Acts chapters 8 to 10 describe a period of church growth geographically, numerically, and, more importantly, spiritually. In this article, we will see the underlying reason for the dispersion of the new believers: human hatred, and hostility is overruled by God’s sovereignty, resulting in the progress of the gospel message. We will focus on three individual conversion accounts, which Luke records in remarkable detail.
Stephen’s martyrdom, 7. 60, sparks off intense persecution for the early church, 8. 1. The Christians are scattered, vv. 1, 4, like seeds sown in fertile ground. Rather than keeping a low profile to avoid further trouble the believers ‘talk about the good news’, v. 4 (my paraphrase), to everyone they meet. Are we as eager to share the gospel today, or do we prefer to avoid embarrassment by maintaining a ‘guilty silence’, as John Stott terms it?1
The locations covered in this section stretch from Galilee in the north, 9. 31, to Gaza in the south, 8. 26, and Joppa on the Mediterranean coast, 9. 42-43. Key cities include Samaria, ch. 8, Damascus, ch. 9, and Caesarea, ch. 10. The disciples continue to follow the roadmap for evangelism as originally indicated by the risen Lord, 1. 8.
Three specific conversion experiences are narrated in these chapters. It is instructive to see the differences between each account. The characters involved are clearly contrasting. Their ethnic backgrounds – from Africa, Israel and Italy – make them, respectively, descendants of Ham, Shem, and Japheth, Gen. 10. Their social backgrounds are also diverse. The eunuch is a noble courtier; Saul is a wise scholar; Cornelius is a mighty soldier; Paul, in 1 Cor. 1. 26, mentions the three categories. Their religious backgrounds are different. The Ethiopian is a pilgrim, perhaps a recent convert to Judaism, Acts 8. 27, the Hebrew is a determined persecutor from the Pharisee party, 9. 2, and the Roman is a good-living, God-fearing expatriate, 10. 1-2. Their initial encounters with the gospel are different. Whilst the eunuch was reading a Bible passage for the first time, Saul heard the voice of the Lord from heaven, and Cornelius had his prayer interrupted by an angel. God saves all kinds of people, 1 Tim. 2. 4, using different methods, 1 Cor. 9. 22.
There are also notable similarities in the three conversion experiences. Although each person is initially convicted without human intervention, God subsequently selects human agents to bring the gospel to bear on these individuals. Thus, Philip introduces himself (and his Lord) to the Ethiopian in his chauffeur-driven chariot; Saul is hailed as a ‘brother’ by Ananias; and Peter is fetched from thirty miles away to bring the gospel to Cornelius’ house. Notably, the angelic messenger does not communicate the gospel to Cornelius directly; instead, he simply advises Cornelius to send for Peter, Acts 10. 5-6. Like these bold evangelists, we must be available to serve God, with no hesitation due to inconvenience, fear, or distance.
The three new believers soon know the common consequences of salvation. They experience joy, e.g., 8. 39. They demonstrate the reality of their faith by baptism, e.g., 9. 18. They receive the indwelling Holy Spirit, e.g., 10. 44. We note in these chapters that the Spirit comes visibly to two groups of new believers, at Samaria, 8. 17, and Caesarea, 10. 44. Peter states that this phenomenon reminds him of how the Holy Spirit ‘fell . . . on us at the beginning, 11. 15. These extraordinary Pentecostal reminders confirm that these new groups of believers are entirely genuine, ‘as well as we’, 10. 47.
In their own way, each of these conversions was surprising to the evangelist involved. Philip was not expecting to meet a Bible-reading traveller in the desert, 8. 28. Ananias was not expecting to address Saul as a ‘brother’, 9. 17. Peter required significant prompting in his God-given vision to realize that even occupying Roman soldiers are eligible for divine blessing, 10. 28. Anyone can be saved, in God’s sovereignty. We must believe this, and expect salvation when we share the gospel message with people around us.
Finally, we should notice that periods of persecution are temporary. There is a peaceful interim, 9. 31, when the church experiences consolidation. This growth is fuelled by a ‘fear of the Lord’, and an awareness of the Holy Spirit. For us, whether in difficulty or at peace, reverence for God, and dependence on the Spirit will bring energy and refreshment.