1 On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. 4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
–Acts 8.1b-8 (NIV)
If you are aware of any church history, you know that the first-century church spread like wildfire and went on to turn its world upside down in the Name of Jesus. But did you know how and why the early church spread? Luke tells us in today’s passage. The early church spread initially because it was persecuted and one of the early leaders of the persecution was none other than Saul (later known as Paul) of Tarsus, who later became arguably the greatest of all the Apostles, at least in terms of spreading the Gospel throughout the ancient world of the Roman Empire.
Today’s lesson is another powerful reminder of how God can turn evil into good. If the folks who comprised the first church were like us in any way, and surely they must have been because the human condition has not changed much over the centuries, they likely would have been quite satisfied to stay put and enjoy the benefits of fellowship with each other and their Lord. Sure, Jesus had told the apostles to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28.16-20), but that is easier said than done! And so we can reasonably infer from Luke’s report here that the church really didn’t start to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission until its people suffered severe persecution. If God’s people weren’t in any hurry to get off their duffs and spread the Good News of Jesus to the nations, even after hearing this command from Jesus himself, God would provide them with a little incentive to do so. I certainly do not mean to make light of persecution. The point is that God used evil and turned it into good.
Much to the persecutors’ chagrin, as the early Christians were scattered, they took the message of the Gospel with them and preached it to those who had not heard it. They not only preached it, they lived it by their actions and Luke reports that the early church turned heads by their amazing acts of Spirit-driven power, acts of healing and compassion, and kindness. But it apparently took an initial evil to get the ball rolling. In fact, the overall history of the church reflects this. When the church has been a persecuted minority, it has generally flourished. When it has become a major player in society, it has often foundered.
This should not particularly surprise us since the church’s founder was subject to persecution and death himself. When Jesus called Saul to be his Apostle to the Gentiles, he told and showed Paul how much he must suffer for Jesus’ sake. Apparently it is true. If we are to follow Jesus we must take up our cross each day, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus. In other words, we can expect to suffer and face persecution for Jesus’ sake.
But a funny thing, that. When we do suffer and experience persecution for Jesus’ sake we can take it as a badge of honor. If God can use the murderous attempts of Saul and others like him to spread the faith and grow his church, how much more can he use your own sufferings to help you grow and get to where God wants you to be? There are countless examples of Christians who have let God use their own tragedies and personal sufferings to help others in need and to bring Christ’s love to bear on his hurting and broken world. This is how Jesus seems to work as often as not and it takes a good amount of trust on our part to buy into the program.
That is why we need to take Scripture’s exhortations to remember constantly God’s mighty acts of power and his great love and faithfulness. When we do we are better able by God’s grace to see his hand at work in our own suffering and problems. This, in turn, will help us persevere and even overcome all that can afflict us–as long as we remember to make it about God and not ourselves.
What evil is in your life that you can give over to God to transform into good? You have God’s promise in the NT that he has dealt decisively with evil on the cross and is now working at bringing about his promised New Creation. The same God who has done this and who is always good to his word will likewise help you overcome the evil in your life. It may not be instantaneous and you may have to really persevere and struggle with whatever it is you are dealing with. But as you do, and as your remember God’s great power to deliver on his promises, you can be confident that some kind of good will come out of the evil that afflicts you or your loved ones.
But you have to give yourself entirely to God and trust him to work his will as he sees best. If you have not already done so, are you ready to let God use you to help him turn his world upside down by bringing his great love in Christ to bear on you and those he calls you minister to in his name? This is not a call to take a leap of blind faith. You have an established track record to look at, both in Scripture and in the lives of countless faithful men and women, that God can use to reassure you that he is with you always and will deliver on his promises to you, even in the darkest and deepest of your valleys.