There is a bit of irony of the preaching and spread of the gospel after the dispersion of the Church in Acts 8.
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.
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. (Acts 8:1-4)
What was this preaching like? Whatever it was, it must be something a bit different than what we often hear in churches and pulpits when it comes to evangelism. Often we’re told that all we must do to share the gospel is share our own story. All we need to do is share of the marvelous things God has done in our lives to change our circumstances, our families, our jobs, and our general outlook on life.
In a sense, we’re told to share a story whose essential core is: “Sign up with Jesus! Look at how it worked for me!” Some of this is due to our Evangelical history of sharing our testimonies of faith. Beyond that, though, it is reinforced by with our culture’s current emphasis on the power of personal stories and truth something we arrive at through our own narratives.
But how does that work for those who were “scattered” after Paul was “ravaging the church” in the midst of the persecution in Jerusalem? What about those devout men who buried Stephen and made a great lamentation over him? It’s hard to imagine them heading out into the hillsides and cities of Samaria and Judea saying, “Sign up with Jesus! Look at how it worked for me!” Losing your home, your job, your family, any and all social standing you might have had, freedom, security, or even physical health doesn’t really look like Jesus “worked” to most people.
No, there had to have been something more compelling than that. And indeed, if you look at the preaching in the book of Acts, there is. Take, for instance, Peter’s speech to the crowds in Acts 2 is paradigmatic:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,
“‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:22-41)
What do we see here? A personal reflection on the way Jesus has changed Peter’s life? A recounting of Jesus’ personal forgiveness on the shores of Galilee? A narrative about Peter’s own relief and growing sense of personal confidence because of his encounter with Jesus? No. What we find is a recitation of the good news of Jesus’ story. Over and over again we see this discernable core message that God has kept his promises to save the world. He has done so by sending the Messiah, the King of Israel who is indeed the King of the Whole World. And this king has lived, taught, died a death for sin, risen again to new life, and is even now seated on the throne of heaven offering forgiveness for their rebellion and salvation to all who believe in him. This is the gospel message that comes with power even when the messenger seems outwardly weak, and their story doesn’t seem to “work” according to most outward, human principles.
This is the message that Luke talks about when he says that Philip went about after the dispersion:
Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. (Acts 8:5-8)
And later, in his encounter with the Eunuch, we see him preach to him on the basis of Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah (Acts 8:26-40).
Where am I going with all of this? I don’t want to ignore, or deny the power that sharing our personal testimony has in leading someone to faith, or in encouraging the faith of other believers. Peter’s story (besides establishing his renewed apostolicity and place in the church) is a personal comfort and a demonstration of the gospel at work to transform an individual’s life. There is a proper place for our stories.
But what I want us to remember that there is another, deeper story that forms the heart of the gospel. Peter’s story only matters because it’s based on a prior story about God and God’s Messiah, Jesus, the Crucified and Resurrected Lord who is bringing the kingdom, making all things new and inviting sinners to be forgiven and participate in the process. That is the invitation that underlies all of our stories and the one that should be the focus of all of our sharing and evangelism.
In other words, the story that ultimately changes us is the one that says not, “Look at how Jesus has worked for me!”, but “Look at Jesus’ work for me!”
Soli Deo Gloria
What about Paul’s conversion narratives? Were they a separate category, eg a legal defense?
Also, weren’t most of those testimonies accompanied with signs and wonders?
I guess I don’t disagree, I just have those qualifications/questions.
I think they are part his legal defense and a preamble to his proclamation of the gospel. Which is fine. As I said, I think testimony has its place. But even then, Paul didn’t only think of himself as any other Christian, but as an apostle who was tasked with the evangelization of the Gentiles who was appointed by divine commission. This wasn’t only a personal conversion story, but a call of vocation as well.
I love this. It is one of my favorite passages for just the reasons you mention. We place our faith in so much more than a personal experience. But I think it calls us further, in that Philip, if this is Philip the disciple, was scattered, not from the comfort of his home, but from the idea that he would have had that Jerusalem was the place from which he could expect God to work.
Acts 8, fits into the progression of Acts 1:8, but not as a progression further and further from home. Philip was not from Jerusalem (how long might he have been there at this point?). He was from Galilee. It is about a spatial move away from Jerusalem, the place where they expected God to work, from the way they thought Jesus had said he would work (even though the memory of his words would validate that God was invested in witness in Samaria—and Ethiopia). It is a spatial move away from the structured, correctness of a space that was set up as a space for God’s activity, into the space of promise.
It extends what you say about Peter:
Peter’s story only matters because it’s based on a prior story about God and
God’s Messiah, Jesus, the Crucified and Resurrected Lord who is bringing the
kingdom, making all things new and inviting sinners to be forgiven and
participate in the process.
Philips story matters because it is based on a prior story about God and God’s Messiah…who is fulfilling his promise through Abraham and Israel and Israel’s Messiah, and here comes the climax, to the nations.