Does God Cause the Scattering of the Church?

TODAY’S READING: ACTS 8-9

“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.” – Acts 8:1

I have heard it said that God caused the church to be scattered so that the gospel would be spread throughout the world.

Is that true?

Did God cause the scattering of the church?

I will grant you that when the church was scattered that that the gospel was preached outside of Jerusalem.

“Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” – Acts 8:4

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.” – Acts 11:19

But, my question is not did God bring good out of the scattering of the church.

My question is did God cause the scattering of the church?

How we answer this question says a lot about our view of God. If we say that God caused the scattering of the church, then we believe that God does both good and evil to bring about his purposes. However, if we say that God did not cause the scattering of the church, then we believe that God does good and only good to bring about his purposes.

And, while we are focused on the scattering of the church and the cause of it, this idea can be applied to any evil or wicked thing that happens where good comes out of it. Does God cause the evil or wicked thing only to bring about something good? Or, does God only cause the good to be brought of the evil or wicked thing being done?

Our text in question says the scattering because “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church.” Acts 11:19 says that the scattering was “because of the persecution that arose over Stephen.”

Who persecuted Stephen?

“Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.” – Acts 6:9

“Then they secretly instigated men who said, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council.” – Acts 6:11-12

So, the people (the Jews), the elders, and the scribes were Stephen’s persecutors. They brought him to the high priest. They provided false witnesses to convict Stephen unjustly.

Stephen said, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did so do you. Which if the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered.” – Acts 7:51-52

Therefore, the people (the Jews), the elders, and the scribes threw stones to kill Stephen.

Was God animating and motivating the persecutors to do these things?

Did God cause Stephen’s persecution?

No.

Stephen had just given a long speech about how God was working throughout the history of Israel. But, the Jews, the elders, and the scribes could not hear him. In fact, they were enraged at his words.

So, in this we see the very words of Jesus. In John 8:43-44, Jesus said, Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is not truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

Therefore, who was the instigator of the persecution of Stephen?

Satan – the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning.

Where was God in all of this?

“But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.'” – Acts 7:55-56, 59

God was in Stephen. God was revealing his glory to Stephen. God was receiving Stephen’s spirit.

It was the persecutors that caused the scattering of the church. They were motivated by the devil. But, God was not in the persecutors.

God was in Stephen. Just like he was in Jesus on the cross.

There is a key portion of Acts 8:1 that I have left out to this point.

“And Saul approved of his execution.”

Saul was right there in the midst of those executing Stephen. He was one of the Jews, elders, and scribes that had convicted Stephen. But, Saul did more than merely approve or consent to the execution. The Greek words has the idea that Saul felt a sense of gratification because Stephen was executed.

So, Acts 9:1-2 says, “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

When I read, and I believe others do to, that Saul was breathing threats and murder against the disciples I think of the threats and murder as things Saul was spewing out. These were things coming out of Saul. But, that is not what the text is saying.

The Greek word for breathing is empneo. It literally means to breathe in, to inhale. Figuratively, it means to be animated by, to be inspired by. What the text is really saying is that Saul was breathing in, being animated by, threats and murder against the disciples.

Saul approved of and felt gratified by the murder of Stephen. And, from that day, Saul continued the persecution. He breathed in and was animated by threats, or fear, of punishment (the Greek word implies this) and murder.

Who was animating Saul?

Who was breathing out so that Saul could breathe in?

Satan.

Just like Jesus said in John 8, Satan was Saul’s father at this time. We could say that Saul was the image of his God. Because his god, Satan, lied, accused and threatened, and murdered, Saul did the same things. Satan was breathing these things into Saul.

Notice what in says in Revelation 13:15. “And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain.” Satan gives breath to the image of the beast. And, the image of the beast threatens and kills those who will not worship its god.

As Saul continued the persecution of the church, which brought about the scattering of the church, where was God?

“Now as he {Saul] went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.” – Acts 9:3

Saul was on his way, persecuting and scattering the church. And, he was blinded by a light, Jesus.

“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” – John 1:9

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” – John 1:4

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” – 1 John 1:5

God was not the cause of Saul walking in darkness, persecuting and scattering the church.

Rather, Jesus was shining his light of life on Saul. Jesus’ light was driving out the darkness, the threats of punishment and murder, that Saul breathed in from Satan.

“God is love…There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” – 1 John 4:16, 18

God was loving Saul, who was God’s enemy. God’s perfect love was driving the fear out of Saul. Saul’s fear was motivating him to threaten others with punishment. For whenever you threaten others with punishment, particularly eternal punishment, you are being motivated by Satan. You are breathing in Satan’s desires just like Saul.

What was God doing?

He was reconciling Saul to himself.

Remember, the Holy Spirit was in Stephen. Stephen saw God’s glory as he was being stoned to death. Jesus was receiving Stephen’s spirit. Saul was there to witness all of it.

Just read what Paul went on to write as a result of what the light of Christ revealed to him about where God was in the persecution of Stephen that caused the scattering of the church.

“For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” – Romans 5:10

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” – Ephesians 2:15-16

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors of Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:18-20

God does not cause the scattering of his church or people.

God is reconciling the world to himself.

In other words, God is not scattering but gathering people to him.

In John 12:30, Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Jesus gathers. God gathers. His enemies scatter.

In John 10:11-12, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leave the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them up and scatters them.” Jesus, the good shepherd, gathers his sheep. The wolf, Satan, scatters them.”

In Matthew 23:37, Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

In Matthew 26:31, Jesus said, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'” When Satan struck Jesus on the cross, the disciples were scattered. But, from his resurrection on, Jesus was gathering, never scattering his disciples.

So, if God and Jesus only gather, then what are we to make of the scattering of the church that led those scattered to preach the gospel around the world?

God did not cause the scattering, evil and wicked work of Satan. But, God turned it into good.

Genesis 50:20 says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Joseph said this to his brothers regarding their selling him into slavery. Joseph’s brothers, not God, were doing evil. God was doing good.

Or, as Paul says in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to this purpose.” The verse more literally says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together into good.”

God is not doing or causing evil so that he can later bring about good. That would mean that God has darkness in him. But, God is light and there is no darkness at all in him. Rather, God is working everything into good. God only does good.

Therefore, God is never scattering his church.

God is always gathering, reconciling, people to him.

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