“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:1-4).
The martyr’s death of Stephen ignited a flame of persecution against the new movement of Christ followers. It was so severe that most of the believers fled Jerusalem. In God’s sovereignty, this allowed the church to spread throughout Judea and Samaria. New churches were planted around these regions. Though these persecuted believers had just witnessed the terrors of oppression, they boldly continued to share the gospel in the new lands to which they had migrated.
Dispersion is not an easy experience. When people are displaced from their homeland into a new community (often a new country), they go through enormous challenges. They start with nothing. No home, no job, and no income. They often arrive with only a small suitcase. They have left all that is familiar to them: their language, culture, food, family, friends, community, occupation, children’s schools, and church. In fact, sometimes their families are split up, leaving behind children, spouses, parents, and other relatives. It is not easy to rebuild when they start with nothing. The country or region that receives them often offers minimal or no help. On top of all that, they are experiencing various degrees of loss, grief, and post-traumatic stress.
Despite the difficulty of all the believers were going through during these times of persecution, “they preached the word wherever they went.” What Satan meant for evil, God used for good. Out of this murderous stoning of Stephen, the mission of the church to witness to the ends of the earth was set in motion. It seems like this happened at a great cost - the suffering of Stephen. However, let us look at the end of Stephen’s life. “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). The Lord was with him and ushered him into His presence.
Later, the apostle Peter wrote a letter to the church that was entering an intense time of suffering. He gave them perspective to empower them to walk victoriously through those times. But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (1 Peter 3:14-17).
There are several lessons we can take away from Stephen’s life. We are told to be prepared to share the gospel with those around us. As we do this, we must do it with love, gentleness, and respect. Live in such a way that others want to listen to your testimony. Be willing to suffer for Christ and for the message of the gospel. Be assured that God is sovereign and will use even the treacherous deeds of the enemy to help more people hear the Good News of salvation. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you boldness to step out in faith and make Him known. Finally, pray for those who have been displaced from their homes because of persecution. If you have refugees near you, seek out how you can help them thrive in their new land. A simple meal with you in your home may be the first step for them to experience the healing love of Christ. How is God speaking to you?
Today’s Bible Reading: Acts 7:54-8:4; 1 Peter 3:14-17
An excerpt from Mission Impossible written by Sue Corl