Paul's Early Years - Part II

Dec 2013

by Jimmy Swaggart


“And Stephen, full of faith and power (speaks of a great knowledge of the Word of God, and of the Holy Spirit controlling this man, and, thereby, using him), did great wonders and miracles among the people (these things were Divinely done).
“Then there arose certain of the Synagogue, which is called the Synagogue of the Libertines (speaks of Jews who had been taken as slaves to Rome or elsewhere in the Roman Empire, but now had been set free, consequently coming back to Jerusalem; they had a Synagogue in Jerusalem, and perhaps several. In fact, at that time, the Rabbis stated there were 480 Synagogues in Jerusalem), and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia (pertains to each one of these groups of Jews who had a Synagogue in Jerusalem), disputing with Stephen (it is thought by some that Paul, then known as Saul, was the leading disputer against Stephen; he could have been associated with the Synagogue that pertained to Cilicia, as Tarsus, the hometown of Paul, was in that region).”


“And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke (if it was Paul who led the dispute against Stephen, it would have been most interesting, considering that Paul was the hope of the Pharisees at that time and, therefore, reputed to have great knowledge of the Law; the difference is that the Holy Spirit anointed Stephen!).
“Then they suborned men (they planned and formed a scheme together, which held no validity or truth), which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God (concerns their concocted scheme).
“And they stirred up the people, and the Elders, and the Scribes (refers to the lies they told and kept telling respecting Stephen), and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the Council (refers to them getting permission from the Sanhedrin to arrest Stephen, which they did),
“And set up false witnesses, which said (proclaims the similarity of Stephen’s trial with that of our Lord), This man ceases not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the Law (this was their charge, which was false):
“For we have heard him say (represents a distortion of what Stephen had probably said; they probably based their accusation upon some semblance of Truth, but totally distorted its meaning), that this Jesus of Nazareth (said in such a way as to be most contemptuous) shall destroy this place (probably referred to the Words said by Jesus in the Olivet discourse [Mat. 24:2]), and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us (it is true that the customs were to be changed as a result of the New Covenant and, in fact, were meant to be changed).
“And all who sat in the Council (Sanhedrin), looking stedfastly on him (gazed intently, and for purpose and reason), saw his face as it had been the face of an Angel (pertains to the Glory of the Lord shining on the face of Stephen)” (Acts 6:8-15).


Looking at Stephen and the Message he delivered to the Sanhedrin, which was, no doubt, similar to the ones he was delivering in the synagogues, we learn from this how different was his preaching from that of the Twelve, and how much earlier he had arrived at the true appreciation of the Words of Jesus respecting the extent and nature of His Kingdom. Concerning that, Farrar said, “That which, in the mind of Peter, was still but a grain of mustard seed, sown in the soil of Judaism, had already grown, in the soul of Stephen, into a mighty tree.”[5] The truth is, the Twelve were still lingering in the portals of the synagogue. For them the new wine of the Kingdom of Heaven had not yet burst the old wine-skins. There is no trace up to this time that they ever dreamed of the abrogation of the Law of Moses or the free admission of uncircumcised Gentiles into a full equality of Spiritual privileges. At this time, anyone who held back from the seal of the Covenant made to Abraham, which speaks of circumcision, would not be regarded as a full Believer any more than he would be regarded as a full Jew.
If indeed the early Believers had never advanced beyond this position, Christianity might have been regarded to the last as nothing more than a phase of Phariseeism, heretical for its acceptance of a crucified Messiah, but worthy of honor for its devotion to Spiritual Life. But had Christianity never been more than this, then it would have died aborning. The Church, under the Ministry of Paul, would come to know that it was necessary that all Christians, whether Jews or Gentiles, should see how impossible it was to put a new patch on an old garment.
In fact, this Truth had been preached by Jesus to His Apostles, but like many other of His Words, this great Truth lay long dormant in their minds. After some of His deepest Statements were made, in full consciousness that He could not at once be understood, He would say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And as they themselves frankly confess, the Apostles had not always been among those “who had ears to hear.” As plainly and clearly as it was, as it regarded the Prophecies, which He had addressed to them respecting His Own Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Prophecy regarding the Crucifixion plunged them into despair and horror. In fact, so much so, despite the fact that He repeated this several times, still, not a single Apostle believed that He would rise from the dead. He who commanded the light to shine out of darkness had, indeed, shone in their hearts “to give the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ;” but, still, they were well aware that they had this treasure “in earthen vessels.”


Jumping ahead, why was James, the Lord’s brother, so highly respected by the people, as tradition tells us that he was? Why was Paul regarded by them with such deadly hatred?
Farrar said, “It was because Paul recognized more fully than did James the future universal destiny of a Christianity separated from Judaic institutions.” He went on to say, “The Crucifixion had, in fact, been the protest of the Jews against this Faith; however, from that moment the fate of the nation was decided. Her religion was to kill her. But when the Temple burst into flames, Christianity had already spread its wings and gone out to conquer an entire world.”[6] The truth is, even as Paul faced on a daily basis, it required many years for Jewish converts to understand the meaning of the saying that, “He came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill.”


As short as it was, I think we should by now understand that Stephen seemed to have a grasp of Who Jesus was and what Jesus did possibly, at this time, more so than anyone else in the world of that day.
As we have asked, was it possible when Stephen was ministering in the synagogues in Jerusalem that at some point his opponent could have been Paul?
If, in fact, this happened, though the Saul of this period must have differed greatly from that Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, Whom we know so well, the main features of his personality must have been the same. He had to have seen something in Stephen that was totally different than anything he had ever known. Surely he felt the contrast between a dead theology and a living Faith. He would have heard preaching that stirred the inmost depths of his troubled heart. For the first time in his life, if, in fact, he heard Stephen, and possibly even debated him, he would have sensed the Presence of the Lord. He would have felt the result of the Anointing of the Holy Spirit. He would have seen, even though he would have smothered it at the time, the secret of a light and joy, and of love and peace, compared with his own condition, which was that of one who was chained to a corpse. The truth is, during all of this time, Paul, despite his great religiosity, despite having studied the Law of Moses under the greatest teacher of that day, and despite devoting his entire life to that of the Mosaic institution, still, this man was not Saved. He was religious but lost, as were so very, very many in the Israel of that day, and including his religious leadership, and especially including its religious leadership.
If Paul debated Stephen, Paul being at that time possibly the greatest authority on the Law of Moses in Israel other than Gamaliel himself, to have lost this debate, considering who Paul was and considering who Stephen was, who was nothing in their eyes, the immediate effect would have been anger on the part of these religionists.
These Rabbis would have been nonplussed to find that the one they were dealing with was no illiterate, but one who rather could meet them with their own weapons, and who could speak Greek as fluently as themselves.
Farrar said, “Steeped in centuries of prejudice, ingrained with perditions of which the Truth had never been questioned, they must have imagined that they would win an easy victory, and convince a man of intelligence how degrading it was for him to accept a faith on which, from the full height of their own ignorance, they complacently looked down.” Farrar went on to say, “How great must have been their discomfiture to find that what they had now to face was not a mere personal testimony which they could contemptuously set aside, but arguments based on premises which they themselves admitted, enforced by methods which they recognized, and illustrated by a learning which they could not surpass!
“How bitter must have been their rage when they heard this man open the Scriptures, which surpassed even their most learned Scholars. But when Stephen said that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah, to prove from the Scriptures that all the splendid Prophecies of the Patriarchs, and Seers, and Kings, from the Divine Voice which spoke to Adam in Paradise, to the last utterance of the great Prophet Malachi – all pointed to, all centered in, One Who had been the carpenter of Nazareth, and Whom they had seen crucified between two brigands – to say that their very Messiah had been ‘hung’ by Gentile tyrants at the insistence of their own Priests; – this, to most of the hearers in the Synagogue, would have seemed wicked if it had not seemed so absurd. Was there not one sufficient and decisive answer to it all in the one Verse of the Law – ‘Cursed by God is he who hangs on a tree?’
“Yet this was the thesis which such a man as Stephen, no ignorant Galilean, but a learned Hellenist, who undertook to prove, and in fact did prove with such power as to produce silence if not assent, and hatred if not conviction.
“These men who listened to Stephen that day, with Paul possibly among them, would have at that time come face-to-face with the realization of Jesus of Nazareth, as they had not previously seen, heard, or known. They came face-to-face with their blasphemy, face-to-face with their rejection, face-to-face with what they had done in crucifying the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Farrar also said, “How could they possibly miss the conception of a ‘suffering’ as well as of a ‘triumphant’ Messiah, which might very well amaze us, if there had not been proof in all ages that men may entirely overlook the statements and perfect the meaning of their own sacred Books, because, when they read those books, the veil of obstinate prejudice is lying upon their hearts.” Farrar continues, “But when the view of ancient prophecy, which proved that it behooved Christ thus to suffer and to enter into His Glory, was forcibly presented to them by the insight and eloquence of one who was their equal in learning and their superior in illumination, we can understand the difficulties to which they were reduced. How, for instance, could they allude the force of the 53rd Chapter of Isaiah, to which their Rabbis freely accorded in Messianic interpretation?”[7]
So now, the Pharisees will forcibly take Stephen before the Sanhedrin, the highest tribunal in the land of Israel.


The history of the Jewish Sanhedrin is not clear at all points. Traditionally it originated with the seventy Elders who assisted Moses (Num. 11:16-24). Ezra is supposed to have reorganized this body after the exile.
Under the Romans, except for a short period of time, the Sanhedrin had wide powers. It was Julius Caesar who extended the power of the Sanhedrin over all Judea, although during the reign of Herod (37-4 B.C.), its powers were severely curtailed. During the years of A.D. 6-66, the powers of the Sanhedrin were extensive, actually, the internal government of the country being in its hands. But under Herod the Great, its direct powers were, however, limited to Judaea, meaning it had no power over Jesus while He was in Galilee.
After A.D. 70, when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans, the Sanhedrin was abolished, with the group taking its place whose decisions had only moral and religious authority.
According to Josephus, and it seems which the New Testament bears out, the High Priest was president (Mat. 26:57; Acts 5:17; 7:1; 22:5; 24:1). Thus, Caiaphas was president at the trial of Jesus and Ananias at the trial of Paul (Acts 23:2). It seems that the High Priest had supreme authority, but this was curbed somewhat later. The appointment was no longer hereditary, thereby, in the lineage of Aaron, but had become political, with Rome making the decision as to who was appointed, which by and large was to the one who could pay Rome the most money.


As far as the area of Jewish jurisdiction regarding the Sanhedrin, it varied from Caesar to Caesar. As we have stated, during the time of Christ as far as the area was concerned, the Jewish Sanhedrin had no authority in Galilee but did have authority in Judaea. And yet, at the time of Christ, its jurisdiction in the area that it did control was fairly wide. It exercised not only Civil jurisdiction according to Jewish Law but also criminal jurisdiction in some degree. It had administrative authority and could order arrest by its own officers of justice, so-called (Mat. 26:47; Mk. 14:43; Acts 4:1; 5:17; 9:2). It was empowered to judge cases that did not involve capital punishment. Capital cases required the confirmation of the Roman procurator (Jn. 18:31), though the procurator’s judgment was normally in accordance with the demands of the Sanhedrin, which in Jewish Law had the power of life and death (Mat. 26:66).
For instance, in the special case where a Gentile passed the barrier that divided the inner court of the Temple from that of the Gentiles, the Sanhedrin was granted the power of death by Roman administrators (Acts 21:28).
The only case of capital sentence in connection with the Sanhedrin in the New Testament is that of our Lord, but the execution was carried out by the judgment of the Roman Governor. The case of Stephen had some features of an illegal mob act.


A study of the New Testament will give a cross-section of the kinds of matters that came before the Sanhedrin. Thus, Jesus was charged with blasphemy (Mat. 26:57; Jn. 19:7); Peter and John were charged with teaching the people false doctrine (Acts, Chpt. 4); and, Paul was charged with transgressing the Mosaic Law (Acts, Chpts. 22-24). And yet, the Romans reserved the right to interfere in any area whatsoever, if necessary, independently of the Jewish court. Paul’s arrest in Acts, Chapter 23 is a case in point.


As Stephen ministered in the synagogues, the Holy Spirit so anointed him that the Scripture says, “And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (Acts 6:10). So they appointed certain men to go before the high council (Sanhedrin), and there to accuse Stephen of “speaking blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.” They set up witnesses, as well, to further accuse him, and there is a great possibility that Paul was in this group.
And as Stephen was brought before the high court of Israel, the Scripture says:

“And all that sat in the Council (Sanhedrin), looking stedfastly on him (gazed intently, and for purpose and reason), saw his face as it had been the face of an Angel (pertains to the Glory of the Lord shining on the face of Stephen)” (Acts 6:15).

Even though they saw this, still, it had no bearing upon their evil intent. It is amazing how that man can come face-to-face with the Lord, so to speak, see God’s Power manifested in a great way, and still fight against it. That shows the acute evil of the human heart. No wonder that Paul later wrote, “Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways” (Rom. 3:13-16).


Religious evil is the worst evil on the face of the Earth. Most of the blood that has been shed in wars from the beginning until now has been religious in intent. All of this stems back to Cain and Abel. The sacrifice of Cain was rejected by the Lord, while the sacrifice of Abel, who followed the commands of the Lord, was accepted. Cain’s reaction was to murder his brother. That spirit has not changed from then until now.
While presently the law of the land does not allow such in the U.S.A., those who function accordingly do the next best thing, and that is to make every effort to murder a person’s reputation with their tongues. Religious evil is always spawned by self-righteousness. In fact, it was self-righteousness which nailed Christ to the Cross. It was not the drunks and the gamblers and the harlots who did such a thing, as evil as those sins are, but rather the religious leaders of Israel. And so now with Stephen, they will continue in their murderous ways.


It is positive that Stephen full well knew and understood the danger which he now faced. These murderous rakes were the ones who had crucified Christ, so he expected no mercy from that source. And yet, even though he was very conscious of the danger that now presented itself, it never occurred to him to try to defend himself in any way. He saw it was the time to speak out even as the Holy Spirit urged him to do so. He was to bear witness to the Kingdom of his Lord. And there is every evidence that his countenance maintained the Glory of the Lord, “as it had been the face of an Angel,” throughout the entirety of his Message.
In truth, the Message that he would bring that day would lead to consequences that changed the Church from a Jewish sect at Jerusalem into the Church of the Gentiles and of the world. It is noteworthy to understand that the Message preached by Stephen and recorded in the Seventh Chapter of Acts is the longest Message recorded by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, with the exception of the two Messages preached by Christ, referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount” (Mat., Chpts. 5-7) and the “Olivet Discourse” (Mat., Chpts. 24-25). It is ironical that Jesus began His Ministry with a Sermon on the Mount and closed it with a Sermon on the Mount.
Stephen’s Message was, in a sense, a compendium of God’s Dealings with Israel from the very beginning, the Call of Abraham. As it regarded what he said, there was really nothing with which they could disagree because his history of the Nation was perfect as God anointed him.
And then he begins to remind the Sanhedrin as to how the fathers would not obey the Word given by God to Moses. But when he came down to the close of his Message, the Holy Spirit began to move upon him in even a greater way, and to be sure, he pulled no punches.


“You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears (presents Stephen using the same language as Moses when he conveyed God’s rebuke to Israel [Deut. 10:16]), you do always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so do you (everything carried out by God on Earth is through the Person and Office of the Holy Spirit; to resist Him is to resist God, for He is God; they resisted Him by resisting the Plan of God, Who and what was Jesus Christ).”


“Which of the Prophets have not your fathers persecuted? (This is very similar to that stated by Christ [Mat. 5:21; 23:30-31, 34-37; Lk. 13:33-34].) and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One (they killed the Prophets who pointed to the One Who was to come, namely Jesus); of Whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers (is about as strong as anything that could be said; how different this is from most of the modern preaching!):
“Who (Israel) have received the Law (Law of Moses) by the disposition of Angels (speaks of the myriads of Angels who were present and were used to help give the Law of Moses to Israel [Ps. 68:17]), and have not kept it (contradicted their claims!)” (Acts 7:51-53).


As he closed his Message, he could hardly have addressed them in words more calculated to kindle their fury than what he said. Farrar said, “To call them uncircumcised in heart and ears was to reject with scorn the idle fancies that circumcision alone was enough to save them from God’s wrath, and that uncircumcision was worse than crime.”
Rabbi Juda had previously stated, “Circumcision is equivalent to all the Commandments which are in the Law.”
Farrar continued, “To convict them of being the true sons of their fathers, and to brand consciences, already ulcerated by a sense of guilt, with a murder worse than the worst murder of the Prophets, was not only to sweep away the prestige of an authority which the people so blindly accepted, but it was to arraign his very judges and turn upon them the tables of accusation.”[8]


Now we must understand, Paul was witnessing all of this and heard every word uttered by Stephen, but as to what impression all of this made upon his heart, Luke does not mention, nor does the Apostle himself; but the traces of that impression present a series of coincidences which confirm, I personally believe, the impact that Stephen had on him, of which we will say more momentarily.


“When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart (refers to the depth to which the Holy Spirit took Stephen’s words, which, in effect, were the ‘Words of the Lord’), and they gnashed on him with their teeth (proclaims their answer to Stephen and the Holy Spirit).
“But he, being full of the Holy Spirit (the second time this is said of him [Acts 6:5]), looked up stedfastly into Heaven (means that Stephen saw something in Heaven which immediately seized his attention), and saw the Glory of God (he saw the Throne of God), and Jesus standing on the Right Hand of God (Christ is usually presented as sitting at the Right Hand of God [Heb. 1:3], but here He is seen standing, as rising to welcome His Faithful martyr and to place on his head the Crown of Life),”


“And said, Behold, I see the Heavens opened (proclaims Jesus in His Glory as God, just as the Heavens had opened to see Jesus in His humiliation on Earth as Man [Jn. 1:51]), and the Son of Man standing on the Right Hand of God (proclaims His rightful place by virtue of His Achievements and Exaltation to original Glory [Jn. 17:5; Eph. 1:20-23; Phil. 2:9-11; Heb. 1:3-4])” (Acts 7:54-56).


“Then they (members of the Sanhedrin) cried out with a loud voice (had they cried out in Repentance, the future of Israel could have been drastically changed for the better), and stopped their ears (means that they no longer desired to hear anything he desired to say), and ran upon him with one accord (all of the religious leadership of Israel were guilty),
“And cast him out of the city, and stoned him (this was their answer to the plea of God for their souls): and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet (they took off their outer garments so as to be free to hurl the stones at their victim with greater force), whose name was Saul (presents the first mention of this man who would have a greater positive impact on Christianity than any other human being who has ever lived; the death of Stephen, no doubt, played a part in the later conversion of Paul)” (Acts 7:57-58).


Actually, there is no date given in the Bible as to exactly when the martyrdom of Stephen took place. Some scholars state that it was A.D. 33, with others claiming it was as late as A.D. 37. There is no way to truly know.
We know the High Priest, whomever he may have been, was president of the Sanhedrin. But the Scripture simply says, “Then said the High Priest, Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1). But no identification is given in the Scriptures as to who he was.
If this took place in A.D. 37, Jonathan, son of Hanan, could have been High Priest at the time. His son-in-law, Caiaphas, stained his hands in the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Theophilus, another son of Hanan, was the High Priest who, during the utmost heat of the first persecution, gave Saul his commission to go to Damascus and imprison followers of Christ. Matthias, another son of Hanan, was probably one of those leading Jews whom Herod Agrippa tried to conciliate by the murder of James, the brother of John, and the son of Zebedee. And then, the youngest son of this man called “Hanan” murdered James, the brother of our Lord. Thus, all of these judicial murders were aimed at the followers of the Lord Jesus, and all of them directed or sanctioned by the cunning, avaricious, and unscrupulous members of a single family of Sadducean Priests.
Let us say it again, there is no evil in the world like religious evil. And I remind the reader again that it was not the thieves and the harlots who crucified Christ, as vile as those sins might be, but rather the religious leaders of Israel.


The Scripture says:

“And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God (presents a monstrous offense on the part of his murderers; we must remember, he was murdered by the religious leaders of Israel), and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit (presents Stephen rendering Divine Worship to Jesus Christ in the most sublime form, and in the most solemn moment of his life).
“And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge (presents him dying on his knees, without malice toward his murderers). And when he had said this, he fell asleep (portrays the body falling asleep, while his soul and spirit instantly went to be with Jesus; due to what Jesus did at the Cross; death is now looked at as merely going to sleep)” (Acts 7:59-60).


To carry out this terrible task of murdering Stephen, those who were guilty of this perfidious act had taken off their garments, and they laid them “at the feet of a young man whose name was Saul.”
Farrar says, “It is the first allusion in history to a name, destined from that day forward to be memorable forever in the annals of the world.
“Saul stands, not indeed actively engaged in the work of death; but keeping the clothes, consenting to the violence, of those who, in this brutal manner, snuffed out the life of a man whose face looked like that of an Angel.
“Stephen sank in his own blood, but miracle of miracles, his place was ultimately taken by the young man who stood there to incite his murderers. Some months, or even possibly several years after Jesus had died upon the Cross of infamy, Stephen was stoned for being His Disciple and His worshipper; some thirty years after the death of Stephen, his deadliest opponent died also for the same holy faith.”[9}
“I hear the words of love,
“I gaze upon the Blood,
“I see the mighty Sacrifice,
“And I have peace with God.”

“’Tis everlasting peace!
“Sure as Jehovah’s Name;
“’Tis stable as His steadfast Throne,
“Forevermore the same.”

“The clouds may come and go,
“And storms may sweep my sky,
“This Blood-sealed friendship changes not:
“The Cross is ever nigh.”

“My love is oft-times low,
“My joy still ebbs and flows;
“But peace with Him remains the same,
“No change Jehovah knows.”

“I change, He changes not,
“The Christ can never die;
“His Love, not mine, the resting place,
“His Truth, not mine, the tie.”

(This message was derived from the book, “Paul”.)

5 (F.W. Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul: Vol.1, Minnesota, Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, Inc., 1981, pg. 138)
6 (Ibid., pg. 142)
7 (Ibid., pg. 147-150)
8 (Ibid., pg. 162-163)
9 (Ibid., pg. 167-168)

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