On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city. (NIV)
Sometimes the worst things that happen to us can turn out for the best. God’s good purposes are advanced after what appears to be setback and heartache. The town of Independence, Alabama, has in its town square a statue to the Boll Weevil. This evil little pest wiped out the cotton crop in the area many years before. Why the statue? Because when that setback hit the cotton crop, the local farmers were forced to diversify and as a result became much more prosperous by being less dependent on one crop.
So here in Jerusalem, that fire breathing Pharisee and Christian hater Saul was attacking the infant Christian church. Things were getting so hot in Jerusalem that many Christians had to leave and seek safer places. Being in love with Jesus and empowered by his Spirit, they were not passive exiles but active witnesses to Jesus’ message. The setback in Jerusalem meant other places got to hear about Jesus…. something that might not have happened if all had been well in Jerusalem.
Even the despised Samaritans heard about Jesus and responded to him. We might wonder if Philip under normal circumstances would have gone to Samaria. God sometimes has to extrude us from our safe and familiar surroundings in order to get us to be in his best place. Many people came to respond to the good news of Jesus because of the “bad news” of the Jerusalem situation.
All this encourages us to be careful about discerning what is good and not good. An apparent setback may be real and painful enough but have a wider and better purpose to it. Instead of throwing up our hands in despair about a particular life circumstance, we might do better to start looking for what God is doing. This doesn’t mean calling a bad thing good. Those attacked in Jerusalem felt real pain and loss. It does mean putting all that happens to us in a broader context. The context of a God who ceaselessly weaves all the broken threads of our lives into some beautiful if mysterious pattern.