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Bible read me 2The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 8:1-3

Saul Ravages the Church

And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

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Acts 7 related the apologetic and death of Stephen, the first martyr.

Only his final words and his stoning are in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

Over the past few weeks, I have discussed what he said to the temple court and why.

Stephen, one of the first deacons, was also divinely given the gift of ‘doing great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). He also spoke openly about Jesus in Solomon’s Portico (Porch) at the temple. For this, he was arrested on charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.

Stephen first got the council’s attention by saying he had revered the same traditions as they and respected the history of the people of Israel. He related the story of Abraham, then of Joseph.

At that point, he accomplished two objectives: holding his audience’s attention and defending himself against the charge of blaspheming God.

As Stephen related his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he also indicted his audience for rejecting Jesus. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph’s brothers treated him the same way the Jews treated Jesus.

Stephen went on to discuss Moses scripturally, to show that he had not blasphemed him. He began with Moses’s childhood, then his early adulthood, which included self-exile to Midian. After 40 years, an angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him he would be going to Egypt to deliver the Israelites.

He then discussed the next part of the apologetic: the Israelites’ rejection of Moses and their turning to idolatry, which was part of their way of life for generations to come. God had left them to their own devices.

What Stephen did throughout his entire apologetic — case for, defence of religious doctrine — was to demonstrate that God’s chosen people had rejected those He sent to them. Similarly, they had rejected Jesus. Stephen exhorted them to consider those rejections very carefully.

Finally, Stephen had to defend himself against charges that he blasphemed the temple. He ended his apologetic by accusing the Jews of rejecting the Holy Spirit. That enraged them and they took him outside of Jerusalem to be stoned.

Among them was Saul, later Paul the Apostle. Acts 7 ends with this (emphases mine):

58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Matthew Henry’s commentary has this analysis:

Now, the stoning of a man being a laborious piece of work, the witnesses took off their upper garments, that they might not hang in their way, and they laid them down at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul, now a pleased spectator of this tragedy. It is the first time we find mention of his name; we shall know it and love it better when we find it changed to Paul, and him changed from a persecutor into a preacher. This little instance of his agency in Stephen’s death he afterwards reflected upon with regret (Acts 22:20): I kept the raiment of those that slew him.

Before I begin with today’s verses, it is also useful to look at the King James Version, which adds to the drama of the reality in Jerusalem.

I will be returning to these in the commentary below:

And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.

And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

As Acts 8 opens, St Luke tells us that Saul approved of this execution (verse 1). We know how on fire the converted Saul — the Apostle Paul — was for Jesus Christ. He dominates the letters of the New Testament. Therefore, just imagine what he was like pre-Damascene conversion. I’ll return to this later, but he was a powerful man, both as Saul and as Paul.

For now, both Matthew Henry and John MacArthur believed that Saul had a lot to do with Stephen’s death.

MacArthur says:

He was involved from the very beginning of this conflict with Stephen …

And Saul was the leader, and it may have been that right there at the death of Stephen, he got the whole deal organized. “At that same time” it says. He might have pulled that mob around him, and the very seed of bloodshed was Stephen was dying, was the thing that really spawned the group of people that followed this man Saul around to kill Christians.

Henry’s commentary tells us that Paul probably asked Luke, the author of Acts, to insert the part about consent in the first verse as an expiation for his subsequent guilt:

We have reason to think that Paul ordered Luke to insert this, for shame to himself, and glory to free grace. Thus he owns himself guilty of the blood of Stephen, and aggravates it with this, that he did not do it with regret and reluctancy, but with delight and a full satisfaction, like those who not only do such things, but have pleasure in those that do them.

Saul wanted to ensure the Church died, hence St Luke’s mention of ‘a great persecution’ against Her in Jerusalem. MacArthur explains:

Now we don’t have any of the gory details of what Saul did specifically, we only have some general terms. But whatever it was, it resulted in the people being scattered all over everywhere and being driven out of the city. He just drove them out, and I am sure that the ones who were driven out were dominantly the Hellenistic Jews, the Grecian Jews who didn’t really belong there. And it may have been in these early times that the whole movement was still associated with Stephen as a Grecian Jew.

They fled to Judea and Samaria.

Only the Apostles stayed in the city. There were many converts in Jerusalem and they needed the Twelve. No doubt, they were also intent on converting more Jews. It could be that, as the Apostles came from the area near Jerusalem and spent the feast days there that there was a certain comfort level. It is possible that the converts who had lived in or near Jerusalem all their lives felt the same way.

John MacArthur explains that a whole host of dynamics were at work at this time, good and evil. Stephen’s death was a turning point for the Church, and Acts 8 demonstrates that. The Church was now largely leaving Jerusalem — God’s chosen who had rejected His Son — for the Gentile world. Also observe that what Jesus said quickly came true:

Here’s what Jesus says to be the pattern of the expansion of the church: “But ye shall receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witness unto Me.” Now here comes the pattern. “Both in Jerusalem and all Judea.” Now, Jerusalem was a city in which, which was in Judea, as a province or country. And so He said “In Jerusalem and all Judea, then in Samaria, and then the outermost part of the earth.” Now there you have the outline of the book of Acts. First in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then the world. And so in 8, we’re beginning to move out of Jerusalem, into Judea and Samaria; the gospel extending. And the Samaritans, I think, in the mind of God, formed a perfect bridge to the Gentile world, because the Samaritans were half-breeds. They were part Jewish, part Gentile. And so it was a little extension, then to go smack into the Gentile situation … So chapter 8, then, is the beginning of the church moving out. And it’s a sad thing in a sense, as well as a great thing, to see the gospel move out. It’s a sad thing to see the door shut on Jerusalem.

Therefore, although the Church remained there, Jerusalem was no longer the main focus. It was now time for the Church to expand elsewhere, to more favourable audiences. As we have seen in the preceding chapters in Acts, whenever there was a setback, God and the Holy Spirit gave the fledgling Church more grace and fortitude to move forward.

Here’s MacArthur’s take. I like his analogy of fire, very much befitting a discussion of the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit is in the business of turning negatives into positives, of taking disasters and turning them into miracles. You can’t blockade the Holy Spirit. He likes to take those kind of tragedies and turn them into victory.

If you’ve been with us in our study of the book of Acts, you know what He’s done with Peter and John. Every time they got in a hopeless situation, it just was a greater opportunity to preach the gospel. Every time they got into a negative scene, the Spirit of God turned it into a positive. Every time the persecution arose, the preaching followed right on its heels. And God allowed the gospel to reach into areas and the hearts of people who could never otherwise be reached, other than through persecution. It’s kind of like trying to stamp out a fire, and the harder you jump on it, the more you scatter the embers and start fires all over everywhere. And that’s exactly what happened. They started jumping all over the church in Jerusalem and all they did was send the embers all over the world, because that’s how the Holy Spirit works.

Verse 2 tells us that Stephen had a dignified, religious burial. Our two commentators differ in their interpretation of ‘devout men’.

MacArthur thinks that the ‘devout men’ were, in fact, pious Jews who thought that his stoning was wrong. He reasons this from the wording:

If they were referring to Christians, it would have said “believers,” or “the brothers,” or something. But it says “devout men”. That’s a term that has to do with pious Jews. And what it says is this: “There were some Jews in Jerusalem, though not Christians, who still believed that the murder of Stephen was wrong.” That’s kind of nice to know. There was still some fertile soil for the gospel in Jerusalem. The apostles stayed; devout men carried Stephen.

Under Jewish law, criminals had to be buried, although Jews were not allowed to lament over them. Yet, these men openly and emphatically lamented him:

So in a very real sense – and incidentally it was probably very public. What they were doing there was reacting by protest to the murder of this man. Now here’s some fertile soil for the apostles to reach for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Henry surmised that they would have been fellow converts, which I am more inclined to believe, since Stephen was very holy and had been very visible at the temple during his brief ministry. Also, what Christians would have disowned such a man? Here is Henry on the devout men:

Stephen’s death bewailed by others (Acts 8:2)– devout men, which some understand of those that were properly so called, proselytes, one of whom Stephen himself probably was. Or, it may be taken more largely; some of the church that were more devout and zealous than the rest went and gathered up the poor crushed and broken remains, to which they gave a decent interment, probably in the field of blood, which was bought some time ago to bury strangers in. They buried him solemnly, and made great lamentation over him. Though his death was of great advantage to himself, and great service to the church, yet they bewailed it as a general loss, so well qualified was he for the service, and so likely to be useful both as a deacon and as a disputant. It is a bad symptom if, when such men are taken away, it is not laid to heart. Those devout men paid these their last respects to Stephen, (1.) To show that they were not ashamed of the cause for which he suffered, nor afraid of the wrath of those that were enemies to it; for, though they now triumph, the cause is a righteous cause, and will be at last a victorious one. (2.) To show the great value and esteem they had for this faithful servant of Jesus Christ, this first martyr for the gospel, whose memory shall always be precious to them, notwithstanding the ignominy of his death. They study to do honour to him upon whom God put honour. (3.) To testify their belief and hope of the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

It could have also been a mix of new Christians and empathetic Jews attending to Stephen’s burial.

Verse 3 brings us back to Saul and his vigilance and violence in going house to house to rout Jerusalem of Christian men and women.

The King James Version mentioned above says that Saul ‘made havock’, which means laying violent waste and ruin to something, in this case, the Church. Saul wanted to achieve the wanton destruction of Christ’s holy Bride.

Henry gives us a chilling description of Saul, a Pharisee, by the way:

Paul owns that at this time he persecuted this way unto the death (Acts 21:4), and (Acts 26:10) that when they were put to death he gave his voice against them …

He aimed at no less than the cutting off of the gospel Israel, that the name of it should be no more in remembrance, Psalms 83:4. He was the fittest tool the chief priests could find out to serve their purposes; he was informer-general against the disciples, a messenger of the great council to be employed in searching for meetings, and seizing all that were suspected to favour that way. Saul was bred a scholar, a gentleman, and yet did not think it below him to be employed in the vilest work of that kind. (1.) He entered into every house, making no difficulty of breaking open doors, night or day, and having a force attending him for that purpose. He entered into every house where they used to hold their meetings, or every house that had any Christians in it, or was thought to have. No man could be secure in his own house, though it was his castle. (2.) He haled, with the utmost contempt and cruelty, both men and women, dragged them along the streets, without any regard to the tenderness of the weaker sex; he stooped so low as to take cognizance of the meanest that were leavened with the gospel, so extremely bigoted was he. (3.) He committed them to prison, in order to their being tried and put to death, unless they would renounce Christ; and some, we find, were compelled by him to blaspheme, Acts 26:11.

MacArthur says that Saul genuinely believed he was doing the right thing:

Galatians 1:13 proves that: “Just as you heard of my manner of life in time past, in the Jew’s religion. How that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God and wasted it. And profited in the Jew’s religion above many my equals and mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. I thought I was pleasing God. I was so zealous for my religion.” But he was wrong.

MacArthur calls our attention to the KJV word ‘haling’, the antiquated form of ‘hauling’:

He just hauled them out of the houses. It means dragging, literally. It’s used in John 21:8 of dragging the fishnet in with all the fish. Remember when Peter caught so many fish he just dragged them? That’s what he did. He grabbed them, dragged them out into the street, and threw them in jail.

From this, we can better understand the violence of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. It had to be that way.

Acts 8 goes on to follow the ministry of Philip in Samaria, which we will encounter next time.

As there are special Sundays coming up for the next few weeks, Forbidden Bible Verses will resume in June 2017.

Next time: Acts 8:4-8

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