Important points in history often have two types of components in them: those which only happen at the time and those which continue into the future. Both can be found in the drama of Acts 8, and it’s vital to see which elements in the chapter fall into which category. However, to do so we need to understand the event properly and to do that it’s helpful, first, to look back at the earlier chapters to see three significant steps which have led up to this key moment in the church’s life.
First is the rebirth of Israel. God chose Abram around 4000 years ago to receive some glorious promises (Ge 12:1-3). His family inherited those hopes and became the nation of Israel. But, as Stephen pointed out, her conduct has been far from exemplary (Ac 7:51,52). Nonetheless, there were true believers who dreamt of a better time when the hearts of Israel’s citizens would be for the Lord (Je 31:31-34). The opening chapters of Acts have been about that hope becoming a reality. Jesus has created a renewed Israel with twelve new leaders to replace the old tribes and all its members filled with the Holy Spirit. Since Acts 2, the apostles have preached in Jerusalem that Jesus is the only path for those who want a place in Israel’s wonderful future. That is why the twelve did not move out from the capital city: Christ’s work had to start with the Jews and the renewal of Israel. Only once that was done could the mission spread to incorporate into God’s Israel people of other nations, like Samaria. But now, in our chapter, that happens and the result is that Israel is expanded to all with faith in Jesus (Ro 9:6-8) including, of course, Christians today.
But then, secondly, we also see the development of this reborn Israel in the early chapters of Acts. In the Old Testament, Israel had a set of laws to create a boundary around her, to separate her from other nations and give her a safe-haven in Canaan. Jesus’ renewed Israel, however, can do the opposite: she can invade the world (Ac 1:8). Acts 1-7 have shown her being prepared for this task. Not that it is easy, since Jesus does not build his kingdom with military hardware (Ep 6:10-18) or political shenanigans. Rather he uses a power which is greater than anything the world can offer: the Holy Spirit (Ac 2:4). The Spirit’s activity has been visible from the start of Acts, not only in the miracles he performs but also in the development of a beautiful community life among the believers (Ac 2:43-47; 4:32-37). Especially, the church has seen an apostle-led growth in prayer and the word of God (Ac 6:4), showing how much the first Christians felt that their life as God’s people depended completely on the Lord and not on their natural strengths or abilities.
Formulating its message was such an important task for the early church. Though the apostles had been well-trained, using Rabbinic techniques, by the Lord Jesus (Ac 4:13), he also told them that there was much still to learn and promised the Spirit would help them (Jo 16:12,13). They then needed to deliver this teaching to the church in a format which could travel the world, to places and times far from where the apostles themselves were based. From this need arose our gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and, indeed, the rest of the New Testament. We must always remember that the church’s life depends upon the word of God. The message of Jesus’ life, work, teaching, death, resurrection, ascension and return is the basis of all that we are as Christians. To learn from him and put it into practice in the church is our solemn commission (Mt 28:19,20).
However, one more stage had to be reached before the church could move into Samaria. As Jesus’ renewed Israel came to life, she also warned old Israel to join her or lose the Lord (Ac 2:40). For centuries God had told Israel not to rebel against him; then he sent his Son to say the same, but they killed him (Mt 21:33-41). Then he sent his Spirit and they were given one final chance. But only one: to reject the Spirit would mean ruin (Lk 11:50,51; 12:10). And in Acts 7 the leaders of Israel did just that by killing Stephen, a man full of the Spirit (Ac 6:5-10). That opened the way to the city’s destruction in 70AD and for the church to go elsewhere. To be God’s people is a huge privilege which brings eternal blessings. The privilege is to be treated with great care.