We now come to Acts 8 when Luke tells us that the believers were scattered abroad due to a great persecution that arose over the death of Stephen. Saul, who is later called Paul of Tarsus, was among the leaders of that persecution (Acts 8:1, 3; cp. Galatians 1:13-14; Philippians 3:6). Strangely enough, Luke tells us that the Apostles didn’t have to leave Jerusalem over the sudden change in the political climate (Acts 8:1). Why would that be, and who had to leave or suffer the consequences, which included loss of life for the unrepentant?
Remember John alludes to the idea that when those of the Diaspora came to Jesus, it foreshadowed the Gospel going to the ends of the earth (John 12:20-23, 32). In other words the Gospel going to the ends of the earth had something to do with the Jews of the Diaspora, the Grecian Jews or Hellenists. These believers were not always received well among many of those who embraced Christ as Savior. In the beginning some of the more conservative brethren believed to have table fellowship with Hellenist believers would make them ceremonially unclean for their duties in the Temple (cp. Acts 6:7). It was only after the Grecian Jewish believers came of age and began taking responsibility for their own company as equals with the Apostles (cp. Acts 6:1-6) and as a separate but equal community of believers, that the believing priests thought it reasonable to join themselves with the Apostles. Thus, there was an appearance of ceremonial uncleanness associated with being a believer of the Diaspora who had resettled in Jerusalem.
The Hellenist believers were probably not all that interested in keeping the Oral Law with all its washings and separate tableware. They may have kept such things while associating with ceremonially conscious brethren but privately were not so readily observant. Jesus actually kept the Oral Law so as not to offend the Jews of his day, as is implied by the word “some” in Mark 7:1-4. However, when these same Jews began to criticize “some” of Jesus’ disciples who were not so ceremonially conscious, Jesus took the side of his non-observant disciples (Mark 7:5-11). Later, Jesus even refused to honor the Oral Law, practiced by those who invited him to eat with them, to make a point of it not being commanded by God (Luke 11:37-42).
Therefore, when blood would be shed in the name of Christ, it was fitting in the context of Jewish society of the 1st century to begin persecuting these Hellenist believers, who didn’t yet have the reputation among the people that the Apostles had. It could be reasoned that the Apostles, though believing somewhat questionable doctrines, were acceptable, in that they respected the traditions of the fathers, but these Hellenists who believed Jesus is the Messiah have no such respect. The line of clean and unclean was blurred in them—in their strange doctrines and in their everyday habits. So, it became acceptable to begin persecuting the Church of God with this group (cp. Revelation 12:15-17). The Apostles may have been interrogated and perhaps beaten in the synagogue, but the text doesn’t say. Nevertheless, their lives were not in danger at this time. The Jerusalem church was the most important church for the preaching of the Gospel, and the Apostles remained at Jerusalem with those moderate and more conservative believers who were joined to them (cp. Acts 6:7) in order to preach Christ to the pilgrims who visited there during the annual Holy Days. Therefore, it was only the more liberal, Hellenist believers who shared Stephen’s theology and who were not meticulous in their observance of the traditions in Judaism that were persecuted to the death and were scattered abroad (Acts 8:4) throughout the province of Syria (Acts 11:19).