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. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. (Acts 8:1–5)
As Stephen dies, we find two very different responses. First of all “devout men” give the martyr a burial, and greatly lament his loss. Surely there was shock at the heart of the early church as it was gruesomely demonstrated that the path of Christ might lead to death. To follow an executed Saviour, might lead to your own execution. It is remarkable - and telling - that the church was not snuffed out at this stage. Some things are more important than life, and so the church continued.
The second response is the polar opposite: we find Saul “ravaging the church”. You can only imagine the horror of the knock on the door, and this persecutor-in-chief barging in. Both men and women were to be imprisoned for their beliefs as the authorities sought to stamp out Christianity.
The irony is that whilst Saul thinks he is carrying out the work of God, it is in fact those who are burying Stephen who are “devout”. Even deeper is the irony that Saul himself will become one of the greatest missionaries the church has known. Even though he himself would suffer at the hands of the Church’s persecutors, and his letters filled a quarter of the New Testament, he never forgot his previous persecution of the church he now loved. Two decades on he wrote: “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:9).
The pages of Christian history are filled with those who once opposed God. The grace of God is that these very people often become the church’s greatest leaders. In the economy of God, your past needn’t dictate your future.