"Come now, Son," Caiaphas' old father in-law, Annas, says as he pensively strokes his long white beard. "Neither we nor any of the elders of the Council had the slightest idea that this heretical sect would continue to spread once we persuaded the Romans to execute their prophet, that blasphemer from Nazareth!"
"Yes, I know. But just last week," Caiaphas laments, "we had the ideal opportunity to get rid of two of their main leaders, those two fishermen, Peter and John! We had them arrested and here before us, and the Council agreed to slay them!"
"Then why didn't you?" Annas asks.
"Rabbi Gamaliel took the floor and persuaded the Council otherwise, arguing that we should let them go! He said, 'If their purpose or their work is merely of man, it will come to nothing. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, and you could very well find yourselves fighting against God!'"--Acts 5:28-42.
"You know I respect Gamaliel as one of our finest lawyers and doctors of the law," Annas confides. "But obviously his advice to you was very wrong, and the Council made a grave error in releasing those heretics!" "We did whip them, and threatened them with severe punishment should they continue preaching in the name of their executed leader, Jesus," Caiaphas replies.
"But what good did that do?" Annas asks. "Their popularity is increasing daily, their numbers are multiplying and I've heard reports that even many of our own priests are becoming secret believers and followers of this sect! (Acts 6:7) We must act, Caiaphas, and we must act now!--If not, all of Jerusalem is going to be proclaiming that that dead Nazarene is the Messiah!"
"I agree, Father," Caiaphas says. "Mere threats, beatings and imprisonment haven't worked. We must show them that we mean business! After all, Moses himself commanded that blasphemers and false prophets must be stoned!--But as you know, the Romans forbid us to carry out our own executions."
"Of course, I know that," Annas replies. "But the situation is so serious, unless we take the law into our own hands and do something immediately, we may never stop this sect! But to avoid trouble from the Romans if they should find out that we've put some of these heretics to death, perhaps we could use some of our brethren who are not directly linked to the Sanhedrin?"
"An excellent idea, Father!" Caiaphas replies with a grin, "--and I think I know the perfect man for the job!--Rabbi Saul! As you know, he is from Tarsus, the capital city of the province of Cilicia, and is one of the chief rulers of the 'Synagogue of the Freedmen', a very devout congregation here in Jerusalem, of Jews from Greece and Asia. Saul is a very zealous young Pharisee who would do anything to further the cause of our religion."
"Yes, I met him when he was just a young boy. His father was also a very dedicated Pharisee who served on the Council for a year or so when I was High Priest," Annas replies.--Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:4,5; Philippians 3:4-6.
Saul was immediately summoned to the priests' quarters at the Temple compound. He gladly accepted the commission of seeking out and capturing a prominent Christian, and personally seeing to it that the "infidel" be assassinated! Saul agreed that such action would serve as an example and warning to the rest of the Christians in Jerusalem, and would hopefully bring a stop to their activities!
After organizing a band of devout Jews from his synagogue, Saul and his men went straight to the outskirts of Jerusalem's central market place--an area where the Christians could frequently be found preaching to the crowds. There they discovered a certain disciple named Stephen, who was powerfully and openly witnessing to the multitudes about Jesus.
Here is the description of this Inquisitional band's encounter with Stephen in the Bible's own words: "Then there arose certain men who were members of the Synagogue which is called the 'Synagogue of the Freedmen'-Jews of foreign origin, including men from the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These Jews began arguing and disputing with Stephen, yet were unable to resist the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke! So they suborned (bribed) false witnesses who said, 'We have heard him speak blasphemy against Moses and against God!'
"And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they rushed upon Stephen and seized him and brought him to the Council. The false witnesses testified to the Sanhedrin, 'This man continually blasphemes against our Holy Temple and against the Laws of Moses: For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy our Holy Place and change the customs which Moses gave us!'"--Acts 6:8-15.
Disdainfully, the High Priest, Caiaphas, looked at Stephen and asked him if the accusations were true. Stephen answered with a powerful sermon in which he recounted in detail the entire history of the Jews--from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to Moses and through their prophets and kings, to show how God had dealt with Israel through the ages, preparing them for the Messiah.
But Stephen soon realized that these smug and self-righteous Scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites were not interested. So he exploded with a blast of truth, telling them, "You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you do always resist the Holy Ghost!--As your Fathers did, so do you! Which of the Prophets have not your fathers persecuted? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Messiah, who you have now betrayed and murdered!--You who have received the Law, but have not kept it!"--Acts 7:51-53.
The Council, as well as Rabbi Saul's mob who had captured Stephen and brought him there, were unable to take this stinging rebuke!--"And when they heard these things, they were cut to the heart!" (Acts 7:54), and they agreed that this heretic should be stoned immediately!
"But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed upward toward Heaven and saw the Glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 'Behold!', he cried aloud to the assembly, 'I see Heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the Father!'"--Acts 7:55,56.
Upon hearing these words, they covered their ears, and yelling at the top of their voices, "rushed upon Stephen and dragged him out of the city to stone him!"--Acts 7:57.
Saul was delighted, things were going exactly as he had hoped and planned! He remained on the outskirts of the frenzied religious mob. As they prepared to hurl their stones at Stephen, the Bible says, "They laid their robes and cloaks down at the feet of the young man whose name was Saul... And Saul consented and gave full approval to Stephen's death."--Acts 7:58; 8:1.
But to their dismay, the Sanhedrin discovered that Stephen's death didn't curb or slow down the Christians' activities in the least. They continued growing and spreading their message more than ever. Not only was the Council enraged, but Rabbi Saul himself became personally obsessed with hatred for the Christians, and was determined to exterminate them! "And there arose at that time a great persecution against the Church which was at Jerusalem, and they were scattered abroad throughout the entire regions of Judea and Samaria! As for Saul, he made havoc of the Church and began to destroy it, going from house to house, dragging off men and women and throwing them into prison!"--Acts 8:1,3.
The persecution against the Christians became so vicious, so violent, that the Christians virtually evacuated the entire city of Jerusalem! But the zealous Pharisee, Saul, was not content with having simply driven most of the Christians out of the capital of Palestine.
"Saul continued breathing out murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, even going to the High Priest, and asking for official letters to the synagogues in Damascus, Syria, authorizing him to bring captive to Jerusalem any Christians that could be found there!"--Acts 9:1,2. Imagine!--He obtained an authorization from Caiaphas to arrest and imprison Christians in the distant capital of another country!--Over 150 miles away!
Years later, Saul wrote and confessed, "I did many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the saints I threw into prisons, having received authority from the chief priests. When they were executed, I raised my voice against them and condemned them! I punished them in every synagogue, I compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto foreign cities!"--Acts 26:9-12.
However, while Saul and his company of Temple guards traveled by horseback on the dry and dusty road to Damascus, something completely unexpected and extraordinary befell him on the last leg of his journey:
"As they approached the city, suddenly there shined round about him a brilliant light from Heaven! And he fell to the ground from his horse and heard a Voice crying out to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?'"--Acts 9:3,4.
This fanatical Jewish rabbi had never experienced anything like this in his entire life! Although he had studied the Scriptures, and knew that God often supernaturally spoke to and called His messengers and prophets, he had never even dreamt that any thing like this would happen to him!
Astonished and almost terrified, Saul wondered what this blinding Light and this supernatural Voice could possibly mean!--If it was really the Voice of God, then why did it say, "Why do you persecute Me?"--Surely God knew that he was on a holy mission for God, to persecute God's enemies, the members of the heretical sect that followed that trouble-maker, Jesus of Nazareth! Barely managing to gather his wits, Saul addressed and questioned the Voice out loud: "Who are You, Lord?"
Then came the answer that hit Rabbi Saul like a ton of bricks!--An answer that would radically alter and change this fanatical young Pharisee's life! Slowly and clearly the Voice answered: "I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting! Saul, it is hard for you to kick against the pricks!"--Acts 9:5. The Lord was picturing Saul as a stubborn ox that was kicking back at his master's ox goads, sharp sticks which farmers used to make their beasts move! In other words, Saul was resisting the pricks of his conscience in viciously persecuting Christians!
BOOM!--In one brilliant, blinding flash of Heavenly revelation, Saul realized how terribly wrong he had been in persecuting, torturing and murdering Christians! "My God, my God!" he thought as his mind reeled in astonishment! "Jesus!...Jesus is the Lord! ...Jesus is the Messiah!--My God!--What have I done!--Have mercy upon me, Lord!"
Addressing the Voice again, Saul trembled and wept as he asked, "Lord, what do You want me to do?" And the Lord answered, "Arise and go into the city. It shall be told you there what you must do."--Acts 9:6.
"Saul arose from the ground, but when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing, for he was blind!--And had to be led by the hand and brought into the city of Damascus. There he remained for three days without sight, and neither did he eat nor drink anything."--Acts 9:8,9.
Imagine!--This once great and proud Pharisee, the Rabbi Saul, was supernaturally struck down and knocked off his high horse by Jesus Himself!--And was absolutely blinded by the Light of God! He was so totally shaken and awestruck by the dramatic and supernatural events that had befallen him, he was unable to eat or drink, but lay in bed pondering, desperately praying and waiting for God to show him what to do.
Three days later, "The Lord spoke to a certain disciple in Damascus named Ananias, saying, 'Arise and go to the house where Saul of Tarsus is. Put your hands on him and pray for him that he may receive his sight!'" (Acts 9:10-12)
But Saul's notorious reputation amongst the Christian disciples was so well-known that Ananias replied, "'But Lord!--I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to Your children in Jerusalem!--And how he now has authority from the Chief Priests to capture and imprison all those who call upon Your name!'
"But the Lord said to Ananias, 'Obey Me and go to him, for he is a chosen vessel unto Me, who will take My name before the Gentiles and Kings and the Children of Israel!'" (Acts 9:13-15) So Ananias went, though somewhat hesitantly.
"Brother Saul!" Ananias greeted him as he entered the room where the Rabbi lay. Saul was dumbfounded. He had encountered many Christians before, but none had ever called their cruel and heartless persecutor "brother"!
Seeing the pitiful condition of this former tormentor of his people, Ananias felt compassion for him and told him, "'Saul, the Lord--even Jesus, Who appeared to you on the road as you journeyed here--has sent me to pray for you so that you can see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit!' Then he layed his hands over Saul's eyes and earnestly prayed, and his eyes were immediately healed and he rose up, ate and was strengthened!" (Acts 9:17-19)
After spending just a few days with the disciples in Damascus, the Bible says that "Saul immediately preached Christ in the synagogues, that Jesus is the Son of God!---And all those who heard him were amazed and said, 'Isn't this the one that destroyed those who called on this name (Jesus) in Jerusalem?--And didn't he come here to capture and imprison Christians?' But Saul increased in strength and confounded the Jews which lived in Damascus, proving that Jesus was indeed the Messiah! And after many days, the Jews took counsel to kill him!" (Acts 9:19-23)--Thus the former persecutor became the persecuted!--And the thrilling ministry of the Apostle Paul was launched!
(1) Who were Saul and the other religious rivals of the Early Church persecuting when they were persecuting the Christians?--They were persecuting Jesus! When people fight against God's children and God's work, falsely accusing, vilifying and persecuting them, to whom are they doing it?--Jesus!
(2) So Who is going to fight for God's children who are persecuted?--Jesus will! He says, "Stand back, and see Me fight! For this is not your battle, but Mine! Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, saith the Lord! For he that touches you, touches the apple of My eye! Touch not the Lord's anointed!" (Exodus 14:14; 2Chronicles 20:17; Romans 12:19; Zechariah 2:8; Psalm 105:15)
(3) Those who decide to try to persecute and fight against God's children would be wise to heed the advice of the wise old lawyer, Gamaliel, who told the Sanhedrin when they were discussing how to fight the Christians, "If this thing be of God, no man can stand against it! But if it be of man, it will come to nothing. Beware, lest ye be found to fight against God!" (Acts 5:38,39)
In fighting us, our enemies are not merely dealing with us, they're fighting against God!--Which means that God Himself will take care of them in His good time! Our only weapons are God's Truth and God's Love! If they fight against these, God Himself will deal with them!
(4) Do you remember what Jesus told Saul after he fell from his horse to the Earth? He said, "It is hard for you to kick against the pricks!" The Word "pricks" here literally means ox goads, which are sticks with pointed ends that farmers use to prod a stubborn ox that refuses to pull the plow. If an ox is very rebellious, he will not only refuse to go, but will even kick at the farmer and at the stick!
So what Jesus was saying to Saul was, "You are like a stubborn old ox! Even though I am prodding you with the sharp stick of My Holy Spirit, you still won't go!--You not only won't go My way and do My work, you are even kicking back and fighting against Me by persecuting My Children!" No doubt from the moment that Saul witnessed Stephen's martyrdom, he was under the conviction of the Holy Spirit! But he hardened his heart, "kicking against the pricks", until God had to finally smite him!
(5) Thank God, Saul finally yielded to the Lord's judgments and chastenings, and he stopped kicking against the pricks, and decided to go God's way, becoming the foremost leader of the Early Church!--What an example of a transformed life, of a "new creature in Christ Jesus!"--2Corinthians 5:17.--No longer the hateful, self-righteous, legalistic, letter-of-the-law Rabbi Saul, but the loving, humble Apostle Paul, follower and preacher of the Love, mercy and grace of God! Praise God!
(6) After his conversion, what did Paul do?--"He immediately preached Christ!"--He didn't wait for weeks, months or years to become a witness for the Lord, but immediately testified to his new life by trying to win others to the Lord! So even if you haven't memorized chapters of Scripture or become an eloquent public speaker, if you have truly received Jesus into your heart, you should share Him with others so they too can find God's free gift of Eternal Life!
May God help us all to be dedicated, bold and on-fire witnesses and testifiers of the Truth!--Giving our lives to bring the Love and Truth of Jesus Christ to all whom we can! Then, like the great Apostle Paul, we can say at the end of our lives, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. So now there is prepared for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord shall give me on that day!"--2Timothy 4:7,8.
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