Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why Me?

Recently, a young man who I love dearly told me of all the struggles and trials that were facing him as he drew closer to God. He asked me what he had done, and why these things were happening to him.
Wow! How do you answer that one? I did my best on the spot and I think it worked out, but it retrospect, I would tell a story.

Long ago and far away, in a valley...

divided by a river...

there was a family who raised and lived off of black goats.

 One might say that this was a very humble beginning, no? But this particular family had a son, a bright son, who showed great potential. Humble though his trade of goat raising and tent making may have been, the boys father was a free man, a real citizen, unlike most of those around him. Weather this had been obtained by money, connections, or military service did not matter now; what mattered now was what it could mean for his son. He could send him away to school, and not just any school, the most respected school anyone of The Faith could attend, and study under one of the greatest legal and theological minds of the day. This would mean sending his beloved son nearly 400 miles away, in a time before automobiles, but it would be worth it to provide him with such an education.

Miles away from home the boy studied Law, day in and day out, memorizing longer and longer passages, also be taught to recite, word for word, the lessons of his instructors. If it is possible to develop a photographic memory by exercising the minds ability to recall data, then he developed one. He soon passed his peers, gaining the respect of his teachers.What an amazing lawyer he was destined to be!

Though he came to the school as a mere child, he left a man, and not just any man, a scholar! But leaving the school meant returning home to learn the family trade. Such a mind put to such a simple chore as working a loom? How could it be? How long could he live this way? But he must learn the family trade, even a scholar must know how to make a living if he cannot find work as a lawyer. And who knows what the future may hold? It, at least, is a way to make it through hard times.

But once the family trade was learned and mastered, he could return to the city of his schooling and search for a meaningful career amongst other great minds. And it took no time for those around him to see his worth and intellect. He was able to find a place where the others form his homeland, who had come to this city, came to worship. It did not take long to gain the respect of his brethren and become a leader among his fellow worshipers.

One day, our friend (now around 30 year of age) came in to worship and sat on the bench, beside the other men, below the women's galleries. The day's scripture was read, and then it was time for a lesson, or testimony. A man, around the same age as our friend, approached the podium. He was known in the community for the services he provided for the poor widows (all of other races, many of whom were recent immigrants), and so he was looked on as a kind young man. When he opened his mouth and began to speak, he talked of things that made our friend and many others feel uncomfortable. Some were moved, others felt pushed, some stood up and began to shout and argue with the young man, but his arguments were so compelling that they could not answer him.

He was brought before the court and accused of blasphemy (which was still looked on as a crime in those days), and men were even bribed to back up this charge. But when the judges looked at the accused young man, they saw only innocence, the face of an angel. So, they asked him to defend himself... and he did... boy, did he!

You see, this young man's name was Stephen, and he found himself standing in the very room where, two years earlier, his Lord and Savior had been condemned to death. Take a second to imagine what he must have felt, what he must have seen in his mind....

James J. Tissot, 'The Tribunal of Annas' (1896), Brooklyn Museum, watercolor.

James J. Tissot, 'The False Witnesses' (1896), Brooklyn Museum, watercolor.

James J. Tissot, 'The Torn Cloak: Jesus Condemned to Death by the Jews' (1896), Brooklyn Museum, watercolor.

 What would you say to the unjust judges who threw out the rule book so that they could condemn an innocent man? What would you say knowing that they were doing the same thing to you? Fortunately, Stephen did not have to worry about what to say. Jesus made a promise to His followers, "Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you." (Matt. 10:17-20). And the Spirit spoke through Stephen.

He Preached a compelling, though scathing, sermon. He called them to Christ, but also condemned their cruelty and hypocrisy. Our young friend, who's name (as you by now have guessed) was Saul, was moved to anger, the whole court was moved to anger. Saul's great teacher, Gamaliel had advised patience and toleration concerning the advocates of Jesus and his cause, but this Stephen had gone to far. Saul and the others were so angry that they could not contain themselves. As they stood, grinding their teeth and plotting how to silence this blasphemer, this Stephen looked up, smiled, and shouted, "Look! I see Heaven opened, and the Son of man standing at God's right hand!"

What insolence! He further blasphemed by saying that this Jesus, who's followers had called 'the son of man,'  was in Heaven's highest place of honor! ... The events that followed are well told by the author and scholar John Pollok, who wrote, "The Judges leaped from their places howling with fury. The Hall of Polished Stones, scene of grave debated and historic trials, reverberated to the baying of a lynch mob, which rushed at the young defendant and manhandled him down the steps into the strong sunlight of the Court of the Priests. Across this wide open space, down more steps, through court after court, Stephen was swept by the maddened crowd swelling with bystanders, worshipers and traders, until they had him out of the sacred Temple precincts into the streets of the Holy City.

"No sentence of death had been passed, nor could be executed... Judges and mob cared nothing for that. when the northern gate was behind them, and they reached the Rock of Execution, 'Twice the height of a man,' they should solemnly have stripped him, and thrown him cleanly over to break his neck or at least to stun him, so that death by stoning would not be too unmerciful. Instead they pushed Stephen as he was, and his tangled clothes broke the fall and he staggered to his feet fully conscious.

"... In a judicial stoning the first stones must be aimed by those who had brought the charges. These witnesses therefore elbowed their way to the front, threw off their outer clothes and looked around for someone to guard them. A young lawyer, panting from the race through the streets, stepped forward. They recognized a Pharisee from Cilicia in Asia Minor known as Saul..."

Our young friend watched approvingly as lager and lager stones battered and mangled the body of Stephen. This man was getting what he deserved, harsh and cold though it may have seemed, to Saul, this was the truth of the matter. But then Stephen cried out again! Was he impossible to silence?

"Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" He cried.

Wilbur Ranes, "I see the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God' Church History Museum.

The further infuriated crowed showered him with larger stones, this time bringing Stephen to his knees. Once more he opened his mouth.

"Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Was his final request.

The next volley of stones finished Stephen off. And there the crowd left his body to rot for all they cared.

Saul had never seen such bold defiance. He had not known that these followers of "the way" (as they were called) were such a threat. Why, even he, a prodigy among lawyers, could not argue with what Stephen had said. How many people could they cause to stray? He had to make the High Priest see, had to get him to make a move.

There was nothing that the High Priest would like more than to erase the memory of these people who called the whole court into question for their judgment of one lower class radical. A man who had no house, no possessions, no scholarly degree or title to his name claiming to be king and leading the people away from those who rightfully sat in Moses' seat ... it just could not be tolerated. They did what they had to do to dispose of him, but the problem had not gone away! It was growing. Why, within two months of his death, eight thousand men (not counting women) claimed him as Lord. No longer Rabbi, no! Now he was Lord?! Whatever Saul needed to eradicate those who followed that way would be given to him.

And so the hunt began. It was not below Saul to enter in to every house and interrogate the people. If they would not renounce Jesus as the Christ they would be taken before the court, and thrown in jail. When before the council, legally, the accused could employ the time-honored formula, "I have something to argue in favor of my acquittal." In these cases, Saul, as witness and prosecutor would be forced to stand by and hear a defense of their faith in Christ Jesus. As one trained to memorize every word that his teacher said, Saul must have quickly become familiar with the words and deeds of Jesus. But, after their testimony, the accused were lead away to prison, or death.

How many did Saul condemn? Perhaps even he no longer knew. But the followers of Jesus were fleeing from Jerusalem, or were they spreading? News was that they were now invading Syria. Saul went and obtained permission from the High Priest to hunt them down and bring them to justice, so warrant in hand, Saul made for Damascus.

From here, we all know what happens. Jesus shows Himself to Saul, asks Saul why he is persecuting Him. He says that is is hard for Soul to kick against the pricks, although Saul thought he was serving God, could it be that part of him was affected by the testimony of the saints? Did it pain him to do what he believed to be his duty? The Lord told him to go into the city and he would be told what he must do. Ananias came, healed the blinded Saul, baptized him and told him, "The God of our fathers appointed you to know His will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from His mouth; for you will be a witness for Him to everyone of what you have seen and heard." (Act 22:14-15).

Caravaggio, 'Conversion on the Way to Damascus' (1601) Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, oil on canvas.

So, if Jesus was going to miraculously appear to Saul, why not do this before he killed and imprisoned so many Christians? Paul often spoke of his guilt, of how he believed himself to be the chief among sinners. He quoted Stephen at least twice, once on Mars Hill and once in his final words to Timothy, so it would seem that Stephen's sermon must have forever rung in his ears. Why? Why would God make Saul go through this before miraculously appearing to him?

My suggestions are just that, but here they are.
1. Who says that Saul would have been so willing to listen before he saw and heard all that passed from Stephen's sermon to Damascus.
2. Perhaps God allowed all this to transpire just to show us the change that Christ can make in our lives. Maybe God was saying I can take the foe of God and turn him into one of God's mightiest servants.
3. Maybe it was God's way of showing that it is not to late fore anyone, if Saul can change so can you.
4. Maybe God wanted Saul to better understand that "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death." (Pro 14:12).
5. Perhaps Saul's guilt was part of what drove him to do so much for God.
6. Perhaps God was displaying for Saul and for us that all things are possible with God, and we can do anything through Christ, even turn from a life of murderous blasphemy to glorifying God and expanding His Kingdom.
7. Maybe it is all of the above and more.
8. Or, maybe we should lean the Lesson that God taught Job; My ways are not your ways, you cannot comprehend My plan, so just sit back and let Me do My thing. It's an honor just to be included in God's plan, why should we expect Him to lay out the blue prints for us?

Life is not easy, we often have no idea why we suffer through what we suffer, but God is over all, He reigns, He is in control and He has a plan for me, if I will just allow Him to use me. Hang in there, and God will bless you.

The suggested details of Saul's story that are not found in the NT are probable suggestions based on the time, manners, customs, writings, and illustrations of the life and practice of the Cilician tent makers, the Jewish officials, legal trials, and executions. Much of the information is gathered from John Pollock's The Apostle: A Life Of Paul, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL. 1978, formerly titled The Man Who Shook the World. The writer of said book, and the writer of this blog, have no intention of adding to the Scripture, but simply wish to allow a look into the life Saul may have had.
FYI - The first two pictures are of Tarsus, where Paul was raised. 

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