“Now those who were scattered…” begins Acts 8:4, referring to hundreds, maybe thousands, of Christians in Jerusalem who have just experienced the first shock of real persecution that’s broken out against them after the martyrdom of Stephen.
If you and I had been in their sandals, and we had just become religious refugees who had lost everything, what would we have done next? “Now those who were scattered…hid themselves for fear of being caught.” “Now those who were scattered…cried out to God in great fear and confusion at why he had allowed this suffering.” “Now those who were scattered…vowed never to tell anyone of Jesus again.”
Any of these might have been a reasonable response for me if I had living out this story. But look at what really happened. Luke the author of Acts writes, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the Word.” I didn’t see that one coming.
In the movies they call Stephen’s death and the resulting persecution the all is lost moment, where we think there’s no way out for our heroes. It’s Frodo being poisoned and cocooned by the giant spider Shelob. The religious leaders along with Saul (who organized the purge) vowed that Christianity ended here in Jerusalem. Humanly speaking, there’s no way the Church continues its exponential growth after this.
But then in the movies comes the twist that takes the all-is-lost moment and turns it on its head. In charges Sam, sword in hand, to face down Shelob and rescue Frodo. The twist in Acts is that the persecuted believers fleeing for their lives didn’t skip a beat preaching the Word even as they were literally on the run. The opposition that was intended to stamp out their faith becomes the catalyst for the church expanding even further than it had reached before.
Why did the first Christians respond like this to something so devastating? Because they loved Jesus, that’s why. Following him filled them with joy. He taught them how to love and forgive. He helped them overcome terrible sins that had crippled them. He gave them eternal hope that lasted beyond this short life. A bit of suffering changed none of those things. In fact, the Lord prepared his followers up front that they would experience the hatred of the world if they followed him. “In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said (John 16:33).
Maybe that’s the difference between them and us. Maybe our love for Jesus isn’t as deeply rooted as theirs. Let’s face it, living here in America, we’ve got it pretty good. Religion for many is sort of an add-on to an otherwise comfortable life. It fills in some of the gaps where we can’t find solutions yet, like death (so it’s nice to have a get-out-of-jail free card in your back pocket for that). We make an unspoken agreement with God that as long as he keeps our lives running smoothly, we’ll save a little time and money for him.
With this as our understanding, as soon as our lives lose some of their comfort or troubles mount up, well now God’s not holding up his end of the bargain anymore. We then get cranky and think things like, What’s going on here! I didn’t sign up for this! See if I drop another tithe check in the offering for you God. See if I invite anyone to church again!
But the first disciples didn’t see persecution and suffering as a deal-breaker. Jesus for them wasn’t an add-on. He was their all-in-all, their first and last, the very foundation for their lives. So of course they kept right on talking about their Lord with others.
How would I describe my love for the Lord right now? How strongly would it stand up to suffering or disappointment? Is it real enough to where I feel it is an easy thing to talk about him with others?