The word [chora] attached to the Judea and Samaria could well mean "the region of” or it could simply refer to rural, country areas of Judea and Samaria - the regions of the country to which the persecuted fled.

Don't miss the significance of these words. Match them to the words of Acts 1:8. "And you will be My witnesses, telling people about Me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

I will leave you at this point to ponder the significance of all of this.

What is behind you & what is ahead of you are tiny matters compared to what is WITHIN you. Sidney Mohede

When you go through persecution, you may feel like you've been buried, but the fact is, you've simply been planted. You're coming back!

The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins. Soren Kierkegaard

Although prepared for martydom I prefer that it be postponed. Winston Churchill

I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean. G.K. Chesterton

Those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road. Voltaire

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