In the first article of this series, I began telling you a story about a real creep who was about as bad as they come. What I have not told you is that he not only found redemption, but was used by God as an instrument of salvation. Why would God use an enemy to do His work? Because it shows irrefutably that nothing is too difficult for God.
Perhaps you have figured out by now that I have been talking about Saul of Tarsus. I’m careful not to assume that everyone knows who he is, because I remember a time when I would have stared back you with a blank expression if you had said his name. I knew nothing of the man. Once I learned about him, however, I became fascinated by him and his story. If his life were a movie, we would have been hissing and booing because he was undeniably the villain. He was the guy you can’t wait to see get what’s coming to him. Ooops! I’m getting ahead of myself again. You haven’t even heard what he did yet to make him the bad guy.
It had been a couple of years since Jesus died and was resurrected or as Saul would have told you, his body stolen to keep the lie going that Jesus was the Messiah. The movement – they called themselves The Way – was growing, partly because of those eyewitnesses who were telling everyone about Jesus being raised from the dead. More importantly, the Holy Spirit was working on the hearts and minds of those who would hear the preaching by Christ’s followers, like Stephen. And when I tell you about Stephen, you’ll understand why Saul immediately had a problem with him.
Stephen and Saul were intellectually matched; probably close in age as well. Stephen, like Saul, was an educated man with a gift for speaking. Saul was annoyed by the fact that Stephen, a man of equal intellectual caliber as himself, would bother with things like helping others and bringing happiness. He was a do-gooder which Saul saw as beneath the intelligent man. But more than that, he was troubled because while he himself was respected, he was also feared. Stephen was respected and loved. Ouch.
Saul listened to Stephen when he preached. He knew Stephen was as skilled as he was but that is where the similarities ended. Stephen always took scripture and pointed it to Jesus as the Messiah. He used the eyewitness accounts of those who saw and spoke with Jesus after His resurrection to prove it. In a public debate between the two scholars, Stephen soundly won leaving Saul enraged and hell bent on getting even. He made it his personal project to get rid of Stephen for good.
Saul began stirring things up by insulting Jesus in hopes of getting Stephen to lose his cool and show a side of himself that people would find repulsive. Actually this is ironic because they were strong qualities in Saul – a bad temper and sarcasm. But Stephen did not fall for it and remained strong and charming. When this tactic did not work, Saul and his goons began disrupting all Stephen’s gatherings to the point that it caught public attention and those in the position of upholding the Law soon had enough and decided Stephen had to go. Saul succeeded in having Stephen arrested and taken before the Sanhedrin. Saul was probably rubbing his hands together and laughing like a madman at this point, right? Probably, but it would have been short-lived because once in front of the judges, Stephen had them utterly enthralled by his words. His calm authority was masterful and even Saul was listening and found himself impressed (grudgingly, of course).
But something happened at one point and there was a shift. The judges soon were not as enthralled as they were annoyed. Stephen must have sensed it because he went off the rails, pointing out to those in attendance that they were a bunch of hypocrites who had murdered their own Messiah. Naturally, the court was upset by Stephen’s insolence and that might have been a cue for him to back down but instead he went for broke. Stephen looked up and boldly proclaimed he could see God on His throne and at His right hand, the Son of Man (which everyone knew meant Jesus). Blasphemy. I guess if you want to go out, you might as well go out big, right?
Saul was certainly not disappointed when the mob dragged Stephen out to the place of execution to be stoned to death. Although he never picked up a stone, he was more than happy when those who did laid their outer garments (like coats, we’ll say) at Saul’s feet. That was certainly symbolic enough. That smug jerk was all about it, too. After all, he had been the one to set all this in motion. He didn’t even have to get his hands dirty. But they were certainly covered in Stephen’s blood all the same.
Now Saul had a taste for it and he set out to find all the believers in Jerusalem and bring them before the Sanhedrin to stand trial as Stephen had. And as Jesus had. It was some shady business and he liked it that way. He would go from house to house and round up believers. Leaders were chased out and fled the city but plenty remained for Saul to torment. As a result of Saul’s efforts to exterminate Jesus’ followers, men and women were tortured, imprisoned and some lost their lives. The lucky ones succeeded in fleeing the city. Saul forced people to curse Jesus’ name, to recant their beliefs. Most didn’t but some did. Remember, I told you he was a terrible person. When he was done in Jerusalem, he decided to take his show on the road and go round up believers who had fled the city. He would go to other towns and bring them back in chains to stand trial and hopefully die or be thrown in some dungeon to rot.
Excited and bloodthirsty, Saul left Jerusalem for Damascus, but he could never have dreamed things would go the way they did. Not only would he fail to execute his wicked plan, he would switch sides completely.
(To Be Continued in You Thought YOU Were Bad? Concluded)