Persecution and Proclamation, Acts 8. 1, 4; 11. 19-26
Frank McConnell, Pretoria
From the moment the Church came into existence it has been her responsibility to expand. There has ever been the need for the consolidation of the work, but this could only be as the work of expansion had taken place. The very existence of the Church has depended upon her continuous expansion in fulfilment of the great commission given her by the Lord Himself. This commission was linked with expansion from the beginning. Its nature was that of propaganda and proclamation. Its sphere was the whole world, and the power of the Lord Jesus was made available to His followers to enable them to fulfil His programme, Matt. 28.19, 20; Mark 16. 15; Acts 1. 8. The work needed to be marked by expansion and diffusion rather than concentration. It is a sad commentary on the failure of the Church to fulfil the Lord's commission that we of the twentieth century still find ourselves faced with the tremendous task of world evangelization.
Turning back to the early days of the Church, it is always thrilling to read of all that happened after the day of Pentecost. The power of the Holy Spirit was at work in a way that leaves us longing for similar experiences. Yet even then it would appear that all was not perfect. We can discern a definite reluctance on the part of the apostles and the Jewish believers to fulfil the final part of the great commission—to go to the uttermost parts of the earth. In ail probability it was because this involved other nations. As late as Acts 11, after the persecution resulting from the death of Stephen had led to a scattering of the believers, they were still preaching the Word to none but Jews only, v. 19. It is true that the Gospel had been preached in Samaria, but the Samaritans could be regarded as being half Jews. Moreover, Peter had preached in the house of Cornelius the centurion. But here it was Cornelius who took the initiative and sent for Peter, and the Lord took special steps to overcome the scruples and prejudices of the apostle. Then, afterwards, Peter had to give a full explanation of what had happened to those in Jerusalem.
The Breaking of the Barrier.
Chapter 11 is a most important chapter. In the latter part we have an account of the breaking of the barrier, the shattering of the obstacles which prevented the worldwide spread of the Gospel. And it happened in such a seemingly insignificant way.
Consequent upon the persecution resulting from the death of Stephen, we are told in chapter 8 that the believers were scattered abroad and went everywhere preaching the Word. The sequence is taken up in 11. 19: "Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen". They travelled and they preached, but, as we have seen, to none but Jews only.
Then we read about "some of them", who were of Cyprus and Cyrene, coming to Antioch, v. 20. Who they were we do not know, because their names are not recorded. But these are the men who put into action the final stage of the great commission, and set the Church on the course of world evangelization. Without any instructions and directives from the apostles in Jerusalem, they spoke to the Greeks of Antioch, preaching to them the Lord Jesus. The results were astounding. The Spirit of God endorsed the step that they had taken, and blessed their work. "The hand of the Lord was with them; and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord", v. 21.
The Sequence of Events.
It is necessary to examine a little more closely the sequence of events which led to this tremendous break-through in order to notice some of the consequences. We do this in order to discern the underlying principles which need to be given practical application in our own day and generation. Here we have the divine method for the expansion of the Church of God.
Persecution. The instigator of the persecution which occurred after the death of Stephen was undoubtedly the devil. He made full use of a willing tool—Saul of Tarsus. But, as is so often the case, Satan overstepped himself, and persecution became a starting point for the worldwide spread of the Gospel. The persecution, however, did not move the apostles. The saints were scattered abroad "except the apostles", 8. 1. Was it possible that they were intent only on building up the work in Jerusalem, busy with concentration rather than expansion?
We need to thank God for that first persecution, because of the blessing which resulted therefrom. It would seem that persecution is often the prelude to blessing and expansion. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church". May it not be that the lack of persecution in our own day has been the reason for the lack of power and effective results? Many of us regard persecution as something to be avoided rather than welcomed. At any rate, when the Church is faithful, God makes everything, even the activities of Satan, to serve the spread of the Gospel.
Proclamation. "Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word", 8. 4. The word used here means "to announce, to proclaim". It is used to describe the public preaching of the Word. They did this without any permission or instruction fromthe apostles. They were fulfilling the commission given by the Lord to preach the Gospel.
In Acts 11. 19 we read, "Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word". Here a different Greek word is used, one which simply means "speaking" or "talking". This time it is not so much public preaching as ordinary everyday conversation. They travelled, and while they travelled they talked— about the Word of God and about the Gospel. They were scattering the good seed wherever they went. They themselves were scattered abroad because of the persecution, but in the scattering they were careful to scatter the Word by means of ordinary talking.
The great lesson here is that all Christians are called upon to be involved in the spread of the Gospel. We may not all be able to preach publicly, but we can talk, and private conversation is one of the finest means of making the Gospel known. It is exceedingly difficult to win souls by remote control. There must be close personal contact, and this is usually provided by conversation. To be concluded.