Our reading today begins in Acts chapter 8. Stephen has just been martyred, and we see that the Pharisee Saul approved of his execution (8:1). This begins a systematic persecution of the Christians. Note the sovereignty of God in this. The persecution is against the church in Jerusalem, scattering them out throughout Judea and Samaria. God is using the trials of the church to carry out His plan (see Acts 1:8). He was scattering the church throughout these areas and – what did they do? – they preached the Word (v. 4).
Philip (one of the seven – see Acts 6:5) is the first to preach in Samaria (v. 5). Note that two things happen. First, when people see the confirmatory signs and hear the Word, they “pay attention” (v. 6), instead of “paying attention” to the powers of darkness (v. 10). Second, the powers of darkness were cast out (v. 7). These are one and the same thing. The spread of the Gospel overcomes the powers of darkness as the church reclaims the earth for God.
We are then introduced to Simon the magician (v. 9). Similar to the magicians of Egypt, the demonic forces over that territory worked power through him. The signs he did were used to deceive people (vv. 10-11). But Simon sees Philip’s works and hears his words, he believes (v. 13). Because the Samaritans were believing the Word, Peter and John come to pray that they might receive the Holy Spirit (v. 15). The mission of the church has reached the next phase – Samaritans are brought into the people of God (v. 17). Simon wants to have the ability of Peter and John (vv. 18-19), but Peter points out it is the power of God (v. 20). Peter calls Simon to repentance for his presumption (v. 22)1, and the Gospel is spread throughout Samaria (v. 25).
Now that the Gospel has been preached in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, it is time for the world to hear the message. So God calls Philip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch (vv. 26-27). This man was searching the Scriptures (v. 28), but not understanding them (vv. 30-31). Philip preaches Christ from the Scriptures (v. 35). The eunuch is baptized (v. 38) and Philip is carried away by the Spirit to Gentile territory to continue to preach (v. 40). Note that the Spirit throughout is the One carrying out the mission given to the church.
In chapter 9, we see that Saul wants to follow the church out of Israel and into the nations to continue his persecution. Note that at this point, Christians are called those belonging to “the Way” (Greek: hodos – 9:2). This is the way that John the Baptist prepared. It is the way that Isaiah 40 speaks of as the restoration of Israel. And as opposed to “the Way,” Saul was going on “his way (hodos)” (v. 3). But things were about to change for him. Note that the persecution of the church is the persecution of Jesus (vv. 4-5). Jesus sends Saul a different way (v. 6). He was about to open the eyes of the blind (vv. 8-9).
And as usual, Christ would use His church to accomplish His work. Note that Ananias, though apprehensive because of how things looked, nonetheless obeys. When he comes to Saul, he speaks of the Lord Jesus Who appeared to Saul “on the road (hodos)”. And when Saul received the Holy Spirit, his eyes are opened (vv. 17-18). And right away, the Apostle to the Gentiles and the children of Israel (v. 15) preaches in the Syrian synagogue to Jews (v. 20). That he was formerly a persecutor of the church made his testimony that much more amazing (v. 21). Note that again there is no way to refute the truth of Christ (v. 22). And already, Saul faces that suffering Christ spoke of (v. 16) when the Jews plot to kill him (v. 23).
When he gets back to Jerusalem, the disciples are wary of Saul’s intentions (v. 26). But Barnabas vouches for him (v. 27) and he is accepted (v. 28). And again Saul meets resistance, this time from the Greek speaking Jews (v. 29) and has to go into hiding (v. 30). But the Holy Spirit was carrying out the mission Christ gave to His church (v. 31). Peter works miracles and preaches in Lydda (vv. 32-35) and Joppa (vv. 36-43), both in Judea. Note that the power of the Holy Spirit works through Peter the same healing and life-restoring power Christ had.
Peter then goes to Caesarea in Samaria. There lived there a centurion named Cornelius who was a God-fearer (10:1-2), who is given a vision in which an angel tells him to summon Peter to Caesarea from Joppa (vv. 5-8). That he was of the Italian Cohort means that he was not a Samaritan, but a Roman. Then Peter is given a vision (vv. 10-16). What Christ reveals in the vision is that just as all food is now clean since the old covenant has passed away, so are all people. Just like Saul and Ananias were given visions in the previous chapter in order for Christ to carry out His will through them, so here Cornelius and Peter are given accompanying visions. Christ is clear in directing His church, but He also relies on His church to carry out the work.
In verse 28, Peter explains what his vision meant. Note in verse 29 that, like Ananias, despite his apprehensions, Peter obeyed what was clearly revealed to him. He explains that God’s people are no longer such according to physical descent (v. 35). He then preaches the Gospel (vv. 36-43). Through the Word, Cornelius and his family are saved. Now, the Holy Spirit falls on Gentiles (vv. 44-45). In verse 46, we again see the reversal of Babel.
In chapter 11, we see Peter encounter some resistance from some Jewish Christians (11:2-3). So he recounts his experience. He recognizes that God has included the nations in His salvation (v. 17). And the Jewish Christians glorify God for including the whole world in His salvation (v. 18). Note that the repentance that leads to life is granted by God. These believers recognize God’s sovereignty in salvation, and now know that He has sovereignly chosen to save those of all nations.
In verse 19 we again see how God used the persecution of His church to grow His church. Believers were beginning to spread over all the known world. However, we still see that the Jews at this point still had priority over the Gentiles. It was first only Jews who were evangelized. We also see that the Jerusalem church was the center of the evangelism effort. This is why the Christians gave to the Judean Christians (v. 29). Note that in Antioch the name “Christian” is first used (v. 26). At this time, it was a name of what was believed to be a new Jewish sect. In verse 28 we see that Luke is giving one of his chronological stamps, telling us that he is referring to the famine that happened under emperor Claudius, who reigned from 41-54 A.D.
1 Church history claims that this repentance never took place and even that Simon the Magician became the leader of a heretical sect.