And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region 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.
The “Church Visible” was opposed with all the power of this fallen world, as had Christ before. But, although this visible manifestation of God’s power may have been broken and scattered in specific instances, the “Church Invisible” lived on triumphant. For this Church always breaks out in visible form, it simply cannot be contained.
The LARGER CATECHISM, The CONSTITUTION of the PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.) PART I BOOK OF CONFESSIONS:
64. What is the invisible church?
The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.
There’s a larger context that must be set in order for the persecution of the early church to be fully understood. Simply stated, Christ’s claim to be the Messiah was not only at odds with prevailing expectations (i.e., the expected conquering king as opposed to the actual suffering servant) but also simply one more in a sequence of claimants to this position. In fact as recently as 6 A.D. a messianic claimant by the name of Judas the Galilean[i] had been dealt with (Acts 5:37). Prior to him another named Theudas was similarly handled (Acts 5:36).
The implication is clear. The Jewish leaders were dealing with a highly charged religious-political situation. The common people were looking for the Messiah and occasional individuals declared themselves to be just that. Their experience was uniform that such claims were false. But beyond being false, these claims and the accompanying unrest created the conditions for Roman retribution. Thus, there were good theological as well as political reasons for dealing aggressively with messianic movements in their midst.
What they didn’t take into account was the possibility that God would actually send the Messiah. And, if He did, that “God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things which we cannot comprehend.” (Job 37:5). And so when Jesus Christ arrived on the scene many of their minds were already inoculated against the possibility of God’s acting then and there to create a new world. Beyond that, the machinery of persecution was kept in good working order, ready to snuff out the sure-to-come next fools’ messiah movement. As with all bureaucratic institutions, this one was designed to execute on its mission, not to deliberate on the deepest issues of mankind’s destiny.
[i] Josephus, who became known, in his capacity as a Roman citizen, as Titus Flavius Josephus, was a 1st-century Jewish historian and apologist of priestly and royal ancestry who survived and recorded the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70. His works give an important insight into first-century Judaism.
There was one Judas, a Galilean, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Zadok, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt. Both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty; as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honor and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity. They also said that God would not otherwise be assisting to them, than upon their joining with one another in such councils as might be successful, and for their own advantage; and this especially, if they would set about great exploits, and not grow weary in executing the same. So men received what they said with pleasure, and this bold attempt proceeded to a great height.
[Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.4-6]
Judas the Galilean was the author of the fourth branch of Jewish philosophy. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kinds of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord.
[Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.23]
All sorts of misfortunes sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree. One violent war came upon us after another, and we lost our friends, which used to alleviate our pains. There were also very great robberies and murder of our principal men. This was done in pretense indeed for the public welfare, but in reality for the hopes of gain to themselves; whence arose seditions, and from them murders of men, which sometimes fell on those of their own people (by the madness of these men towards one another, while their desire was that none of the adverse party might be left), and sometimes on their enemies. Famine also came upon us, and reduced us to the last degree of despair, as did also the taking and demolishing of cities; nay, the sedition at last increased so high, that the very temple of God was burnt down by their enemies’ fire. Such were the consequences of this, that the customs of our fathers were altered, and such a change was made, as added a mighty weight toward bringing all to destruction.
[Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.7-9]