1. Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
This chapter takes up right where the last chapter left off. Stephen had just been stoned by an angry mob after the breaking up of the meeting of the Sanhedrin that was supposed to be putting him on trial. This stoning was nothing but a murder, for no charges were ever proved against Stephen, and his trial was never finished. However, we read here that this man Saul, whom we were introduced to in verse 58 of chapter 7, was consenting to his death. This means that he was endorsing it. He believed that this death was just. He was wrong, and he still had much to learn from God.
Now we begin to see the aftermath of Stephen’s murder. Up until now, we have seen the Great Unity that existed at Jerusalem. Those who believed in the Lord were together, had all their possessions in common, and were all of one heart and soul, in answer to the Lord’s prayer in John 17:20-23. Now, however, this blessed state of things is broken up by a great persecution. This unity had been attacked four times already, twice by the Sanhedrin when they tried first Peter and John in chapter 4, and then all the twelve in chapter 5. Twice it had been attacked from within, first by the greed and covetousness of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, and then by the dissatisfaction of the Greek-speaking Jews and the neglect of the widows in Acts 6. So far, the unity that God created had proven itself able to stand up to all such threats.
Now, however, Satan attacks the Great Unity a fifth time, in this case through a great persecution following the death of Stephen. This persecution was targeted against the ekklesia which was at Jerusalem. In Acts 7:38, we discussed the fact that an ekklesia was actually a group of out-positioned leaders. In this case, it was the group of leaders among those who believed. The movement following Christ was far too large for Saul to hope to persecute all of them, for he could not persecute all the people in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. So it makes sense that he would have gone about fighting against the followers of the Lord by fighting against their leaders. If he can get them out of the way, then he would have hoped that the rest, leaderless, would be scattered and disappear.
Thus the God-appointed leaders are persecuted, and the result of this is that these men have to flee, and are scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. This scattering at last succeeded in breaking up the unity that God had formed. Now, distance separated those who had once been united. The perfect fellowship between them all was broken.
Yet, though this might seem like a failure, we can be sure that in fact it was not. This might have ended the Great Unity, but from what we have seen take place regarding threats against the Unity before, we can be sure that this is not because Satan won out over the kingdom of God. Christ had always predicted to His disciples that persecution would arise, and that the same ones who had persecuted Him would do the same to them. Now, this was coming to pass. This did not result in the destruction of God’s work, but just a shift to a different phase of it. These men who had formed the ekklesia at Jerusalem had been in close contact with the twelve and their teaching. They had learned many things regarding the Word of God, and had through the work of the Spirit been made to grow and mature greatly in the things of God in a relatively short time. Now, they were being scattered throughout the world. This put them in the place God wanted them to be to continue the great work He was doing in the book of Acts.
Yet in spite of this great scattered of the leaders among the believers, there is one exception to it: the twelve men called the apostles who had been the leaders of the great unity as it existed in Jerusalem. These were in fact the men who had defied the orders of the Sanhedrin, and had continued to preach in the name of the Lord Jesus. It would seem that these men were the ones who would be most targeted by the great persecution that now targeted all who were considered leaders among the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet the apostles refused to be scattered from Jerusalem at this time. When all the others scattered, they stayed behind. They were aware of their Lord’s death for them, and they were more than willing to die for Him, if need be.
Yet remember that these men were hugely popular in the city of Jerusalem. Though the authorities might persecute a small group of leaders, they could not persecute the whole city, and the apostles were held in great respect among all the people, including multitudes of believers. Those believing in the Lord had grown by multitudes, and by this time must have taken in the majority of people in Jerusalem and in the environs around it. Thus it makes sense that, though they might have dared to strike against all others, even the powerful Sanhedrin still hesitated to move against the twelve apostles. They would have trouble getting out of their minds the disgrace and humiliation they had suffered the last time they had moved against these powerful men, as we saw it in chapter 5. Now, when the apostles bravely remain behind, they nevertheless are not touched. God was watching out for His apostles. The many people who believed who remained behind in the city would not be left without leaders. The apostles stayed to watch over them. Thus, they also provided a home base and stable leadership that the scattered ekklesia could look to in time to come. Once Saul’s persecution had ended, this leadership would be appealed to multiple times in the book of Acts, as we will see as we continue our study.
2. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.
Now certain devout men act boldly, and carry Stephen to his burial. This man was no criminal, and they will not allow him to be left to be thrown on a trash heap, as often happened to executed criminals at this time. This man was a faithful martyr of the Lord, and he is treated as such by those who were devout for Him. These men not only bury him thus, but also make great lamentation over him, as was fitting.
Now when these men gathered around the body of Stephen, they might have expected that he would rise up from the dead and enter back into the city of Jerusalem, even as Paul reentered the city of Lystra after having been stoned outside its walls. God certainly could have done this, and could have raised His faithful witness Stephen from the dead. Yet He did not, and Stephen remained in the state of death, where he has been ever since, awaiting his resurrection to his rightful place as a faithful servant of the Lord in Israel. This might have appeared to be a most disappointing thing to those who were anxiously expecting the kingdom of God in Israel. The Lord had been working powerfully up until now to turn back all efforts of the ungodly governments of this world against the kingdom work that He was then doing. Yet now He allowed this sinful act against one of His faithful followers, and Stephen was allowed to remain in death.
From this point on in Acts, we will observe a seeming paradox. On the one hand, we will see things like the death of Stephen, things which seem to indicate that the government of God has failed, that men are being allowed to have the victory over it, and that it is in retreat rather than advance before the forces of darkness that array themselves against it. On the other hand, we will see the government of God as it continues to advance, to turn around situations to God’s glory, and to win a greater and greater place in this world in preparation for a total victory over the earth yet to come. This seeming paradox continues throughout the book of Acts, and shows us that, though the kingdom of God was in the world at that time, it was only there in part (I Corinthians 13:12.) The night period of the kingdom was there (Romans 13:12,) and not all yet was day. The blade stage of the kingdom might be in evidence, or the ear stage, but not yet was the full grain in the ear (Mark 4:28.) Not yet had God’s full kingdom come to earth.
There is no doubt but that this state of things was a great challenge to the faith of all those who were believers in the Lord at that time. They were expecting the kingdom to soon take control of this world, and the fact that God continued to allow such rebellious actions as this against His government, seemingly without answering them, must have seemed a perplexing mystery. These people now had to rely upon their faith in God and in His Word, even when the physical situations upon this earth seemed to say that God and His work were starting to fail. Now, it would require the eyes of faith to see that all was still proceeding according to God’s plan. Now, it would require belief on their part to be assured that their God was still in ultimate control.
Even so it is today. We do not live in a time when God’s government is active in this world. We do not even see the kingdom in part working among us. God works today only in grace, and that grace is done in secret. Without faith, we might tell ourselves that God must not be working at all. Only by our faith can we remember that He is still the Ruler of this earth, and that His kingdom will yet have the final victory. Let us all thus trust and rely upon Him, for His promises yet will come to pass!
3. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
Now Saul is contrasted sharply with these devout men. Whereas they acted now to honor the Lord’s faithful martyr Stephen, Saul went out to persecute and make havoc of the ekklesia of the Lord Jesus. Perhaps he was emboldened by the fact that no answer was made by the Lord to the murder of His faithful witness Stephen. There is no doubt, however, that he was empowered by the Sanhedrin and other religious leaders. These men had been very reluctant to act against a movement that had so much popularity, particularly when God’s power had been so evidently against them when they tried to counter it. Now, however, they have a figurehead, and while they are more than willing to give Paul the authority to carry out his persecution, they are well aware that he is the one who will take the blame if any kind of uprising happens because of this. Thus, they let Saul do the dirty work that they were unwilling to do. Though his hand is the one doing the persecuting, there can be no doubt but that behind the scenes this was all a work supported and given power by the corrupt rulers who had rejected the Lord Jesus Christ while on earth, and who had also rejected His faithful witness made to them three times by His representatives in the Acts period.
This had nothing to do with Saul persecuting members of organizations called churches. These ekklesia were individuals, and Saul was seeking out these individuals by going to their very houses and dragging them off to prison. He did not just limit himself to the men who were leaders among them either, but those women who had been given a place of authority among the believing women he dragged off to prison as well. Moreover, he did not limit himself just to Jerusalem, for as we saw the ekklesia had already scattered from there into the rest of Judea and Samaria. Yet Saul must have followed them wherever they went, and his heavy hand was felt all over the land wherever the Lord’s faithful ekklesia had sought refuge.
4. Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.
Those who were scattered abroad did not take this as a defeat. These people had been trained up in the truth of the Lord by the twelve themselves, and had been well prepared for the work that now faced them. They had been a part of the great unity, yet even then they knew that persecution must be coming. Now that it has come, and that they have scattered to the winds, they do not squander the opportunity that this affords. Everywhere they go, these men go proclaiming the word.
Now we begin to consider the second great section of the book of Acts, which we might call the scattering abroad, or the proclaiming of the word by those who had been trained up for this task by the apostles. If we are to consider this book in light of the proclaiming of the gospel, we would say that its spread has moved from the hands of the apostles to the hands of those who believed in Christ through their word. The gospel has not been set free to go where it pleases and reach whomever it wishes. That would wait for Paul’s great pronouncement at Acts 28:28, when the gospel itself became apostled to the nations, with the guarantee that they would hear it. For now, the care of the gospel has moved from the hands of the twelve to the hands of those who had been trained up by them in the great unity at Jerusalem. We would do well to note this, and follow the progress of the gospel and in whose hands it is entrusted as we continue throughout this book.
We must also note that the great unity did not go out now to extend around the world. We have no doubt but that the Spirit was working everywhere the gospel went. Therefore, we can be certain that there did exist a God-created harmony among believers. However, all believers were no longer unified, if for no other reason than that they were now separated by vast distances that made such unity impossible. Yet this is no problem, for the unity that Christ asked for had already been accomplished and completed. Christ’s exact words in John 17:20-21 were, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” Notice that Christ did not ask that this unity extend beyond this. He asked, we might say, both for the apostles, and for the “first generation” believers who believed on Him through their word. He did not ask for a similar unity among those “second generation” believers who would believe through the word of those who had believed through the word of the apostles. The unity He asked for worked perfectly with those people for whom He asked it. Now, that unity had been completed, and its members were moving on. Thus, as we move throughout the Acts period, we will see signs of disunity. An example of this is the divisions among the Corinthians, which Paul mentions in I Corinthians 1:10, 3:3, and 11:18. We would not have found such things among the unity at Jerusalem. Yet the Corinthian believers were not a part of the Lord’s request, and the unity did not extend to them, although they should have been in unity nevertheless.
Now as the word spreads out, many would like to make out that it was not only spread everywhere, but to everyone. We can make no better answer to this than to point all such to Acts 11:19, which clearly states, “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.” This defines for us the boundaries of those to whom the word was preached. These men did not understand that they were to reach all men of all nations without distinction. In their minds, their task was to reach the Jews with the message, and that is what they did. I do not believe they were mistaken in this, for they had been taught what they should do by the twelve themselves, and these had gotten their instructions from the Lord. Moreover, the Spirit was guiding all this in the Acts period, so that they could not have been in error. This was not prejudice or some kind of ungodly nationalism. Rather, these men were God’s representatives, preaching Christ as He saw fit. For now, He only saw fit for them to preach it to Jews.
5. Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them.
Now we see the actions of just one man among those who were scattered, the man Philip. He is brought forward to us as the example, for we have already read that all those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. Now we are to follow the example of this one man who went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them.
We need to keep in mind that Israel as it existed then could be divided into three parts. In the south, you had Judea, where the capital city Jerusalem was, where the temple was located, and where the priesthood and the worship of the Lord were centered. In the north, you had Galilee, an area where Jews lived, and yet where people were generally much less educated and refined than in Judea. In between these two, you had the region called Samaria. The city of Samaria had been the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel in the past, when ten of the tribes had broken away from the house of David to form their own kingdom. When the Assyrians had carried this rebellious people away into captivity, they had also forcibly migrated into the land a multitude of people from many other nations. These people had intermarried with the Israelites that remained there, and this had resulted in a hybrid people whom the rest of the Israelites considered bastardized. The Samaritans had adopted a religion that mixed the worship of the true God with the worship of many other false gods. Moreover, they had adopted many practices and rites of their own in the worship of the true God. We can read about these things in II Kings 17.
Now when the captivity returned to the land, the half-Israelites from the regions around Samaria were some of their strongest opposition, and became enemies to the Israelites. We can read about this in Ezra 4. From that time on, there was great hatred between the Jews who lived in Judea and Galilee and those who were called Samaritans and lived in the region in between. As we noted, the Jews considered them bastardized, and in some ways despised them even worse than Gentiles. No self-respecting Jew would have done anything to help a Samaritan. That is why Christ’s parable of the good Samaritan would have been so shocking at the time.
The Lord Jesus had done some things while He was on earth to reach out to the Samaritans, as we can read in John 4:1-43 in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Yet for the most part, He had left the division between Jew and Samaritan intact, as we can see from His orders to His disciples in Matthew 10:5, “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans.” Yet now in the Acts period, the Lord was going to change this policy. He was sending His word out to the Samaritans, and these long-lost Israelites would be welcomed back into the fold.
So Philip goes and preaches to them. We must make note of which Philip this was, for we know of two Philips. One was Philip of the twelve, of whom we read in Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:14, John 1:43-48, John 6:5-7, John 12:21-22, John 14:8-9, and Acts 1:13. He certainly would have had the power and authority that this Philip is said to have had. Yet it would not fit for this to be the Philip that is spoken of here, for we just read in verse 1 that, “they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” So the apostles were not scattered when the rest of the believers were. It would not make sense for this Philip then to be one of the twelve. Moreover, we read in verse 14 that when the apostles at Jerusalem heard about the success of this Philip’s ministry in Samaria, they sent Peter and John there, who laid hands on the people so that they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet Philip, as one of the twelve, would have had the same power to give the Spirit that Peter and John did, so there would have been no need for the apostles to send anyone to him. Therefore, we must conclude that this Philip was not the Philip of the twelve.
We have a second Philip mentioned in Scripture, and I believe that that is this Philip here. That Philip was one of the seven servants, as recorded in Acts 6:5, and who is listed there right after Stephen. That Philip would fit perfectly with the Philip mentioned here. Stephen, we already read, had done great wonders and signs, and so for another of the seven to do the same things makes sense. Yet he would not have had power to grant miracles to others, for this was a privilege of the twelve alone. The rest of the seven were doubtless scattered after Stephen’s death just like the rest of the ekklesia, and Philip of the seven would have gone out into Judea or Samaria at this time. Therefore, we can easily conclude that this must be the Philip mentioned here, and also later in Acts 21. This is Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and not Philip of the twelve. We must be careful to keep this straight in our minds, and not get them mixed up.
Philip is said to preach Christ to the Samaritans. In verse 4 we read that “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.” Thus, preaching Christ and preaching the word are made to be equivalent. To preach the word is to preach Christ, and vice versa. Jesus Christ was the all-important message that these men took out and preached to the world, and He is the message we proclaim as well.
6. And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.
We see that Philip’s work in Samaria was immediately successful. Multitudes of people there heeded Philip with one accord. There was none of the arguing and opposition that occurred in many cities when the full-blooded Jews heard the gospel. These Samaritans were captivated both by Philip’s words, and by the miracles which he did. Miracles certainly can be an effective tool to get people’s attention, and the Lord was using them for that purpose here.
7. For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed.
Here we have listed for us a sampling of the miracles that Philip was performing. First of all, we read that unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed. Here again we come upon this very peculiar phenomenon of spirit possession that seems to have been gripping the world at that time. This is a most unusual thing, for we do not read of this sort of thing at all in the Old Testament Scriptures, and we do not appear to have this phenomenon active today. That is not to say that there were not evil spirits working in the Old Testament, or that there are not spirits at work now, for there certainly are. Yet this very odd thing of a spirit taking over the body of a person that was happening so prevalently at this time appears to no longer be in evidence.
We do have strange things that happen, many of which may certainly be traced back to the forces of wickedness, if we were able thus to trace them. That fallen spirits can still work to delude, to frighten, and to influence people is something that I would not question. However, this particular supernatural activity, which was as widespread as any other illness and was well-known and observed by all, appears to have ended with the Acts period. In our dispensation, we would have no real means to fight such a thing, so we can thank God for graciously seeing to it that this particular attack of the enemy would come to an end.
At this time, however, this work of the enemy was in full force, and Philip moved against it using the power of the kingdom of God that he was given. These spirits could not stand against God’s power, and so, crying out in their reluctance to do so, they were forced to come out of many who were possessed.
But exorcism was not the only miracle Philip worked. He also healed many who were paralyzed and who were lame. By doing these things, Philip demonstrated the kingdom of God. When God’s kingdom comes, it will defeat the enemy, and bring an end to his wicked influence over the world. It will also move against disease and handicaps that are contrary to the way God made us and intended us to be and live. God’s government will bring His gift of health and healing to the world. Philip demonstrated this by the miracles that he worked.
8. And there was great joy in that city.
The result of all this was great joy in that city of Samaria. These people had long been in ignorance and in alienation from God. Now they were being forgiven, healed, and offered a way into the very government of God, which then was soon to come. No wonder they rejoiced! God was showing them great mercy and grace indeed.
Nathan C. Johnson