Monday, November 21, 2011

When Saul was Paul (Acts 7:58)

Who watched Stephen being stoned? Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul)

Saul, who will eventually evolve into Paul the hero of the second half of the book of Acts, makes an ignominious Biblical debut. Almost as an aside, Saul is implicated in the martyrdom of Stephen as the executioners placed their cloaks at the feet of the future apostle while carrying out their task (Acts 7:58).

When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:58 NASB)
Like Barnabas (Acts 4:36) and Philip (Acts 6:5) before him, Luke introduces Paul with a cameo appearance before adding him to the main cast. C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) applauds, “The introduction in the last words of the verse of a young man called Saul is a fine touch of Luke’s dramatic instinct (Barrett, Acts of the Apostles: A Shorter Commentary, 110).”

At the time of the incident, Saul was an upstart Jew and an eyewitness to the dispute between the Jewish mainstream and the new offshoot in Jerusalem. He is described as a neanias (“young man”), a term that indicates that he was “from about the 24th to the 40th year (BAGD, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 534).” Given his involvement in the stoning, it has been suggested that he belonged to the Cilician synagogue that opposed Stephen (Acts 6:9).

Saul is mentioned as the killers laid their cloaks at his feet. The Mishnah (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:3) required a stoning victim to be stripped but here it is the executors who remove their clothing. Like a pitcher removing his warm up jacket before throwing fast balls, this act was to aid them in better hurling stones.

Saul himself did not throw stones as witnesses were to play this role in executions (Deuteronomy 13:9-10, 17:7; Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4). Though Saul guarded the clothes of the executioners, he was far more than a coat check attendant. He was culpable in the action. At the very least, Saul gives approval and not just passing consent (Acts 8:1) and at worst, he supervised. Elsewhere, when Luke uses the expression “at the feet” it carries a connotation of leadership (Acts 4:35, 37). Saul likely aided and abetted in the murder of an innocent man.

This incident of Saul’s life serves as a before picture to show the dramatic change the after snapshot conveys. Saul was a villain. He will lead a systematic inquisition against the early Christian movement, not only seeking followers in Jerusalem (Acts 7:58, 8:1-3, 9:1, 21, 22:2-4, 26:10) but going door to door in foreign cities as well (Acts 9:1, 14, 21, 22:5; 26:1). After his powerful experience on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-19), the persecutor would become the persecuted and the target of the type of attacks he once authorized (Acts 9:23-25, 29-30; II Corinthians 11:23-30).

What youthful indiscretion do you most regret? What impact did participating in Stephen’s death have on Paul’s life? Did Paul’s past as a persecutor in any way prepare him for his ministry? When reading of his later sufferings, do you ever feel bad for Paul?

Though much is made of Paul’s involvement in Stephen’s death, he was also present for Stephen’s final speech.

I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) surmises:

His [Stephen’s] last words were of forgiveness for his executors, and the close collocation of a reference to Saul suggests that we are meant to infer that the words had some effect on him. The reader is being prepared for what is to follow in chapter 9. (Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries),148)
Perhaps Paul’s sudden conversion may not be as acute as it first appears. Perhaps God had been priming him for his experience on the Damascus road. Perhaps Paul’s ministry was a direct answer to Stephen’s prayer for his executioners.

Though Paul never mentions Stephen in his letters, he does recall the martyr in a speech in Acts (Acts 22:20). Paul never forgot his misguided past. Years later, he lamented that “I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (I Corinthians 15:9 NASB).”

How much impact did his brief encounter with Stephen have on Paul? If it was meaningful, why did Paul never write of it? Has a brief encounter ever left a lasting imprint on your life?

“Sometimes the people whom we’ve know for only a short amount of time have a bigger impact on us than those we’ve known forever.” - Maya Angelou (b. 1928)

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