And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.(Acts 9:1-2)
The constant preaching of the Nazarenes enraged him. The unlearned and ignorant ‘Apostles’ of the sect insisted that Jesus of Nazareth, a man crucified by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy, was in fact the Messiah of Israel promised by the law of God and the prophets.
How could it be that a condemned man, crucified on a Roman cross, be regarded by Jews as the long promised Messiah of Israel? Is it not written in the Law of God, that “He that is hanged on a tree is accused of God”. How dare they insist that the Messiah is a man cursed of God!
So Saul went out in the name of the God of Israel, to harass and ruin the churches throughout Judea, and beyond.
In the process of doing this, Saul witnessed a debate between Greek speaking Jews of the synagogue of the ‘Freedmen’, one of whom was also a deacon in the church, Stephan.
Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake. (Acts 6:9-10)
The Synagogue debaters couldn’t overcome the scripture, Wisdom and Spirit by which Stephen spoke, as He held forth the validity of the claims of the Christians that Jesus is the Messiah which the prophets foretold. No doubt he also proved that the Messiah had to suffer humiliation, shame and death, before He would be glorified and given the Kingdom, as scriptures such as Isaiah 53, Hosea 5-6 and Psalm 22 foretold.
When the debaters realized they couldn’t prevail over Stephen, by argument and appeals to scripture, They resorted to deadly personal attack and false accusation.
Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.(Acts 6:11-15)
Saul heard and saw all of this. He saw Stephen win that debate, treating Scripture with reverence and authority. He realized that the debaters could marshal no real argument to rebut Stephen.
Furthermore Saul saw how Stephen reacted to being falsely accused by his enemies. The charges of Blasphemy were similar to the charges leveled against Stephen’s Rabbi, Jesus. The deacon was hauled up before the same Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to death.
When Stephen was called upon by the Sanhedrin to answer for himself, with his life on the line, rather than defend himself, Stephen instead spoke the Word of God. Accused of Blasphemy against God, Moses and Israel, Stephen’s defense was a survey of Jewish history, making the following points;
*God never did limit himself to the temple or even to the Holy Land. And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia…” .
*The Story of Joseph…betrayed by his jealous brothers(The sons of Israel), Yet God was with him even in Egypt, and in Prison.
“And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house…”
*The Story of Moses…Rejected by Israel at first, but he became Israel’s deliverer.
““Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand. And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?’ But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?”(Acts 7:23-28)
* The repeated rejection of God’s messengers by Israel…from the repeated idolatry of Israel in the wilderness wanderings, to the golden calf and up to this present day, Israel has always been stiff-necked resisting God.
“You stiffnecked 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.”
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.
Saul saw and heard this speech, and it cut him to the heart as well as anyone. But at this point he wasn’t ready to repent, he would fight the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and suppress the Truth of the Word of God, gladly consenting to the sentence of death by stoning upon Stephen. But he could never get over Stephen’s peace in death, and his prayer for his persecutors.
Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.(Acts 7:55-60)