The First Persecution
The life of the early Jerusalem church was full of a holy joy. But even in those first glorious days the Church had to battle against sin, and not all of those who desired to join themselves to the disciples were of true Christian life. One terrible judgment of God was inflicted in order to preserve the purity of the Church. Acts 5:1–11.A certain Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, had sold a possession, in accordance with the custom of those early days, and had laid part of the price at the apostles' feet that it might be distributed to the poorer disciples. Part of the price was withheld, and yet Ananias and his wife pretended to have given all. Ananias was not required to sell his field, or to give all of the price after he had sold it. His sin was the sin of deceit. He had lied to the Holy Spirit. Terrible was the judgment of God; Ananias and Sapphira were stricken down dead, and great fear came upon all who heard.
The apostles and the Church enjoyed the favor of the people—a favor which was mingled with awe. Many miracles were wrought by the apostles; multitudes of sick people were brought to be healed.
But the Sadducees made another attempt to put a stop to the dangerous movement. Acts 5:17–42. They laid hands upon all the apostles, as they had laid hands upon two of them once before, and put them all in prison. But in the night the apostles were released by an angel of the Lord, and at once, in obedience to the angel's command, went and taught boldly in the Temple. When they were arrested again, Peter said simply, "We must obey God rather than men. The Jesus whom you slew has been raised up by God as a Prince and a Saviour, and we are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit." Vs. 29–32, in substance. It was a bold answer, and the sanhedrin was incensed. But Gamaliel, a Pharisee, one of the most noted of the Jewish teachers, advocated a policy of watchful waiting. If the new movement were of God, he said, there was no use in fighting against it; if it were of men it would fail of itself as other Messianic movements had failed. The cautious policy prevailed, so far as any attempt at inflicting the death penalty was concerned. But the apostles before they were released were scourged. The suffering and shame did not prevent their preaching. They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus.
The early Jerusalem church was composed partly of Aramaic-speaking Jews who had always lived in Palestine, and partly of Greek-speaking Jews who were connected with the Judaism of the Dispersion. The latter class murmured because their widows were neglected in the daily ministrations. In order that the matter might be attended to without turning the apostles aside from their work of teaching and preaching, seven men were chosen to preside over the distribution of help to the needy members of the church. Acts 6:1–6. But these seven were no mere "business men." They were "full of the Spirit and of wisdom," and at least two of them became prominent in the preaching of the gospel.
Acts 6:7 to 8:3
One of these two was Stephen, a "man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit." Stephen "wrought great wonders and signs among the people," and also preached in the synagogues which were attended by certain of the Greek-speaking Jews residing at Jerusalem. By his preaching he stirred up opposition. And the opposition was of a new kind. Up to that time the objection to the Early Church had come, principally at least, from the Sadducees. But the Sadducees were a worldly aristocracy, out of touch with the masses of the people, and in their efforts against the Church they had been checked again and again by the popular favor which the disciples of Jesus enjoyed. Now, however, that popular favor began to wane. It became evident that although the disciples continued to observe the Jewish fasts and feasts, their preaching really meant the beginning of a new era. The people were not ready for such a change, and especially the leaders of the people, the Pharisees, who, since the crucifixion of Jesus, had shown no persecuting zeal, came out in active opposition.
The result was at once evident. Stephen was arrested, and was charged with revolutionary teaching about the Temple. The charge was false; Stephen did not say that the Temple worship should then and there be abandoned by the disciples of Jesus. But he did proclaim the beginning of a new era, and the presence, in the person of Jesus, of one greater than Moses. So, after a great and bold speech of Stephen, he was hurried out of the city and stoned. As Stephen was stoned, he called on Jesus, saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," and then kneeling down he prayed for forgiveness of his enemies: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Acts 6:8 to 8:3
Thus died the first Christian martyr. The Greek word "martyr" means "witness." Others had witnessed to the saving work of Christ by their words; Stephen now witnessed also by his death.
When Stephen was stoned, the witnesses had laid "their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul." Saul was to become the greatest preacher of the faith which then he laid waste. But meanwhile he was a leader in a great persecution.
The persecution scattered the disciples far and wide from Jerusalem, though the apostles remained. But this scattering resulted only in the wider spread of the gospel. Everywhere they went the persecuted disciples proclaimed the faith for which they suffered. Thus the very rage of the enemies was an instrument in God's hand for bringing the good news of salvation to the wide world.
Among those who were scattered abroad by the persecution was Philip, one of the seven men who had been appointed to care for the ministration to the poor. This Philip, who is called "the evangelist," to distinguish him from the apostle of the same name, went to Samaria, and preached to the Samaritans. It was a step on the way toward a Gentile mission, but the Samaritans themselves were not Gentiles but half-Jews. When the apostles at Jerusalem heard of the work of Philip, they sent Peter and John from among their own number, and through Peter and John the Samaritans received special manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Acts 8:4–25. Then Philip went to a desert road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he preached the gospel to an Ethiopian treasurer, who despite his employment in a foreign country may have been of Jewish descent. Vs. 26–40. Yet the preaching to him was another preparation for the spread of the gospel out into the Gentile world.
QUESTIONS ON LESSON XV
- What was the sin of Ananias and Sapphira? Was the relief of the needy in the early Jerusalem church what is now called communism or socialism? If not, why not?
- What was the fundamental difference between the two first imprisonments of apostles in Jerusalem, and the persecution which began with the martyrdom of Stephen? Why was the latter more serious?
- Outline the speech of Stephen.
- Describe the progress of the gospel in Samaria.