Before he was taken back to heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ told His disciples that after He was gone His enemies would persecute and kill them, thinking they were doing God a service (Matt. 24:9). The early disciples remembered that teaching, no doubt. Still it must have been a shock when Stephen, their most outstanding layman and deacon, was killed. He was a distinguished Christian leader, one who had proved himself pious, strong, and useful to the church. But he was also the first believer to be martyred.
Moreover, as we move from Acts 7 to Acts 8, we find that Stephen’s killing was the signal for a widespread outbreak of persecution against many. It was led by Saul, who was present at Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:58) and gave approval to his death (Acts 8:1). There had been a persecution already, of course. The apostles had been beaten because they had refused to remain silent about the person and work of their Master. But that earlier persecution, all that we have encountered in Acts up to this point, was against the apostles only, against the leaders. And here for the first time we find persecution not only of the leaders, but of the membership of the church at large.
To make the picture of these days even worse, for the first time we find the leaders of Judaism united in their opposition. They had not been united before this. When the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin they referred to the resurrection (since Jesus had been raised), and because the resurrection was something in which the Pharisees believed and the Sadducees did not, their assertion immediately divided the ruling body.
Yet something significant had happened between Peter’s arrest and the persecution recounted in Acts 8. The Gospel had spread among the Hellenists, Greek-speaking persons who were Jews in the sense that they were sympathetic with Judaism and worshiped the God of the Jews in a Jewish way, but who were Gentiles by birth. They were now becoming Christians.
The leaders of the early church (apart from the apostles) were from this number, and their leader had been Stephen. Stephen was more perceptive even than the apostles in regard to the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, because the apostles were still thinking as Jews, while he, being a Gentile, was thinking as a Gentile. The apostles were worshiping at the temple, going through the religious rites of Judaism. They did not seem to see any problem with that. Stephen, who had a Greek and not a Jewish background, perceived, it would seem, that the surviving Jewish accretions to Christianity needed to pass away and indeed were destined to pass away. In fact, since Jesus had said this would happen, he knew that even the temple would be gone soon. It was on the ground of that conviction that Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin, and on that point not just the Sadducees (who were opposed to the resurrection), but the Pharisees, too, were up in arms.
So things were getting bad for the Christians. There had been a martyrdom. The killing had triggered widespread persecution, and the agents of the persecution were not just the Sadducees but the powerful Pharisaic party as well. And there was one thing more. Luke knew that Saul, whom he introduced as an agent of the persecution (Acts 8:1), became the first truly great and deadly enemy of the church. Not much is said about him here. He is simply mentioned as being present, “giving approval to his death.” But Luke knew that Saul went on to intensify the persecution of the church such that not only were the disciples scattered, as the text says they were, but they were actually pursued in their scattering as Saul hounded them to death.
We are told something interesting about Saul in verse 3. The verse says, “Saul began to destroy the church.” Other versions say he “ravaged” it. The tense of that verb, whether “ravage” or “destroy,” is imperfect, which means that he ravaged it and kept on ravaging it. The translation of the New International Version, good as it is, seems to suggest that Saul just started to make trouble. But the real idea is that he continued to make trouble. He was making trouble, and he was going to keep on making trouble—until God stopped him.