I’m studying Acts in depth this year in my personal studies and right now I’m in Acts 8. I had this thought while reading the opening verse and how it can apply to our present pandemic and our response to it…
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.
To this point, the religion of Jesus Christ was entirely a Jerusalem affair. Her founder died there. Her ambassadors first preached there. Her first members were baptized there. Jerusalem was the hub of Jewish life so the church benefited greatly from so many people travelling in to partake in various holidays. With the death of Stephen, the church went from what the uninformed citizen viewed as a sect of the Rabbi Jesus—akin to the Essenes in the way their views were considered extreme but not dangerous to society at large—to a group whose primary aim was the bringing down of the Jewish way of life.
Of course, that was hardly the true goal of the church, but you can see how such a viewpoint might spread: Stephen was accused of parroting the words of Jesus that He would “destroy the Temple” and undo the customs of Moses (ch6:14). His being killed over those accusations would have affected the way the average citizen viewed the church in Jerusalem. Work would continue there, the Gospel would still be preached there, but with persecution now the new normal for God’s people, it made no sense for brethren to remain there.
The chapter begins with a note that Saul, first introduced as the young man who held the outer robes of those who stoned Stephen, was “consenting unto his death.” The phrase means he “thought well of” it or was “gratified” by it. Far from seeing it as a last resort measure to put down a blasphemer, Saul saw this as the first of many stonings in the effort to exterminate the sect of Jesus.
Not to jump ahead too much, but it’s worth noting that the man consenting to Stephen’s death will later end up being the Lord’s greatest ambassador to the Gentile world. How ironic that the death he helped perform would spark a global movement with him in the middle preaching the message that he once opposed!
With Jerusalem no longer welcoming brethren scattered beyond, to the regions of Judea and Samaria. Not everyone left; the Apostles remained in the city, presumably to teach and preach. Based on what Luke writes next (how Saul entered homes in order to arrest brethren),it’s clear the church changed tactics and refrained from public discourses and instead shifted to private meetings and studies.
They would have done this, not out of cowardice, but out of a sense of pragmatism.
Sure, the Apostles could have been stubborn and kept doing what they had been doing. They could have gone out loudly shouting about Jesus and the Temple and the change of the Law, etc. In response, they would have been stoned and killed right here in the church’s infancy. Or, the Apostles could preach the Gospel in secret, converting souls under the noses of the murderous leaders who were looking for any reason to arrest them. Thankfully, the Apostles had wisdom to know what not to do and how to change approaches as needed.
Was it technically okay for them to keep doing things the way they had been? Sure, but wisdom is knowing the difference between “what can I do” and “what should I do.” The Apostles altered how they obeyed God’s commands and the church thrived because of it.
I’m thankful we have elders here at North Heights that looked at the Governor’s restrictions on public gatherings and decided “here’s what we can do… but should we?” I’m thankful they were pragmatic enough to say “let’s continue doing things a little differently for a little while longer.” I’m thankful for their wisdom.