“You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand!” Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died. NLTActs 7:51-60
Just imagine for a moment the impact on this young trainee Rabbi after all that he had witnessed to this point in his life. We know that he is right in the very centre of the action when it comes to Rabbinical teaching. He was trained by Gamaliel. Yes you guessed it, the same moderate that we encountered in Acts 5.
But one member, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, who was an expert in religious law and respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be sent outside the council chamber for a while. “Men of Israel, take care what you are planning to do to these men! So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!”Acts 5:34, 38-39
Then Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today.Acts 22:3
Put yourself in Paul’s shoes at this moment in his life. We know from the text above how he was aligned at the moment this incident or encounter with Stephen took place. Saul was a young trainee under one of the best rabbinical teachers. Young, keen, filled with energy and desire to make his mark for YHWH. As the events in Jerusalem at this time are escalating in terms of opposition to the new teaching of this Messiah figure, people are aligning themselves. We know Gamaliel was a moderate by the advice he gave the Sanhedrin regarding the followers of Jesus. Saul was one who was “covering himself with the dust of this rabbi’s feet”. At this point in time Saul is present when the Sanhedrin rise up spontaneously and stone Stephen to death. These are very heady, irrational moments. The mob mentality has taken over and despite Stephen’s face glowing with God’s glory; despite him uttering words that you have to admit are impressive in the heat of the moment:
- “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
- “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!”
Despite all these things, Saul chooses to sit there and keep watch over the clothes of the perpetrators while they stone an innocent, even godly, man who is glowing with the glory of God, to death. It takes a certain callous heart to do that.
Ask yourself the question, what impact did this have on Saul of Tarsus? One would think that Saul would have adopted Gamaliel’s moderate position and embraced “a wait and see” attitude. Surely for those who champion Moses as the great Law giver, they can see the connection here to the great example of Moses’ face glowing with the presence of God. That is why Luke has written this story as he has. Don’t forget your roots. Discern what is happening around you. Stephen is appealing to the Heavenly Judge who is standing ready to receive him. The One who is standing ready to pronounce judgment on what these “wonderful leaders” are doing. All the time Stephen has been speaking, his face has been glowing. That ought to remind these leaders of what is happening here. But their misguided zeal and rage mask the moment.
Despite all that, Saul is found on the side of the perpetrators, guarding their clothes, knowing that the clothes of the guilty man are normally the garments which are “guarded”. Did he even stop for a moment to evaluate what he was doing? No, obviously not. He is totally oblivious to the bigger picture that is being played out here. Was Gamaliel involved in all of this action? We are not given a hint but I somehow suspect he wasn’t if he was true to the words he had uttered earlier. Notice the verse which follows Gamaliel’s statements I quoted above.
“The others accepted his advice. They called in the apostles and had them flogged.”Act 5:40
Violent people will always find a way to act violently. They get a last sneaky little kick in, or a last little pinch or punch just to make their point. I like to think that Gamaliel wasn’t like that. That he maintained his poise and his integrity, but I don’t know. We are not told. But we are told what his protégé was like. Saul was right there on the side of the violent offenders, disregarding all the indications that these events were all “from God”. I trust, true to his word, Gamaliel left these men alone. But Saul didn’t. He was right in the thick of it, guarding the clothes of the perpetrators when he had to have known the implications of doing that. In case you are left in any doubt, Luke tells you where Saul’s heart was to be found.
Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.) But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.Acts 8:1-3
- Scary stuff. Do you allow other hot heads to influence your response to people or events around you?
- Are you one who is swayed by the crowd? Are you one who likes to get in a last kick, just to let the person feel your vengeance?
- Or do you have the inner strength to stand your ground and stand up for what you know to be right?
Your next encounter with mob mentality or going with the crowd will reveal to you where you are at.
Whatever may be your response, Luke has made it clear where Saul stood and set the story on its course for what is to follow. Yes, that is right, this is all very carefully structured to take the story in the direction that God wants it to go. Hang on to your hat. How do I know these things? Simple, I have read this story at least once every year. I know what is coming up in the action. It is like your reaction to watching a movie you have seen many times but you are sharing it with someone who is seeing it for the first time. You can’t help making comments like, “watch this part really closely; it’s important later”. “Listen carefully to what the hero says here, it sets the scene for what is to follow”.
So often the body of Christ demonstrates a disconnect with the head.Anon
Jesus could sleep before He calmed the storm because He had peace already!Ian Vail
Jesus came from the world of peace to the storm and it was no match for Him.Anon
Stephen came full of peace and the knowledge of God’s presence with him, and with the courage to tell the truth to this generation of leaders.Anon
We can’t be peacemakers if we don’t have peace ourselves.Phil Pringle
Check your own alignment! Are you standing on the side of might or are you standing on the side of right?Ian Vail