Comfort and Purpose for a Scattered Church (Acts 8:1–8)

The arrival and spread of the coronavirus has largely rendered churches oxymoronic unassembled assemblies tantamount to an uncrowded crowds or ungrouped groups. At Oakridge, our prayer and mission is to be a church that’s like family. But how do we become family from afar? How can we operate as a body when our members are disconnected from one another?

Today we’re going to be reminded that the separation-causing hardship we’re currently facing as a church family is not unprecedented. It’s happened many times in history and, this morning, we’re going back to perhaps its first occurrence. As we see how the people of God were scattered in Acts 8, we want to learn how to best navigate our days ahead with faith, trust, and effectiveness.

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The arrival and spread of the coronavirus has affected nearly every facet of our lives, including the church. The body of Christ as we’ve come to know it, and as we’ve grown to love it, is gone. It isn’t what it was and it isn’t what it is supposed to be. The church right now an oxymoronic unassembled assembly

There’s a very real temptation to be discouraged by the state of the church. At Oakridge, our prayer and mission is to be a church that is like family. But how do we be family from afar? How do we grow together, protect each other, and encourage one another while apart?

Over the next few weeks we’re going to explore this issue. When the body of Christ is scattered—when it’s forced to operate in ways that are obviously, woefully, and terribly less than ideal—how do we grow as family? How can we operate as a body when its members are disconnected from one another? How can we function as an assembly of people while unassembled?

In the weeks ahead we’ll consider some things we can and should be doing during this time rooted in two realities that haven’t changed, even in light of 2020. Today, however, we’re simply going to be reminded that the separation-causing hardship we’re currently facing as a church family is not unprecedented. It’s happened many times in the history of the church and, this morning, I want us to go back to perhaps its first occurrence. To do that, please turn in your Bibles to Acts 8.

Establishing Context

We’re about to parachute down into the middle of an action-packed book and, anytime you do that, context needs to be established. So, let me set the stage.

After his resurrection and before his ascension, Jesus gave his followers clear instructions to be carried out in his temporary absence: Tell the world about me.

“but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and 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

Tell the world about me.

As promised, the Holy Spirit arrives in chapter 2, indwelling, uniting, and equipping God’s people in a way never before experienced. And the church was born, and now empowered by God’s Spirit, God’s people went out to accomplish the assignment they’d been given.

And, at first, it goes well! Peter preaches and three thousand come to faith. Listen to this description of church life at the beginning:

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.

Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42–47

It was peaceful and thrilling! But that wouldn’t last long. As one of the main points of their message to the Jews was “You killed your Messiah,” opposition was as inevitable as conversions. And tensions began to rise in Jerusalem. 

A man named Stephen, a leader in the early church, was dragged before the religious leaders to answer for his witness. The trial was an absolute sham—false witnesses bringing false charges to a court that had already made its decision: He’s guilty. 

Facing his own death, Acts 7 records what Stephen says, not in his own defence but in the defence of Christ. He ends his sermon with a bang:

“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.”

Acts 7:51–53

Harsh! Now, listen to the people’s response:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him.

But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse.

When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 7:54–60

That’s a long way from the end of chapter 2 where the church had favour with all the people. While Jerusalem had been slowly filling with the gas of religious animosity, Stephen’s execution lit the match. Bang. 

And it’s with that explosion that we come to our text for this morning: The first eight verses of chapter 8. In these paragraphs we’re going to see tribulation, proclamation, and celebration. Those are the headings we’re going to use as we work through this passage: Tribulation, proclamation, and celebration.

Tribulation: Enduring Hardship

To begin, we’ll note the tribulation the early church faced; the hardship they were forced to endure.

First, we see that the church had powerful opposition.

Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death.

Acts 8:1a

In 7:58 Saul was introduced for the first time, a man we’re now told was “in hearty agreement” with Stephen’s murder. Because we know the whole story, we know that this Saul is later converted dramatically and becomes better known by his Greek name, Paul, and takes the gospel of Jesus all over the known world.

But for now, Saul is a rising star in Pharisaical Judaism. He’s a well-respected up-and-comer and this new movement of Jesus-lovers has his full, zealous attention. The church is in his murderous crosshairs and he has the full weight of the Sanhedrin behind him. 

Second, not only did the church have powerful opposition but they experienced growing persecution.

And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem

Acts 8:1b

This “great persecution” was systematic, organized oppression of the church. 

Third, this growing persecution caused forced relocation.

and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

Acts 8:1c

The oppression was so great in Jerusalem that the members of the church had to pack up their things, their families, their lives, and seek safety. Some had grown up in Jerusalem. Some had family that weren’t believers they left behind. These were religious refugees being forced to relocate, because of powerful opposition and growing persecution.

Fourth, as if that wasn’t enough, we also read that there was legitimate lamentation. Remember, this is all happening right after Stephen’s murder. A well-known, much-loved leader in the church was falsely accused and killed.

Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him.

Acts 8:2

It was Jewish law that mourning for someone executed for blasphemy was illegal. The Christians didn’t care. They grieved their loss. There was legitimate lamentation. Heartbreak.

Finally, the church was having to cope with constant trepidation.

But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.

Acts 8:3

Make no mistake: Prison was a waiting room for a trial much like that of Stephen’s. 

Imagine you weren’t safe in your own home; that at any moment your door could be kicked in, armed men flood your living space, and drag you off to face capital punishment. Imagine living with that nonstop fear, that constant trepidation.

In these first three verses of chapter 8 we see that God allowed his church to experience a time of tribulation—hardship, inconvenience, fear, loss, shame, rejection, and abuse.

Our current state has some similarities, doesn’t it? Praise God we, in Canada, haven’t faced powerful opposition or growing persecution, at least not yet and not like the early church. 

But some of us have experienced legitimate lamentation during this time. Loss that would be grieved in normal circumstances but, now, this year, has to be grieved more-or-less alone. I performed a graveside service early in 2020 at which the family wept, not only because they had lost a husband, father, and grandfather, but because he had died alone as they weren’t allowed to be with him. That’s legitimate lamentation.

There are many today, even Christians, who endured 2020 in a state of constant trepidation; fear of financial insecurity, educational uncertainty, vocational instability, of loneliness, of illness, death.

All of us have had to endure forced relocation; having to move where we live, work, play, socialize, or worship. Our routines have been stripped from us and, with that, comes a sense of disorientation and real loss. As much as we praise God for the provision of the technology that enables it, Christmas morning re-located to Zoom is not only sad, it’s tragic and unhealthy if continued. In the same way, corporate worship re-located to YouTube is not only unfortunate, it’s tragic and unhealthy if continued.

We may not be facing exactly what the early church was, but there are similarities. We are scattered because of external factors. We have been forced into a less-than-ideal reality that we pray will come to an end soon but that, in the meantime, we are asking God to help us endure.

The question becomes, what do we do while enduring tribulation? What did the early church do?

Proclamation: Unrelenting Witness

Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them.

Acts 8:4–5

While there was tribulation, there was also proclamation. While the church was enduring hardship, they were also unrelenting in their witness. 

Verse five is really a restatement of verse four but with a more narrow focus. Luke, the author, moves from the church as a whole to an individual member of that church, Philip.

It’s like saying Oakridge committed themselves to prayer in 2021. Josiah Boyd prayed almost every morning. Both highlight the church’s commitment to prayer, but the latter is an example of the former.

There’s something else I find interesting about these two verses. The movement of the church is stated passively in verse four—they “had been scattered”—that is, it had been done to them, which is obviously true. But notice the movement of Philip is stated actively in verse five—he “went down”.

Now, you may think, “Who cares?,” but I think there’s a point: This scattering of the church is being done to them, but there’s also a sense of intentionality to it—both on the part of the people of God and on the part of the God they serve.

Remember back to their assignment in 1:8. They were to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the remotest parts of the earth. Look where 8:1 describes the church going: “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” And then notice Philip’s movement in verse 5: “Philip went down to the city of Samaria.” 

Yes, there was persecution. Yes, the church was passively being scattered. But, at the same time, God was actively using this persecution to mobilize his people to accomplish the assignment he’d given them.

And in both verses 4 and 5, regarding the church as a whole and Philip as its representative, notice what they do when scattered: They “went about preaching the word” and he “began proclaiming Christ to them.”

God may have allowed his church to experience a time of tribulation, but God also used this time of tribulation to mobilize his church for faithful proclamation.

Oakridge, as a church family, is scattered right now. That’s been done to us. There’s certainly a sense in which we are passive in our situation. But have we considered God’s being active in it?

Remembering that God is more concerned with our holiness than our happiness, how is he actively using this year in our lives, in our families, marriages, friendships, habits, spiritual disciplines? What is he exposing? Showing? Growing? Killing?

And what about you and I? What are we actively doing during this time for God’s glory? How are we being intentional? Philip, being scattered, actively went down to Samaria to proclaim Christ. How are we being like Philip?

As church leadership we, like many of you, mourned the movement to electronic services. Yet, at the same time, we’ve heard from multiple people who haven’t been able to attend Oakridge for a long time, saying they now feel more part of the church. Is this ideal? No way. Can God use it? He can, he will, and he is.

This newborn church in Jerusalem was enduring tribulation with faithful proclamation. They were an unrelenting witness in the face of unfortunate hardship. And what was the result?

Celebration: Sharing Joy

It was celebration.

The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was much rejoicing in that city.

Acts 8:6–8

Out of terrible tribulation came bold proclamation. The church remained a faithful witness for Jesus Christ, exemplified in the actions of Philip.

He went where the persecution sent him, and declared the truth about Jesus. Don’t let the contrast be lost on you. He’s displaced, preaching stability. He’s destitute, preaching hope. He’s facing prison, preaching freedom. 

The Samarians are captivated, locking their collective attention on Philip, hearing the words of God from him and seeing the power of God through him.

Verse 12 tells us that, not only did they listen and watch, they believed.

But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.

Acts 8:12

Which makes verse 8 very reasonable: “So there was much rejoicing in that city.”

God used this time of tribulation to not only mobilize his church, but also to grow his church. Certainly, people were saved and the church was growing numerically, but the existing members were being encouraged and matured as well. 

This type of God-caused, hardship-inspired growth is cause for celebration. 

Application: Scatter with Purpose!

Are we experiencing hardship today? Absolutely. Can God use those hardships for opportunities for gospel proclamation? You bet. Do we have reasons for celebration during these months? I think we do and I think we will. That is, if we scatter with purpose!

Like the church in Acts 8, we are scattered, scared, and suffering. But also like them, our purpose, our goal, our divine task has not changed just because part of our world has. We are to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the people around us—to build up believers and to save unbelievers. Are we scattering with purpose? Are we moving with intentionality, trusting that God can still do today what he did in the first century, that he can use tribulation to bring about celebration through proclamation?

I want to encourage you this week to consider how you can scatter with purpose. 

First, identify the Samarians in your life; people you are more in contact with now than you would have been before the scattering. (Remember Philip didn’t mingle with Samarians before Stephen was killed. The tribulation allowed for that connection.) 

Who are the Samarians in your life? Maybe the tech person at work, a family member online, children in the house now, a spouse as captive audience. Think of the people in your life that you have had more face-time with now than ever before. Could that be by divine design? 

Second, pray every day this week for that relationship—that God would give you an opportunity to share joy-filled news (celebratory news!) in spite of the hardship all are enduring and that God would give you boldness to proclaim it.

First, identity the Samarian. Second, pray for an opportunity to proclaim. 

For many of us, 2020 was a year of tribulation. But, like the church in Acts, none of this is outside the scope of God’s attention and power.