Jerusalem To Rome

The Acts of the Apostles

By Charles Fremont Sitterly


From the Persecution by the Sanhedrin to That by Herod Agrippa I. A. D. 33 To A. D. 44

Chapter 8

General Persecution and Dispersion of the Church


Paragraph 1. STEPHEN’S BURIAL. Verses 1-3.

On that very day there burst upon the church in Jerusalem a great persecution, and all except the Apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Meanwhile devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. Saul, however, cruelly ravaged the Church, entering into house after house, dragging out both men and women, and committing them to prison.  



This chapter brings us to the inevitable outburst of persecution which has long been preparing. But so greatly respected and at the same time feared are the Apostles that when the Deacons and Evangelists and lesser ministers of the Word are driven from the capital to the provinces those courageous men remain there in comparative safety. The arch persecutor, strange to say, is now Gamaliel’s young favorite, Saul of Tarsus. With the bitter zeal of a neophyte, though a Pharisee of the strictest sort, he outdoes the most advanced partisan of the usually far more ruthless and unscrupulous Sadducees. It is highly significant that not even women are exempt from the shame of public arrest and imprisonment, and doubtless this fact confirms and is consistent with the frequent evidence which Luke gives both in Acts and in his Gospel of their prominence and ability in connection with the new movement. But the severer the local conflagration the wider the firebrands were blown, and Samaria, as well as all Judea, reaped the benefit. Thus the plan of campaign laid down by their Commander in His last interview was being advanced by the unintentioned cooperation of the enemy. The original company of one hundred twenty had tarried in Jerusalem until the Paraclete had come, and under His power, which they severally shared, they had borne bold and effective testimony to the resurrection and ascension, and therefore divine nature and sovereignty, of the Nazarene. Miraculous proofs had already convinced thousands of the truth of their claims, and these with thousands more had experienced the higher miracle of personal regeneration and emancipation from sin, until now the time is ripe to advance in ever-widening circles to the uttermost parts.  


a. TO THE SAMARITANS. Verses 4-25
Those, therefore, who were scattered in different directions went from place to place telling the good news of the Word. Thus Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ there. And the crowds all kept attentively listening in sympathy with what Philip was telling them and watching the miracles he was doing. For there were many of those who had unclean spirits where the demon would come out with a loud cry, and many paralytics and lame persons were cured. Thus there was great joy in that city. Now there had been a man named Simon for some time in the city, who had been practicing magic and mystifying the Samaritans, pretending that he was some great personality; and all sorts of people, both high and low, kept listening attentively to him, saying,

“This man is the great power of God.”

They used to listen to him so attentively because he had bewildered them by his magic arts for so long. When, however, they believed Philip, who was preaching the good news about the Kingdom of God and about the name of Jesus Christ, they kept coming to be baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed also, and when he had been baptized he kept close to Philip and, gazing at the signs and mighty miracles which were occurring, was constantly filled with amazement. When the Apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the Word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who when they had come down prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet He had not fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands upon them and they constantly received the Holy Spirit. Simon, however, when he saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the Apostles’ hands, offered them money, and said,

“Give me also this authority, so that every one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Peter replied to him:

“May your money go to destruction with you! because you thought that the free gift of God could be bought with money. There is no part nor lot in this matter for you; your heart is not sincere in the sight of God. Therefore repent of this your wickedness and beseech the Lord if possibly the thought of your heart may be’ forgiven you. For I perceive that you have fallen into bitter jealousy and are in bondage to iniquity.”

“You yourselves pray to the Lord for me,” replied Simon, “so that nothing of which you have spoken may come upon me.”

So then the Apostles, after delivering their testimony and preaching the Word of the Lord, set out on their way to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel at the same time to many of the Samaritan villages.



Philip, who stood next in rank to Stephen, the martyr, leads the advance upon Samaria, going directly to the capital of that very prosperous and influential province just north of Judza. His distinctive work as Deacon, or distributer of support to the widows of the mother church, was now merged in the greater one of preaching Christ and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom. No doubt the other Deacons spread into other communities, and Philip’s case, like Peter’s for the Apostles, is only given as a type of the rest. Philip was evidently a very able man, head of a large household, having four daughters who later succeeded him as active Evangelists, and from his place and work in Luke’s record, his great success in Samaria, ease in intercourse with the Ethiopian chamberlain, use of the Scriptures, the sweep of his circuit and final settlement and influence in the Roman capital, Caesarea, must be ranked among the notable and worthy propagators of early Christianity. Beside his gift as a preacher, Philip possessed full power as a miraculous healer and exorciser of demons. By the exercise of all these agencies he stirred dissolute Samaria to its very foundations.

Here for the first of many times in this book we come upon the baleful influence of magic and magicians of the first century. As we cross Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece we shall realize that the kingdom of evil found this arm, next to priestly fanaticism, its most potent agency in embarrassing the Kingdom of Truth. Dr. Ramsay says: “There is no class of opponents with whom the earliest Christian Apostles and missionaries are brought into collision so frequently and whose opposition is described as being so obstinate and determined as the magicians. . . . At Samaria, at Paphos, at Philippi, and repeatedly at Ephesus, wizards of various kinds meet and are overcome by Peter and Paul” (Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, p. 113).

It appears that Simon of Samaria was one of the most gifted and powerful of his class. He had gained such great vogue and influence over the people that they had come to speak of him as the “Great Power of God,” a title peculiarly blasphemous to those who had received from the Father the promise and power of the Holy Spirit. Though Simon had ability to work certain wonders, and even miracles of a kind, yet he and the Samaritans soon perceived that Philip far surpassed him even on his own ground, and the sorcerer dropped from his high position to one of comparative insignificance; indeed, he actually took the place of penitent with the multitude and seemed sincere in his acceptance of the new faith, submitting to baptism and keeping close to Philip with the constancy of a genuine neophyte. That his conversion was only superficial is seen from the fact of his utter inability to understand the secret sources or operation of the extraordinary influence exerted in all directions by Philip and his coadjutors.

The movement in Samaria finally reaches such proportions that word is carried to Jerusalem and they at once send down Peter and John to conserve and coordinate its results with reference to the standards prevailing in the mother church. The only thing Peter and John could suggest was a clearer conception and experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit, such as had come to them at Pentecost and had been repeatedly renewed at every rising crisis or moment of farther advancement in the Jewish capital. By prayer and the laying on of hands they imparted the heavenly gift to those truly believing, and although his curiosity was satisfied Simon’s cupidity was only stirred up the more. Failing to perceive the spiritual element which transfused the minds and hearts of those receiving the new gift of power, Simon supposed that the Apostles had transferred by the mere imposition of their hands that power. “He thought,” Dr. Ramsay says, “that these teachers belonged to the same class as himself, and that they aimed at influence and a career with wealth as the ultimate reward. They possessed a knowledge and a power that he coveted, and he proposed to learn from them at a great fee, so that they might pass him rapidly over the earlier stages and carry him quickly to the highest stage of initiation. ... He had caught the language of the new teaching; but he had no conception what was the meaning of that term ‘Holy Spirit’ which he used.” (Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, pp. 123, 124).

Peter and John now see that they have a case of moral depravity akin to that of Ananias and are only less severe in their judgment of it because they perceive how vast is the abyss of irresponsible ignorance from which the proposal springs. Hotly rejecting it, therefore, they strongly urge the magician to humble penitence and prayer for forgiveness and salvation, lest he perish with his own bribe. That he does not yet fathom either the enormity of his error nor the peril to his soul is seen from his shallow reply, as well as the fact that nothing further is recorded of the incident. The Apostles, having inspected, sanctioned, and confirmed the work of Philip, return to Jerusalem by slow stages, stopping at many Samaritan towns to preach and evangelize on the way.  



But an angel of the Lord said to Philip,

“Arise and go toward the south along the road which runs down from Jerusalem to Gaza, that is, the desert route.”

So he arose and began his journey. Now he came upon an official of high rank, a chamberlain in the service of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was her treasurer, and had been to Jerusalem and was on his way back. Sitting in his chariot he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip,

“Go up and join that chariot.”

So Philip as he ran up heard him reading aloud Isaiah the prophet.

“Can you really understand the passage you are reading?” he inquired.

“How is it possible for me,” answered the eunuch, “unless some-one shall guide me?” And he urgently asked Philip to get up and sit beside him. Now, the passage of scripture which he was reading was this:






For His LIFE IS CUT OFF FROM THE EARTH” (Isa. liii, 7-8).

“I pray you,” asked the chamberlain of Philip, “about whom is the prophet saying this, about himself or about some one else?”

Then Philip began to speak, and starting with that same scripture, preached to him the gospel of Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the chamberlain said:

“Took, here is water! What is there to hinder me from being baptized?” (verse 37 not in the Greek). So he directed the chariot to stop and they both alighted at the water, Philip and the chamberlain, and he baptized him.  



Philip’s angel now bids him also depart and make a somewhat extended tour through the uplands and plains of Lower Sharon and Upper Philistia. The chief incident which Luke chooses to emphasize, since it serves to illustrate the main purpose of his book, namely, the widespread and early diffusion of the gospel, is Philip’s interview with the Ethiopian chamberlain. It is clear that this personage, no doubt a man of marked force and influence in his own country, would not have traveled so far for the purpose of worshiping Jehovah unless he had a profound conviction, if not vital faith, resting on the solid basis of Old Testament teaching. This is especially shown by his possession of the great prophet Isaiah, and his endeavor to read and understand the document while riding along homeward in his comfortable chariot. Prompted by the Spirit, Philip accosts the traveler with a leading and attention-compelling question as to whether he understood the purport of the passage he was reading aloud. That he was neither a thoroughbred Jew, nor even a proselyte, appears to be a proper implication from his reply. In any case, he gathered from the earnest face and word of his inquirer that Philip has asked it, as the Greek shows, anticipating a negative reply and wishing to throw light upon the passage. The Ethiopian stops, cordially invites the Evangelist to mount beside him, and gives Philip the opportunity he sought. Beginning, therefore, with the passage in question, he shows both its prophetic significance and its only possible fulfillment in the person and mission of Messiah himself, and then declares that Jesus the Nazarene, and no other man, was the literal fulfillment of the passage they had been reading. So convincing was the persuasive logic of Philip that his auditor appears fully satisfied, and as they drove by an inviting pool in the plain he asked to be baptized into the new faith. Of course Philip was overjoyed to seal the interview in this manner.  




c. TO THE COAST CITIES. Verses 39, 40

When, however, they came up from the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip, and the chamberlain saw him no more, for he continued his journey rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and proceeding from thence he preached the gospel in every city until he came to Caesarea.  



Having performed this rite of initiation, Philip considered his work done, and under the Spirit’s impulse crossed the Philistian Plain to Ashdod (Azotus), where he continued his evangelical activities, and from thence, moving on from town to town, he finally reached his own city, Caesarea.