1 And Saul approved of his execution.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. – Acts 7:44-8:3 ESV
Stephen had called out the high priest and the Sanhedrin. These powerful and influential religious leaders of the Jews were the guilty culprits, not him. They were supposed to be the spiritual shepherds of Israel, but Stephen had exposed them for what they were: stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, who always resist the Holy Spirit. They were just like their ancestors, whose rebellion against God Stephen had just outlined for them in great detail. These men were supposed to be man of faith, like Abraham, Joseph, Moses and David. They should have expected the unexpected from God. Of all people, they should have known what the Scriptures said and how God had repeatedly told of new things to come. The author of Hebrews provides further proof that Abraham, Joseph, Moses and David were men of faith.
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. – Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV
Abraham, whose only possession in the land of Canaan was the tomb in which he buried his wife, believed God and kept waiting for the promise of God to be fulfilled.
22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones. – Hebrews 11:22 ESV
Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his own brothers, kept faithfully trusting in God, eventually being appointed the second-highest ranking official in the land of Egypt. But he was so convinced of God’s promise concerning the promised land, that he made his brothers swear to return his bones there after his death.
24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. – Hebrews 11:24-26 ESV
Moses gave up the privileges that came with being the adopted son of Pharaoh, instead risking it all in order to faithfully serve God. He obeyed God, leading the people of Israel out of Egypt and all the way to the land of promise. And then the author of Hebrews sums up his recounting of those patriarchs who exhibited faith in their God.
32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. – Hebrews 11:32-34 ESV
All of these individuals led lives of faith. They placed their trust in God, never knowing quite how things were going to turn out, but leaving the outcome up to God. But the men to whom Stephen had just delivered his message were men of little faith. They no longer expected God to do great things. They were content with the Mosaic Law, the Temple and their own status as spiritual leaders of Israel. It didn’t seem to bother them that they were under oppressive Roman rule and that the spiritual climate within Israel was at an all-time low. Stephen had clearly pointed out that they were just like their ancestors, who had rejected the leadership of Moses and the prophetic warnings of the prophets. The high priest and the Sanhedrin had rejected the Righteous One of God, and were now rejecting His Spirit-filled apostles. They wanted nothing to do with the gospel. They rejected the words of Peter, John, and Stephen, refusing to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and had been resurrected from the grave. In fact, it is when Stephen claims to see a vision of the resurrected Lord that these men lose it.
55 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 honor at God’s right hand. 56 And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!” – Acts 7:55-56 NLT
That was all it took. Stephen’s Spirit-inspired vision of the risen Lord left the Jewish religious leaders seeing red. They immediately assaulted Stephen, dragging him outside the city, where they stoned him to death. And in doing so, they revealed that their faith was in something other than God. They worshiped the status quo. They had made idols out of the Mosaic Law and the Temple. They were not interested in what God was doing in their midst, but only in what God had done in the past. These men had no expectation that God would do great things in their midst. Their faith was in what they could see and touch, including their own status as religious leaders and the bricks and mortar of the Temple itself. They took comfort in the law, even though they failed to keep it. They sought salvation through their own self-effort and saw no need for a Savior. In their minds, they were already righteous before God because they were the chosen people of God, the keepers of the law of God, and the proud occupants of the Temple of God.
So, like their ancestors before them, they killed the messenger of God. And in doing so, they refused the message God had proclaimed through him. And this tagic event brought a dramatic change to the atmosphere within Jerusalem. No longer would the city be a safe and inviting environment for the followers of Jesus. Luke points out that “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1 ESV). And he drops the name of a man who would play a vital role in both the church’s persecution and the gospel’s proclamation: Saul. He is only given a mention in these verses, but in a relatively short period of time, Saul would become a key player in the ongoing drama surrounding the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ.
There are a number of things presaged in these verses. First of all, the future role of Saul as both a persecutor of the church and as its poster-boy for conversion stories. His presence at Stephen’s stoning and his approval of his death, provide us with a glimpse into what was to come. God was at work. He was moving behind the scenes in ways that even the apostles could not have foreseen. Little did they know that the escalating tension between the Jewish religious leaders and the church was going to have a positive impact on the spread of the gospel. We must always recall what Jesus had said to His disciples just prior to His ascension. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV). Yet, up until this point in Luke’s account of the church’s growth and spread, the gospel had yet to make it outside the city walls of Jerusalem. But what does he say happened as a result of Stephen’s death and the subsequent persecution of the church? “…and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1 ESV). The new believers were forced to flee for their lives, vacating the confines of Jerusalem and heading out into the surrounding regions, even as far as Samaria. God was using what appeared to be a tragic event to accomplish His divine will for the church. What the people of God had been unwilling or unready to do, He made happen. He used the persecution by the religious leaders to force His own people to do what Jesus had commanded them to do. And this new era in the life of the church was going to take faith. No longer would they be able to remain in the close community they had established and enjoyed in Jerusalem. Unlike the Jews, God was not satisfied with the status quo. The gospel was meant to be spread. The community of faith was meant to be shared. The good news of Jesus Christ was intended for any and all who would hear it and accept it, regardless of race or creed.
Saul, who would later become known to us as Paul, would one day pick up the mantel of Stephen and take the good news to the Gentiles. It was he who wrote, “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes–the Jew first and also the Gentile” (Romans 1:16 NLT). The man who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen and approved of their actions, would one day face stoning himself, for preaching the gospel boldly and without apology. He would become a man of great faith, who willingly suffered for the sake of Christ, because he had placed his hope in the future promises of Christ. Which is why he could say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).
Stephen, a man of great faith, died at the hands of men of little faith. But the God in whom Stephen had placed his faith, was not done. His church, while facing persecution, was far from finished. It would continue to grow. The Spirit would continue to move. Men and women would continue to place their faith in a faithful God who was doing new and exciting things in their midst. And while Saul was busy ravaging the church, our faithful God had plans for Saul would radically revolutionize his life and forever alter the trajectory of the gospel.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.