Sometimes people will experience a life-changing event that will completely turn their life upside down and they know that life as they knew it will never be the same again. Such events are described in the Bible, and there is a life-changing event that everyone must experience if they are going to have eternal life. However, not everybody experiences it in the same way.
The stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a pivotal turning point in the history of the Christian church. Before that event, the apostles preached the gospel almost exclusively to the Jews. In fact, we do not have a record of the apostles preaching the gospel to non-Jews up until that time. But, after the stoning of Stephen, it is very clear in the book of Acts that the gospel then went to the Gentiles.
This opening of the gospel to the Gentiles met with severe opposition, for the Jews did not want the Christian church to exist. In fact, they set out to destroy it so that there would be no Christians left. One of the chief persecutors was a man by the name of Saul of Tarsus. The first mention in Scripture of this man is at the time of the stoning of Stephen. It says, “They (the Jews) cast him (Stephen) out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). In Acts 8:1, first part, it says that “… Saul was consenting to his death.”
“Saul of Tarsus was present [at Stephen’s trial] and took a leading part against Stephen. He brought the weight of eloquence and the logic of the rabbis to bear upon the case, to convince the people that Stephen was preaching delusive and dangerous doctrines … .” The Acts of the Apostles, 98. “At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Acts 8:1, second part–3).
Saul tried to destroy the Christian church by putting Christians in prison and having the leaders killed to stop the spread of what he deemed to be a terrible so-called heresy. Now, Saul was greatly esteemed by the Jewish nation because of his zeal. He, a learned and zealous rabbi, had become a member of the Sanhedrin counsel. He was a mighty instrument in the hand of Satan, used to carry out the rebellion against the Son of God.
However, things would soon change. The very person who was the leading persecutor of the Christian church would become the leading Christian apologist, the leading Christian apostle and proponent of the Christian religion. This story is stranger than fiction. It is a story in which we see that there is Someone mightier than Satan, who had selected the very person who led the persecution of the Christian church to become the leader of the Christian religion. This man would later write more than half the books of the New Testament.
The Bible records Stephen’s death this way: “He, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man (Jesus Christ) standing at the right hand of God’ ”(Acts 7:55, 56)! It says that, “all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).
Stephen died, but he did not die a defeated man. He died a conqueror. He said, “I see the heavens opened.” He said that he saw the Son of Man “standing at the right hand of the throne of God.” Saul and the Jewish leaders could not stand to hear that, for it was contrary to their beliefs, especially the Sadducees who taught that there was no such thing as a resurrection from the dead. When Saul witnessed this man’s faith, it shook him.
“The mind of Saul was greatly stirred by the triumphant death of Stephen. He was shaken in his prejudice; but the opinions and arguments of the priests and rulers finally convinced him that Stephen was a blasphemer; that Jesus Christ whom he preached was an imposter, and that those ministering in holy offices must be right.” The Story of Redemption, 268.
Saul was a man of decided mind and determined purpose and he became very bitter in his opposition to Christianity that he considered now to be a delusion. He had it entirely settled in his mind that the views of the priests and the scribes were right, and his zeal led him to voluntarily engage in persecuting the believers. He made havoc of the church, going everywhere, and putting men and women in prison. He caused the Christians to be dragged before judicial councils. Some were imprisoned and some were condemned to death without evidence of any offence, except the fact that they had faith in Jesus.
Having to travel to Damascus upon his own business, Saul decided that he would accomplish a double purpose. He would obtain letters from the high priest to be read in the synagogues that would authorize him to seize all who were suspected of being believers in Jesus and send them by messengers to Jerusalem, to be tried and punished. So he set out, as recorded in Acts 9:1, 2: “Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way (Christians), whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
He set out on his way full of the vigor of manhood and the fire of a mistaken zeal that has possessed millions upon millions of men and women down through the ages. When you study history, you find very often the worst persecutors of all time have been those who believed that what they were doing was for the glory of God. The cry of persecutors for thousands of years has been, “We have to get rid of these people so that they won’t deceive the rest of the people in the world.”
Saul and his companions had to travel over a desolate, dry desert region to reach their destination. But as they neared Damascus, they looked upon the fertile land, beautiful gardens, fruitful orchards, and cool streams. It was a very refreshing scene on which to look after such a wearisome journey.
“As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’
“And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads [pricks].’ ” (Acts 9:3–5).
The scene was one of greatest confusion. The companions of Saul were stricken with terror, and almost blinded by the intensity of the light. They heard the voice, but they did not see anybody. To them it was all unintelligible and mysterious, but Saul, lying prostrate on the ground, understood exactly the words that were spoken. He saw before him a Being brighter than the light of the sun, and the image of that glorified Being was indelibly marked upon his mind, and His words struck home to his heart with appalling force. A flood of light poured into his darkened mind, revealing his ignorance and error. He saw that while he had imagined himself to be zealously serving God in persecuting the followers of Christ, he had actually been doing the work of Satan. He saw his folly in resting his faith upon the assurances of the priests and rulers.
Oh, friend, are you aware that there are millions of people today, who can give you no other reason for what they believe than that it was told them by some religious teacher? They have never checked in the Bible for themselves to find out if what they believe is true? Where is your faith? In the word of man, or the word of God?
Is your faith founded in an intelligent knowledge of the word of God, that you have studied and read for yourself, or is your faith just anchored in what somebody has said, or what some group of people have said? That was the problem with Saul. His faith had been in what the religious leaders had told him. His faith was in the religious leaders that he talked to himself. He thought that these “holy men” would not be wrong.
Millions of people through the ages have been misled by placing their faith in men that they called “holy,” that led them directly contrary to what the Bible says. Jesus, talking to the Jews about this very problem, said, “Search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39). They were reading a book about Jesus and when He was there they did not recognize Him.
These priests and rulers in sacred office had great influence over the mind of Saul, and they had caused him to believe that the story of the resurrection was an artful fabrication of the disciples of Jesus. But now, he had seen Jesus Christ Himself, a glorified being, brighter than the light of the sun. And then suddenly, the forcible sermon of Stephen was brought again to his mind. He now understood the truth of the dying words that Stephen had exclaimed and that the priests and rulers had said was blasphemy.
In those few moments of illumination, Saul’s mind reacted with remarkable rapidity. Your mind can work very rapidly in certain situations. Perhaps you have met people who just before a car accident, or before some other traumatic event, have later recalled, “My whole life history went before my mind.” It is an event like that which happened to Saul of Tarsus. He traced quickly through prophetic history and realized that in the Old Testament it was predicted that the Messiah would be rejected by the Jews. He knew those prophecies in Isaiah. He thought through the prophets of the Old Testament who had predicted the crucifixion of Jesus. He knew those prophecies in the Psalms.
He thought through the prophecies predicting the resurrection of Jesus. He also knew the prophecy in the Psalms that predicted the ascension of Jesus upon high, with a multitude of captives that had been freed from captivity. He saw that all this had been foretold by the prophets, and proved that Jesus Christ really was the Messiah. He remembered again the words of Stephen, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” And he knew then that the dying saint whose death to which he had consented had looked upon the kingdom of Glory. In a moment, the scales had been lifted from his eyes and now he understood.
What a revelation it was. It was light, clear but also terrible. Christ was revealed to him as having come to earth and having fulfilled his mission, being rejected, abused, condemned, and crucified by those that He came to save, but also as having risen from the dead, and having ascended into the heavens. In that terrible moment, Saul remembered that the holy man, Stephen, had been stoned with his consent. It was through his instrumentality that not only Stephen, but other Christians, had met their death by cruel persecution. “So he, trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do’ ” (Acts 9:6, first part)? That is never a bad question to ask. “Lord, what do You want me to do?”
“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do’ ” (verse 6, last part). Jesus had spoken to him. There was no doubt in his mind who this was. The person had identified Himself as Jesus. He said, “I’m Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” He knew now. He knew that this Jesus was the Messiah, that He was the One who had come to this world to save anyone who was willing to be saved from sin and give them the opportunity to have eternal life.
He was the Consolation, the Redeemer of Israel. While on earth, Jesus had often used parables and symbolic language to explain the truth to people. He also now used a familiar object to illustrate His meaning in talking to the man that became the apostle Paul. Jesus said to him, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the pricks.”
Those forcible words illustrate a truth that everyone in this world someday will know and understand. There are still millions of people in the world who are kicking against the pricks. They think that if they can get enough people to kick, and kick hard enough and long enough, they will be able to destroy the Christian religion and maybe all the Christians as well. Jesus’ words reveal the fact that it is hard for you to kick against the pricks of your own conscience.
There are many stories of people who were atheists, communists, socialists, of various non-Christian religions who had persecuted Christians and then become converted. There is the prick of seeing the effect of the Christian religion on human beings as no other religion can have and the prick of their own conscience.
The fact is that it is impossible for any man or for any group of men to stop the onward progress of the truth of Christ. The truth of Christ is going to march on to victory and triumph, and every effort by any man or any group of men to stop it, will simply result in injury to the opposer.
In the end, the persecutor will suffer far more than those whom he has persecuted, for, sooner or later, his own heart will condemn him for what he has done.
The Saviour, Jesus Christ, had spoken to Saul through His servant Stephen, whose clear reasoning from the Scriptures could not be controverted. The learned Jew had seen in the face of the martyr the reflected glory of Christ. “Everyone that saw Stephen, saw his face as if it were the face of an angel.” He had witnessed not only Stephen’s forbearance, but the forbearance of other Christians toward their enemies. He had witnessed their forgiveness of their persecutors. He had also witnessed the fortitude and cheerful resignation of other believers in Jesus while they had been tormented and afflicted and still others who had yielded up their lives as martyrs, rejoicing that they might give up their life for the truth’s sake.
All this testimony had appealed to Saul of Tarsus and had put conviction on his mind, causing him to struggle against it night and day. One reason some people become persecutors is because they are struggling against the conviction of their conscience, and to be free they fight those who bring the conviction. Saul’s education, his prejudices, his respect for priests and rulers and his pride of popularity had braced him to rebel against all the voice of his conscience and the grace of God.
He had believed that Christians were deluded fanatics, but now Jesus had spoken to him with His own voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
Oh, my friend, how is it with you? The way that you treat your fellow men is recorded in the books of heaven as the way you treat Jesus. Are you kicking against the pricks or are you ready to have a life-changing event that will turn you around 180 degrees and send you in the direction of eternal life?
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.