One of the most obvious lessons of Church History is that any attempt to destroy God’s people ultimately backfires.
Not long after Pentecost, the early church began to be persecuted for its faith. Persecution was nothing new for the people of God. As Jesus had warned his followers, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20), and the prophets of the Old Testament were well-acquainted with persecution. In keeping with the theme of this series, we will focus on the persecution that led to seismic shifts in church history.
The Jewish nation had long been persecuted by other nations: Babylon, Assyria, Medo-Persia, etc. Each time Israel was defeated, they were marched off to a foreign land. Think of Daniel serving in the court of Cyrus, King of the Persians. This dispersal made it difficult for the Israelites to keep the faith while scattered abroad. And not all the Jews returned home to Israel when rebuilding efforts happened under Ezra and Nehemiah. But their dispersal didn’t cause Jews living abroad to abandon the faith. In fact, it was many of the faithful returning to make sacrifices in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost who heard Peter’s sermon in their own languages.
I mention this group – the Diaspora Jews, diaspora means dispersion – because they helped establish Judaism throughout the developed world. They built Jewish communities, including synagogues, and perhaps most importantly, translated the Old Testament into the international common language, Koine (Common) Greek. This translation was called the Septuagint, so named because of the supposed 70 (or 72) scholars said to have each translated the Old Testament on their own and come back together with the same precise translation – AMAZING!, but unlikely. Nevertheless, the Septuagint allowed for a trustworthy, unified translation of the Old Testament that everyone could understand, even if they didn’t speak Hebrew. This translation was so popular at the time of Jesus that it is the one most quoted by the New Testament writers. It was this Diaspora of Old Testament believers that became the soil into which the church was about to be planted.
The importance of Stephen’s death cannot be understated – it was, for all intents and purposes, the match that set the world on fire.
In the New Testament, the persecution that immediately befell believers after Pentecost was of equally great importance. The Jewish Council that had conspired to kill Jesus wanted to fully destroy his movement by killing or suppressing the remainder of his followers until Jesus’ influence was no longer felt. They viewed Christianity as a heretical sect that needed to be stopped for the wellbeing of Judaism. Peter and John were the first to be targeted (Acts 4). But perhaps the most important target of these persecutions was Stephen.
Stephen was a Hellenist, that is, a Jew who was from a Greek-speaking part of the world. In his famous speech (Acts 7:2-53), he professed the same faith that the Jewish leaders did, with one exception: he believed Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. This idea was so repugnant and threatening to the Jewish leaders that they had Stephen stoned to death (Acts 7:58-60). This began the persecution of Jewish Christians, especially Hellenistic Christians, by the Jews in Jerusalem, most notably by Saul (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-2). The importance of Stephen’s death cannot be understated – it was, for all intents and purposes, the match that set the world on fire. Every non-Jewish Christian owes a debt of gratitude to the martyrdom of Stephen.
There are two reasons the persecution of Jewish Christians by Jews was an important shift in church history. First, it led to the permanent break between Judaism and Christianity. Up to this point, Christians viewed themselves as faithful Jews. But now, Judaism had responded with what amounted to mass excommunication. Christianity was now a religion of its own. The change of the people of God from Jew to Christian is one of the most radical paradigm shifts in the history of redemption, and its implications took up much of the thinking of the early church.
Second, this persecution led to the first Christian missionary journeys. As Saul began troubling the various Jewish Christians in synagogues, they feared for their lives and left Jerusalem. “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. . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:1, 4). So, just as the attempts to destroy Israel just led to the spreading of its beliefs throughout the world, so too the efforts to destroy the early church became the basis for the widespread dissemination of its message, also called the Gentile mission, which we will take up in the next episode.