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Saul the Persecutor of the Way

15 Mar

Did you ever wonder what it was like in Judea just after Stephen was martyred? The persecution was leveled at the liberal branch of the Way—the Hellenist believers, but this doesn’t mean other believers escaped. The Apostles were beaten in Acts 5 for preaching the Gospel and this would have been no different. When the persecution broke out, Saul entered house after house dragging off both men and women to prison and to appear before the council (Acts 8:3). Many scattered throughout Judea and Samaria and along the coast of the Mediterranean (Acts 8:1)

Saul seems to have spearheaded the persecution, but he didn’t play the part of the reluctant officer of the court obeying the unpleasant orders of his superiors. No, Saul was in his moment. He delved into the task at hand with the diligence of a ruthless investigator, holding formal inquiries in synagogues and house churches while the congregations were still assembled. Everyone, man or woman, who had the slightest connection with the Way was investigated and had to appear before the elders. It was during times such as these that Paul would become an expert in the doctrines of the Way. Believers would testify of being cured by Jesus, others healed by his Apostles and representatives; some would have been witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion and had seen him alive; still others testified of the faith they had having not seen. Though Saul was indignant, they responded with patience and kind words. Some may have been untrained, yet in all of Saul’s educated superiority he failed to be convincing. Some were executed, but many were beaten and released and threatened to stop spreading this belief or further punishment would result.

The key point in anyone’s testimony as it pertains to one’s life or death is that which gives one his acquittal, corporeal punishment or brings upon him the death sentence. What was it in Stephen’s testimony that took him over the top with the elders and rulers of the Sanhedrin and brought about his death sentence? No one could convict him for anything he said until he told the Sanhedrin—the rulers of the Jews—that they were uncircumcised of heart and ears. They were covenant breakers in that they have never kept the Law, just as their fathers who killed the prophets. This is what got Stephen killed. He as much as claimed the Jewish rulers were no better spiritually than uncircumcised gentiles. This is why the Apostles didn’t have to leave Jerusalem. They couldn’t agree with Stephen on this point. They had to see for themselves that the Samaritans received Jesus when Philip later evangelized them. The Apostles didn’t preach Christ to the Samaritans, until they were on their return journey back to Jerusalem, after they were assured that what Philip had done was of God.

A few years later, Peter had to be convinced with a vision from Jesus three times before anything clicked with him, and he was able to see it was okay to enter a gentile’s home and preach the Gospel. The Apostles believed in circumcision and had to be shown by Jesus that it wasn’t necessary, but Stephen was very well educated, knew the Scriptures and was very sensitive to the Holy Spirit. He knew the Scriptures spoke of necessity of spiritual circumcision and that the natural operation had little spiritual significance. It was a deal breaker in the High Council, and Stephen lost his life for it. Paul was there, taking it all in. He probably debated with him in the synagogue and no doubt helped the false witnesses with their testimony.

Some scholars try to play down Saul’s persecuting activities. For example:

“Witherington (1998), p. 52) cautions us against making more of Saul’s persecuting activities that we ought: ‘Most moderns would view him as a religious fanatic.’ ‘There is no hint that Paul had an uneasy conscience about persecuting while he did it’ (Witherington, 1998, p. 58)… Yet, Paul himself might be surprised to hear us minimizing or neutralizing or normalizing his persecution of the church As Farrar (1893) pointed out over one hundred years ago, Saul’s persecution was great enough to devastate the church in Jerusalem and create havoc among believers.”[1]

Read it for yourself. Paul never once tried to diminish his involvement in the persecuting activity authorized by Jerusalem. He confessed it openly and before all. Notice what he said:

“I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a violent aggressor (1Timothy 1:13). I persecuted the Way even to the death, binding both men and women (Acts 22:4), having received authority from the high priests I shut them up in prison, and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them (Acts 26:10). I punished them in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly furious with them I pursued them even to distant cities (Acts 26:11). I persecuted and abused the church of God furiously and extensively, and [with fanatical zeal did my best] to make havoc of it and destroy it (Galatians 1:13).”

As for Witherington’s thoughts above concerning there being no hint of Paul having an uneasy conscience while he carried on this activity, I have to consider the Lord’s words to Paul when he introduced himself to his persecutor. Jesus told Paul it was dangerous, and he was only hurting himself to kick against the goads (Acts 9:5; 26:14). In other words Jesus had been calling him, perhaps through Stephen, or perhaps through others whom he had been persecuting. Saul was pushing these impulses away and ignoring them.


[1] The Psychology of Paul, by James R. Beck; pp. 47-48

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Posted by on March 15, 2011 in Paul, Stephen

 

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