Paul the Persecutor: We’re introduced to the Apostle Paul in the Bible as Saul, a zealous young religious leader at the killing of Stephen, a deacon in the early church. After this, Saul went from house to house, seeking to destroy the church. In the face of this intense persecution, the church scattered. Despite all this, God did miraculous works as the gospel spread throughout Judea and Samaria. Recorded on Apr 23, 2023, on Acts 7:54-8:8 by Pastor David Parks.
The Life of Paul is a new sermon series (mostly) from the book of Acts in the Bible. The Apostle Paul has a fantastic story. Born Saul of Tarsus, Paul was a brilliant young man who was a violent persecutor of Christians. But then he met Jesus, which changed everything. Eventually, Paul would become not only the preeminent Apostle to the Roman world but one of the most influential people who ever lived. Paul’s story offers a great case study of what it looks like to learn the way of Jesus.
All year, we’re focusing on Learning the way of Jesus. And today, we’re continuing a sermon series we started last week on the life of the Apostle Paul. We were reminded last week that everyone has a story. You and I have a story just as Paul had a story. And God has the power and intention to take our stories and shape them and mold them in incredible ways for his glory and our joy, and the good of all people. Paul’s story is fascinating, but it also serves as a great case study for learning the way of Jesus. Born Saul of Tarsus, Paul was a brilliant young man who, as we’ll see today, was a violent persecutor of Christians at the very start of the Christian movement. But then, Paul met Jesus, which changed everything. So, Paul, the persecutor, became Paul the Christian, which we’ll see next week. Eventually, Paul would become not only the preeminent Apostle to the Roman world but one of the most influential people who has ever lived. Throughout this series, we’re going to continue to ask: How did all this happen? How did someone so diametrically opposed to the Christian faith become the greatest missionary for Christ? How do you explain this? Well, today, we’ll consider the darkest chapter of Paul’s story, when, as a young man zealous for the religion of his ancestors — angry, violent, blaspheming, ignorant, and unbelieving — Saul of Tarsus waged a personal vendetta to destroy the followers of Jesus. If you have a Bible/app, please take it and open to Acts 7:54. We’ll put the Scripture up on the screens for you as well. We’ll read through this whole passage, and then we’ll go back and unpack it together. And I hope you’ll see three things: 1. The Battle 2. The Believer 3. The Beauty of a God who saves by grace.
Acts 7:54-8:8 (NIV), “54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. 8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. 4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.“
So the book of Acts is actually the second of a two-part series that was written by a man named Luke. Luke was a physician who became a Christian, most likely through the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Luke did a careful investigation of Jesus, interviewing many of the eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus. The results of that investigation are the books of Luke and Acts in the bible. Now, the book of Acts basically asks the question, after the resurrection of Jesus, what happened next? But also, much of what we know of Paul’s story is found here in the book of Acts.
Acts 7:54-58a (NIV), “When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” Ok, let’s pause here. So I tried to figure out where to jump into this scene, but it starts all the way back in chapter 6. So we’re coming in at the end. But what has been happening is this: Stephen was a deacon in the early church, which meant he was a leader who helped the Apostles with the ministry of the church. As the church grew, the responsibilities and supporting structures, and leadership needed to grow as well. The Apostles couldn’t do everything everywhere; they needed the help of godly men and women. Stephen was one of the first deacons chosen because he was known to be a man who was full of the Spirit, faith, and wisdom. This brother was full of God’s grace and power. But at some point after becoming a deacon in the church, despite his impeccable character, there were men in Jerusalem who stirred up trouble and brought false accusations against him because he was a Christian. So he was brought before the Sanhedrin or the Jewish ruling council. In Acts 7, Stephen delivers an incredible speech where he goes back through the history of the Jewish people, culminating with the fact that they had killed Jesus, the Righteous One, sent by God to be the savior of the world. He might’ve also mentioned that the Sanhedrin was standing in the line of people who had persecuted and killed God’s prophets and were resisting the Holy Spirit, which I’m sure they loved to hear. Then, before the whole counsel, Stephen has a vision of Jesus, high and lifted up, standing at the right hand of God. The members of the Sanhedrin were furious and counted this as unquestionable blasphemy, saying that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, the one they had killed, was not only alive but was himself equal to God. Blasphemy was deserving of death under the Mosaic Law, so Stephen was dragged outside the city to be killed by stoning. What an injustice! Stephen was a good man who was telling the truth, and, like Jesus, he would pay with his life.
Acts 7:58b-8:1a (NIV), “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of their killing him.” On this dark day, we’re introduced to Saul of Tarsus as an enemy of the church. We don’t know exactly how old he was, but Luke says he was a young man. If he had been born around 10 AD, Paul would’ve been about 25 years old at this point. As Stephen was martyred, Paul guarded the possessions of those who killed him and approved of all this. I truly wonder how often Paul thought of this day later in his life, after his vision of Jesus, high and lifted up on the road to Damascus, after he became a Christian. On this side of eternity, Paul couldn’t go back and apologize to Stephen; he just had to live with what he had done in light of the forgiveness of Jesus. But at this time, it only got worse for the followers of Jesus.
Acts 8:1b-3 (NIV), “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” Now, we’ve really never seen this level of persecution for our faith. Our culture has steadily become more secular for several generations now, but people aren’t being thrown in prison for being Christians. However, there are people around the world today who do face this level of persecution. And we should pray for them and help them if we can. But back then, after Stephen’s death, something changed in Jerusalem. And Luke writes that everyone except the Apostles were scattered throughout Judea (the region around Jerusalem) and Samaria (the region next door). Imagine knowing and loving Stephen as your brother, seeing him killed, and then having to flee with your family and just the possessions you could carry. Imagine the fear, uncertainty, and grief of that time. And Paul moved from a place of approval to a place of leadership against the men and women who followed the way of Jesus. Going from house to house, like the Nazis would do many years later looking for Jews, Paul hunted Christians, no doubt to find more blasphemers to put to death. Now at this point, if we ended our reading here, what would you predict would be the future of the Christian church? A brilliant young man in a position of power seeking to destroy the church. Not good, right? Pretty hopeless, it would seem. But it wasn’t hopeless. See what happened. See what happens when you scatter the people of God, full of the Spirit of God.
Acts 7:54-8:8 (NIV), “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” This passage starts with one of my favorite verses in the book of Acts. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” How incredible is that?? If we were scattered, would that be true for us? I pray it would be. But this whole situation wasn’t God losing control. After the resurrection, Jesus told his disciples that they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and they were to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Ac 1:8) But up until this point they had stayed in Jerusalem. When this terrible persecution started, and the believers scattered, they brought the gospel with them and told people about Jesus wherever they went. Saul and the enemies of God had tried to kill this early Christian movement, but God used their wicked attempts to make his story/message/mission go viral. This is the redeeming power of God. Later, Paul himself would become a man like this — one who would talk about Jesus wherever he went. But one of those faithful men and women who were scattered was a man named Philip. And Philip was a deacon just as Stephen had been. And in Samaria (and later elsewhere), Philip demonstrated the miraculous power of God as a sign which served to verify the authenticity of the gospel message. And despite the fact that Jews and Samaritans generally hated each other at this time, many Samaritans heard Philip’s message and experienced God’s healing power, and there was great joy in that city. Praise God! This is basically the whole book of Acts right here in this passage. Last week, we started The Life of Paul about twenty years after this time, when Paul could look back at his life before becoming a Christian and all the good things he had going for him and say all that was garbage compared to knowing Jesus. But here, we see that despite having the right family background and the right nationality, the best education, and being himself very smart and bold in his personality, he was lost. He was hopeless. He needed a savior. He needed Jesus. Could God save a man like that? The answer is yes. And the change was dramatic, as we’ll see in the weeks ahead. But for today, what lessons can we take from this chapter of Paul’s story? How might we apply this to our lives today? I have three brief thoughts. In this story, we see, first, the battle, second, the believer, and third, the beauty of a God who saves by grace.
- The Battle: An important point to see here is that from the very beginning of the Christian faith, there is strong opposition. It wasn’t a neutral spiritual environment; it was a battlefield. This fits with what Jesus taught. You see, Jesus called men and women to follow him, but he constantly followed that calling with a warning to count the cost. If you follow me, you will need to lose your life to find it. If you follow me, the world will treat you as it treated me. If you follow me, you will experience pain and hardship; you will have trouble. But Jesus was clear, Christians shouldn’t lose their faith or hope when these hardships come. He would give us His Holy Spirit, we would have the truth of his word, we would have one another in the church, and he would be with us every step of the way. So not if, but when the battle comes, we should not be surprised or panic, but trust in him, stand up for the truth as Stephen so faithfully did, and leave the outcome up to our good Father in heaven. Now, I’m not talking about silly things like people saying happy holidays instead of Merry Christmas. I doubt that’s what was happening in the Book of Acts. I’m talking about real persecution, the type of persecution we see today in places like China or Egypt, or Nigeria, where followers of Jesus are imprisoned or killed. If you think that you’re following Jesus today in a neutral spiritual environment, you will be shocked when difficulties come. You shouldn’t be afraid because Jesus said, take heart, have courage, for he has overcome the world. But we should be prepared. We should be ready.
- The Believer: In Stephen’s story and in Philip’s story, and in the stories of all the other men and women who were scattered during this time, we see what it looks like to be a believer in Jesus. It means that wherever you are and whoever you are with, you have been entrusted with the gospel. You have the word of God, which reveals who God is, what God has done, and what he is doing today through his Son and Spirit. You have the words of life which bring forgiveness for sin, reconciliation with God, the hope of eternal life and joy and peace, and so much more. Whether we live in relative peace and security or whether we, too, are scattered, we are responsible for sharing this good news with a world that is lost without Christ. And look at the power of God at work! Despite the battle, God is working powerfully among all peoples in bringing many people to faith in Jesus. Paul was not yet a believer, but he soon would be. And he, too, would join the work of the gospel. What we see in Acts is still happening today. In China, despite the fact that they are an atheistic state, if Christianity continues to grow at the rate of the last 50 years, there will soon be more Christians in China than people in the United States. God is still at work, and people are still being saved, and lives are still being transformed. This is how it was from the beginning and how it is today.
- The Beauty of a God who Saves by Grace: Later in life, Paul wrote to his younger friend Timothy saying, in 1 Timothy 1:12-14 (NIV), “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” The story of the book of Acts and the story of Paul’s life is really a story about the grace and power of God. It’s a beautiful story. One where God is willing to rescue his enemies and make his enemies his own beloved children. One where he was willing to send his one and only son. One where Jesus the Son was willing to lay down his life for all. It’s a story worthy of all the glory, honor, and praise. It’s a story that will change everything about you if you let it. So today, we live on a battlefield as believers in Jesus. But we are people who have been wrecked in the best way possible by the beauty of a God who saves us by his grace. Let us never forget, let us never lose sight of this, let us never stop singing the praises of him who lived and died and is risen for us, his former enemies who are now his friends, and his brothers and sisters who will live forever in his kingdom. I can’t think of anything better. Let us pray.