Someone has said that following the church through Acts is like following a wounded deer through the woods: drops of blood mark the trail. This chapter follows that trail to a time when “a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem” (v.1). It began after the death of Stephen. Once the angry mob began throwing stones at Stephen, they didn’t want to stop lashing out at all the Jesus people. They wanted to eliminate the entire movement, disband the church, and silence the preaching of the gospel forever.
It was Saul (whom we will know later as Paul) who carried out this persecution, “ravaging the church” (v.3). While the believers worshiped in homes, Saul broke down the doors, rushed in, and raided their prayer meetings, their Bible studies, and their observance of the Lord’s Supper. He dragged them out of their homes, arrested them (both men and women), and threw them in prison — but he didn’t stop there. Acts 22:4 says, “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.” Saul had Christians put to death. And the whole time, in his ignorance and unbelief, he thought he was doing the right thing.
This persecution scattered the church. It seemed that Saul had succeeded in killing the movement. But the wind of persecution had the effect of blowing the round, white seed head of a dandelion — as the church scattered, they took the seeds of the gospel with them (v.4)!
One of those scattered believers was Philip, a deacon like Stephen. Philip escaped about 50 miles north to the city of Samaria, where he “proclaimed to them the Christ” (v.5). I love verse 8, “So there was much joy in that city.” That is the power of the gospel! One man, full of the Holy Spirit, walks into town with the gospel of Christ on his lips, and before long JOY replaces spiritual darkness and physical suffering!
The story of Simon the Sorcerer (v.9-24) is remarkable, and it teaches two important things. First, the power of God is not for sale. Simon, a local celebrity, wanted to purchase the power of God (inviting an extremely harsh rebuke from Peter, v.18-20). But God’s saving-healing-delivering power is a gift of grace that is received by faith. Second, the church of Jesus Christ is not built on celebrities. When we hear about a celebrity being saved we place that person on a pedestal. I wish every “star” would turn to Jesus, but the church of Jesus Christ does not need celebrity conversions in order to be successful. The greatness of the church is found in the fact that God takes ordinary people, fills them with His Spirit, and empowers us to do extraordinary things! (See 1 Corinthians 1:26-30.)
While crowds of people were being saved and baptized under the ministry of Philip, God suddenly removed him from that fruitful ministry and sent him to the middle of nowhere (v.26). Why would God lead Philip to leave a great revival to go stand on the side of the road in the desert? Because God knew that there was a lost man who was going to pass that way, and He was strategically placing a faithful witness in his path.
In a beautiful display of natural, unforced personal evangelism, Philip joined the Ethiopian in his chariot, “opened his mouth…and told him the good news about Jesus” (v.35). They didn’t get far down the road before the man embraced the gospel, confessed his faith in Jesus, and eagerly submitted to baptism by immersion as the profession of his faith! By doing that, the Ethiopian identified himself as a follower of Christ and a part of the church. Verse 39 says that he “went on his way rejoicing” while Philip was whisked away to another assignment. Iranaeus, an early church father, said that the Ethiopian went home as a missionary, preaching the gospel and planting churches in his homeland.
Be aware of “Gaza Road” (v.26) opportunities today, divine appointments with those who are seeking Jesus. Let God use you to be a witness. Just open your mouth and tell the good news (v.35)!