Studies in the Book of Acts
The Church Expands Into Judea, Galilee and Samaria (Acts 8)
A young man named Saul (8:1)
Luke next introduces the man who will soon become the main character of Acts. He is Saul, later called by his Latin name Paul. (We will call him “Paul” from here on out.) Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in eastern Asia Minor (21:39). He was the son of an orthodox Jewish father — a “Hebrew of Hebrews” [Some commentators suggest that “Hebrew of the Hebrews” means that Paul grew up in Judea, speaking Aramaic like a native.] (Philippians 3:5) and was “a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees” (Acts 23:6).
Paul was trained in a Jerusalem rabbinic school under the respected teacher Gamaliel “in the law of our ancestors” — that is, the ancestral Jewish faith (22:3). He was a brilliant and dedicated student. He would later say of these early years of learning: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14).
Technically, Paul is a Hellenistic or Grecian Jew, like Stephen. He knows Greek culture, and is as comfortable in the Hellenistic world as he is in strict Judaism. But he is also part of the Jewish world in Jerusalem, speaking Aramaic like a native. He may have been in the Hellenistic Jewish “Synagogue of Freedmen,” where he heard Stephen speak. Like many Freedmen, Paul was more fanatically Jewish than many Jews native to Jerusalem. Paul may be a member of the Sanhedrin, or perhaps a younger assistant, and if so, he heard Stephen speak before it.
What effect do Stephen’s accusations have on Paul? Paul is suddenly confronted with an incisive attack on the traditions he venerates. He realizes Stephen is no ignorant Galilean. Here is a member of the Nazarean sect who is challenging the very basis of Judaism. There is only one thing to do, and that is to eliminate the threat. Along with the rest of the Sanhedrin, Paul can only cover his ears (7:57) and attack the messenger, Stephen. The Sanhedrin drags Stephen outside the city walls. As they are about to stone Stephen, they take off their outer garments and place them “at the feet” of Paul (7:58), who gives his approval to Stephen’s death (7:60). (It’s intriguing to think that Paul himself may be Luke’s source for the summary of Stephen’s speech, as well as the story of his stoning.)
Luke’s phrase “at his feet” may signify that Paul is a leader of the opposition to Stephen. Perhaps he is instrumental in rushing Stephen and dragging him outside of the city to a place of stoning. Luke uses the expression “at the feet” three times in the story of church members selling their property and bringing the money to the apostles (4:35, 37 and 5:2). There it is clear that the expression is meant to convey the apostles’ leadership.
Luke says Paul “approved of their killing him” (8:1). How we see Paul’s role depends to some degree on how we understand this phrase. Is he merely agreeing with the stoning, or is he in some sense sanctioning, or even motivating it? If Luke uses the expression “at his feet” in the same way here as earlier, it makes Paul more than an uninvolved onlooker. That is, people placing their clothes at Paul’s feet would be offering a gesture to him — recognizing his authority. Paul, then, may be one of the instigators of Stephen’s murder. That he had a leadership role in the Jewish community seems to be corroborated by the fact that he becomes the point man in the persecution of Christians immediately following Stephen’s death (8:3; 9:1-2; 22:4-5).
Whatever Paul’s role, there is no mistaking that he becomes a driving force in persecuting the church in Jerusalem, and in other cities such as Damascus. The havoc he inflicts on the church would disturb him greatly for the rest of his life (Acts 22:20; 1 Timothy 1:13). Paul is here called a “young man” (7:58), but the expression doesn’t help us fix his age very narrowly. It could refer to someone between his mid-20s and 40. Josephus applies the term to Herod Agrippa when he was about 40. [Antiquities 18:197.]
Persecutes the church (8:1-4)
On the very day of Stephen’s death and burial, “A great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem” (8:1). This is Luke’s first use of the word “persecution,” and for the first time, rank-and-file believers are affected. Stephen’s death is not an isolated act of violence. A storm of persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem and increases in its fury. The prime agent in this campaign of persecution is Paul. Luke says, “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (8:3). This is a vicious pogrom of intimidation against the Jerusalem church, and Luke tells us Paul “began to destroy the church” (8:3). Williams says:
The word used of Paul’s activities…can describe the devastation caused by an army or a wild beast tearing its meat. It conjures up a terrible picture of the persecutor as he went from house to house — perhaps every known Christian home and at least every known place of Christian assembly…. The relentlessness of the pogrom is underlined by the reference to women being dragged off as well as men. [David J. Williams, Acts, New International Bible Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 152.]
Paul was a zealot for Judaism, as he later admits. The proof of his zeal is that he violently persecutes the church (Philippians 3:6; Galatians 1:13, 22). He probably believes that the new faith is a dangerous distortion of the ancestral traditions he believes in — a distortion that endangers the nation’s favor with God. In later years, Paul refers to his devastation of the church as a shameful period in his life (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:13). But that understanding comes later, after he is confronted by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.
Though Luke doesn’t say, it is possible that the persecution is directed specifically against Hellenistic Jewish Christians, and those who share Stephen’s views, those who downplay the importance of the temple. At least, the Hellenistic believers are the ones whose work Luke now begins to describe (8:4; 11:19). Williams says,
We need not understand by the word all that every member of the church left the city; verse 3 shows that they did not. Luke is prone to use “all” in the sense of “many” (see discussion on 9:35). But even of those who left, many may soon have returned. [Ibid., 151.]
This point is indicated by the fact that the apostles, who seem supportive of Jewish institutions such as the temple, are not forced to flee Jerusalem (8:1). Also, we find disciples in Jerusalem a short time later (9:26). This round of persecution apparently doesn’t last long. Luke soon notes that the church throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee is living in peace (9:31). Later we will see that the church in Jerusalem is flourishing under the leadership of James. He is called James the Just, and is known for his piety and respect for Jewish institutions. (But even he will be martyred under the urging of the high priest in A.D. 62.) Richard Longenecker points out:
With the martyrdom of Stephen, the Christians of Jerusalem learned the bitter lesson that to espouse a changed relationship to the land, the law, and the temple was (1) to give up the peace of the church and (2) to abandon the Christian mission to Israel. [Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), page 353.]
Church scatters (8:1, 4)
For the present, those of the Jerusalem church who are successfully hunted down are persecuted, beaten and imprisoned — and possibly killed. Others see what is coming and flee throughout the province of Judea and Samaria (8:1). This flight of church members actually causes the gospel to spread more widely. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (8:4). Later in Acts, we learn that people are traveling as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, “spreading the word only among Jews” (11:19). The law of unintended results begins to operate against Saul and the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem. William Willimon writes:
Earlier, it had been predicted that the gospel would be taken by witnesses into “all Judea and Samaria” (1:8). Little did the followers know then that the impetus for this far-flung evangelism would be persecution! These refugees, scattered like seed, take root elsewhere and bear fruit. God is able to use even persecution of his own people to work his purposes. [William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 65]
Philip preaches the gospel (8:5)
The first seven chapters of Acts deal with mission work among Jews in Jerusalem. Luke is now finished with this part of the story, and he begins to describe gospel outreach activities further afield. He mentions that the scattered members of the Jerusalem church flee to other parts of the province of Judea, preaching the gospel as they go (8:1, 4). However, Luke gives no further details about the evangelization of Judea, nor does he mention anything about the churches in other cities of this province. (He is also silent about the work and church in Galilee.)
Rather, Luke turns his attention to Samaria, where scattered members of the Jerusalem church also evangelize. They apparently know that Jesus’ earlier ban on the disciples entering any city of the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5) has been lifted. Samaria was once the capital of the northern ten-tribed House of Israel, which separated from Judah after Solomon died. In the eighth century B.C., the northern kingdom was invaded by Assyrians. Samaria was destroyed and many of the people were deported to other parts of the Assyrian empire (2 Kings 17:17:5-6). The area of Samaria was resettled by peoples from other parts of the empire. The story of this resettlement is told in 2 Kings 17, beginning with verse 24. And in the intervening 700 years, many other peoples moved in and out of the area.
The antagonism between Samaritans and Jews is centuries old, and in some ways it dates back to the Assyrian resettlement. It was intensified when the Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in the fifth century B.C. [Ezra 4:1-16; Nehemiah 2:10; 4:1-8; 6:1-14; 13:4-8.] This caused an unhealed and bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans that grew more intense through the passage of time. The Samaritans built a temple on their own sacred hill, Gerizim. [Josephus, Antiquities 11:310, 322-24, 246.] The Jews under the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus I (134-104 B.C.) destroyed this temple when they conquered Samaria in the second century B.C. and added this territory to their realm.
But in 63 B.C. the Romans conquered the Jewish kingdom. The Samaritans were liberated from Judean domination, but the unfriendly relations between the two peoples continued.
The intensity of Samaritan feelings against Jerusalem is shown by the Samaritans’ refusal of Herod’s offer of 25 B.C. to rebuild their temple on Mount Gerizim when it was known that he also proposed to rebuild the Jerusalem temple….The Judean antagonism to Samaria is evident as early as Ecclesiasticus 50:25-26, which lumps the Samaritans with the Idumeans and the Philistines as Israel’s three detested nations and then goes on to disparage them further by the epithets “no nation” and “that foolish people that dwell in Shechem.” [Longenecker, 357.]
For Jews to enter Samaria to evangelize the people and bring them into fellowship with Jewish Christians is a bold step indeed. Yet, to Samaria they go!
Mission to Samaria (8:5)
While Luke wants his readers to understand that a number of believers from Jerusalem evangelize Samaria, he describes only the work of Philip. He begins with a simple summary of his activities: “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there” (8:5).
There is some disagreement as to which city Luke has in mind. Some commentators think it is the capital city of the province. In Old Testament times it was called Samaria, but Herod the Great had rebuilt it, naming it Sebaste. Others believe that Luke has Shechem in mind, because it is the leading Samaritan city. [Josephus, Antiquities 11:340.] Some think the Samaritan city of Gitta is the one Philip goes to. According to Justin Martyr, Gitta was the home town of Simon Magus. [Apology 1.26.] Another candidate for the site of Philip’s original evangelization of Samaria is Sychar, a twin city of Shechem. It is near Shechem and is the site of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, and many people there believed that Jesus is the Messiah (John 4:5).
Proclaims Christ (8:5-8)
At first glance, we might assume the mission to Samaria is the first step in the evangelization of Gentiles. However, Jews consider the Samaritans more as schismatics than as Gentiles. (Samaritans kept the laws that distinguished Jews from Gentiles. We will later see that Peter had no problem in going to the Samaritans, but he needs a mind-changing vision before he visits a Gentile.) To put it another way, the Samaritans are viewed as “half-breeds,” both religiously and racially, by the Jews. But they were thought of more as heretics from the faith rather than outright pagans.
The Samaritans themselves claimed to belong to the true stock of Israel and to be worshippers of Yahweh; they observed the Sabbath, and practiced circumcision. But they had their own temple on Mount Gerizim, and recognized only the Pentateuch as holy Scripture. They were therefore regarded by the Jews as heretics and schismatics rather than as heathens. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 120.]
The Samaritans, like the Jews, expect a deliverer to come, a hope based on Deuteronomy 18:15. Jews call him the Messiah; Samaritans call him the Taheb, or restorer. John alludes to this Samaritan belief in the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria (John 4:25).
It’s surprising that any Jew is willing to go to Samaria to preach the gospel. Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9). The hostility between the two groups is highlighted in the Gospel of John. When Jesus’ Jewish critics curse him, they can think of no more vile epithet than to call him a Samaritan (John 8:48). Samaritans are hostile to Jews, as well. Luke records an incident that shows their hostility. The Samaritans of a small village refuse to welcome Jesus and his disciples simply because they are traveling to Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-56).
Yet, the two peoples do have much in common. The Jerusalem missionaries such as Philip can build on the common hope of a coming Messianic restorer. Since the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) are holy to the Samaritans, Stephen can speak of the Messiah as the second Moses. That is precisely what he does. In his preaching, Philip builds on the common hope for a coming Savior when he proclaims Christ (8:5).
Philip, a Hellenistic Jew, also finds himself on common ground with the Samaritans because he, too, is an outcast from Jerusalem. News about the persecution suffered by the Christian Hellenistic Jews has probably reached Samaria, making the Samaritans more disposed to receive the missionaries. If the apostles went to Samaria, associated as they are with Jerusalem and Judaism, their attempts to evangelize might be snubbed. But now, Jews who are also rejected by Judaism (as the Samaritans are) are coming to Samaria. Thus, they share a status out of which a common bond can be forged. God works in mysterious ways!
Historically, the movement of the gospel into Samaria following directly on the heels of the persecution of Hellenistic Jewish Christians in Jerusalem makes a great deal of sense. Doubtless a feeling of kinship was established between the formerly dispossessed Samaritans and the recently dispossessed Christian Hellenists because of Stephen’s opposition to the mentality of mainstream Judaism and its veneration of the Jerusalem temple — an opposition that would have facilitated a favorable response to Philip and his message in Samaria. [Longenecker, 355.]
But we do not want to ascribe the success of the mission to Samaria solely to sociological factors. In the final analysis, Philip’s message finds fertile ground because of the work of the Holy Spirit. Luke writes that when the Samaritans see the miracles, “they all paid close attention to what he said” (8:6). As at Pentecost, it is God’s power that gets the attention of people so that some might become receptive to the gospel message. Luke is telling his readers that Philip’s work is to be seen in continuity with that of Jesus. Like Philip, Jesus performed miraculous works, expelling demons and healing the sick. [Luke 4:33, 36; 6:18; 7:21; 8:2, 29; 9:42; 11:24.]
The work of the Hellenistic Jews (such as Philip) constitutes a new advance of the gospel and the church. But it occurs in Samaria, a quasi-Jewish environment. A dispossessed group, but within the boundaries of ancient Israel, is experiencing the outreach of Christ through the church. However, a mission to pagan Gentiles is yet to occur. Philip’s evangelization of the Samaritans “continues the work of Jesus in reaching out to the marginal and outcast among the people and inviting them to a full participation in the restored people of God forming around the Prophet whom God raised up.” [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles,Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), page 151.]
Simon the great power (8:9-13)
Luke intertwines his story of the Samaritan mission with that of a famous local religious personality named Simon, generally called Simon Magus or Simon the Sorcerer (Magician). He looms large in the writings of second-century Christians as the first heretic, troubler of the church, and founder of Gnostic Christianity. The early Christian theologian Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202), bishop of Lyons, France, calls Simon the originator of a number of heresies. [Against Heresies 1:23.] Justin Martyr, a native of Samaria who died around A.D. 165, says that his countrymen revered Simon as “the first god” or God above all. [Apology 1:26.] Luke notes a similar belief about Simon, saying he is known as “the Great Power” (8:10). According to Justin, Simon goes to Rome during the reign of emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54), where his feats of magic bring him great honor.
Exactly how the Simon of Acts 8 is related to Simon Magus of later legend is not clear. So much myth has gathered around his name that it is difficult to assess his real importance. If the Simon of Acts 8 is Simon Magus, and he is anywhere near as prominent as later writers say he is, then Luke may have good reason to include him in his account. By the time Luke writes, Simon and/or his followers may be well-known opponents of the church. Simon may even be claiming to be part of the church, teaching in its name. After all, “Simon himself believed and was baptized” (8:13). Luke may want to make clear to his readers that Simon has no relationship with the Christian community, nor does he have the approval of the apostles and Holy Spirit — despite the fact that he (or his followers) claim Christian roots.