Chapter 7-8 of the Book of Acts tell us an amazing story. First we are told about Stephen, a man full of grace and the Holy Spirit, who is taken before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council to answer charges of blasphemy. (If you don’t know blasphemy is a very serious crime in any religion and in first century Judaism, it was a capital offense.) Like Jesus before him, Stephen seems to be facing a sort of kangaroo court, intending to justify an action many had already decided to take. Stephen responds powerfully and in the end accuses his accusers of blasphemy. The result is a foregone conclusion and Stephen is stoned.
A zealous and extreme Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus also plays a part in this story. Emboldened by the death of Stephen, he becomes the point man on a massive persecution of Christian community in Jerusalem. “Young Saul went on a rampage–hunting the church, house after house, dragging both men and women to prison.” (Acts 8:3, the Voice: Reader’s New Testament.)
What follows is a church on the run. Everyone who had not been imprisoned left town–everyone except the Apostles. But when they leave town, they do not go into hiding, just exile. And in their exile they seem determined to tell others about Jesus Christ. Acts 8 continues with a description of the fruitfulness of the church, pressed into exile by Saul’s persecution.
In fact, Acts tells us they left Jerusalem from Judea and Samaria. Remember the Great Commission? “First you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria …” The immediate impact of the persecution is to move the church to the next stop on their assignment to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The early chapters of Acts, especially 1-5 speak of a church energized by its success. The Holy Spirit is doing powerful things and they are taking bold steps–some like, holding everything in common. a powerful and attractive dynamic. I suspect they were really enjoying being the church in those heady days following Pentecost.
It has been the experience of many churches in many ages and settings that exciting times lead to a certain kind of “comfort zone.” The spiritual adrenalin is pumped. We like the feeling. We could go on for all eternity on top of the mountain. Being on the mountain top distances us from many of the challenges of the world below (where most people live) and that distance often removes the passion to be challenged. Without challenge, we often cease to grow.
Someone once gave me a tea bag with a little slip of paper it attached. On the paper were these words. “Christians are like a tea bag. They really are no good until they get into hot water.”
A profound truth.
The real world is not on the mountain top, but in the valley below. A valley that is very much “in the shadow of death.” The test of one’s faith is not how it operates on the mountain top but its power in the valley.
Persecution is the real test of a faith. When faith costs you something valuable, faith begins to grow. As Paul (that persecutor Saul turned apostle) tells us “My (God’s) strength is made perfect in weakness.” Persecution puts us in positions of weak, situations we cannot control, and we we really learn to walk by faith.
Those Christians who were driven from their homes in Jerusalem arrived in the towns of Judea and Samaria “and wherever they went they were not afraid or silent. Instead they spread the message of Jesus.” (Acts 8:4b, the Voice:Reader’s New Testament).