Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Death of a Deacon and the Birth of an Apostle

The Sanhedrin was in an uproar. A man had been brought before them on charges of blasphemy, the same crime they had killed Jesus for so recently. Had Jesus blasphemed? No. Now Jesus’ follower Stephen was in trouble for the same thing, and he was just as innocent.

A Pharisee named Saul watched the liars called onto the witness stand who pretended Stephen had been speaking against Moses’ Law. They claimed he had said that Jesus would destroy the Sanhedrin and change the Jewish customs. Saul got angrier and angrier at Stephen as he heard the charges. Then Stephen got up to speak. His face was glowing as the high priest asked him if the charges were true.

Stephen reminded them that God had led Abraham to the Promised Land. Abraham lived there, as did his son Isaac, his grandson Jacob, and his great-grandson Joseph. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, but God used that to save Egypt, Canaan and the surrounding countries from a terrible famine. His whole family came to Egypt, where they could get food to eat, and they and their descendants lived there for 400 years. A new Pharaoh came to power, and he was cruel to the Israelites and made them slaves. Moses was born, and he was raised in the Egyptian palace. Thanks to an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, Moses fled to Midian, where he got married and had two sons. After meeting God in a burning bush, Moses returned to Egypt and led the Israelites out. On Mt. Sinai, God gave Moses the Law, but the Israelites refused to obey. Instead, they built a golden calf and worshiped it! Because of their disobedience, God made them do laps around the desert for 40 years. Joshua eventually led them into the Promised Land. During their time in the desert, they had the tabernacle, and they had it until many years later when Solomon built the temple.

At this point in his speech, Stephen got to the point. “You are so stubborn! You’re just like your ancestors! You insist on resisting the Holy Spirit, and just as your ancestors murdered the prophets, you murdered the one they prophesied would come! You received the Law, and you’ve refused to obey it!” Basically, Stephen turned the charges around and proved that the Sanhedrin was guilty of the very thing they were accusing him of doing.

That got the Pharisees furious. They were trying hard to control their emotions, but it was getting harder and harder. Their teeth were bared. How dare he accuse them of disobeying the Law they thought they were enforcing?!

Then Stephen looked up. Light from above shone on his face as he said in awe, “I see heaven! The Son of Man is standing on the right side of God!”

That was the last straw. The Sanhedrin could no longer control their rage. Yelling at the top of their lungs, they grabbed him and furiously dragged him out of town. The witnesses handed their coats to Saul, and Saul watched in anger as his fellow Pharisees hurled heavy stones at Stephen. He heard Stephen pray for God to receive his spirit, and that God would forgive the Pharisees for this terrible sin of murder – almost the same thing Jesus had said on the cross! If Saul hadn’t been guarding the coats, he probably would have joined in on throwing the stones.

Stephen’s death really rattled the new Church, and they started to scatter. Stephen’s fellow deacon Philip went to Samaria, and then south where he met an Ethiopian official, and Jesus’ message spread to Africa. Peter and John followed him to Samaria when they heard how successful his ministry was there.

Meanwhile, Saul went on a mad rampage. He went searching for followers of the Way (which was what they were calling this new religion Jesus had founded), and he arrested them and made sure many of them were executed. Pretty soon he broadened his search to other countries! He was on his way to the city of Damascus when the brightest light he had ever seen stopped him in his tracks. It was even brighter than the sun! As he fell to the ground in shock, he heard a loud voice saying, “SAUL, SAUL, WHY ARE YOU PERSECUTING ME?”

“Who are you, Lord?” he asked.

The voice replied, “I AM JESUS, AND I’M THE ONE YOU’RE PERSECUTING!”

“What should I do?” he asked.

The voice replied, “GET UP! I’VE GOT A JOB FOR YOU. YOU WILL BE MY WITNESS TO THE GENTILES, AND YOU WILL SHOW THEM THE WAY TO BE SAVED! GO TO DAMASCUS, AND YOU’LL FIND OUT WHAT TO DO!”

Saul got up, and when he opened his eyes, he discovered the light had blinded him. His companions had to lead him by hand the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the followers of Christ in Damascus had heard about the ruthless man who was on his way to arrest them and have them executed. So it really scared a disciple named Ananias when God appeared to him in a vision and told him to go to the house of a guy named Judas and ask for Saul of Tarsus, who was praying, so he could restore his sight. Saul had seen in a vision that a man named Ananias would come.

“Um, Lord,” said Ananias, “are You out of Your mind?? I’ve heard about this guy, and he’s come here to have us killed!”

But God said, “Go! I’ve chosen him to proclaim the good news to the Gentiles!”

So reluctantly, Ananias went. When he got to the house, he said, “Brother Saul, God has sent me here so you can see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Scales fell off Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He was baptized, and he didn’t waste any time. He immediately started preaching. People were shocked to hear this man preaching the opposite message from what he had just been forcing down people’s throats. In fact, the Jews in Damascus got so mad at Saul for turning that Jesus’ followers had to let him down the city wall in a basket so that he didn’t have to go through the gate, where he might be ambushed.

That is how the evil Pharisee Saul became Paul, one of the most powerful messengers for God who lived. He would go on to spread Jesus’ message throughout the Middle East, and even into what is now Europe! We know he got to Greece and Italy, and it’s possible he even got as far west as Spain!

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