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In Part -2 we were witness to the amazing events that marked the beginning of the spread of Christianity in Jerusalem. Part- 3 takes us further on this incredible journey, to Judea and Samaria, covering chapters six to nine in the Acts. The Holy Spirit continued to guide the apostles on their mission. The account concludes with the awe-inspiring conversion of Saul.
The chapters under discussion sets in motion the spread of the church beyond the frontiers of Jerusalem. As the community of believers expanded rapidly, the apostles had to deal with some organizational issues, but these were soon sorted out. Included in the sequence of events described here are the martyrdom of Stephen, the trials faced by the apostles in Samaria as well as their accomplishments, and the dramatic conversion of Saul in Damascus.
Stephen-the first Christian martyr
As the disciples increased in number, a number of administrative issues surfaced. The equitable distribution of food to widows and other minor problems had to be attended to, and so the apostles decided to appoint the next level of helpers or deacons, who would look after these daily affairs and leave the apostles free to focus on spreading God’s Word.
Stephen was one among the seven deacons appointed, and he was as inspired by the Holy Spirit as the others. He too began to perform signs and wonders, and soon came up against the Jews who disliked his open and frank judgement of them. They cooked up false charges against him, brought in false witnesses and dragged him before the Sanhedrin.
When asked by the high priest to defend his position, Stephen stood up boldly to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. He began his discourse from the events recorded in Genesis, from the time God chose Abraham to be the father of many nations. He spoke of how Joseph who was rejected by his family was chosen by God to save the Israelites. how Moses who was rejected by the Israelites was chosen to liberate them from slavery. Stephen extended the same analogy to Jesus Christ, who was similarly rejected by those he came to save. He spared no words as he openly accused them of betraying and murdering Jesus, and even accused their ancestors of persecuting the prophets who predicted the coming of the Messiah.
In the course of tracing the history of the Jews, Stephen touched on how Solomon was ordained to build a temple for the Lord. He followed this with a prophetic proclamation— “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” It is obvious that Stephen had envisioned the glory of the kingdom of heaven spreading far beyond the confines of Jerusalem and its temple. He understood that the Word was destined to reach ”the ends of the Earth,” and courageously spoke out in front of the elders and teachers of the law.
The members of the Sanhedrin listening to him were seething with rage. Stephen, oblivious of the rising tension, and filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke of seeing a vision of heaven and Jesus Christ at the right hand of God the Father. That was the final straw. They rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death.
In many ways, Stephen’s death was similar to the death of Jesus Christ. The gathering of false witnesses reminds us of the trial of Jesus. As he was stoned, he cried “Lord, receive my Spirit” and his last words were “Lord. do not hold this against them.” Thus, in the footsteps of his Master, Stephen gave up his life willingly and easily, for his faith, becoming the first among several others who followed suit in due course.
During the final moments of Stephen’s martyrdom, we briefly catch a glimpse of a young man named Saul, a Jewish leader well known for his merciless persecution of the believers of the Way. As the Jews prepared to kill Stephen, they laid their coats at the feet of Saul, under whose direction the plan of stoning Stephen to death was being executed.
The growth of the Church in Judea and Samaria
The final instructions of the resurrected Lord to His disciples was to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”(Acts 1:8). In the most incredible manner, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the action shifted from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.
The immediate cause of the location shift was the tyranny against the disciples that gathered momentum under the strong leadership of Saul. In his zeal to squash the spread of the Way, he dragged believers from their homes and sent them to prison. The church members were scattered and the disciples continued their work from their new destinations. Philip reached Samaria and baptized large numbers who were mesmerized with his powers of healing and deliverance. Soon Peter and John joined him and when they laid their hands on the people, the Holy Spirit came down powerfully on them. Among the converts was Simon the sorcerer who accepted the faith, but tried to bargain with Peter in order to acquire the powers of the Holy Spirit for money. Peter admonished him harshly and he quickly withdrew in fear.
All the while , the Holy Spirit was closely guiding the apostles into situations that led to some significant conversions. Philip was prompted to follow the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch who was an important officer of the Ethiopian queen. The eunuch was reading the prophecy of Isaiah about the passion and crucifixion of Christ, but was unable to understand who it referred to. Philip offered to ride with him and explained the context. By the time Philip completed his discourse, the eunuch insisted on being baptized. Philip did the needful and went away.
The spread of the church in Samaria was a significant milestone in the early history of the church. For the first time, people came to understand that the kingdom of God was for everyone , not only for the Jews who believed that they were God’s chosen people. The Samaritans were mostly Gentiles, and had different practices of worship. There was considerable social distance between Jews and Samaritans. The famous story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well described in John 4 gives us a good idea of the relationship that existed between them. When Jesus asked her for a drink of water, she answered “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)-John 4:9. Jesus then made a prophetic statement to her , which reaches forward to these moments in the Acts where the Samaritans were given equal standing in God’s kingdom along with the Jews. He said –“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” Jesus was the harbinger of that teaching, pushing aside all claims of supremacy by disbelieving Jews. Religious practices were of little consequence to the Father. Whether Jew or Gentile, people are justified by faith, and not by the law or by religious practices.
The conversion of Saul
The persecutions that followed the stoning and martyrdom of Stephen were directed by Saul. His single-minded focus was to destroy the new movement that was gaining strength under Peter and the apostles. He proactively sought the help of the high priests to give greater impetus to the reign of terror he had unleashed on the innocent believers.
To better understand the person and character of Saul, who turned from a merciless persecutor of Christians, to one of the greatest apostles of Christ, it may do well to know the background he hailed from. Born in Tarsus , situated in Southern Turkey, he was a Hebrew by birth, the son of a Pharisee. History tells us that when the Roman armies captured Judea, the Jews were scattered and his family moved to Tarsus and settled there. Roman citizenship was granted to some of the Jews who had lived there for a long time and , in these circumstances, Paul too was a Roman citizen. He was a bright student, well read, was familiar with at least three languages. He learnt about religion and law from Gamaliel in Jerusalem, a renowned and respected teacher of the Law. In his letter to the Galatians, he mentions his passion for the practice of Judaism- “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”-Gal 1:14. It is perhaps this zeal for the religion he had been trained in, that inspired him to take extreme steps against the believers of the Way, whom he considered as a threat to the proponents and practitioners of Judaism.
Saul’s active opposition continued as he turned his wrath on the believers who were to be found in the temples of Damascus. One day, on the road to Damascus, a light from heaven flashed on him, and he fell to the ground. He heard the Lord’s voice asking, “Saul, Saul , why do you persecute me?” The Lord revealed himself to Saul, and for three days, he remained blind, and ate and drank nothing. God sent Ananias, a disciple, to Saul . Immediately he recovered his eyesight and was filled with the Holy Spirit.
From then on, all his zeal was directed towards proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. The disciples were afraid of what they saw. How could the man who had unleashed such terror against the believers suddenly cross over to their camp? The Jews, on the other hand, conspired to kill this new found advocate of Christ. Saul, however remained unperturbed. He spoke boldly in the name of the Lord. With this the church in Judea and Samaria strengthened and increased in numbers, closely guided by the Holy Spirit.
The last few verses of Chapter 9 of the Acts have been left for the next part in this series. As we have seen, the expansion of the church in Judea and Samaria was at once progressive and challenging. Stephen gave up his life for the cause, and the disciples were subject to cruel persecutions. At the same time, the Good News of Christ spread to Gentile territory and God blest the believing Jews and the Gentile converts equally with the powerful infilling of the Holy Spirit. The centuries-old glass ceiling between Jews and Samaritans was finally shattered, and they were now on a level playing field with regard to their relationship with the Most High.
All through, the Spirit guided the apostles individually to achieve impossible targets with regard to the rapid expansion of the church. The apostles performed great works of healing and deliverance that convinced the public that they had a special anointing from God. They baptized large numbers and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.
As we observe all that happened during these early days of the Church, we cannot but notice how the Lord often brings positive outcomes from negative situations. The persecutions that Saul initiated, resulted in the scattering of the disciples to distant places in Judea and Samaria. As they continued to preach the Word, the Church added large numbers into its fold. Similarly, the miraculous conversion of Saul was nothing short of divine intervention, as Jesus appeared to him, and Saul turned from being the Church’s most feared adversary to its greatest leader.
These events reach out to us , over time, to help us understand that we are also part of this process. We too have a duty to reach out to those who have not experienced the true joy of knowing the Lord and loving Him. Whenever the task seems challenging, we must remember that the Spirit works through us, to achieve what God requires of us. The Word of God has spread far and wide, but each of us still holds the responsibility to reach it ‘to the ends of the earth’.