There are events which shape history; Stephen’s appearance and death fit into that category. He triggers a personal turmoil for Saul, a young (Ac 7:58), law-keeping, studious (Ph 3:4-6) and rich (Ph 4:12) council member (Ac 26:10) who is left livid by Stephen. So whilst others mourn the passing of a loved pastor (v2), Saul is delighted by his murder (v1) and sets out on a brutal hunt (v3) driving all the Christians, apart from the apostles, from Jerusalem. Yet this awful period is also a step towards the upgrading of the church and, thus, the transformation of the world.
Firstly, there is Saul. This disturbing of his mind is of the Lord (Ac 26:14), who’ll soon confront him (Ac 9:5), turn him around and send him off to preach to Gentiles (Ac 9:15). Secondly, there is the dispersal of Jewish Christians into Samaria. The Samaritans are half-Jewish people who have Moses’ laws but worship their own way (Jo 4: 20) and are despised in Israel (Jo 4:9). Yet these Jewish Christians tell the locals about Jesus (v4), and then the Lord sends in a talented specialist, Philip (Stephen’s colleague (Ac 6:5)), who publicly proclaims Jesus (v5), drawing large crowds with miracles (v6, 7), leading to joy in the city where he’s working (v8). So though painfully sad, Stephen’s death also triggers a radical expansion in the life of the church.
But what can we learn from this time in history? Well, this incident shows us two vital activities in the life of the early church which still shape how Christians live today.
Firstly, there is the role of the witnesses. Earlier in Acts, the apostles and others were identified as witnesses (Ac 1:8,21,22; 2:32; 5:32): people who could give a first-hand account of Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection; Paul later puts Stephen in the same group (Ac 22:20, ‘martyr’ in our translation is just the word ‘witness’). Jesus left nothing in his own hand: no scroll where he wrote his life, teachings or ideas. We know him through those who were with him, especially his chosen representatives: the 12 apostles named in the Bible (eg Lk 6:13-16). These people were Jesus’ witnesses and what they told laid the foundation upon which the church is built (Ep 2:20). Indeed, the first Christians even saw their speaking in legal terms, with themselves as having a role in a great court case between God and people (Lk 22:30; Ac 7:55; Jo 16:8).
Christians today should value these witnesses because we owe them so much. As with Stephen, their service to Christ often cost them their lives, hence our word ‘martyr’ for those who are killed for Jesus. We must remember the price paid for the words in our New Testaments. And when we talk with non-Christians about Jesus, we should feel a confidence and pride in what we recount because it comes from this group who knew Jesus. As Luke wrote (Lk 1:1-4): what we believe is not from the imagination of a madman, nor the scheming of a conman, but from serious witnesses.
But then, secondly, our passage speaks not only of witnessing but evangelism. ‘Preach’ in v4 is a word meaning to give good news, which comes into English as ‘evangelise’. The news given by the Christians is the ‘word’, that is: the message about Jesus. Their arrival in Samaria triggers curiosity to which they respond not with tales of woe but with the great message of Jesus, which has led to their unplanned travel. And of them all, Philip so embodies this news-telling that he later gains the nickname ‘Evangelist’ (Ac 21:8). Indeed, he is part of an honourable line of those who publicly announce God’s news to crowds of people (Lk 1:19, 3:18, 4:43; Ep 4:11).
Through Christian history, and still today around the world, there have been times like Acts 8 in which the Holy Spirit has stirred many to hear about Christ. They are thrilling to see but also need our prayers that those who speak – especially those who find themselves speaking in public, like Philip – will do so rightly and be kept safe in the Lord, in the midst of all the demands. And meanwhile we, who live in quieter places, do not need to feel low. We simply press on following Jesus in all of life, as a part of his church: rejoicing in the many converted elsewhere, smiling when the Lord brings one or two to us, and knowing the future with Christ is glorious (Ph 2:9-11).