(Series: “The Early Church of Jerusalem” post #14)
It takes quite a bit of time and energy for a mob to literally stone someone to death. Coats and outer garments must be taken off so that rocks can be gathered and thrown most effectively. But what should be done with the coats and garments to keep them from getting stolen during the proceedings? The best solution is to lay them all in one big pile and appoint a person to watch over them. Well, guess who guarded the clothes pile during the stoning of Stephen. It was a zealous young Jewish Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus who had trained under the tutelage of the famous rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 7:58; Acts 22:3, 20; Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:3-6). This Saul would ultimately become better known as the apostle Paul.
The stoning of Stephen marked a turning point in the Jewish persecution of the church of Jerusalem. Acts 8:1 says: “At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem…” (N.K.J.V.). And do you know who took the lead role in that intensified persecution? Young Saul of Tarsus. His life was so intensely invested in Judaism that he could only see the followers of Christ as blasphemers who preached lies about a false Messiah and sought to corrupt the one true religion that God Himself had instituted. He hated the followers of Jesus with a passion and stood by in full approval (watching the clothes) as his acquaintances in the Sanhedrin council stoned Stephen to death. Read carefully the following verses, which all speak of Saul’s rage-filled hatred of the followers of Christ (all from the N.K.J.V.):
- Acts 8:3: As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
- Acts 22:4: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women…”
- Galatians 1:13: For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.
- Acts 9:1-2: Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
- Acts 22:5: “as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from which I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished.”
We might question why God would allow Saul and his fellow Jews to persecute the Jerusalem church this severely. But the answer is found in Acts 8:1 and Acts 8:4. Those two verses say (N.K.J.V.):
- Acts 8:1: Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
- Acts 8:4: Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.
You see, Christianity couldn’t become a worldwide movement as long as all the Christians were stationed in one city, Jerusalem. As wonderful and as idyllic as the church of Jerusalem was, God wanted churches here, there, and everywhere, not just one big megachurch in one big city. What was the great commission that Jesus had left His followers? “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19, N.K.J.V.). Likewise, what had been Christ’s departing words to that group of approximately 120 of His followers? “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, N.K.J,V.).
It had always been God’s plan for the Christians of Jerusalem to start branching out by winning people to Christ in every city and in so doing start churches in those cities. Human nature being what it is, though, people tend to remain entrenched where they are comfortable. That includes Christians. But do you know what is a surefire way to upset a comfort zone? Let the comfortable start experiencing intense persecution. That will put a lot of “For Sale” signs in yards. In this way, the persecution against the Jerusalem church accomplished something that allowed the early church as a whole to go to a new and more prolific level. It put the followers of Christ on the move, and wherever they went they took the gospel.
You might recall, though, that I closed my previous post by saying that the persecution against the Jerusalem church accomplished two things that allowed the early church to go another level. So, if many of the Jerusalem Christians fleeing town and relocating to other cities and regions was one thing, what was the other? It was the introduction of Saul of Tarsus into the storyline of the early church. That, too, will prove to be a game changer. First, though, God has to get Saul converted. And that conversion will be the subject of my next post. I’ll just tease it a bit by saying that watching Stephen’s stoning had much more of an impact on Saul than even he realized at the time. Actually, it created the small crack of a fault line in his thinking, one from which he wouldn’t be able to recover. But that’s all I’ll say for now. See you next time.