We think we have it tough today. We think our society has turned against us, and no Christians have had more challenges than we face today. To be sure, the challenges we face in todays society are great, but nothing like what the early church had to endure. This short passage immediately following the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, tells us a lot about that period.
And Saul approved of his 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. Saul had watched Stephen die. And he approved of his execution. To him, it was righteous. It was the right thing to do. Saul was a leader. He had tremendous energy, and he was of sound logic. He approved of the death of Stephen, and it being right, Stephens death should be followed up. The entire Christian movement should be destroyed. Being the leader he was, he took his natural position in the effort to end “the way.” He was the leader.
But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. This was Paul before the Damascus road conversion. He was full of righteous indignation at the fraud and blasphemy being perpetrated by these followers of Jesus the Nazarene. The Bible was on his side, and he was doing Gods work. And think about this…he wasn’t just going after people who were actively preaching and evangelizing. It says he was entering house after house. He was going door to door, seeking out Christians to be dragged off to prison, and then presumably to be executed like Stephen. Seeking out Christians who were simply believing and trying to mind their own business. He was seeking to end that entire way of thinking. Seeking to exterminate and eradicate those he didn’t agree with. What were they saying that was so wrong, anyway?
But then, at the end of this short passage, there is an even shorter line at the end, almost just thrown in. It is verse 4 – Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Remember Romans 8:28? “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” So, while Paul was going door to looking to wipe Christianity off the face of the planet, those he was looking to destroy scattered in fear of him. But they didn’t scatter in silence – they went about preaching the word. We tell ourselves that we know God is in control, and He has a plan. It is in readings like this that we can truly see some of His plan in action. In trying to destroy Christianity, Saul of Tarsus actually began the spread of Christianity. In choosing a man like Saul of Tarsus to be his greatest apostle, we see His plan in action as well. After meeting Jesus on the Damascus Road while traveling for his mission to destroy Christianity, after being taken in and cared for, blinded and incapacitated, by those he sought to destroy, after the very men he would have incarcerated and killed greet him with hugs and the greeting “brother,” after all this Saul of Tarsus converted to Christ. We know him as Paul. The apostle Paul, we know, wrote 2/3 of our New Testament. We see God’s plan at work in this. We see God’s plan at work, because we know who Paul WAS. We know who he IS. We know who we WERE. We know who we ARE. Christ’s love for us, shown on the cross, was not just about forgiveness of our sins. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV. We were purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ. He didn’t just pay that price to forgive us of our sins. We were purchased for far more than that. We were purchased for a transformation. If we accept Jesus into our hearts, he transforms us into entirely new creatures. Just as Paul was transformed from Christ’s greatest persecutor into his greatest glorifier, so we are transformed from our sins, if we let him.
“And Saul approved of his 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. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”
Acts 8:1-4 ESV