In this Wide Angle series of posts, we have been surveying the mountain peaks of biblical revelation – the most important people and events in the history of God’s interaction with humans. We have been skipping from one mountain of revelation to the next, like adventurers who enjoy the luxury of being shuttled by helicopter from peak to peak. But we mustn’t forget that there is much ground between the mountains we have explored. The spiritual terrain, like geographical terrain, does not usually rise abruptly.
Today, we take out first look at the conversion of a mountain of a man: Paul the apostle. He towers over the foothills like some colossal landmark that guides pilgrims on their spiritual journey. But even Paul does not arise from nowhere. Between Pentecost and Paul lies one of the most important men in the early history of Christianity: Stephen, the martyr.
Stephen was a layman who was involved in a church ministry to the needy. With a name like Stephen, it is possible (and perhaps even likely) that he was a Greek-speaking Jew. Besides providing for the needy, he frequently taught other Greek-speaking Jews in the synagogues around Jerusalem.
In the Synagogue of the Freedmen (which was Greek-speaking) Stephen got into a heated debate. He wanted to prove to his hearers that Jesus was the Messiah, and he used the Old Testament to do it. Luke writes that “. . . men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (Acts 6:9-10). His reasoning was unassailable.
His reasoning was unassailable, but he was not. Some of his opponents began misrepresenting Stephen’s teaching. They accused him of speaking against two of the treasures of Judaism: the temple and the law. “This fellow,” they said, “never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:13-14).
Stephen probably did teach that Jesus had superseded the temple as the meeting place between God and his people. He understood that Christ’s death and resurrection would bring changes to their long-held traditions. But Stephen never suggested – never even thought – about destroying the temple. That was just ludicrous.
But the accusation didn’t have to be true to land him in a world of trouble. Imagine that you are of Saudi origin, and a number of people you hardly know call the FBI to report that you have been making plans to blow up the Capitol Building. You would find yourself in maximum security, talking to Homeland Security before you knew what was happening. The charge against Stephen was totally false, but that was all it took to cause people to think of him as a deranged terrorist.
It is likely that one of his accusers was a prominent young rabbi named Saul. He had, perhaps, heard Stephen speak in the Synagogue of the Freedmen, or elsewhere. He may even have been the one to file charges against him with the Sanhedrin. He, too, was a Greek-speaking Jew (though he also spoke Aramaic or Hebrew, see Phil 3:5-6), but he had lived in Jerusalem since he was young. He had trained under one of the most prestigious teachers of the day.
Saul was a single-minded zealot. He, and others like him, believed that God was withholding his blessing and his Messiah from Israel until the nation repented and started living according to the Torah. People who did not know or practice Torah disgusted Saul. They stood in the way of the restoration of Israel. And he believed that Stephen was one of those people.