The religious elites (members of the Sanhedrin) had Stephen killed for following Jesus. Saul (later to become the Apostle Paul) was right there with them. He held their coats and cheered them on.
I need to be careful. I think, I never would have done such a thing. The pull of the religious elite is very strong. Jesus warned us to be careful. Even the Apostle Paul got carried away. I need to anchor myself in Jesus and the Way of love.
Saul was right there, congratulating the killers. That set off a terrific persecution of the church in Jerusalem. The believers were all scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. All, that is, but the apostles. Good and brave men buried Stephen, giving him a solemn funeral — not many dry eyes that day! And Saul just went wild, devastating the church, entering house after house after house, dragging men and women off to jail. | Acts 8:1-3 (The Message Bible)
So the martyrdom of Stephen immediately triggered a general persecution of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. The persecution was so severe that all the believers, thousands though they were, fled town to save their necks. They went “down through the regions of Judea and Samaria” because of Jerusalem’s higher elevation. Putting some distance between themselves and the Sanhedrin, who had lynched Stephen, gave the believers a measure of safety. The apostles’ staying in Jerusalem reflects the inability of the Sanhedrin to rein them in successfully; for an angel of the Lord had delivered them from prison despite the Sanhedrin’s best efforts, and the Sanhedrin had decided at Gamaliel’s advice to leave them alone.
All believers except the apostles left Jerusalem, and Luke doesn’t identify the devout men as apostles. So the devout men who took care of Stephen’s burial appear to be pious though unconverted Jews like Joseph of Arimathea, who buried Jesus. That men of this caliber should take care of Stephen’s burial and even make great—that is, loud—lamentation over him testifies to their admiration of Stephen. Such admiration recommends the good news of Jesus, for the preaching of which he was murdered.
Saul’s ravaging the church stands in stark contrast to the devout men’s actions. This contrast will heighten the coming drama of Saul’s conversion. The ravaging went to the extreme of house-to-house searching for believers, dragging husbands and wives away from their homes and children, and imprisoning them. Their imprisonment either implies that Saul pursued the scattered believers into Judea and Samaria or limits the “all” who were scattered to those he hadn’t yet imprisoned and explains why all the rest fled. In either case, Saul turns out to be more than a by standing coat keeper at Stephen’s stoning.
The Book of Acts and the epistles give sufficient data for a sketch of Saul’s early life.
- He was born in Tarsus in Cilicia
- A “Hebrew of the Hebrews”, the “son of a Pharisee”
- A Roman citizen
- He was educated in Jerusalem by Gamaliel and became a devoted Pharisee
- Measured by the Law, his life was blameless
- He was one of the most promising young Pharisees in Jerusalem, well on his way to becoming a great leader for the Jewish faith
Saul’s zeal for the Law was displayed most vividly in his persecution of the church. He really thought that persecuting the believers was one way of serving God, so he did it with a clear conscience. He obeyed the light that he had and, when God gave him more light, he obeyed that and became a follower of Jesus and an Apostle!
In what ways did Saul persecute the church? He “made havoc of the church,” and the verb here describes a wild animal mangling its prey. When Jesus spoke to Saul on the Damascus road, He compared him to a beast!
The stoning of Stephen, which Saul approved, shows the lengths to which he would go to achieve his purpose. He persecuted both men and women “unto the death”, entering both houses and synagogues. He had the believers imprisoned and beaten. If they renounced their faith in Jesus Christ (“compelling them to blaspheme”), they were set free; if they did not recant, they could be killed.
In later years, Paul described himself as “exceedingly mad against them”, “a blasphemer [he denounced Jesus the Messiah], and a persecutor, and injurious [violent]”. He was a man with great authority whose devotion to Moses completely controlled his life, and almost destroyed his life. He did it “ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13), and God showed him mercy and saved him. Saul of Tarsus is the last person in Jerusalem you would have chosen to be the great apostle to the Gentiles!
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 434). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
Gundry, R. H. (2010). Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (p. 494). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.