What Acts Teaches Us About Persecution as a Catalyst for Spreading the Gospel
By John Whittaker
In a great stone room, the apostles stood surrounded by the entire council and senate of Israel—12 ordinary men enveloped by the nation’s most powerful leadership body.
“We must obey God rather than men,” Peter and the apostles declared.
And the ruling body became like a lynch mob until a single member intervened.
“If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail,” Gamaliel said, “but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).
As the narrative of Acts unfolded, Luke repeatedly revealed the correctness of Gamaliel’s statement.
On this particular occasion, in Jerusalem, the apostles were whipped and then sent on their way, and Luke said they “did not stop teaching and preaching” in Jesus’ name.
Scattering and Spreading Good News
Luke quickly moved on to the story of Stephen, a follower of Jesus who wasn’t so fortunate. After his speech, the ruling body descended on Stephen, forced him out of the city, and stoned him to death.
Stephen was a young man cut down in the prime of his life. Did he have a wife and children? Luke did not say, but he told us Stephen’s martyrdom was the catalyst for spreading the news about Jesus.
Although the gospel had been growing powerfully, it had remained in Jerusalem up to that point (6:1-7). Recall Jesus’ words, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Four years had elapsed by the time of Stephen’s stoning—and it had been a great four years in Jerusalem—but it was time to move out.
The council hoped Stephen’s death would bring an end to this movement of Jesus followers. Instead, his stoning became a catalyst.
A great persecution arose against the church. The people scattered, and seeds of the gospel were planted throughout Judea and Samaria. Everywhere the people went, they proclaimed the news about Jesus (8:1-4).
Luke described how God used Philip, one of those forced out of Jerusalem, to take the message of Jesus across racial lines and to the Samaritans (Acts 8).
But then Luke shared the ultimate individual example of flipping persecution on its head.
That persecution, it seems, was being spearheaded by Saul (aka Paul). We’re familiar with the story of Saul’s conversion (Acts 9), but notice what led up to it.
Saul was given official letters to search out followers of Jesus in . . . wait for it . . . Damascus, located 130 miles northeast of Jerusalem.
For the first four years after Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension—through the first seven chapters of Acts—the work of the gospel was confined to Jerusalem. But once persecution arose, suddenly there were followers of Jesus 130 miles away!
Not only that, the chief persecutor (Saul) became the chief promoter (Paul)—and Jesus personally recruited him for that role while Saul was in mid-attack!
After his conversion, Paul immediately began proclaiming Jesus in the Damascus synagogues, professing that “He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). Paul carried on such a powerful preaching ministry in and around Damascus that the persecutor-turned-promoter became the persecuted.
Paul had to flee Damascus. Later, he had to flee Jerusalem. He ultimately returned to Tarsus, his hometown—300 miles north of Jerusalem—and more gospel seeds were planted . . . spread (again) by the winds of persecution.
Gamaliel’s words were prophetic indeed! Men can’t stop God’s work.
Peter preached in Judea (Acts 9:32-43), and then, in a giant leap forward, he baptized the first Gentiles in Acts 10. The ends of the earth were all that remained.
Again, Stephen’s death and the church’s persecution served as the springboard:
So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:19-20, New American Standard Bible).
Faithfully Expanding God’s Work
The impact of Stephen’s stoning spread far and wide in the 10 years that followed. The gospel spread to the northeastern coastline of the Mediterranean and out to Cyprus.
It even spread cross-culturally. Men came from Cyprus to Antioch and preached to Greeks as well!
Luke wanted his audience to be aware that all this occurred because of what happened to Stephen.
I can’t help but think of the story of the five American missionaries martyred in Ecuador in 1956—how two years after their deaths, Elisabeth Elliot (widow of a victim) and Rachel Saint (sister of a victim) returned to live among the very tribe who killed their loved ones. Through their efforts, many in the Huaorani tribe came to know God. A victim’s son, Steve Saint, wrote decades later, “This success [Huaorani conversions] withheld from them in life God multiplied and continues to multiply as a memorial to their obedience and his faithfulness.”
The church at Antioch became the sending church for Paul’s missionary travels. The book of Acts ends with Paul preaching the gospel at the very heart of the empire—in Rome with the imperial guard listening in—because of persecution!
At every turn, we see the truth of Gamaliel’s prediction of the futility of fighting to stop God’s plan. In fact, when people use persecution to attempt to stop God’s work, it becomes the very thing God uses for expanding his work.
That might seem fairly obvious, but think about it.
If we long to see the work of the gospel go forward, we shouldn’t fear persecution. We don’t seek it, of course, and we avoid it when we can (as the apostle Paul did in Acts). But neither should we fear it or be shocked when it happens . . . or act like it’s the worst thing in the world.
Joining in Jesus’ Suffering
The maxim Jesus applied to himself, it seems, is also true of his followers: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24, NASB). This happens again and again in Acts.
But, even though this happens by the clever sovereignty of God, it happens only through men and women who are absolutely loyal and submitted to Jesus.
In Acts 5, when the apostles were surrounded by the most powerful men among the Jews, their loyalty to Jesus compelled them to say, “We must obey God rather than men” (v. 29). And after they were beaten for saying it, they “went on their way . . . rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (5:41, NASB). The apostles didn’t whine. They weren’t angry. Instead, they rejoiced because they could join Jesus in suffering shame.
God uses this attitude—the attitude of joining in Jesus’ suffering—to advance his cause in the midst of persecution.
We see this with Stephen too. As rocks pummeled him to death, he echoed Jesus’ words by praying, “Do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
The same attitude was there among those who were scattered in the wake of Stephen’s death. Fleeing Jerusalem meant leaving homes, friends, jobs, spiritual community . . . and starting over somewhere else. But they didn’t cower in fear or become bitter. Instead, they “went about preaching Jesus wherever they went.”
And this attitude was also on display with Paul. It’s all over his letters, and in the book of Acts too. As his third journey came to a close, Paul was headed to Jerusalem with threats overshadowing him. He knew full well what might happen, but he said, “I don’t consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24, NASB).
God’s people live for the work that persecution can’t stop.
I can’t help but think of a more recent example, the story of missionary Eugenio Nij. Long story short, in 1997, Nij was unjustly arrested through a crazy series of events but—just like his brothers and sisters in Acts—he remained absolutely loyal to Jesus. Jail didn’t stop him from doing God’s work. He pastored and preached to the other inmates, and during his 126 days in jail, he baptized more than 200 people!
Once again, persecution became part of God’s strategy for advancing the kingdom of Jesus through a life devoted to him at all costs.
That’s the way it was in Acts. It’s the way it’s always been, and the way it will always be.
John Whittaker has been a pastor in two churches and taught New Testament, theology, and preaching at Boise (Idaho) Bible College for 19 years. Currently he equips people to follow Jesus by creating podcasts, YouTube Bible studies, and online courses to help people learn and live the Bible.