“But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:3–4).
“Scattered” describes the manner in which the Christians departed Jerusalem. They were dispersed randomly, sown like seeds, without thought or care for their safety or well-being. The image of the sower in Jesus’ parable comes to mind who reached into his bag and scattered seeds indiscriminately on the road, over the stones, and among the thorns, as well as in the good soil.
The word Luke used for “scattered” relates their going out directly to Saul’s persecution. As he ravaged the church, the Christians who escaped his systematic and exhaustive search to extinguish the name of Jesus didn’t go into witness protection programs to hide out in security for the rest of their lives. They “went about preaching the word.”
To all appearances, the Christians fled Jerusalem aimlessly. In reality, God sent them out purposefully. God does nothing without purpose. Jesus foretold them that His church would proclaim His gospel around the world: “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Events take place in the world that, to us, seem pointless. Just as children, who often don’t understand what their parents’ do, we seldom comprehend all that God has in store.
Luke’s word for “preaching” gives us the word “evangelize.” They went about – without a plan, strategy, organization, or support – scattering the good news, the glad tidings of God’s grace through Jesus Christ to save sinners.
We often think of preaching as a style of speaking (in loud, stained-glass tones), that’s done by a certain person (a duly ordained preacher), in a particular location (behind a pulpit, in a steepled church), at a certain time (Sunday morning), while wearing a manner of dress (suit and tie).
Luke, though, had in mind something very different. First, “they were all scattered… except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). Untrained men and women, singles and families, young and old – everyone in the church – except the apostles – went out proclaiming Christ. Second, they didn’t preach in pulpits or wear suits and ties or speak in artificial manners. They made much of Christ, using their own words and communicating in ordinary speech as they went – wherever, whenever.
Saul’s attempt to annihilate the church became the catalyst by which the church began to fulfill the Lord Jesus’ promise. The church had been growing numerically at a phenomenal rate, but no one had yet gone beyond the local community. A growing complacency had begun to creep into the church. Had it been allowed to continue, the extraordinary gospel growth may well have stalled and given way to the spiritual lethargy that’s so common today. So, God used Saul to stir the pot, so to speak and send His people out.
Today, a kind of religious apathy has captured many churches. The Great Commission to “go and tell” has morphed into “come and stay.” Instead of making disciples, we prefer to entertain spectators. Pastoral success is measured by the number of people who fill the pews every week rather than those who go out to share Christ, gather believers, and start new churches and other ministries.
Unlike the early church, which emphasized preaching, praying, and fellowship, many churches today seem content to focus on performances and entertainment. Discipleship is a class that people attend. Worship is a performance that people watch. Preaching is a self-help pep speech to which people listen. Prayer is a brief professionally-rehearsed statement made to begin or end a meeting. Regrettably, many people are content with such fanfare.
Perhaps, God will bring another widespread persecution against His church in our generation in order to wake His dispirited disciples out of our cozy slumber. When it comes, the religious hypocrites that swell the congregations will likely depart. The redeemed will gather together as our spiritual forebears did for teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer (Acts 2:42).
Then, we’ll make a profound difference in the world for the glory of God.