The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ occurred in AD 33. Fifty days after Jesus rose from the grave and ten days after He ascended to heaven, the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples, and the Church was born. Before His departure, Jesus had promised His disciples they would receive power when the Holy Spirit had come upon them. The last thing He told them before He was taken up was, “You shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
However, two years later (AD 35), the Church was still primarily concentrated in Jerusalem. The number of converts was proliferating, and the disciples were having problems keeping up with all their duties. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the word” Acts 6:2-4).
The young Church agreed and chose seven men of good reputation (deacons) for food distribution duties. One of the seven good men was Stephen, described as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen” (Acts 6:8). It is believed these signs and wonders were a gift/fruit of the Holy Spirit; in particular, he had the power to heal people.
Stephen was the first non-apostle who could heal people. Up to this time, only Peter, John, or one of the other apostles could heal people by the power of the Holy Spirit. Stephen was very knowledgeable concerning the Hebrew scriptures of the Tanakh and was also a good preacher. In Acts 6:9, we see Stephen debating some religious Jews called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia) regarding Christianity and how Jesus fulfilled many of the prophet’s words concerning the Messiah.
These members of the Sanhedrin were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which Stephen spoke, so they set up false witnesses to testify against him. The witnesses said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses delivered to us. And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel” (Acts 6:13-15). Incidentally (but probably not), as the witnesses mentioned Moses, Stephen’s face started shining like an angel (just as Moses’s face had shone after he had talked with God on Mt. Sinai).
The high priest then asked Stephen if the words of the witnesses against him were valid. Stephen gave an eloquent speech regarding Abraham and the patriarchs and their faith in the Lord God. He then reminded them of their ancestor’s time in Egypt and how they became enslaved people in Egypt until God raised up the first prophet/judge Moses. Moses repeated God’s word to Pharaoh to let his people go. After the ten plagues sent from God against Pharaoh and the Egyptians, Moses brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.
The Hebrews spent forty years wandering in the desert in their quest to reach the Promised Land because of their rebelliousness towards God. Stephen told the Sanhedrin, “This is He who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel (The Angel of the Lord or Yahweh) who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, whom our fathers would not obey but rejected. And in their hearts, they turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as is written in the book of the Prophets” (Acts 7:38-42).
Stephen then reminded them of the apostasy of the children of Israel when they had come unto the land and how they had abandoned the Lord God and worshipped idols and heathen gods. He gave a brief history of the children of Israel under the leadership of Joshua, the judges, David, and Solomon, and how Israel had always resisted the Holy Spirit. Stephen couldn’t hold back his anger against the religious Jews anymore and shouted at them, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53).
When the Jews heard these things, they were “cut to the heart” and gnashed at him with their teeth. Stephen had driven them to a maniacal (possibly demonic), murderous rage. “But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56).
The veil that separates the earth from heaven had been temporarily opened for Stephen to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This was Stephen’s come-to-Jesus moment (literally), and what a glorious moment it was! I’ll bet that Stephen’s face was shining brightly at this time.
After Stephen’s declaration, they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord. They cast him out of the city, stoned him as he called on God, and then he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” Immediately before his death, Stephen emulated the Lord Jesus by asking for forgiveness for their murderous sin. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, he had prayed to the Father and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. And they divided His garments and cast lots” (Luke 23:34).
I believe that before Stephen’s lifeless body hit the ground, his spirit/soul fell into the loving arms of the Lord Jesus in heaven. I can imagine Jesus telling him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things; I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
Stephen was the first Christian martyr after Jesus’ death, but he certainly wouldn’t be the last, as both the Jews and Romans would persecute them in the following years and decades to come.
Before the stoning of Stephen, the Jews had laid down their clothes (tunics, coats) at the feet of a young man named Saul, who was consenting to Stephen’s death. Saul of Tarsus was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. He was trained as a Pharisee under a man named Gamaliel. The Bible describes Gamaliel as a doctor of the law and a distinguished member of the Jewish Council.
Gamaliel was an unexpected ally for Peter and the other Apostles. Once the Apostles were put in prison for miraculously healing people and attracting multitudes of new believers, the angel of the Lord opened their prison doors and brought them out. He instructed them to go to the temple and speak to the people regarding Jesus the Messiah. The high priest and the council were furious and intended to kill them. Gamaliel stood up and said, “Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nothing: but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply you be found even to fight against God” (Acts 5:38-39).
While he may have saved their lives, Gamaliel’s real motive was to keep the Council from being divided over them and avoid arousing the Romans. Saul showed no such restraint in dealing with the new Christian disciples. Stephen was one of these early disciples. The Bible says Saul was consenting unto his death. There was a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem at that time. Because of this persecution, most disciples were scattered abroad throughout Judaea and Samaria. “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3).
Saul even went to the high priest and received letters to travel to Damascus in Syria to bring back Christians in chains to Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth and heard a voice saying unto him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
“And Saul said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you persecute: it is hard for you to kick against the pricks.’ [The phrase means that Saul was only hurting himself in his actions because he was rebelling against God.] And he trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what will you have me do?’ And the Lord said unto him, ‘Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.’” (Acts 9:3-6).
This was Saul’s great “coming to Jesus” moment. Saul had just witnessed the Shekinah Glory of the Lord, which was so bright it blinded him (as in the transfiguration – “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” – Matthew 17:2). As I described a come-to-Jesus moment in part I, this is a metaphor for a transformative moment or meeting – like a wake-up call, seeing the light, or an attitude adjustment. All of these metaphors describe Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus, especially “seeing the light.” You might say it was the light of the truth, for Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). This was the start of Saul’s conversion to Christianity and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Like many come-to-Jesus moments, it can often result from a traumatic experience.
“And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink” (Acts 9:7-9).
The Lord spoke by way of a vision to a disciple by the name of Ananias and told him where he was to find Saul of Tarsus. Ananias was quite concerned because Saul’s reputation as a persecutor of Christians preceded him. “But the Lord said unto him, Go your way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15).
Ananias did as the Lord commanded. He found Saul and relayed this message: “Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto you in the way as you came, has sent me, that you might receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 9:17). “And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized” (Acts 9:18).
Saul began preaching in the synagogues at Damascus that Jesus is the Son of God. Those who heard him were amazed that this was the same man persecuting the disciples in Jerusalem. The religious Jews in Damascus were so infuriated that they made plans to kill Saul, but he discovered their plot and escaped. Saul left Damascus and traveled to Arabia, where he lived for three years.
As a result of this miraculous transformation, Saul became known as Paul (his Greek name). Paul spent time in Arabia, Damascus, Jerusalem, Syria, and his native Cilicia, and Barnabas enlisted his help to teach those in the church in Antioch (Acts 11:25). Ironically, the Christians driven out of Palestine by Saul of Tarsus founded this multiracial church (Acts 11:19-21).
Eventually, Paul became known as “the apostle to the Gentiles” as he (and Barnabus) traveled throughout the Middle East and even to Rome, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ironically (or not), Paul wrote, “For so the Lord has commanded us: I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 14:37). Along the way, Paul duplicated many of Jesus’ miracles, including healings, freeing people of demon possession, and even raising the dead. He did this in Jesus’ name and by the power of the Holy Spirit (and not by the Law).
Paul wrote many of the New Testament books. Most theologians agree that he wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. These 13 “letters” (books) make up the “Pauline Authorship (Epistles)” and are the primary source of his theology. Some scholars believe he also wrote Hebrews.
The book of Acts gives us a historical look at Paul’s life and times. Paul spent his life proclaiming the risen Christ Jesus throughout the Roman world, often at great personal peril (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Paul became the greatest missionary, evangelist, and author the world has ever known. It is assumed that Paul died a martyr’s death in the mid-to-late 60s A.D. in Rome.
Saul/Paul started in life as a success in the eyes of the world. He was a devoutly religious Jew (a Pharisee), a scholar, and a Roman citizen. But in the eyes of the Lord, he was an utter failure in spiritual matters. He was merely a religious zealot…killing and imprisoning Jesus’ followers/believers because they did not conform to his interpretation of the law of Moses.
It took an act of God for Paul to understand His truth and to do His will. And what is the will of God? “And this is the will of Him that sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son, and believes in Him may have everlasting life: and I will raise him at the last day” (John 6:40). Saul certainly saw the Son on the road to Damascus long ago, and his come-to-Jesus moment changed himself and the entire world.
Sometimes it takes a hard and painful lesson to be learned before one can come to Jesus spiritually. It could even be the “last call” before Jesus gives you over to a reprobate mind. “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind to do those things which are not fitting” (Romans 1:28). Don’t miss your last call to come to Jesus. Do so now, for we are not guaranteed tomorrow.
“Come now, you who say, Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:13-14).
Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.