The Church Persecuted by Saul
Luke told Theophilus that Saul, by holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen, had given consent to his death. Immediately following this violent act, an intense period of persecution followed. The apostles remained in Jerusalem, but other disciples were driven to every corner of Judea and Samaria. God"s providence can be seen in the safety of the apostles, who would have been the most visible leaders in the church. He can also be seen as working through the terrible acts of wicked men, who were persecuting the church, to spread the gospel over a broader territory.
Luke observed that "earnestly religious," or devout, men buried Stephen and greatly mourned his death. A couple of observations arise out of Luke"s simple record. First, the brethren, or some God fearing men among the Jews, still had enough faith in God to openly bury a Christian who had died such a violent death for preaching the gospel. Second, the Sanhedrin must have recognized how wrong their actions were since their custom would not allow an individual grave and lamentation for one who had been judicially stoned.
Saul operated as the agent of an angry Sanhedrin which was intent upon wiping the church off the face of the globe. Boles thinks it probable that these events took place in A.D. 37.
,,,this was the year in which Tiberius died and Caligula succeeded him. There was a time when there was no Roman governor in Judea, and the Jewish factions reigned supreme. Hence, the opponents of Christianity visited Christian homes and thrust Christian men and women into vile prisons and then brought them before the elders in the synagogue, who tried to force them to deny Jesus; on their refusal some of them were put to death (Acts 22:4; Acts 26:10), others were beaten (Acts 26:11), and all suffered many outrages (1 Timothy 1:13).
The church"s response to the death of Stephen and the persecution which followed is both understandable and puzzling. The fact that Christians fled the area of Jerusalem and Judea is not surprising. However, that they preached the gospel wherever they went despite the trouble such preaching had given rise to is remarkable (Acts 8:1-4).
Philip Preaching in Samaria
Philip, who was one of the seven, went to the city of Samaria. Because the Samaritans were of mixed descent coming from the intermarriage of Jews and Gentiles, the Jews regarded them with contempt. The city of Samaria was built by Omri, a wicked king in Israel. It became the capital city for the ten tribes of the northern kingdom. Philip preached Jesus as the promised Messiah, a theme which would have been familiar to the Samaritans because of Deuteronomy 18:15-18. The message hit home for multitudes of the Samaritans, especially because God confirmed it came from him by enabling Philip to work miracles. Sick, especially some who had been paralyzed and others who had been lame, were healed and demons were cast out of others. All of this caused the city to be filled with joy.
In Samaria, there was a man named Simon who had used magic and trickery to convince the people he was a spokesman for God. For quite some time, he held sway over the city in this fashion. However, when Philip preached the good news about Christ and his kingdom, with the accompanying signs, a large number of men and women believed and were baptized. Obviously, this verse makes it clear that preaching belief in Jesus and burial in his name is a crucial part of preaching about the kingdom. Even Simon, having been amazed by what he saw and heard, believed and was baptized (Acts 8:5-13).
When the apostles heard of the events in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to the city. Theophilus may well have remembered that John and his brother, James, had asked the Lord if they should call down fire out of heaven to destroy an uncooperative Samaritan city which had refused to receive the Lord (Luke 9:51-56). Now, he and Peter prayed for the Samaritans and laid hands on them that they might receive the miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17).
Clear evidence of one"s receiving of the miraculous gifts must have been present, since Simon was able to see this being accomplished through the laying on of the apostles" hands. It is evident from this text that Philip did not have the ability to bestow miraculous gifts on anyone. Also, it appears miraculous gifts were not given to all Christians in this, or any other, place. Simon had believed and been baptized, so there is no doubt he had been saved from his former sins (Mark 16:16). Yet, when confronted with a power potentially so useful in again dominating the city of Samaria, he reverted to a materialistic approach and tried to purchase the power from Peter and John.
Simon"s attempt to purchase this power with money led Peter to tell Simon he and his money would perish together if his heart was not changed. He could have no part in matters eternal so long as his heart was not right with God. Notice, the apostle does not command him to repent of his sins, but "of this your wickedness," thereby indicating a single sin is involved. Peter also instructed Simon to pray God would forgive him, which is significantly different than his instructions to those who asked what to do on Pentecost.
Specifically, Simon had sinned by having the wrong thought in his heart, which caused him to be in a miserable condition. Lenski says, "As in Hebrews 12:15 the "root of bitterness" means a root out of which bitter fruit grows, fruit which the Lord abominates, so here "gall of bitterness" is that fruit." Thus, Simon"s recently freed heart had again become bound by sin. Simon asked the apostles to pray to God for him, his actions thus foreshadowing the directions James would give the early church. When Peter and John had finished preaching the word of God in Samaria, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching in all the cities of Samaria along the way (Acts 8:18-25; James 5:16).
Preaching to the Ethiopian
At this point, Luke told Theophilus that Philip was directed by an angel of the Lord to go south to a place along the Jerusalem to Gaza road where no people lived. When an influential Ethiopian came along, the Spirit directed Philip to "go near and overtake this chariot." Luke also explained that this man was a eunuch serving under the great Queen Candace of the Ethiopians. He was in charge of all her treasury. He was on the road because he had been to Jerusalem to worship. While he was riding along, this Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah 53:7-8.
As Philip ran alongside the chariot, he asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" The official"s question in return, "How can I, unless someone guides me?", indicates just how open his heart was. Philip accepted his invitation to sit with him in the chariot and answered his most important question, "I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?" Philip started proclaiming Jesus as the Christ from that very scripture. He must have preached baptism, since the Ethiopian nobleman asked, "See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" Though verse 37 is omitted from the most reliable texts, it is obvious from other scripture that one desiring the Lord to confess his name before the Father will confess Jesus before men (Matthew 10:32-33; Romans 10:9-10). After the eunuch commanded the chariot to stand still, both Philip and the Ethiopian went down into the water and Philip immersed him.
Immediately following their coming up out of the water, the Spirit caused Philip to be gone from the presence of the rejoicing eunuch. On his journey back to Caesarea, Philip preached in the coastal cities along the way. Specifically, Luke mentioned Azotus, or the ancient city of Ashdod (Acts 8:26-40).
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Hampton, Gary. "Commentary on Acts 8". "Gary Hampton Commentary on Selected Books". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany