If you are feeling scared, anxious or even downright terrified by the news of the spread of the coronavirus, what should you do? I feel the weight of it myself. As a pastor of a small church, we’re having to rethink how we do everything, and it can feel like a heavy burden. We’re all wondering, “Will we survive? Will we lose loved ones? Will our economy be destroyed? What will life be like on the other side of this?” Today, as we continue to follow the life of Stephen, I believe we have an answer to how we can think and act when we are confronted by a life-changing situation that has us scared.
In this week’s series of posts on Acts 6:8-8:3, we’ve been learning about the ministry of one of the first Christians, a guy named Stephen. In his final hours, he preaches a bold sermon accusing the ruling elite in Jerusalem of being fraudulent leaders, pointing them to Jesus as the Messiah. They respond in anger, stoning Stephen to death. We noticed the many parallels the author of Acts describes between the deaths of Stephen and Jesus. But Stephen is not like Jesus in a significant way. Stephen was not perfect and did not give his life for the sins of all humanity, and thus Stephen did not rise again. But similar to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, what happened immediately after Stephen’s death brought new life to many. Read Acts 8:1-3 to see what I mean. What happens?
Persecution. And not just any persecution. A great persecution. Wait…how does that bring new life to many? Doesn’t it seem like a persecution would bring pain and death to many? Yes, it does seem like that. Did you notice who is behind the persecution? That guy named Saul we mentioned in the previous post. He is a young man, but a powerful leader who started destroying the church, putting people in prison. He’d had enough of this movement of Jesus-followers. Again, think about how this is a liminal moment for the church! It doesn’t seem like there has been anything good that has come from Stephen’s death.
Interestingly, though awful, this becomes a major turning point for the church. Go back to Acts 1:8. Remember that? There Jesus says to his disciples that they were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth. It is an outline of sorts for the whole book of Acts. In chapters 1-7 we have watched as the church started and grew in Jerusalem. To this point in Acts, though, up to chapter 8 the church has never left Jerusalem. But that was not God’s desire, was it? Jesus clearly said that he had the whole world in view. So far the early church is 100% Jewish and located only in Jerusalem, with maybe some followers coming in from the nearby towns around the city. What does that mean? The church is not yet thinking outward like Jesus wanted them to!
That is a problem. Go back to Genesis 12 and study God’s covenant with Abraham where he said he was going to make Abraham’s family into a nation that would bless the world. Then trace that promise to Abraham’s son, Isaac, and his son, Jacob, who was renamed Israel, the father of 12 sons, who pretty much would become the 12 tribes of the nation of Israel. Notice how that promise continues to Moses, and through David, under whose leadership the nation of Israel finally reached prominence where it could bless the world. But Israel didn’t bless the whole world. Instead after David, the nation slowly devolved into sin and rebellion and was exiled. Until Jesus came, and there was a new day, a new hope that through Israel the whole world actually could be blessed. This is exactly what Peter refers to in his sermon in Acts 3:24-26. I encourage you to read that. Peter is saying a new day was upon the people of Israel, that through Jesus this promise to Abraham thousands of years before was finally coming true. Through Jesus God was going to bless the whole world.
And yet, what have seen from the early Christians? The Gospel, which was supposed to be good news for the world, the Christians contained behind the walls of the city of Jerusalem. They were vibrantly preaching the good news to Jews in the city, but they had gone no further. Until now. Acts 8:1 is a turning point. A breakthrough. It is horrible that it had to come through a martyrdom and a persecution. But the breakthrough happened as this evil guy Saul was rounding up the Christians in Jerusalem and throwing them in jail, and thus the Christians fled the city, scattering to Judea and Samaria, the territories to the north and around Jerusalem. The apostles, however, stay in Jerusalem, which I take as an act of courage, but many Christians are scattered. At the end of Acts 8:3, it seems like the church is in a very precarious position. In the coming weeks we’re going to find out is that the opposite is true. But for now, we need to talk about persecution.
I don’t believe God ever wants persecution. It is awful. We should pray against it, and we should advocate for international policy against it. Some people say, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” meaning that when people like Stephen are martyred the church grows, as if there is a silver lining to martyrdom or that God somehow blesses it. I want to say that is categorically false. Martyrdom is always awful and wrong, and God does not approve of it. There are plenty of martyrdom stories where the church is exterminated. Gone. Read the book or watch the movie Silence by Shusako Endo about Catholic missionaries in Japan in the 1600s. They are brutally destroyed. It is a hard read or watch. Or read the book The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins. Another hard read, it details the destruction of the church in the Middle East, which was historically the Christian birthplace and stronghold. No longer, though.
In Stephen’s case, his martyrdom and the resulting persecution will have the effect of pushing the disciples, probably fearing for their lives, to do what Jesus said they were supposed to do, be his witnesses in Judea and Samaria and everywhere in the world. I don’t think Stephen intended any of this. He didn’t know that he would be arrested, stoned, and the result would be that the church would finally obey Jesus. He was just proclaiming what he believed in. Who knows…he may have even lost his cool in that sermon. But God redeemed it, as we will see in the coming weeks. Take a peek at Acts 8, verse 4: “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Though they were in a liminal moment, unsure of what the future held, unsure if they would be thrown in prison or lose their lives, they carried the same heart as Stephen. They looked outward. They looked to serve. They looked beyond themselves.
How do we do this during the coronavirus? We’ll talk more about this in the next post!