Persecution Can Be Transformative


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)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my grandparents’ home, every meal began with prayer and ended with a scripture reading. One time in college when I visited, I read the story of Stephen: “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) Stephen offered no defense, but rather he accused the Jews of false worship and not keeping the law (Acts 7:48, 53). Then, 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) Here Jesus paraphrased Daniel 7:13 in a clear claim of divinity. This claim drove the Sanhedrin crazy and in a fit of rage they stoned Stephen, an act illegal under Roman law (John 18:31).

After the execution of Stephen, the Book of Acts introduces Saul (Acts 7:58) who, not only approved of Stephen’s stoning, but led the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem that followed, ravaging the church (Acts 8:1–3). The word, ravage, suggests a self-destructive manner, as in the proverb: “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.” (Prov 19:3) This manner of persecution confirms Saul’s own testimony that he was a zealous persecutor (Acts 8:1; Phil 3:6).

In leading the persecution of the church, Saul assists in scattering the Jerusalem disciples to both the regions of Judea and Samaria. This fulfilled the first two parts of the commission of Christ in Acts 1:8 and he was aided by disciples who shared the Gospel as they fled Jerusalem (Acts 8:4). Thus, even at his worst Saul acts as an unwilling, unknowing instrument of the Holy Spirit as he accomplishes Jesus’ charge in Acts 1.8, cited earlier.

When Saul sets out to oppose the third part of Christ’s commission in the scattering by going to Damascus, however, the risen Christ intervenes, preventing him from further self-destruction, saying: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). To this question, Saul responds: “Who are you, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:5–6) This is in stark contrast with the response of Judas Iscariot who commits suicide (Matt 27:5). Even before he was even aware, the Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, served God’s purposes even in persecuting the church and, in doing so, was driven painfully towards his own conversion and call (Acts 9:15-16).

Persecution often traumatizes us, leaving deeper wounds than most other things. On an individual level, this trauma can lead to lifelong emotional and psychiatric issues, and, if we then turn into our pain and away from God, can be intensified by spiritual confusion. On a communal level, persecution can be followed by a cycle of revenge between warring communities. At either level, those persecuted and those persecuting are bound in an indelible, negative bond that is not easily broken.

Forgiveness breaks the bond created by abuse and persecution, and makes room for God’s Holy Spirit to work in our lives (Rom 12:19). Stephen died praying to God for the forgiveness of his persecutors: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60), paraphrasing Christ’s own words from the cross (Luke 23:34). As one of those persecutors, Paul never forgot Stephen and mentioned him as he recounted his own conversion before the Sanhedrin. Was Paul’s conversion God’s answer to Stephen’s prayer? (Acts 22:20).

Another important consequence of the Jerusalem persecution was that the Holy Spirit worked to establish the first gentile church in Antioch, as 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. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19–21)

The key word in the Greek is scattered, which only appears one other place in Acts 8:4: “Now those who were scattered [by Saul’s persecution] went about preaching the word.” The word, scattered, infers an action of the  wind and the word for wind in the Greek is pneuma, which also translates as Holy Spirit. The inference is that the Holy Spirit established the church at Antioch in response to persecution (Acts 11:22).

Because the apostles remained in Jerusalem at this point, the Holy Spirit used ordinary disciples, whose names remain unknown, to establish the Antioch Church and churches throughout “all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) It is much like God has used Pentecostal evangelists in our own time to reach much of the known world (IBMR 2015, 29).  much like God has used Pentecostal evangelists in our own time to reach much of the known world (IBMR 2015, 29). And in many places around the world, persecution remains ever present.

Persecution Can Be Transformative

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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