Persecution Can Be Transformative

Life_in_Tension_web“And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution
against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the
regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (Acts 8:1 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my grandparents’ home, every meal began with prayer and ended with a scripture reading. During my college years at Iowa State University, I used to travel to visit them on the weekends. At one point when it was my turn to pick a scripture passage, I read the story of Stephen. Well, sort of. I could not read the story without breaking out in tears…

The charge against Stephen was twofold:

“This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:13-14 ESV)

Stephen never disputed the charge and offered no defense. Instead, he accused the Jews of false worship and not keeping the law (Acts 7:48,53) effectively validating their charges. What drove them crazy, however, was when he reminded them of Jesus’ words during his trial:

“But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:64 ESV) [1]

Jesus was paraphrasing Daniel 7:13. This was clear a claim of divinity. Stephen’s stoning was spontaneous and illegal under Roman law (John 18:31). Yet, it was approved by Saul (Acts 8:1). Persecution requires a persecutor.

By his own words, Saul was an zealous persecutor (Phil 3:6). Saul is introduced in Acts 7:58 with the execution of Stephen. In Acts 8 we are told that he not only approved of Stephen’s stoning, he led the persecution of the church in Jerusalem that followed (Acts 8:1, 3). Saul’s persecution is described with the word ravage (λυμαίνω; Acts 8:3) which suggests a path of self-destruction as in the proverb: “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.” (Prov. 19:3 ESV)

In leading the persecution of the church, Saul both assists in scattering the Jerusalem disciples to the regions of Judea and Samaria—fulfilling the commission of Christ in Acts 1:8. For example, we read: Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word (Acts 8:4 ESV). In doing so, at his worse Saul still acts as an unwilling, unknowing instrument of the Holy Spirit. However, when Saul sets his course to oppose Christ’s commission in the scattering by going to Damascus, he meets the risen Lord who, unlike in the case of Judas Iscariot (Matt 28:5), graciously prevents him from self-destruction. Even before his conversion, the Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, accomplished God’s will and his own call (Acts 9:15-16).

A spiritual bond is formed between the persecuted and persecutors. Charismatics refer to it as one of the chains of Satan because turning into our pain is a clear choice to turn away from God [2]. Forgiveness breaks this bond and makes room for God’s Holy Spirit to work in our lives (Rom 12:19). Interestingly, the Apostle Paul never forgot Stephen and mentions him in his speech before the Sanhedrin when he is arrested in Jerusalem in which recounts his own conversion (Acts 22:20). Was Paul God’s answer to Stephen’s prayer: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”? (Acts 7:60 ESV)

The Book of Acts reports that the Holy Spirit worked through persecution to establish the first gentile church in Antioch. We read:

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.” (Acts 11:19 ESV)

The key word here is scattered (διασπαρέντες). The only other place in the New Testament where this word appears is in Acts 8:4: Now those who were scattered [by Saul’s persecution] went about preaching the word. The word suggests an action of the wind—in English we say scattered by the wind [3]. The word for wind in the Greek is pneuma (πνεῦμα). This word is also translated as Holy Spirit. The inference is that the Holy Spirit established the church at Antioch by means of persecution. Because the apostles remained primarily in Jerusalem at this point, God went ahead of them to establish his church in “all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV), much like God has used the Pentecostal movement in our own time to reach much of the known world.

The implication here is that persecution is used by God to shake things up and to form not only individuals but also His church.

 

[1] Also see: Mark 14:62 and Luke 22:69.

[2] Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane gives us a clear template for dealing with pain (Matt. 26:39-44 ESV).

[3] The allusion here is to Luke 8:5-15, The Parable of the Sower.

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