I’m not proud of the way I treated those first believers… but I was a young rabbi-in-training trying to make a name for myself. You see, I was taught that these new followers of The Way were speaking against God and against the Law.
There was this man named Stephen. He and I were actually about the same age. He had been speaking in the marketplace and in the synagogue about the man he called Jesus. The Nazarene had been executed recently and his followers were saying that He had risen from the dead.
All of the Pharisee’s and leaders of the Jews argued with Stephen, saying that he was blaspheming against God. At the time, I just took it all in, believing in my teacher, not in that rabble rouser. But in the back of my mind I wondered… How could a man like Stephen speak with such grace and power? And witnesses said he performed many amazing signs, even miracles. But truly, it was hard to hear of Jesus’ words that He was going to destroy the holy Temple and not be riled up against His followers.
The elders and teachers of the Law rallied the people to speak against Stephen and he was brought before the Sanhedrin. As a talmedim, a disciple, under Gamaliel, I was invited into the chamber and I listened intently to the testimony of this follower of Jesus. Some say his face glowed bright as he talked. He was wise for his age and spoke in great detail of our history as the chosen people of God. He told the story of Abraham… of Joseph saving our ancestors from Pharaoh… of Moses being given the Law by God and leading the people to this great land… of David and Solomon building the great Temple.
I was confused… if he wasn’t a Jew, he certainly knew a lot about the history of the Israelites! I just couldn’t imagine why he would want to follow the Nazarene.
And then, something snapped. He began calling the prestigious leaders of the Court “stiff necked!” accusing them of having uncircumcised ears and hearts. And he said they had betrayed the Law.
That didn’t sit well with anyone! The room became a cacophony of voices… all of them screaming at the other. These distinguished rabbinical men, were ready to cast judgement on Stephen. But none of it seemed to disturb the young man. He stood in the center of the Court, with elders and great rabbis circled all around, like lions about to devour a small deer. He looked up to Heaven. He then said that he saw Jesus, standing at the right hand of God… Our traditions teach that that’s the side of Mercy. On God’s left? Judgement… and apparently these religious rulers. Jesus, full of mercy, on God’s right… and He is welcoming Stephen to Heaven.
That was the last straw for the Pharisees. Stephen was drug out of the city… not just out of the Court… but far away, where he was stoned to death. I stood and watched in awe and in fear as many of the leaders threw their coats down at my feet, where one would guess, that I was to keep watch over the garments.
Everything changed that day for the people of The Way. Stephen totally surrendered to God… even unto death. In the months that followed, the teachers of the Law gained new momentum to squash this rebellion against the Law. All of the followers of Jesus were scattered. I saw it as an opportunity to begin a major persecution against all of them. I personally, put hundreds of men and women into prison. And, yes, I even murdered those who followed Jesus. And with my actions, I gained additional stature among the teachers of the Law. I was given letters from the High Priest himself authorizing my arresting any who followed The Way.
I’m humbled to report, however, that Jesus got my attention one day on the road to Damascus. I’ve repented. He has forgiven me. He has empowered me. He has filled me with His Holy Spirit and He has blessed me!
Ironic, isn’t it? I was just a rabbi-in-training on the day of Stephen’s death. I grew into becoming a Jew’s Jew. A leader, even a teacher to teachers. Yet, that young man’s decision to totally surrender his life to Jesus – even to death — was the first thing I thought of the day the Lord knocked me to the ground and took my sight. And in the days and weeks that followed, I too, began to totally surrender my life to the Lord of Mercy, who stands at the right hand of God the Father.
Someday soon, those Law-followers with whom I used to partner will come for me. I’m more than okay with that. For me, to live is Christ, it is life eternal. It is life in the presence of my Messiah… totally surrendered. To die, to leave this earth and spend the rest of eternity with Jesus… is to gain! I look forward to that day!
Some of the actions, words and, perhaps thoughts of Saul, who later became Paul. As recorded in Acts, Chapters 6-7-8.
(c) 2015 Rich Ronald