Excerpt: When Israel persecuted the Spirit-filled believers, it forfeited its last opportunity to repent, and Stephen pronounced God’s judgment on them. Christians fled to Judea and Samaria, taking the gospel message with them; away from Jerusalem.
The first 30 years of the church can be divided into four phases. The second phase commenced with the stoning of Stephen and the persecution of the church in Jerusalem, which scattered the believers throughout Judea and Samaria (7:58-8:1) and ended when Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time (Acts 10).
According to internet sources, the events of Acts 10 occurred about 7 to 10 years after the Cross. The duration of this second phase could, therefore, have been about 4 to 8 years. Both Bible Hub and Generation Word estimate the duration to about 6 years.
During the Jerusalem Phase, the church grew exponentially, but there was constant resistance from the Jewish authorities. Twice the apostles were jailed and once they were flogged. Eventually, the Jewish Council became intent on killing the apostles (5:33), but God protected them.
Stephen, “full of grace and power, … performing great wonders and signs among the people”, particularly attracted the attention of the Jews. They brought him before the Council (6:12), where Stephen delivered his well-known speech. He did not call Israel to repentance, like Peter previously did, but pronounced of God’s judgment on Israel.
After slaying Stephen, the religious leaders launched the first great persecution against the church in Jerusalem. This scattered the disciples through the “regions of Judea and Samaria” (8:2), but where-ever they went they preached the word.
God allowed the Jews to persecute the church in Jerusalem to allow the message to be spread throughout Judea and Samaria, but He did not allow the Jews to persecute the church in Judea and Samaria. When Paul tried to expand the persecution outside Jerusalem (9:2), the Lord struck him blind on the Damascus Road. This allowed the church a period of rest, free from persecution, and multiplied in Judea, Galilee and Samaria. (Acts 9:31).
In Acts 8 Philip preach in Samaria. The Samaritans listened to him attentively and saw the miracles which God performed through him. Unclean spirits came out of people, and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. Philip also shared the good news with an important Ethiopian official, and in many other towns (8:40). Peter traveled “through all those regions” (9:32), healing the sick (9:33) and bringing a dead woman to life (9:40).
God did not reject Israel for killing His Son, but sent the apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to the Jewish capital, apparently as a final opportunity for Israel to repent corporately. Who knows what the outcome would have been, had Israel repented. But when the Jews again rejected God by rejecting the manifestation of His Spirit, the Holy Spirit announced Christ’s verdict through Stephen. There-after the message went to Judea, but now to Israelites as individuals, and also to Samaria, Jacob’s despised half-breed child.
In this second phase, the church still observed the Law of Moses. The good news was shared with “Jews alone” (11:19). The Samaritans accepted the five books of Moses and did, therefore, observe the Law of Moses. The Ethiopian official “was reading the prophet Isaiah” when Philip met him (8:28), and therefore probably was a Jew or a Jewish proselyte.
STONING OF STEPHEN AND FIRST GREAT PERSECUTION
After Pentecost, the church existed as a part of Judaism, grew exponentially in Jerusalem and found “favor with all the people” in Jerusalem (2:47, 5:13). However, there also was constant resistance from the Jewish religious authorities, motivated by jealousy (5:17). Twice the apostles were jailed (4:1-4; 5:18) and once they were flogged (5:40). But eventually, the Jewish Council became intent on killing the apostles (5:33). God protected the apostles through Gamaliel (5:33-40), but then conflict erupted among the Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem. “Stephen (himself Greek-speaking), full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). He argued with the Jews in the Greek-speaking synagogues. “They were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (6:10). So they had recourse to the usual devices of lying witnesses and violence (6:11-14). They brought him before the Council (6:12), where “all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel” (6:15).
There Stephen delivered his well-known speech. His speech was of a different category. In contrast to Peter sometime earlier (cf. Acts 4:8-12), Stephen made no effort to defend himself or to refute the charges against him.
Unlike Peter’s previous speeches, Stephen’s speech did not call Israel to repentance.
Like Daniel’s prayer recorded in Daniel chapter 9, Stephen’s speech is based on God’s covenant with Israel. But while Daniel confessed the sins of his people and prayed for the mercies of the covenant, Stephen’s speech was a pronouncement of God’s judgment in terms of the covenant. He cites God’s mighty acts on behalf of His people in the past—showing that He kept His side of the covenant. Stephen also listed the failures of the Jewish people—showing that the Jewish people did not keep their side of the covenant. He made it very plain that the Jewish rulers of his day were but repeating the resistance of their forefathers to the work of the Lord. Joseph had been refused by his brethren, Moses was at first rejected. Now they had murdered the Just One who is to become their Judge. After his long recital of Israel’s history, he switched from using the pronoun “our” to “your”, and announced the verdict:
“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).
After this verdict, Stephen “gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55). The Bible consistently says that Jesus sat down at the right hand of God (Luke 22:69; Hebr. 8:1-2; 10:12; cf. Col 3:1; Rom 8:34; Acts 2:33; 5:31; Mar 16:19; 1 Peter 3:22). But Stephen saw Him standing. It is therefore proposed that Jesus stood in judgment and that through Stephen’s lips the Holy Spirit announced Christ’s judgment against the Jewish nation.
God did not reject Israel for killing His Son, but by sending the apostles with the power of the Holy Spirit to the Jewish capital, He gave Israel a final opportunity to repent corporately. Who knows what the outcome would have been, had Israel repented. But when the Jews again rejected God by rejecting the manifestation of His Spirit, the Holy Spirit announced Christ’s verdict through Stephen. There-after the message went to Judea, but now to Israelites as individuals, and also to Samaria, Jacob’s despised half-breed child.
In his last moment, Stephen prayed: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60). These words were much more than a prayer. They were the genuine expression of God’s will in relation to those people:
“If they do not continue in their unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23).
It must be noted that the covenant which God had with Israel was not synonymous with salvation. Rather, the purpose of the covenant was to take God’s salvation to the entire world (cf. Genesis 12:1-3). For this purpose, God elected Israel and conferred to them a series of privileges, such as the multiplication of their seed, the gift of the land, and His own presence in blessing and protection. He gave this to enable them to be the channel for His blessing to all other nations. Thus the covenant must be understood in terms of mission. So to state that the Jews are no longer the people of the covenant does not mean that they will not be saved, as sometimes has been suggested, but only that God has chosen another method to execute His missionary plan.
God’s covenant with Israel was established on a corporate basis—i.e., it involved the entire nation as an entity. It is not a covenant with specific individuals. The end of the covenant with Israel, therefore, does not imply the end of God’s interest in the Jews as individuals. Because of this, the gospel was still preached to them even after Stephen’s death (cf. Acts 28:17-28). But the privilege of being “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9) was no longer theirs. The people of the covenant now were no longer defined by bloodline, but by faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26-29; cf. Romans 11:25-32).
FIRST GREAT PERSECUTION
Not content with slaying Stephen, the religious leaders launched the first great persecution against the church in Jerusalem.
“Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (8:3).
This persecution scattered the disciples through the “regions of Judea and Samaria” (8:2), but where-ever they went they preached the word.
God allowed the Jews to persecute the church in Jerusalem to allow the message to spread throughout Judea and Samaria, but He did not allow the Jews to persecute the church outside Jerusalem. When Paul tried to expand the persecution outside Jerusalem (9:2), the Lord struck him blind on the Damascus Road, and he only regained his sight when he met Ananias (Acts 9:1-18). This allowed the church a period of rest:
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (9:31).
In Acts 8 Philip preach in Samaria. The Samaritans listened to him attentively and saw the miracles which God performed through him. Unclean spirits came out of people, and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed.
Philip also shared the good news with an important Ethiopian official, and in many other towns (8:40). Peter traveled “through all those regions” (9:32), healing the sick (9:33) and bringing a dead woman to life (9:40).
Seven were chosen after complaints from Greek-speaking Jews that they were being neglected, “to serve tables” (6:2). The names of these deacons indicated that they were all Greek-speaking Jews (6:5). One of them was a proselyte (6:5), which infers that he was a Gentile that was converted to Judaism.
In the Jerusalem Phase, the apostles did the teaching, but they remained in Jerusalem (8:1) during the Judea & Samaria phase. Although the seven deacons were chosen “to serve tables”, it was “the wisdom and the Spirit with which” one of them (Stephen) was speaking (6:10) that ignited the persecution against the church, and after the dispersion of the church into Judea and Samaria another one of the seven (Philip) is particularly mentioned is preaching the gospel:
Acts 8:6 The crowds (in Samaria) with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. 7 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. 8 So there was much rejoicing in that city.
Jesus never worked in Gentiles communities, but He did once preached the gospel of peace to the Samaritans (John 4:6-26). For these reasons, even though the Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9), Philip had the liberty of taking the gospel to them. The power of God was with Philip, and wonderful blessing followed. When Jesus visited the Samaritans, many asked “this is not the Christ, is it?” (John 4:29) When Philip came to them, ” proclaiming Christ” (Acts 8:5), they were convinced that this is indeed the Christ. There was great joy in that city (8:8).
The remarkable thing about Philip’s work in Samaria was that, although so many believed the Gospel and were baptized, none received the gift of the Holy Ghost (8:15-16). God so ordered this, we believe, for a special reason. There had always been religious rivalry between Jerusalem and Samaria, as John 4 witnesses. Both groups accepted the five books of Moses as the basis for their faith, both groups counted Abraham as their father (John 4:12) and both practiced circumcision, but the Samaritans used a different temple (John 4:20) and a different priesthood. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know … salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). If Samaria received the Holy Spirit independent from the church in Jerusalem, this might have strengthened that rivalry and might have resulted in a Samaritan church independent of, if not in rivalry to, a Jerusalem church. But God ordained things so that they only received the Spirit when Peter and John had come down and laid hands on them (Acts 8:14-17), thus establishing the authority of the Apostles and the church in Jerusalem. The atonement (oneness) of the church was preserved.
In Acts 1:8 Jesus said to the apostles that they would be His witnesses
- both in Jerusalem, and
- in all Judea and Samaria, and
- even to the remotest part of the earth
These are the three main phases of the early church. In the first phase the church was limited to Jerusalem, but the persecution of the church in Jerusalem, after the stoning of Stephen, scattered the believers throughout Judea and Samaria (7:58-8:1). This commenced the second phase, which ended when the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time (Acts 10).
OBSERVED THE LAW OF MOSES
In the first phase, the church was limited to Jerusalem. In this second phase, the church was scattered through Judea and Samaria. However, the church still observed the Law of Moses:
As argued in the discussion of phase one, the Jews that were scattered from Jerusalem were thoroughly Jewish.
They went about in Judea and Samaria, preaching the Word, but “to Jews alone” (11:19).
The “Hellenistic Jews” (6:1) spoke Greek, while the “native Hebrews” (6:1) were Jews that spoke Aramaic; but all were Jews. Greek was the common language in New Testament times, as evidenced by the fact that the New Testament was written in that language.
The Samaritans also counted Jacob as their spiritual father (John 4:5, 12) and expected the Messiah (Christ) (John 4:25, 29) as “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). They worshiped the God of the Bible, but not in Jerusalem; their temple was on Mount Gerizim. They accepted the five books of Moses, and did, therefore, observe the Law of Moses. They did not accept the rest of the Old Testament and had their own priests, as opposed to the line of priests in Jerusalem. Because the Israelite inhabitants of Samaria had intermarried with the foreigners, Samaritans were considered “half-breeds” and were generally despised by the Jews (John 4:9; 8:48). See the atheist encyclopedia Livius and Gotquestions for more information.
Philip’s steps were also guided to intercept an important Ethiopian official who had taken a toilsome journey to Jerusalem. It is not explicitly stated whether the Ethiopian in Acts 8 was a Jew or not, but since “he had come to Jerusalem to worship” (8:27) and “was reading the prophet Isaiah” when Philip met him (8:28), he probably was one of the Jews or Jewish proselytes that were citizens of other countries (2:5-12). He probably came to Jerusalem to worship on one of the three annual pilgrimage festivals, such a Pentecost. He therefore also observed the Law of Moses.
But the best proof that the church still lived according to the Law of Moses will come from the later phases of the church that are discussed below. In Acts 10 Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time, to the amazement of the Jews (10:45). In Acts 15 the church council decided, about 20 years after Pentecost, that Gentiles do not have to submit to the Law of Moses, but this decision only applied to Gentile Christians (15:19). The Jewish Christians continued to live according to the Law of Moses; at least until about 30 years after Pentecost (21:20). There should, therefore, be no doubt about the fact that the church, during this second phase, still consisting only of Jews and Samaritans, and lived according to the Law of Moses.
ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES
1. Jerusalem Phase: The church consisted of Jews only.
2. Judea and Samaria Phase: All Christians still observed the Law of Moses.
3. Gentile Dispute Phase: A dispute arose whether Gentile Christians must observe the Law of Moses.
4. Separation Phase: The Jerusalem Council decided that Gentile Christians do not have to observe the Law of Moses.
5. Theological Implications of Early Church History.
6. Estimated dates for significant events in the early church.
See Early Church Table of Contents for a more complete description of these articles.