Who was Christianity’s greatest enemy in the book of Acts?
And its greatest friend, in the end?
Takeaway: Religious divisions predict nothing.
Meet the Darth Vader of Ancient Judea: Paul’s Dramatic Entrance
Paul’s first appearance in the bible came at the end of chapter 7. He is shown presiding over the stoning of a Christian leader named Stephen, who had been sentenced to death for being an insufferable ass.
Stephen was a model Christian, “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5, Stephen’s bible debut) and “full of God’s grace and power” (6:8). In some ways Stephen was a lot like Christ. So much so that some mean ol’ “bible scholars” argue that the story of Stephen is just a retelling of the story of Christ. Some parallels I offer for your measured consideration:
- Like Christ, Stephen annoyed the public and the religious leadership by pointing out their unjust and hypocritical behavior.
- Like Christ, Stephen stood before his butthurt persecutors and told them God was going to kick those butts.
- Like Christ, Stephen proclaimed a new kingdom of God, i.e., he committed treason by making people think about the overthrow of the government.
- Like Christ, Stephen died beseeching God to take pity on his own executioners.
Stephen’s entire story is in Acts chapters 6 and 7, for those of you following along at home.
At the end of 7, the people stoning Stephen “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” The purpose of these people taking their coats off was to afford themselves more freedom of movement as they chucked rocks at Stephen’s head until his skull caved in. The reason they laid the coats at Saul’s feet and not someone else’s feet was because Saul was the man presiding over the execution. He made sure no one made off with their stuff while they participated in the good times.
Fun Fact: Saul was Paul. It was the same man. This is a point of fact first made clear in Acts 13:9, almost in passing: “Yadda yadda, Saul — by the way he also goes by ‘Paul’ when he’s talking to Roman people — anyway so Paul, yadda yadda.” (New Cynical Version. For the New International Version, see the BibleGateway entry.)
While Stephen was getting stoned, he begged “Lord Jesus” to receive his departing spirit and, by the way, to “don’t hold this sin against them.”
That’s the last thing Stephen ever said.
The next chapter, Acts 8, opens with:
“And Saul approved of their killing him.” *
Now we see that in addition to serving as a sort of coat check at a restaurant that only served Christians — rare, bloody if you please, hold the bun — it was Saul’s job to say, “Ready, aim — whoa, hold on there, I didn’t say ‘fire’. Oh, okay. Right you are.”
The second sentence of the chapter reads:
“On that day, a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”
By that alone we can safely assert that Stephen’s execution was the major event that rallied the anti-Christian movement to a fever pitch — and Paul, having presided over that event, became a hero of the movement as a whole.
But we don’t even need our powers of inference to argue that Paul was the figurehead that exemplified and embodied what it meant to be a good, clean-cut bigot. Chapter 8, verse 3 spells out that Paul was not only a poster boy for Christian-hating, but was zealously committed to eliminating the church once and for all:
“Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (8:3)
Paul’s role as Persecutor-in-Chief is clinched at the beginning of chapter 9:
“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
So Paul got formal permission from the most powerful religious figure in the region to go to a Christian refuge and “drag off” more men and women to the pokey for safekeeping.
Vader Joins the Rebellion and Writes Its Manifesto: Paul’s Conversion and Apostleship
And so he went. But on the way to Damascus, Paul had a little run-in with Jesus in which Paul instantly became the most committed Christian in the history of Christianity.
Yeah. Kind of a sudden turn, I know. There’s more to the story than that. Read Acts 9.
For now, consider this: Paul, formerly the Supreme Commander of the Imperial War on the Christian Rebellion, ended up writing half of the New Testament. He didn’t know he was writing for any “testament” — the Christian canon was compiled and codified much later. Paul was just writing letter after letter to various nations, churches, and individuals.
In his letters, or “epistles”, Paul rebuked straying Christians, praised committed ones, and doled out advice and theology by the truckload. Paul’s words became the basis of a massive portion of the sum total of Christian thought.
Paul, erstwhile Church Enemy Number One, made an about-face and came to exemplify what it meant to be a Christian.
Like Stephen, Paul’s victim of yore, Paul spoke loudly and fearlessly about Christ, traveling throughout the known world to spread the word. He defied the dominant religious regime and warned of its promised demise at the hands of God. He suffered and was imprisoned (and likely executed) at the hands of persecutors just as he had made Christians suffer in the time before his conversion.
You never know where your friends may come from.
Your best friend might even be the person or thing you fear most. Expect the unexpected.
Postscript: Don’t Judge a Stormtrooper by Its Armor
There’s a new book out called Zealot. Maybe you heard of it. It’s an examination of the man Jesus Christ. The book is raising some eyebrows because it was written by a Muslim.
Back in July, a Fox News interviewer questioned Aslan’s motives for writing a book about Jesus, and in characteristic Fox News form completely ignored the actual content of the book.
Her passive-aggressive implication was that Aslan, being a Muslim, is probably just trying to undermine Christians’ faith with his book, and that he should be stoutly ignored as a possible enemy agent against the church.
Obviously the interviewer never gave much thought to the book of Acts, Paul’s miraculous conversion, and what it means to followers of the Way in our time.
I find her lack of faith. Disturbing.
*All bible quotes are from the New International Version, except the one that says “yadda yadda”. That one is from my own version that I’m making up as I go along.