The eighth chapter is a key part of the book of Acts. It begins by telling us about the radical changes that came to the believers in Jerusalem when an onslaught of persecution rained down on them. It was a very important transition for the mother church, with powerful effects and important lessons for believers in our time.
The program Jesus left for His followers as He prepared to leave them is stated in Acts 1:8:
But ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
Chapters one through seven tell us about the phenomenal success the Christians had in evangelizing the city of Jerusalem in the power of the Spirit. They “filled Jerusalem” with the gospel of Christ (see Acts 5:27–29). But in the first months of the new era, little was done about the rest of the program of Acts 1:8. Nobody was spreading the gospel to the rest of Judaea, or to Samaria, and certainly not to “the uttermost part of the earth.” Then persecution scattered the church members away from the city, and they “went every where preaching the word.”
This record gives us insight into what we should be doing now in our dark times, in the face of harsh criticism of the things we believe and declining respect for the morals and teachings of Jesus Christ. The Greek word translated preaching in Acts 8:4 means (and looks like) evangelizing, which is spreading the gospel. We should go everywhere evangelizing. It should be happening today everywhere Christians live. We ought to be on the offensive spiritually—not cowering in fear.
I have seen believers active in obeying the Lord’s command to evangelize, and it is a wonderful sight to behold! I have seen groups of excited teenagers combing a neighborhood to find people they can tell about Jesus. I have seen revived preachers pairing up to evangelize door-to-door in connection with a revival conference. I have witnessed people preaching on the streets and giving out gospel literature in public places. I have known of dedicated disciples giving a witness to somebody every day. And I have lived in a time when Bible-believing churches were given to winning everybody to Christ they could. The truth is that another explosion of evangelism among God’s people is needed right now!
1. God Is Serious about the Acts 1:8 Program
In a way, the breakup of the church in Acts 8:1 comes as a surprise to the reader of the book. As the people moved ahead with the evangelization of the city, things were not easy, but they just kept going in spite of difficulties. The persecution that began in chapter 4 was met by a prayer meeting that produced “great” things: “great power” in the preaching of the apostles (verses 31–33); “great grace” in the relationships of the churchmembers (verse 33); and “great fear” (verses 5 and 11 through 14) in the handling of sin in the church which created a mysterious attraction to the light of the gospel. And the evangelism went on.
But when the “great persecution” arose against the Jerusalem church, the congregation was basically obliterated! And the reader of Acts is taken by surprise.
However we should not be surprised at this. When Jesus spoke about the characteristics of the New Testament era, He promised not only wonderful blessings, but also persecution (review John 14 through 16).
These things have I spoken unto you that ye should not be offended. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.—John 16:1–2
When the Spirit of Christ dwells in men, and is seen in them, those in the world who love Him will love them, and those who hate Him will hate them (look over John 15:18–25). It is to be expected.
But something else was going on here. It is interesting to compare Acts 8:1 with Acts 1:8. Of course Acts 1:8 outlines the program the Christians were supposed to be following. Remember that it called on them to, “Be witnesses unto me [Christ] both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
So far the church, under the leadership of the apostles, had only gotten to the first stage of the program: witnessing to Jerusalem. But then Acts 8:1 says that the “great persecution against the church” forced them out to “the regions of Judaea and Samaria.” God was breaking up the church in order to fulfill His larger program.
The Greek word for “scattered abroad” in verse one has to do with what a farmer does when he sows seed. The parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24–30 begins with “a man which sowed good seed in his field.” In the Lord’s explanation of the parable, found in Matthew 13:36–43, He tells us, “He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom.” In Acts 8 the Son of man was scattering good seed to places it was needed.
It is important for us to notice in Scripture that even the church is the means to an end. It is not the end itself. It is the means for God to implement Acts 1:8. And He was willing to blow up the Jerusalem church in order to get on with His program.
Strangely, the only ones in the church that were not “scattered abroad” were “the apostles.” The title apostle means “a sent one” and corresponds to our English word missionary. All the churchmembers were pushed out to Judaea and Samaria (according to the divine program), and went about evangelizing everywhere, “except the apostles.” The called and gifted missionaries were the only ones who didn’t go! Our ministries are not ends in themselves. People with gifts to minister to the church are not exempt from evangelizing. The apostles were wrong to put the brakes on the Acts1:8 program, and God moved to work it without them, at least for a while.
2. Evangelizing Is Critical in a Time of Anti-Christian Pressure
It is understandable that the Christians neglected reaching out to the regions beyond the city when the local church was doing so well; but it was wrong. The charter of the church is to evangelize the whole world! It is also understandable for Christians to seek shelter when under attack, rather than to take the battle to the enemy, but this would also be wrong.
When the followers of Jesus stop evangelizing, the devil has already won, at least for the time being. His goal is that we stop telling the gospel, or that sin in our lives robs our attempts at evangelization of divine blessing and power. When the Jerusalem believers were attacked, they “went every where preaching the word.”
Look at what was happening! “There was a great persecution against the church” (verse 1). “Devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him” (verse 2). “Saul…made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling [hauling] men and women committed them to prison” (verse 3). But neither the persecution by fanatics, nor the wails of fellow Christians mourning the wicked murder of a very good man, nor the daily arrest and incarceration of godly men and even women, disheartened the followers of the Lord to the degree that they stopped spreading the gospel!
The trends and events of our times suggest that a new wave of persecution against Christians is on its way. The horrible mistreatment, imprisonment, and murder of Christian believers in communist and Muslim countries will soon be joined by the persecution and prosecution of Christians in western countries for refusing to comply with government insistence on approval of same-sex marriage, homosexual practices, and the abortion culture. But it is no time for the disciples of the Lord to cower or hide. It is time that they take to the streets.
Some have suggested that the shocking insults and threats against traditional American values in the last year might bring conservatives into the streets, not in violence (we would expect and certainly hope), but in public protest of the violations of the United States Constitution and of simple ethics by the highest authorities of the federal government. However, a more effective countermeasure to the rise of evil in these days would be intensive evangelism by Christians in the cities and villages and rural areas of the land. Let us rise to the occasion, and face the foe by evangelizing everywhere, starting today!
3. We Must Not Let Anything Prevent Us from Getting Back to Obeying God!
One very clear teaching of the book of Acts is that Christians can keep on obeying God under any circumstance. When the apostles were warned against continuing to evangelize Jerusalem, they told the authorities, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Then they reminded the members of the council that God had given the Holy Ghost to “them that obey Him” (Acts 5:32).
Behind His commands, God puts His power. We can evangelize everywhere if we will do it in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Ruler of the universe will make a way, and the Lord of the harvest will bless our efforts. It is time for a renewal of New Testament Christianity in the churches that will set us to evangelizing. It is time for each Christian to ask the Lord for a revival in His own life that will make him a light in a dark place, a fiery witness for Jesus Christ!