And Saul approved of Stephen’s execution.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city. – Acts 8:1-8
I have known some mean people in my life, but thankfully not too many. One such person worked in the meat department of the grocery story I worked at in high school. He was mean and surly. He would make a point of being rude and bullying me. He imposed himself in every encounter I had. If it were not for the kindly managers of the meat and produce departments, my work life would have been entirely unbearable. “Rudy Boy” (that was what the butcher, his immediate boss called him) was a bully, but my friends, Mr. Happle and the butcher kept me at arm’s length from his ill intentions.
Saul of Taursus was not just a bully, however, he was a violent persecutor. He was zealous for what he understood as true, right, holy, and vitally important to the wellbeing of Israel and the Jewish faith. Saul stands in approving agreement at the stoning of Stephen. I have a picture of him as arms crossed, nodding in approval – as though his approval would certainly mean something to those who were doing the dastardly deed. Saul was full of himself, and so much so that he advanced beyond all his peers in legalistic righteousness. He would later say of himself, “…formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Timothy 1:13).
While Saul set out on his self-appointed mission to rid the world of followers of Jesus, the followers of Jesus continue on their way of sharing the gospel. The followers of Jesus were scattered, but they take advantage of that opportunity to share the gospel wherever they go. Philip has such great success in a city of Samaria that there was “much joy in that city.” Some were mourning the death of Stephen. At the same time others were learning of the One who overcomes death, sin, disease, and despair.
I am – just this moment – somewhat distressed at the slowness of my knee surgery recovery. It’s been more than seven weeks now, and I still cannot straighten my leg as either I or my physical therapists desire. My leg aches when I put it up and straighten it out in order to stretch out my hamstrings and the ligaments in the back of my knee. I could go on. And truly God cares about this – just as he did about Stephen and those who mourned his death. But I don’t want to lose sight of a larger battle, and recognize that all that God is doing is not confined to my knee in this moment.
He is at work just now in a meeting of Sunday school teachers, and Vacation Bible School ministry partners. He is at work in a training session for some folks who are involved in the initial efforts of our capital stewardship campaign. He is at work in the homes of families who have invited their friends to dinner in order to begin a conversation about faith and Jesus, life, and salvation.
Our “momentary, light afflictions” (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:17) or even the largest of trauma and distress do not prevent God’s work from moving forward. He will pursue people to bless, save, enliven, and comfort them by his loving grace in Jesus. That is good for me to remember just now, and at all times. When I have the privilege of being part of God’s work in others’ lives, I must thank God for that privilege and seek to be faithful in the face of persecution, and grateful in the experience of his favor.