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At the trial of St. Stephen’s trial, Saul of Tarsus must have sat shaking his head. “This heretic! Who does he think he is, lecturing us!” When Stephen accused his peers of resisting the Holy Spirit, Saul was beside himself. When he charged them with disobeying the Torah, Saul came unglued.
Luke tells us what happened next: “When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. . . they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”3
What happened next made a profound impression on Saul, who would later change his name to Paul (or use the Romanize version of his name). “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.”4
This, as I say, made a profound impression on Saul but, as is the case so often, it took other events and the passing of time for it to come to fruition. In the meantime, Saul launched a campaign to snuff out the church. Stephen had been the spark that set Saul and his colleagues ablaze in an inferno of religious fervor. Saul genuinely believed that he was serving God by ridding the earth of heretics like Stephen. He thought he was preparing Israel for the day of God’s visitation.
Saul’s colleagues held him in honor for his zeal and his daring disregard of Roman law. The chief priests – who were Sadducees, and of a different political philosophy – had no choice but to cooperate with him; he was driving a popular movement that was building momentum, and they wanted to make sure that they didn’t get run over by it.
After Stephen died, Saul and his cohorts went on a rampage. Every person who confessed Jesus as messiah was in peril. They were excommunicated; some were beaten, arrested, and even killed. The church went into hiding. People fled the city. In weeks – maybe even days – the synagogues were emptied of Jesus’ followers. Acts 8:1 says, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”
That must have made Saul happy. But the persecution that drove the sect of Jesus out of Jerusalem had an unintended consequence: it drove them into synagogues elsewhere. Jesus’ people were pouring into synagogues in Caesarea, Antioch and Damascus, and wherever they went people were believing in Jesus. Saul saw this as a threat to the integrity of Judaism, and with the consent of the high priest, he and his team began going to other countries to drag these people back to Jerusalem for trial.
If I had lived in these years of the first century and had to vote for the person least likely to become a follower of Jesus, I would have cast my ballot for Saul of Tarsus. Old Cowper was right when he wrote, “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” The choice of Saul of Tarsus to be Jesus’s spokesmen is not one anybody could have predicted.
To quote Cowper again:
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.