Monday, October 15, 2012

Christ's Church Ravaged and Scattered

Christ's Church Ravaged and Scattered

Stephen was stoned to death by enraged religious leaders who felt threatened by the growing community Christians, among whom Stephen had become one of the most outspoken.

The religious rules were Jews, locked in tradition and pride, relying upon their ancestral relationship with God. They had charged Stephen with heresy. Stephen responded with a carefully built argument that revealed both the faithfulness of God and the fickleness of the Jews. Generation after generation of religious leaders had rebelled against God's direction and killed God's prophets, yet they still maintained that they were the guardians of the faith.

As guardians of the faith, they believed their fear and anger justified the killing of Stephen.

"And Saul approved of his execution. 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. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison." Acts 8:1-3 (ESV)

Saul was one of the religious leaders. He was young - today he might be known as an intern or apprentice - he was not allowed to join in the actual act of executing Stephen, but he happily took charge of the coats and jackets laid down by the others.

Stoning heretics is hard work.

The execution of Stephen set off a pogrom, an organized massacre of helpless people. The Christian community in Jerusalem fled, hiding themselves in the outlying regions of Judea and Samaria.

Except the apostles.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Why did the apostles remain? What advantage might they have seen in staying in Jerusalem? What prevented them from fleeing?

Stephen was buried. "Great lamentation" implies a large, public burial ceremony. It would be difficult for the religious leaders to prevent the community from weeping. Tears of sadness were not a threat to the the leaders, as much as the words of Christ. That is what the leaders persecuted: faith in Jesus as the Christ, the living Son of God.

Young Saul, the fresh-faced religious intern, was now given his first assignment: Purge the heretics!

RAVAGING: lymaino (to soil, to insult or maltreat); from lyo (to "loosen", to reduce to sand)

Jesus often described his own body as a temple of God:

"Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. - The Jews then said, - It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days? - But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken." John 2:19-22 (ESV)

The religious leaders could understand the concept in literal terms, thinking Jesus was threatening to destroy their temple. But the disciples understood the spiritual meaning. From that point on, their faith in Christ became a spiritual building, a temple.

The enraged Jewish religious leaders did not believe Jesus was alive, but they did recognize the threat of the Christian community, structured and organized, relying upon one another, just as blocks were built up in a building, giving strength and support to each part.

Saul's assignment was to locate each building block and reduce it to sand. Destroy enough blocks and the entire building will collapse.

The Christians did not flee Jerusalem on the day on which Stephen was killed. They went into hiding, trusting in becoming anonymous in a big city, retreating to their small homes, hidden along alleys and small streets.

A perfect mission for the young enforcer.

Saul entered house after house, arresting family after family.

DRAGGED: syro (to trail); akin to haireo (to take for oneself, to prefer); from airo (to lift, take up, raise, keep in suspense or sail away)

"Dragged" implies a highly physical, one-on-one, confrontation. It implies that Saul was muscular and intimidating. The Roman government would not have assigned him a centurian guards, nor would they have permitted the Jewish religious leaders to have many weapons, certainly not more than a common sword or dagger. Raw violence, coarse threats and rope sufficed for Paul.

The unrelenting, daily home invasions, beatings and arrests began to accomplish the religious leader's goal: Christians fled Jerusalem and the organized Christian community became scattered, broken down and reduced to lonely families, hiding in villages far from Jerusalem.

Jesus expected this to happen.

"Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household." Matthew 10:16-25 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Why did Jesus not prepare His followers to fight back? How does this apply to current issues of gun control and the right to carry personal firearms?

Image provided by David M. Goehring, Creative Commons License