Part 2, The Church and Saul.
The Shiny New Church
On this Good Friday and during our coming celebration of the resurrection of our Savior, it’s deeply moving and encouraging to consider the significance of every step Jesus took on his path to secure our salvation. God the Son, Jesus Messiah in the flesh, allowed himself to be beaten and nailed to a cross to gain our forgiveness and our eternity with him.On Good Friday, God the Son, Jesus Messiah in the flesh, allowed himself to be beaten and nailed to a cross to gain our forgiveness and our eternity with him. #Crucifixion #Resurrection #Forgiveness Click To Tweet
This painting reveals the view Jesus would have had as he died for us. And still, two thousand years later, his church continues worldwide. This was the beginning. Consider also what occurred after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. If you missed last week’s post, start there by clicking here.
After Passover and then Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Hellenistic Christians remained in Jerusalem, enjoying the unifying time together within the church of over three thousand. Many more came to know Christ. Deacons were chosen to enable the care of the widows to be carried out by ethical leadership, leaving the apostles to guide the church and to teach about all that Jesus had said and done.
After Pentecost and the Holy Spirit’s gift of languages that were spoken by the Hellenistic Jews who had traveled to Jerusalem from far-flung locations around the Roman Empire, an explosion in the size of the church resulted among those gathered together in Jerusalem.
“The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b ESV).
What do you do when your church grows from 120 members to over three thousand with even more being added every single day?"The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47b). What do you do when your church grows from 120 members to over three thousand? #TheChurch #Salvation Click To Tweet
When your additions come from the common people, the wealthy Jewish pilgrims who stayed for at least two months, and the Levites who served at the temple, you have an enormous church with a variety of needs.
Testimony and Teaching.
The church met in the Court of the Gentiles in the temple complex (the area outside the low wall, seen intersecting the left, right, and bottom sides of this artistic rendering). The area is quite spacious, thereby giving the opportunity for even more worshipers to hear the message as they walked by in passing. This is where the three thousand plus met together.
Their gatherings continued to increase in number, with more added as they were taught by the disciples about Jesus’ words and deeds, especially when learning that over 500 people had witnessed Messiah Jesus post-resurrection. They organized church life to meet the needs of this rapidly growing church.
Teaching, Fellowship, Communion, Miracles.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles” (Acts 2:42-43 NIV).
Sharing their possessions and money.
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need“ (Acts 2:44-45 NIV).
Gathering for teaching.
Intimate groups for communion and meals.
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people“ (Acts 2:46 NIV).
This was all going so well. God was in it! The church was thriving. Reading these accounts we can feel the palpable joy of their faith in Messiah Jesus lived in harmony with love and excitement as more were saved each and every day. All of the Jewish people passing by the temple courts even approved. But then, conflict arrived, and God had a purpose for even this.The church was thriving. Reading these accounts we can feel the palpable joy of their faith in Messiah Jesus lived in harmony with love and excitement as more were saved each and every day. Click To Tweet
Stephen was the first Greek-speaking deacon chosen to care for the widows at the church’s meal gatherings, making certain that each widow, whether Aramaic-speaking or Greek-speaking, had enough food. He wasn’t only a servant to the church, but also a powerful orator and full of faith, preaching Christ in the Greek-speaking synagogues of Jerusalem. Full of grace and power, he performed signs and wonders in the name of Jesus. (Acts 6:8)
This infuriated some of the Hellenistic Jews who attended the Synagogue of the Freedmen — Jews who had once been enslaved and were now freed, as well as the Cyrenians and Alexandrians — northern African Jews from Egypt, and also those from Cilicia and Asia, Jews from an ancient district in Anatolia/Asia Minor/modern-day Turkey.
These, including Stephen, were all Jews of the Diaspora, Greek speakers whose families had been dispersed after the Babylonian exile that ended in 538 B.C./BCE. These rose up, arguing with Stephen, a fellow Greek speaker. “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10 ESV).
So, the leaders of the synagogues employed the same strategies used against Jesus. They secretly brought in men who would give false testimony against Stephen, saying that they had heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.
Of course, this was untrue, but upon hearing testimony of blasphemy, the men of the Synagogue of the Freedmen seized Stephen and took him before the Sanhedrin where he faced the exact same accusations that Jesus himself had faced, as Jesus had told his followers would occur.
The false witnesses disputed and twisted his testimony, saying that he spoke against “this holy place and the law,” threatening “that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13).
At this point Stephen’s face glowed like the face of an angel, very awesome, his face shining. (Judges 13:6; Ecclesiastes 8:1; Acts 6:15) Yet still, they asked him if the false accusations were true.
Stephen’s defense was a history lesson (Acts 7:1-50) of God’s dealings with faithless Israel, which he wrapped up with the following reproof. As we read this, we know he’s not going to make it out of there alive, and I’m sure he knew this, too. But the church had recently witnessed the resurrected Christ, and they weren’t afraid of much at all as a result.
Stephen concluded: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53 ESV).
Those are highly convicting words, but there was no repentance. The listening men were enraged, grinding their teeth, picking up rocks as they did. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw a vision of the glory of God. He cried, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55a, 56).
This infuriated the mob all the more and they rushed him, the mass of them carrying Stephen outside the city. There they tore off their robes, tossing them at the foot of a young man named Saul (from Tarsus in Cilicia, south of Cappadocia), so they could throw with better precision, and then they killed Stephen rock by rock.
He called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and then he fell to his knees and cried, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60). As gracious in death as he was in life, the church’s first deacon became the church’s first martyr.
Persecution and Saul
After this violence, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and the church scattered throughout Judea and Samaria for safety’s sake. This transported the Gospel out wider and farther, preserving the early church alive as they departed.After Stephen's martyrdom, #TheChurch scattered throughout Judea and Samaria for safety’s sake. This transported #TheGospel out wider and farther, preserving the early church alive as they departed. Click To Tweet
While out away from Jerusalem, Philip, Peter, and John accomplished much in Judea and Samaria. Miracles were performed. An Ethiopian official of Candace became a believer and took the Gospel to northern Africa, and Philip even found himself transported from one location to another, ending up in Azotus, where he preached and traveled until he reached Samaria.
Miracles and conflicts, persecution and power, rebuking of charlatans and recognition of powerful evangelists, all were intertwined in the beginnings of the fledgling church.
The young man Saul had approved of Stephen’s execution (Acts 8:1a), and by his hand a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem was undertaken. He entered house after house, dragged off both men and women, and threw them in prison, sometimes pursuing them even to foreign cities. Fleeing him, everyone but the apostles moved out, scattering throughout Judea and Samaria, as Saul pursued them. The Hellenists went home, taking the Gospel. (Acts 8:1-3; 26:10-11)
Thinking he held the righteous position, Saul breathed out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples, attempting to squash, kill, and eradicate the fledgling church. He considered them to be heretics, liars, and charlatans. His mission was to kill them and destroy the church.
Had you been a member of the church, how would you have felt when all of this occurred?
What action do you think that you would have taken in this situation?