One of the most significant shifts in the spread of the gospel message in early New Testament times came through the testimony of one man. While apostles led the work of the early Church, it was because of Stephen, “a [leading] man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” that the world beyond Judea and Samaria began to hear the good news.
Stephen is listed as the first of seven men selected to resolve certain interpersonal problems between Hebrew-speaking and Greek-speaking followers of “the Way” who were widows (see Acts 6:1–7). Having accomplished that task, he continued to grow in reputation and ability. But then in Jerusalem, he came into conflict with some members of a community known as the Synagogue of the Freedmen. They were Greek-speaking converts to Judaism, former Roman slaves who had won their freedom legally. They came from Egypt, North Africa, Cilicia and Asia (a Roman province in what is today Turkey).
As a Greek-speaker himself, Stephen attracted the attention of the Freedmen and they began to argue with him. But Stephen’s spiritual capacities and wisdom proved too much for them, so they turned to false accusation and suborned false witnesses. Having succeeded in getting him arrested and brought before the Jewish religious council, the Sanhedrin, they accused him of blasphemy against God, Moses, the temple and the law. They claimed that he taught that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and change the practices that Moses had taught (verses 8–14).
Stephen was called on by the high priest to answer the charges against him. His defense took the form of a short history of God’s dealing with the patriarchs of ancient Israel. This allowed him to deny both charges by supporting Moses’ role as deliverer of the Israelites and by showing that while God had promoted the building of two kinds of structure for worship (tabernacle and temple), He is not limited to dwelling in such places. Stephen showed how God had chosen Abraham and his descendants, the children of Jacob/Israel; how He had brought them into Egypt to be saved from famine; and how He had delivered them once more—this time from slavery—by the hand of Moses, whom the people nevertheless rejected on their wilderness journey. Showing the progression from tabernacle to temple in the worship of God, Stephen also emphasized that God is not to be confined to a building. In some ways, the Jewish religious leadership had allowed the temple to supersede God in their affections (Acts 6:15–7:50).
Stephen ended with a searing conclusion, drawing a parallel between his audience and their rebellious ancestors. He said that their forefathers had rejected evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in Moses, their deliverer, and in the prophets, whom their fathers had murdered. In the same way the present leadership had rejected the Holy Spirit at work in the Messiah and Deliverer, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had murdered. The implication was that they, not Stephen, were the ones guilty of blasphemy. They had rejected the power of God at work in Jesus and conspired to murder Him. This enraged the council, who glared in fury at their accuser. But Stephen looked up and saw a vision of God’s throne with Jesus standing by the Father. The council members dragged Stephen outside the city and, in an illegal act, stoned him to death (Acts 7:51–59). His last words were similar to Christ’s own at His crucifixion: “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (verse 60). Thus, Stephen became the first martyr in the New Testament Church.
Stephen’s death was agreed to and observed by a man who was also to become a major player in the furtherance of the Church’s mission—Saul of Tarsus, known better as the apostle Paul (Acts 22:20).
“On that very day a great storm of persecution burst upon the Church in Jerusalem. All except the apostles were scattered over the countryside of Judaea and Samaria.”
Saul himself soon became involved in a fierce attack on the entire Church (Acts 8:1–3). This intensified persecution caused many of Jesus’ followers, except the apostles, to flee from Jerusalem to outlying areas in Judea and Samaria—some even going up the coast to Phoenicia, to Antioch in Northern Syria, and to Cyprus (Acts 8:4, 11:19–22). So it was that Stephen’s death brought more attacks and caused a sudden acceleration and expansion of the message of and about Jesus, as fleeing members of the Church told of their experiences and faith.
Philip of the Seven
One of those who went out from Jerusalem following Stephen’s death was his colleague, Philip, another of the seven chosen to help the Jerusalem widows. Luke refers to him later as “Philip the evangelist” (Acts 21:8). This man went to Samaria and taught about Jesus and the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12).
The Samaritans were disliked by the Jews, who would have little to do with them. This was in part because the Samaritans claimed to be descendants of the children of Israel. They had also adopted the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Pentateuch, and claimed that their own enclave at nearby Mount Gerizim, rather than Jerusalem, was the place to worship God. The Jews believed them to be descendants of colonists brought in centuries earlier by the Assyrians, who created a blend of pagan and Hebrew religion (see 2 Kings 17:24–41). It is significant that Samaria was one of the first places where the gospel was delivered by the early Church, showing that the message was meant for all humanity and that traditional animosities would not prevent Jesus’ teachings becoming available to all.
Philip’s ministry in Samaria was confirmed by miraculous healings, which in turn attracted a well-known Samaritan sorcerer. Simon Magus, as he is known to history, was a powerful figure and leader of a group influenced by ideas that later became known as Gnosticism. The Samaritans were in awe of his works of magic and esteemed him as “the great power of God” (Acts 8:9–10).
Along with others of his countrymen, Simon was baptized by Philip. The apostles, who had remained at Jerusalem, heard the news about Philip’s success and sent two of their number, Peter and John, to visit the new converts. On arrival, they learned that the Samaritan believers had not yet received the Holy Spirit. They then prayed for them and laid their hands on their heads so that the gift could be given.
When Simon saw that the apostles were used to confer the Holy Spirit, he offered them money so that he could do the same for others. This was a clear sign to Peter that Simon was not converted and that his interest lay in having power over people. Peter’s reply was unequivocal: “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God” (verses 20–21). He went on to say that Simon should repent, poisoned as he was by bitterness and captive to evil. Simon’s response was not that he wanted to repent, rather that the apostles should pray for him. But the apostles simply returned to Jerusalem, visiting and speaking in other Samaritan villages on the way.
“May your money perish with you for thinking God’s gift can be bought!”
Philip and the Ethiopian
Philip’s next assignment after visiting Samaria was to go to the desert area close to Gaza. There he came upon a government official from Ethiopia, the treasurer of Queen Candace. He happened to be a God-fearer—a gentile worshiper of the God of Israel. He had been in Jerusalem and was now returning home.
When Philip met him, he was sitting in his chariot reading a section from the writings of Isaiah. Philip asked whether he understood what he was reading. The Ethiopian replied that he could not unless someone would teach him, and he asked Philip to join him. Together they discussed a passage that speaks prophetically of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death (see Isaiah 53:7–8). The Ethiopian then knew what he needed to do and asked Philip to baptize him, professing his belief in Jesus as the Messiah.
After being immersed in water, the man “went on his way rejoicing,” and Philip disappeared, being found later at Ashdod, north of Gaza. There he continued preaching, traveling along the coast till he came to the Roman port of Caesarea, where he probably took up residence (see Acts 21:8).
What is so striking about this section of Acts is that it confirms again that the spread of the gospel message was not limited in any way. Here, at an early point, an African worshiper of God became part of the New Testament Church with the help of a Greek-speaking Jew. That his helper was not principally Hebrew-speaking and that the 12 apostles were still focused on Jerusalem, despite the commission Jesus had given them to go into all the world (see Mark 16:15), is a telling point. But the dissemination of the truth about Jesus Christ and His message was not going to be held back.
An Astonishing Change of Heart
Meanwhile the Pharisee Saul, who had witnessed Stephen’s death, intensified his efforts to rid the region of the followers of Jesus. “Breathing threats and murder,” he gained written permission from the high priest in Jerusalem to go to Damascus, where he suspected the Jewish community was welcoming followers of the Way. He intended to bring any such men and women “bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1–2). As Saul neared Damascus, he was suddenly overcome by a great light from heaven and fell to the ground. He heard Jesus’ voice asking why he was persecuting Him. Jesus then told him to go into Damascus, where he would learn more.
“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, . . . he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
Saul’s companions had heard the voice but saw no one. When Saul got up from the ground, he could see nothing. He was led on foot into the city, where he spent the next three days sightless and fasting. It was then that a disciple of Jesus, named Ananias, received instructions in a vision to seek out Saul and help him to recover his sight. Saul was praying and had been told, also in a vision, that a man named Ananias would come to him. Ananias was understandably confused by his task, knowing that Saul was a fierce persecutor of his fellow believers in Jerusalem, newly arrived in Damascus to hunt down more of them. Jesus’ reply was “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (verses 15–16). Saul was about to become one of the most effective servants of the gospel, a persecutor no more.
Finding the repentant Saul, Ananias laid hands upon him so that his sight could be restored and he could receive the Holy Spirit. As suddenly as he had lost his sight, he regained it and was baptized. The effect on Saul was electric. After a few days in Damascus with the disciples, he visited the local synagogues, testifying and proving that Jesus is the Messiah. His listeners were nothing short of amazed at this reversal, knowing who he was and why he had come.
Eventually, however, the effects of Saul’s conversion brought him into such contention with some of the Jews that they set out to kill him. Once he became aware of the plot, he was able to escape by night with the help of the disciples, who let him down through the city wall in a large basket. Returning to Jerusalem, he attempted to associate with the disciples there but immediately found himself unwelcome. Not only were the believers afraid of the man who had persecuted their families and friends and had agreed to the stoning of Stephen, their beloved helper, they did not accept that he was a genuine convert.
It took the efforts of the much-trusted disciple Barnabas to persuade the followers to accept Saul. He began by taking Saul to the apostles, who, hearing the former persecutor’s account of his Damascus road experience and all that had happened in that city, recognized that a miracle had occurred. Saul was accepted among them. But again his new identity brought him under attack. Disputing with other Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem, who soon became antagonistic to the point of threatening his life, he had to flee. The believers rescued him and brought him to the port city of Caesarea, where he took a ship northward to Tarsus, his hometown in Cilicia.
At this point in the book of Acts, Saul disappears for several years. In the meantime, the churches in Judea, Galilee and Samaria develop in peace and grow in numbers with Peter taking a leading role in their establishment. We continue with the effects of Peter’s ministry in the next issue.