I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Acts: The Point of Persecution

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.”   


  1. Brother Stevenson,

    Your post expresses important points regarding persecution's formative influence on the early Church. Persecution was such a defining part of the Church that Eusibius' Church History could almost be subtitled, the history of the martyrs.

    I will enjoy reading other parts of your site, and would like to follow it if I can find the "follow" button.


  2. Thank you much for stopping by, Rev. Campbell! I think your valuation of Eusibius' monumental work is spot on. I've added the follow gadget at the top right of the page. Honored to have you reading! Blessings to you and your flock, brother!

  3. PS. Rev. Campbell...I am preparing to take a class on Daniel-Revelation and have your Revelation commentary, He Shall Reign, on my selected bibliography. Using the typical eschatological categories, in a few words, how would you best summarize the work? Thanks!

    1. He Shall Reign presents the view that the book of Revelation's first message was to the people of its own time and circumstances. These were the people in the churches of Asia Minor who were at the beginning of a widening and deepening persecution of the Church. Its intention was to encourage them to remain faithful, and to show the coming demise of the persecuting powers. I believe the Beast is Rome whose streets ran with the blood of the saints. Of course, some parts of Revelation refer to the future, and every part applies to Christians every day in every age, for there is always a "beast" around who wants to get rid of or silence us, and before whom we dare not bow.

      He Shall Reign also deals with Matthew 24 and related passages of Scripture. I hope you enjoy it, and find it helpful. Dispensationalists will find it challenging, but I hope some of them will read it too.


  4. That is great to hear! In general terms, that well describes my understanding of the book. The class I referenced is at Liberty University, so nearly everything I write is a challenge to dispensationalists. ;) I am anxious to get the book and enjoy your offerings. Grace and peace!

  5. Brother Stevenson,

    I think your class at Liberty will be fun. I hold to the old Princeton Post-millennial view of eschatology, but can also see values in other views. My book is not a polemic on Post-millennialism. It is more of an attempt to help Dispensationalists see that their views are of very recent origin, and that some Bible-believing Christians hold other views. He Shall Reign gently challenges their eschatology, but it also challenges their entire framework of Biblical interpretation. I don't believe the Church is an interruption of God's plan for Israel. I believe the Church is the fulfillment of God's plan for Israel. This view changes the entire way a person looks at the Bible and the Church. It makes the Bible one story of God's work of redemption, bringing all things together under Christ. It also makes the creation, the cross, and our own election and salvation all about God and His glory. This is difficult for Dispensationalists, because they have been indoctrinated with the idea that it is all about them.
    If you can persuade some of them to read "The Story Line of the Bible" on your site, you will be doing them a great favour. I have expressed similar views in a sermon, "The Story of Redemption," which can be found on my church web site at www.HolyTrinityAnglicanOrthodoxChurch.org.

    I am enjoying your site and your fellowship, and hope you enjoy your class at Liberty.


  6. Rev. Campbell,

    Most all of my classes at Liberty have been fun in the sense that I think you mean. ;) As a Covenant theologian, Calvinist (holding to the full teaching, not just the Canons of Dort), Van Tillian, loving and honoring the Patristics and liturgical worship, and typological, redemptive-historical hermeneutics, I am always a black sheep.

    Interestingly, just the other evening my wife and I were discussing how radically one’s eschatology influences everything else. One thing I was stressing, which she hadn’t considered mush, is how eschatology is logically prior to soteriology, biblically speaking. Even the first Adam had a forward-looking eschatological trajectory; he was morally pure before the fall, yet not moral perfected. Therefore, the Fall notwithstanding, eschatology was present prior to salvation, as Adam had a consumative goal before him. As you said, eschatology colors one’s whole view of redemptive history. For me, the idea that the Church is a “parenthesis” in God’s purposes is as repugnant as semi-Pelagianism. At this point, I am a partial preterate, optimistic amillennialist. So, I imagine there will be little in your commentary that I cannot fully affirm.

    I am glad you remarked on “The Story-line of the Bible.” It is good medicine for dispensationalism. I have a copy on every computer I work from, so that anyone I come across that is reading the Bible, whether for the first time or the fiftieth, I give them a copy. I have never had anyone tell me that it was less than revolutionary for them. I’ll look for your sermon on the story of redemption; that’s the one Story I never grow tired of!

    Thanks, again, for your insights and fellowship! Have a blessed Sabbath!