First, the persecution of the early church was integral to the community’s identification with her Lord. Stephen’s martyrdom is of particular interest in this connection, but there are a number of antecedents in the church’s experience well before this. Luke is intentional in his efforts to cause his reader to draw the connection between Christ and his people, the church.
For instance, all things seem to be going quite well for the fledgling church, until Peter and John’s first arrest and hearing before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1—22). The council’s primary question for the apostles was hardly original: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (v 7). These professional persecutors had challenged Jesus with the same question just weeks earlier (Lk 20:2). In Jn 15:20, Jesus said to the apostles that if he, the Master, would be persecuted, they, the servants, should expect no less—persecution would come.
As an emphatic case-in-point, illustrating the solidarity between Jesus and his church’s experience, take the martyrdom of Stephen. Stephen’s case before the council is in part the fulfillment of Jesus’ words in Lk 21:15, “I will give you…wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Then in what lead to Stephen’s trial, his dispute with the synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8—9), we read that, regarding Stephen’s apologetic, “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (v 10). In Jesus’ trial, there were many “false witnesses: (Matt 26:59—60), so also in Stephen’s (Acts 6:13). The climax of both Jesus’ and Stephen’s defense has them pronouncing Jesus as Messiah through an admixture of the Danielic ‘Son of Man’ and Ps 110:1 (see Lk 22:69 and Acts 7:56 respectively). In his dying breath, Jesus prays for the Father to receive his spirit (Lk 23:46). Stephen, in his dying breath, prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Act 7:59). Finally, both pray for their enemies/murderers (Lk 23:34; Acts 7:60).
Therefore, Christian persecution is explicable only in terms of Christ’s persecution. Luke struggles to make this point clear. Nothing makes this clearer than Jesus’ first confrontation with Saul the persecutor in Acts 9. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?...I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (vv 4, 5). However, it was the “disciples of the Lord” that Paul was persecuting (v 1). This demonstrates the covenantal identification between the Lord Jesus and his church, which gives all Christian persecution its ultimate significance.
Secondly, this persecution served in a disciplinary capacity. As we read the narrative of Acts, we are anticipating the radical movement and expansion set forth in the commissioning statement of Jesus in 1:8, “Jerusalemàends of the earth.” As it is, however, all the way to chapter 7 it appears that the disciples are quite at ease in Zion. It is not until 7:58 that anyone ventures beyond the walls of Jerusalem, and in this case it is Stephen being “cast out of the city” to be stoned! This remark, I believe, serves as a prolepsis, a brief remark that looks forward to further development; and in this case, the development of the programmatic statement of 1:8. Consider how chapter 8 begins: “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem…” (v 1a). And what was the result of this great persecution against the Jerusalem church? It was the outworking of Jesus commission to the church in Jerusalem. “And they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…Now all those that were scattered went about preaching the word” (vv 1b, 4).
Persecution was, therefore, a means of the Lord for accomplishing his church’s mission to the world. In part, the book of Acts is an explanation and defense of the separation of the church from Judaism, and that the church, not Judaism, is the rightful heir to the OT religion. This should not surprise us, since in Lk 21:13, Jesus tells the apostles that just such persecution “will be your opportunity to bear witness” (cf. Acts 1:8). Additionally, it is Paul’s persecution at the hands of the Jews that drives the story of Acts, finally to Rome, “the end of the earth.”