When we left off last time we were witnessing the birth and initial growth of the movement that would come to be known as Christianity.
Its momentum appeared unstoppable, all the way up to the appearance of a young man named Saul of Tarsus.
Starting with his participation in the execution of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, Saul begins an all-out blitzkrieg on the infant Church.
Now very briefly, here’s the back story on Stephen. Stephen was “a man full of God’s grace and power” and God began to use him mightily to “perform great wonders and signs among the people.” This stirred up opposition from some who did not like what they were seeing. When they attempted to argue with Stephen, his response was so powerful with Spirit filled wisdom that they could not stand against it.
So they decided to fight dirty and persuaded some men to accuse him of speaking blasphemous words “against Moses and against God.” This caused a stir, and they dragged Stephen before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. Stephen gives his defense by going on the offense. He shares a detailed explanation of Israel’s history but then points the finger directly at those in authority who are there to judge him.
You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” Acts 7:51-53
As you can imagine, this didn’t go over too well. Calling your judge and jury murderers is not exactly a strategy any defense lawyer would endorse!
Stephen told them the truth and it cut them to the core, but rather than seeing their guilt they became furious.
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this 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 coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
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. And Saul approved of their killing him.” Acts 7:54 – 8:1
So here we witness the death of this wonderful man. The cause of death was stoning, but in all actuality he was executed by pride, arrogance, and the blindness they cause. These leaders just could not accept the thought that they could be wrong here.
Also of great significance, here we see the entrance of Saul into the story. He was an approving authority in this murder, which is something he never forgot. Even after receiving God’s forgiveness for it, years later he would still refer to himself as the chief of sinners.
This act, this murder of an innocent man, now becomes the spark that emboldens the opposition to attack. On that very day a huge persecution, spearheaded by Saul, was unleashed against these young Christians.
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.” Acts 8:1-3
Saul begins to “destroy the church” Warren W. Wiersbe explains it this way. He says this word:
describes a wild animal mangling its prey.
Visualize the state of this man’s heart – he is like a wild animal – and with a single-minded venomous passion he is out to mangle this “heresy.” He’s going house to house, kicking in doors and dragging people off to prison.
His zeal is red-hot now. Although he is seeing great success in Jerusalem, he’s still not satisfied. He now sets his sights on Damascus, where he knows this sect is beginning to grow. It must be stamped out there before it gains any more traction, and he is the one who has the will and tenacity to do it.
Had not God directly intervened, one can only imagine what his assault would have achieved.
And that’s where we’ll leave off this time.
Until next time – Grace, Peace, and much Love to you and yours!