Acts 8:1 On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
In some countries, a person who becomes a Christian forfeits a good education and job. And in a few countries, a person who converts risks his or her life. One church historian estimates that more Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than in all preceding centuries put together.
Yet, strangely, more often than not, intense persecution of Christians leads to a spurt of growth in the church. An ancient saying expresses this phenomenon: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The First Big Advance
For a while, the new faith enjoyed popular favor. But very soon it involved grave risk. In the book of Acts, the persecution that produced the first Christian martyr, Stephen, ironically brought about the advance of Christianity outside its Jewish base. Forced out of stormy Jerusalem, the scattering Jewish Christians turned to other races and ethnic groups. Philip preached first to the despised Samaritans, and then crossed racial barriers by helping to convert an official from Ethiopia.
Acts documents a dramatic change in the faith. What had been viewed as an offshoot of the Jewish religion, a “sect of the Nazarenes,” began to encompass people from other religions, races and cultures. Before long, the center of church activity moved from Jerusalem to the city of Antioch. There, people coined the word Christian, indicating how separate the new faith had become. Never again would it be considered “just a Jewish thing.”
Breaking the Jewish Mold
As Luke tells it, the transition to other ethnic groups required some adjustments. Jewish disciples balked at letting go of their centuries-old traditions and allowing the church to be flooded with non-Jews.
Peter, one of the most loyal Jews, explained his dilemma this way, “Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17). A direct, unmistakable vision from God (see Acts 10:9–23) overcame Peter’s resistance to accepting non-Jews, and later a decisive church council settled on a policy toward them (see Acts 15:1–21).
As the pages of Acts turn, whole provinces and cultures open up to the gospel. The faith that had been guarded by a small knot of intimates, all Jews who knew Jesus personally, broke out into a rough world of soldiers, sorcerers, merchants and antagonists from other religions. This process was not without its bloody and frightening moments.
If severe persecution were to come to the church in your region today, what would happen to your faith?