Saul of Tarsus a Religious Terrorist
By Frank Manasseri
Saul of Tarsus was an enemy of the new movement in Jerusalem known as the followers of the Way. These men, women, and children were severely persecuted and punished. Saul was stopped while travelling on the road to Damascus by one mightier than himself. After being thrown from his horse, Saul experienced a close encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ that permanently changed his heart, and the purpose of his life.
The first mention of Saul is found in Chapter 7 verse 58 of the book of Acts concerning the stoning of the first martyr Stephen.
The Stoning of Stephen
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.
55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,
56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,
58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.
59 And they stoned Stephan, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Saul was present during this tragic incident where Stephen gave a great testimony before the Rulers of Israel of the history of the Hebrews beginning with Abraham and ending with the coming of the Just One.
A few years prior to this these rulers of Israel were willing to kill Jesus because He proclaimed the Temple would be destroyed. It was these very same men who stoned Stephan to death when they heard him state publicly the same prediction of the Temple being destroyed.
Was their reason to protect their religion of Judaism? Or perhaps it was that the destruction of the Temple would cause great financial loss to these leaders? The Temple was the source of wealth and power over Israel and just as it is today, religion still holds a powerful influence over people.
This situation in the first century seems somewhat similar to some of the radical religious extremists that are rising up in our world today. Many of these modern day terrorists are convinced they are carrying out the will of their god, and are willing to die for their cause. This modern day religious radicalism has caused untold amounts of human suffering and despair in many countries around the world today with no end of this dilemma in sight. No one seems to be immune from the growing threats of these fanatics.
In the first century Saul concentrated on one group of people as enemies of God. These were the followers of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Messiah. The enemies of today’s religious terrorist’s are any or all who do not become their brand of religion and submit to their god.
Saul of Tarsus was a bright young Pharisee who was an accomplished pupil of Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law at the Temple School in Jerusalem. Saul was advanced above many who were his equals in his own religion, and he said himself; living after the straightest sect:
Philippians 3:4-6 (KJV)
4 Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more:
5 Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;
6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
Saul a zealot for his religion was well pleased with Stephan’s slaughter, and became so full of rage and hatred against Christ’s name that he believed that no severities were too great to be implemented on those who zealously made an effort to spread the message of Jesus Christ. Saul consented to Stephan’s stoning and was willing to have the smallest part in what seemed to him the righteous slaying of one of the followers of this blaspheming Nazarene, Jesus Christ. Saul was in his middle twenties at the time of Stephan’s murder.
After the death of Stephan, Saul a devout Jew, was sanctioned and commissioned by the authorities of the Temple to round up the followers of the sect of the Way and cast them into prison. This vendetta began in Jerusalem as Saul entered into every house where the followers of the Way would assemble for their worship of God, arrested men and women, and dragged them along the streets without any regard to age or sex, and committed them to prison. The only reason for this persecution was people believing in Jesus, and embracing the gospel of the kingdom of God.
Saul and his armed escort, like some furious beasts of prey cruelly incarcerated these men, women and children as if they were common criminals. In doing this Saul seemed obsessed with the enforcement of the orders he received from the High Priest and set no bounds to his rage and cruelty. During this period, Saul was a devout religious zealot who believed that he was indeed carrying out the will of his God.
During the first century, the followers of the Way turned from Judaism, to follow men who were teaching that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. Before his crucifixion Jesus of Nazareth prophesied that sometime in the future, this Temple at Jerusalem would be destroyed and that there would not be left one stone upon another. This came to pass in 70 A.D. when Titus and his armies destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.
Beginning at the feast of Pentecost the new converts to Christ became of great concern to the Temple authorities as their source of revenue depended on the feasts, sacrifices, and worship, at the Temple. This is especially true after Peter boldly stood up and preached in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost to the very powers responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The result of Peter’s preaching was about three thousand souls were converted and became followers of the Way.
The very next day while Peter and John were on their way to the Temple, a man who was lame from birth was healed in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This miraculous event caused no small commotion outside the Temple at Jerusalem. Peter again preached Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and about five thousand were added to the followers of the Way. Here we see that over eight thousand men, plus women and children were added in just two days.
These new converts were rapidly increasing in numbers and were not all from Jerusalem, which meant this message, would be carried back to their home countries when they returned. Many of these people had travelled great distances to attend the Feast of Pentecost. These pilgrims came from every known country of the time. The Temple authorities were quickly becoming quite alarmed over this sudden exodus from the Jewish faith, and the possibility of diminished income from the business conducted at the Temple.
With the numbers of people rapidly leaving Judaism, perhaps financial issues became a major concern of the Temple authorities. After all, the Temple was the hub of the economy of the nation of Israel. If only a handful had left Judaism it may not have been that big a deal to the High Priest. But for thousands to leave in only two days, must have caused eyebrows to raise and something had to be done to stop this movement of the Way! This is where Saul of Tarsus comes into the picture:
Acts 9:1 and 2(KJV)
1And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,
2And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
Saul “breathed out cruelties” and “wreaked havoc” upon this targeted group. This man Saul was so feared that many followers of the Way departed Jerusalem to escape his cruelty and persecution. Undaunted by this exodus, Saul continued to act out upon his Temple orders but Jesus Christ had other plans for this persecutor of innocent people.
Once again Saul being sent out by the Temple authorities and accompanied by an armed group of men was intent on extending the area of persecution to Damascus. While travelling they were suddenly stopped in their tracks and thrown from their horses. A bright blinding light shined around them, and Saul shielding his eyes asked, “Who art thou Lord?” There on the road Saul encountered face to face his enemy, Jesus Christ! Saul was temporarily blinded and instructed to go to a certain place in Damascus and wait. This encounter abruptly put an end to Saul’s involvement with the persecution of innocent men, women, and children, who were followers of the Way.
Some years after Saul’s conversion, he and Barnabas were in Antioch teaching his new found faith to the believers, who were first called or consecrated Christians there. Saul of Tarsus, who was later called Paul, was eventually chosen along with Barnabas, to deliver an offering from the Church at Antioch to the Saints at Jerusalem who were suffering from a famine. Some of the recipients of this charity were perhaps the same people Saul had formerly persecuted. The same bloody hands of Saul that had previously persecuted Gods people were now the instruments of Grace delivering the blessings of God to those in need.
Only the Lord Jesus Christ can take an enemy that has done great harm to His own people and turn a cold heart to become a leading advocate for the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ changed a man like Saul and turned a bitter heart into a loving heart! This is still available today. Let us pray for the conversion of many of the enemies of God and then wait to see the salvation of the Lord visit even His enemies.