Persecution In Acts

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By Alan J. Thompson | 2 March 2017

This is a guest post from Alan J. Thompson.
Alan Thompson is the author of 'Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus' and a lecturer in New Testament at Sydney Missionary and Bible College. He completed his Masters and Ph.D. in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. Alan is originally from New Zealand but now lives in Sydney.

Is it possible for Christianity to be wiped out and come to an end? 

Certainly many have thought so and have even tried to bring this about. 

Thankfully God has not left us in the dark about this, but has given us his Word, the Bible. In fact, 2000 years ago the book of Acts was written in part to answer this very question. 

At first glance, a superficial reading of Acts might lead us to think that the good news about Jesus should spread easily. After all, we have recurring statements throughout the book that “the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (19:20 also see 6:7; 12:24). 

Opposition And Growth

A closer look, however, reveals that in this age, before the return of Jesus and the arrival of God’s kingdom in fullness, the spread of the good news about Jesus will be characteristically accompanied with persecution and opposition.

The opening chapters of the book describe both:

  • Increasing opposition against the early Christians
    and
  • The continued spread of the gospel in spite of persecution.

There are three places in these early chapters of Acts where these two themes are placed side by side.

1. Acts 4:3 - An Attempt To Thwart The Spread Of The Gospel

Two apostles, Peter and John, were proclaiming the good news about the risen Lord Jesus, but they were seized by the authorities and placed in prison in an attempt to stop the spread of the good news. The next verse, however (Acts 4:4) begins with 'but'! “But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.” 

2. Acts 5:18 - The Opposition Increases.

Although in 4:3 two apostles were placed in jail, now all the apostles are placed in jail. In 4:21 Peter and John were released with a warning. Now, in 5:40 the apostles are released with a flogging and some wanted to put them all to death (5:33). The verse following the account of their arrest in 5:18, however, also begins with 'but'! An angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and sent them back to where they had been preaching so they could continue to “tell the people all about this new life” (5:20). After their release, “Day after day … they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (5:42).

3. Acts 8:1–4 - The First Martyr

We reach the greatest opposition to the message about Jesus to this point in Acts. We move beyond threats of death to the first person killed for their proclamation of Jesus (Stephen). Furthermore, we read that on the day of Stephen’s death “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (8:1). In fact, so intense was this persecution that “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (Acts 8:3).

Surely this looks like the end of the Christian church! Certainly this appears to have been Saul’s aim. However, once again, the book of Acts places next to this a statement about the continuing spread of the message about Jesus. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). 

Did you notice the additional point being made here? Not only is this once again saying that the spread of the message about Jesus cannot be thwarted by persecution, this is even saying that, in this instance, persecution was the very means for the spread of the message. Stephen’s death was followed by persecution, persecution led to the scattering of believers, and the scattering of believers led to the continued spread of the gospel, now beyond Jerusalem for the first time!

The Gospel Spreads

As believers were scattered, some told the message to fellow Jews and others told Greeks “the good news about the Lord Jesus” (11:20). Amazingly, “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (11:21). In this same verse we’re told how this came about. It was because “the Lord’s hand was with them.” The risen Lord Jesus was with his people, strengthening them to tell the gospel, and enabling people to respond and believe the good news. 

There are no simplistic explanations of suffering and persecution in Acts. In one chapter (Acts 12) James the apostle is put to death by Herod and Peter is miraculously rescued from Herod’s prison and certain death. There are no guarantees that a believer will escape, or any one church will survive (see e.g., Rev 2–3). 

Nevertheless, the book of Acts provides us with assurance that the risen Lord Jesus is still with his people. 

He enables the continuing spread of the good news about his saving death and resurrection, empowering his people by the Spirit to be his witnesses. 

By God’s grace, nothing can thwart the continued spread of the gospel and the planting of churches of people who know the forgiveness of sins through faith in the risen Lord Jesus!