Saul, Persecutor of Christians
The young man Saul at the stoning of Stephen

Saul, Persecutor of Christians

To understand what happened when Paul visited Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17), we must understand more about the man himself. But before we can understand Paul as the seemingly tireless pioneer of the faith, whose unique role was to take the gospel message to the Gentile world, we must come to grips with his former life as a persecutor of Christians.

I do not use the words former life lightly. Paul, more than any other First Century Christian, exemplifies what it means to experience “baptism into death” and to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4, NASB except where noted). In fact, his life story provides one of the most remarkable transformations from non-believer to believer.

Few of us have ever taken the time to ask why Paul attacked “the Way” so vigorously, and how his misguided zeal later shaped his perception of his own destiny. Today’s blog post will focus on the first issue, and next week’s will take up the second question.

“Consenting unto his Death”

We first encounter this individual as “a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58) at the stoning of Stephen, who had been dragged before the Sanhedrin to defend himself against trumped up charges. Saul, though young, seemed to hold some official role because “the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet” of this young man. We are told quite explicitly that Saul was “consenting unto his death” (Acts 8:1, KJV).

What was it that led to this first martydom of a Christian?

We know from the passage in Acts that the immediate justification for the stoning was Stephen’s words regarding his vision of “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (verse 55). This statement, though it may have triggered the stoning, does not explain why Stephen was dragged before the council in the first place (Acts 6:12).

The specific charges laid out before the Sanhedrin cannot really shed much light on the motivation for the simple reason that they were made by “false witnesses” (verses 13-14). To understand the real issue, we must understand something of the mindset of Pharisees during this formative period for the church.

The Threat to All That Matters

The Pharisees believed in a coming Messiah, and many believed the Messiah’s appearance was imminent. Although nothing could thwart God’s will and the inauguration of a Messianic kingdom, the arrival of the King could be delayed as the result of widespread disobedience to God’s Law. Observing the Law, including the oral law, was therefore not only a duty of the individual, but of the whole community.

The nascent Christian church, not yet recognized as a separate entity from Judaism, was teaching some revolutionary doctrines. Most alarming to the Pharisees, and even to the Sadducees, was the claim that Jesus was the Messiah.

Surprisingly, this alarm was not the result of claims that the Messiah had come. The issue was one of claiming that the crucified Jesus was the Messiah. Crucifixion, in the eyes of the Pharisees, was evidence that an individual had been cursed by God. This belief stemmed from a statement in the book of Deuteronomy stipulating that “he who is hanged is accursed of God” (21:23). (This passage specifically refers to an executed criminal whose body is afterward hung from a tree, not to hanging in the modern sense.)

By the First Century, as Jews witnessed the horrors of Roman crucifixions, they had come to view this passage as including not only the display of an executed criminal, but the means of execution. At any rate, in their eyes, the death Jesus died disqualified Him as the Messiah. In his book Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, F.F. Bruce explains that a “crucified Messiah was worse than a contradiction in terms; the very idea was an outrageous blasphemy” (page 71).

A Stumbling Block to Jews

We can ascribe this sort of thinking to Paul, according to the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (volume 4, “Paul the Apostle, page 631), because Paul’s “later references to the scandal of the cross indicate that for him this was the great stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

For the Pharisees, stamping out this apostasy was vital to preparing for Messianic rule. Many of them undoubtedly saw themselves in the role of Phinehas, who personally turned back a plague on Israel when he impaled an Israelite man and Midianite woman engaged in a sexually-debauched worship of Ba’al of Peor (Numbers 25:6-15).

When Phinehas acted, Israel was on the cusp of entering the Promised Land. Similarly, the Jews of the First Century were looking for the appearance of the Messiah to establish God’s Kingdom. Paul would have been among a zealous group of Pharisees intent on preventing a departure from the faith that would delay the arrival of the Messiah.

Let me know what your thoughts are, and especially if you discovered any gems in the life of Paul that will help us understand his actions later. Next week we’ll conclude our look at Paul, this time taking a look at his role as apostle to the Gentiles.

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