Acts (Part 12) - The Persecution
Stephen has been stoned. Immediately (“there arose on that day…” 8:1) a persecution commences on the church in Jerusalem. I would suppose that a surface-level look at this passage would put in mind that Caiaphas and his cronies, having been irritated first by Peter and the apostles, now with the stoning of Stephen the blasphemer, has determined that he must wipe out this new “Way.” So he forms several brute squads (allusion to The Princess Bride) and sets someone at the head of each, Saul being one of those someones. Then with Caiaphas at the helm, the brute squads spread through Jerusalem and beyond, beating and imprisoning Christians in some kind of Jewish inquisition. But, actually, the text doesn’t lend itself toward that understanding. In fact, looking closely, I think we discover that it is Saul, apart from Caiaphas, who forms and leads this persecution.
Our first hint is in how the trouble all began with Stephen. Stephen was a Hellenist—a Greek-speaking Jew. He no doubt was brought up in some other country and had returned to Jerusalem later in life. He joined on the Sabbath with other Hellenists who felt more comfortable in a synagogue in which Greek was the preferred language (rather than the Aramaic of the other synagogues). Here is the point: Saul was also a Hellenist, being from Tarsus (a Greek-speaking city in south central Asia Minor). Saul, no doubt, also attended the Hellenist synagogue. And when Stephen proclaimed Christ on those Sabbaths, Saul was also no doubt one of those—perhaps the main one of those—who “rose up and disputed with Stephen” (6:9). Very possibly, Saul was frustrated by Stephen’s wisdom and the Spirit and was the one who instigated the false witness accusations that sent Stephen to trial.
Next there is the statement by Luke that, at the trial, the council saw Stephen’s face “like the face of an angel” (6:15). Luke (according to historian Eusebius) was born in Antioch of Syria. He met Paul during Paul’s missionary journey. Luke was not a member of the Sanhedrin; he was not even in Jerusalem during Stephen’s trial. How did Luke know what Stephen’s face looked like? Well, much knowledge of the writers of Scripture may have been divinely conveyed, but rarely of the exact details of events. Most likely Luke learned of Stephen’s angelic countenance from somebody who was at the trial. Most likely, that person was Paul. As the accuser instigator, Saul was there. Many believe that Saul actually had a seat on the council. Luke knew Paul and traveled with him. It seems hardly a stretch of speculation for us to understand that during some evening discussion during their travels, Paul disclosed to Luke an image that haunted him—Stephen’s face with the calm, joy-sustained, secure, hopeful face of an angel. It haunted him because that angelic face, burned into his memory, was tied inextricably to the memory of his own cruelty and murderous activity. Just the fact of Luke’s mention of this apart from more comment seems to seal the connection that this piece of information was indeed from Paul.
Have you ever wondered why the stoning executioners placed their coats at Saul’s feet? Sure we have all been told that Saul acted in some kind of official capacity or simply that it showed Saul consented to the stoning. But why place their coats at his feet? Was this some kind of custom or legal practice? No, it wasn’t. The stoners were not the whole council rushing out en masse in the murder. Saul, who had instigated the argument, accusations, and trial itself, had his own band of followers who, after the council’s anger and pride determined that stoning was in order, followed Saul (their leader) out with Stephen in their clutches. They came to a steep drop-off outside the city gates (probably over the Kidron valley), and cast Stephen down. Then, to be less encumbered, they took off their coats, and put them down right there as they were gathered around their leader Saul. So Saul stood in command with their coats as they began pelting the fallen Stephen with rocks, increasing the rock size until greater stones completed the crushing of Stephen’s body. Therefore, that statement by Luke that Saul watched over their coats is indeed meant so that we may understand not only Saul’s complicity but his very leadership of the execution.
Just a few verses later at the beginning of chapter 8, Luke strikes a noteworthy contrast. Sandwiched between two statements about the immediate rise of persecution to the church (8:1 and 8:3) is the comment that devout men buried Stephen and lamented over him. Notice that Luke doesn’t say the apostles buried him or the church found his body and buried him. The vague “devout men” is not meant to turn our thinking to the church. These devout men are simply Jews—maybe some leaders—but nevertheless just Jews, not Christians. The Christians weren’t all standing around watching Saul execute Stephen and then when he and his band left, came forward to retrieve Stephen’s body. No, the apostles and others may not even have known Stephen was being stoned.
Remember that the people in general looked favorably on the Christians. The apostles were healing people, and their message was being met with interest in the temple. The point Luke makes is that this general good will of the Jews didn’t suddenly change because the rulers became irritated in a private trial. As was custom, people were buried immediately at death. So devout Jews, from the city’s population that still did look favorably on the Christians, came forward to bury him and did indeed mourn his death. But Luke contrasts this mourning and favor by the general community by immediately switching back (in verse 3) to the cause of the persecution: “But Saul was ravaging the church.” It was not a hatred by the Jews in general. It was not an organized attack by Caiaphas and the council. It was Saul as instigator and leader who conducted this persecution.
Finally, the definitive contrast Luke presents to provide certainty that Saul instigated and led this persecution on his own is between statements in 8:1 and 9:31. In 8:1 we learn that “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church.” In 9:31 we read, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up.” These are directly opposing circumstances. What changed between 8:1 and 9:31? The one change we read of is that Saul is converted. When Saul converts to Christianity and stops his persecution of the church, we find out that all persecution of the church ends.
Acts is a book of transition. The old covenant ended in practice with the coming of Christ. But its influence would continue until AD 70 and the destruction of the temple. The New Covenant began with Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore, that period between the resurrection and AD 70—that which we call the apostolic age—is a sort of overlap of the covenant ages showing the transition from old to new. This is the age whose history is recorded for us in Acts. Within this book of transition is a section of more intense transition. Chapters 7 through 13 show a transition of focus from a Christian church of Jews to a Christian focus on the world. Prior to chapter 7 we see predominantly Jews involved in the beginning and building of the church. In chapter 7 concentration moves to Hellenist Jews—still Jews, but perhaps pushing at the edges since these are Jews of predominantly Greek culture. By the end of chapter 13 focus is turned away from the Jews to the world. Paul even states as much in verse 46, telling the Jews, “Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (13:46).
In this section of focus transition, three central conversions are recorded. This series begins with the Ethiopian eunuch (a Gentile), ends with Cornelius (a Gentile), and emphasizes through its centrality the conversion of Paul (apostle to the Gentiles). If we recall Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 9:24-27, seventy weeks or 490 years were determined for the Jews. A “week” (or, literally, a period of seven) counted as a period of seven years. Thus, from Cyrus decree to let the Jews return from captivity and rebuild the city and temple, 483 years had passed until the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (see the summaries on Revelation—Parts 2 through 4). As Daniel prophesies, the 70th week (the last 7 years) will find the Messiah “cut off” in the middle, and so it was that Christ was crucified 3 and a half years after the start of his ministry (the start of the last 7 year period).
But what about the final 3½ years following the crucifixion? What would signal the end of what the angel had told Daniel would be 490 years decreed for “your people and your holy city”? Christ began his ministry in around AD 28 and was crucified in around AD 31 (see the summary on Matthew—Part 2). Therefore, the end of the seven year period would be in AD 34-35. It so happens that the conversion of Paul—apostle to the Gentiles—occurs right at this time (AD 34-35) that ends the prophesied period of the Jews. (For a good article on the detail of dating Paul’s conversion, see the Chronology section of “Preliminary Questions” at the beginning of the article on “St. Paul” in the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia -- https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11567b.htm).
Therefore, the section into which we have entered in Acts is not only generally a transition period, but the way Luke has structured it, we are moving to the pinnacle of the transition, ending the prophesied 490 years of concentration on the Jews and moving to the spread of the gospel to the world.
Luke presents the activity of Philip, one of the original deacons, in chapter 8. Because of the persecution by Saul in Jerusalem, the Christians have been scattered. Philip travels into Samaria, preaching Christ. Luke offers a significant contrast between Philip the deacon and Simon the magician. Philip preaches, and the people of Samaria listen. So too does Simon speak, and have the Samaritans pay attention to him (8:10). But the contrast here is that Philip preaches of Christ. His desire is to turn the people’s hearts to worship Jesus as Lord. Simon’s desire was to turn people’s attention to himself and honor him: “Simon…amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great” (8:9). Again, Philip performed signs of exorcism and healing by the power of Christ and for the people. This is contrasted with Simon’s magic acts intended to amaze the people and bring glory to himself. And the result of Philip’s ministry was that “there was much joy in that city” (8:8). The result of Simon’s performance was mere amazement. Thus, the contrast between Philip and Simon is the same contrasting conflict that we see from the Genesis Garden through the conflicts of Revelation: faith in God versus faith in self (and mankind).
Luke presents this contrast at the very beginning of this story in order for us to understand perspective. In verse 13 we learn that “even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip.” But that statement should not throw us from the contrast of heart. We learn in subsequent verses that Simon’s interest was merely in the power demonstrated by Philip and the other apostles. He wants that power for himself and even attempts to purchase it from Peter. But Peter’s response shows us that Simon’s heart had never changed. Peter tells him that he will perish with his silver. Peter says that Simon has no “part nor lot in this matter” and that his “heart is not right before God.” He calls on Simon to repent so that “if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” And Peter seals it in verse 23 by concluding, “I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” No one who is saved can be characterized as being in the “bond of iniquity.” We who are in Christ have been freed from sin (Romans 8:1-2).
Simon certainly had belief. But he believed simply that Jesus was a god. Surely we can understand that. Simon did not merely perform card tricks as a magician of our day. He was a sorcerer of sorts who amazed his audience through the power of the spirit world. For him to believe that Philip also performed his deeds through a spirit power was no stretch for him. He believed and wanted to control that power himself. But he was not saved. He did not believe that Jesus was the Lamb of God who took away his own sin through the cross sacrifice. He did not give himself to Jesus, understanding Christ to be his Lord and Savior.
To accept Christ as Lord is an absolute necessity in salvation. That acceptance, however, is not as some involved in Lordship Salvation may express it. The extremes of that Lordship movement require demonstration by a person of submission before they will agree that that person is converted. This brushes too close to a works-based requirement, which violates the Bible’s emphasis on faith alone. Even so, you cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. The very idea of repentance for sin must include the idea that there is a lawgiver to whom you are accountable. And faith in this lawgiver to forgive you of sins is an acceptance of that lawgiver as Lord. Therefore, any true conversion includes an acceptance of Christ as both Savior and Lord.
Following the episode with the Samaritans, Philip is compelled by the Spirit to meet up with an Ethiopian eunuch on his way home after visiting Jerusalem. Obviously this Ethiopian had become interested in the worship of the true God, recognizing that the covenant enjoyed was with the one true God. Yet, the eunuch didn’t understand the Scriptures fully (as even the Jewish leaders did not understand it fully). He, by the direction of God, was reviewing a messianic passage when Philip joined up with him. It offered Philip the opportunity to connect the OT’s prophecy with Christ.
The very interesting part of this story is that suddenly the Ethiopian sees a body of water and tells Philip he wants to be baptized. The KJV inserts a verse making it seem as if Philip asked for proof of the eunuch’s belief, but that verse is not found in the early manuscripts and is no doubt the addition of some scribe wanting to tie up loose ends. But the fact that this verse is not in the original should make us wonder at the contrast that Luke is providing between this Ethiopian and true conversion versus the fake conversion of Simon. The text tells us that Simon “believed,” but we do not see that with the eunuch. We do see negative comments, however, with regard to Simon that convince us he does not truly follow Christ. With the Ethiopian we see a desire to be baptized (and baptism is the demonstration of a commitment to the kingdom and to Christ). We also see that when Philip departs, the eunuch continues on his way “rejoicing” (8:39). This joy connects the eunuch with those Samaritans who had joy in Philip’s ministry back at the beginning of the chapter (8:8). Salvation is not a mere formula that outsiders can check off and thereby include or exclude someone to the body of Christ. Salvation comes from the revelation of God and the faith assent to God’s enlightenment. It is not some deed that we do or that can be seen. It is not even necessarily a confession. But joy in a life is a fruit of the Spirit. And the Bible tells us it is through this supernaturally transformed character into joy and love that we know we are one together in the Spirit (John 13:35). Yet even so, Christians grow in Christ at different rates. Sometimes a Christian may allow the world to overcome his/her thoughts and actions. Be careful in your judgment of one another. Surely the confession of Christ by a person ought to make us care for and exhort, entreat, encourage, and rebuke. And if we are rebuffed after multiple efforts of love, we’re commanded to treat that person as an outsider in hope that he/she will return. But we never callously sling out judgments of relationship with God. Rather than harshly denouncing, care for those who name Christ as Savior. Absolutely rebuke when necessary. But do so in love for the purpose of drawing focus back to our Lord for his further glory in our common relationship.