Persecution Spreads the Gospel

Discovery for Students

Persecution Spreads the Gospel


Acts 8:1 through 12:25

“As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.” (Acts 8:3-4)


Jesus’ final words to His followers declared that after the Holy Ghost came upon them, they would be His witnesses unto the uttermost part of the earth (see Acts 1:8). In today’s text, that promise began to be fulfilled beyond Jerusalem. Chapters 8-12 of Acts relate that as the persecution in Jerusalem grew, believers dispersed throughout Judaea and Samaria, and everywhere they went they preached the Word.

Chapter 8 describes the ministry of Philip, a Greek-speaking Jew and one of those who had been chosen to serve with Stephen (see Acts 6:5). He went to Samaria and preached Christ there. The people gladly received his message. Later, the Apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to observe this new ministry to the Samaritans, people who were part Jew and part Gentile. They found a solid body of believers, and the Samaritans subsequently received the Holy Ghost.

Though his ministry in Samaria had been fruitful, Philip was directed by God to leave that location and go to a lonely desert road in Gaza. There he saw a chamberlain to the Queen of Ethiopia riding along in his chariot. The Ethiopian was thirsting for understanding of the Scriptures, and when Philip joined him in his chariot and told him of Jesus, the man believed and subsequently was baptized in water.

The story of Saul’s conversion takes up most of chapter 9. Saul was well-known for his extreme hatred and persecution of the followers of Jesus, and his dramatic conversion on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus stirred the Jewish community. The radical change in this former persecutor demonstrated the transforming power of the Gospel, which Saul immediately began to witness to and would later preach. However, there was a waiting and growing time for Saul before he began his ministry. He spent about three years in the desert of Arabia (see Galatians 1:17-18), and then resided for a time in Tarsus, his home city.

At the end of chapter 9, the focus of the narrative in Acts shifts back to Peter. Two incidents in his ministry are described: the healing of Aeneas the paralytic, and the raising back to life of the deceased Dorcas (Tabitha).

Chapter 10 records how the divinely arranged meeting between Peter and Cornelius began to open the door for Gentiles to be a part of the community of believers. The Law was ingrained in the Jewish people. Strong feelings prevailed about things considered unclean, which included people who were Gentiles. That concept needed to be changed in order to reach the Gentiles for Christ. Peter’s vision on the rooftop in Joppa helped him understand that Christ’s death had abolished the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. Then, with perfect timing, Peter received the God-directed summons to Cornelius’ house. Cornelius was a Roman centurion who was a devout man, though not a member of the Jewish community. Peter journeyed to Caesarea where Cornelius lived, and while he was delivering his message of salvation through Jesus, Cornelius and the others in his household embraced it, and the Holy Ghost was poured out upon them.

Chapter 11 describes the opposition to Peter’s actions by the church leaders in Jerusalem. They were offended that Peter had visited Gentiles and had eaten with them, but Peter recounted his vision and the events that followed. Clearly, the Gospel was for all and after their initial astonishment, the Jerusalem saints began to rejoice in the salvation of these new converts.

The conclusion of chapter 11 describes the formation of the church in Antioch. Some of the Jews who had been scattered by persecution had settled in this city of Syria, located about three hundred miles from Jerusalem. As a vital commercial hub, Antioch became a major center for Christian missionary outreach. Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem church to oversee the church there. The rapid growth of the congregation spurred him to travel to Tarsus to bring back Saul, who had been saved about ten years earlier, to help with the work. It was at Antioch that the name “Christians” was first applied to the followers of Christ.

The persecution in Jerusalem continued, as evidenced by the events described in chapter 12. Herod Agrippa beheaded James, making him the first Apostle to be martyred. (For information on the various Herods, see the chart at the end of the book.) Because this action pleased the Jews, Herod arrested Peter as well. However, the night before the Apostle’s trial, the chains that shackled him between two guards fell off and an angel led him out of prison. Peter made his way to the home of John Mark’s mother, where the saints had gathered to pray for him.


  1. After Simon saw the Holy Ghost being poured out through the laying on of hands by Peter and John, he attempted to pay money to obtain the same power. According to Acts 8:20-23, how did Peter respond?
  2. According to Acts 8:5-8, Philip’s ministry to the people of Samaria had been blessed by God. Many afflicted individuals had been healed, and there was great joy in the city. Yet, God instructed this successful evangelist to go to a lonely road in the middle of a desert to witness to one man (verse 26). What spiritual lessons can we learn from this incident?
  3. From the perspective of the early disciples, Saul of Tarsus was an unlikely candidate for the Gospel. Based on Acts 9:1-2, 13-14, how would you describe Saul prior to the events that occurred as he traveled to Damascus? What happened that changed him?
  4. In chapter 10, verses 1-8 describe a vision of the devout centurion, Cornelius, in which he was instructed by God to send to Joppa for Peter — a man he had never met. He obeyed, sending two of his household servants and a devout soldier to the location God designated. Shortly before their arrival, Peter was praying on the rooftop, and God sent him a vision as well. What did Peter see in his vision, and what was the lesson he was to learn? Acts 10:11-16
  5. The Apostles and believers in Jerusalem heard that Peter had visited Cornelius’ house. Acts 11:2-3 describes their reaction — they “contended” with him and condemned his actions, saying in effect, “You are supposed to be a faithful Jew, so why did you associate with and even eat with Gentiles?” How did Peter respond to their criticism? Why was the eventual understanding they reached so critical to the spreading of the Gospel? Acts 11:4,18
  6. Barnabas first appears in Scripture in Acts 4:36, where we learn that his name (perhaps a nickname) meant “Son of consolation.” His first recorded action was when he sold land that belonged to him and “brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37). He is also mentioned in Acts 9:26-31 and Acts 11:22-26, 30. After reviewing these texts, how would you describe this Christian worker?
  7. According to Acts 12:1-2, the Apostle James was beheaded by King Herod, making him the first of the twelve Apostles to be martyred. Subsequent verses in the same chapter relate how the Apostle Peter was spared — in fact, he experienced a dramatic deliverance from prison through the intervention of an angel! (See Acts 12:5-10.) Why do you think God delivered in one instance but not the other?
  8. Peter’s imprisonment inspired the believers to pray “without ceasing” on his behalf. However, when Peter miraculously appeared at their door, the saints found it hard to believe (see Acts 12:13-16). Why do you think they were so disbelieving of Rhoda’s report? What conclusion can we reach from this event about how God answers prayer?


The New Testament church had a call to evangelize the world for Christ. Starting in Judea, then into Samaria, and then to regions beyond, the saints began to move into new areas, sowing the seed as they went. Our commission is the same today, as we carry on the work of the early disciples until Jesus comes.