What words come to your mind when you think of the apostle Paul?
If I’m honest, sometimes when I approach his writing I don’t have ears to hear. I remember preparing to teach the book of Galatians to a gathering of international students in Malaysia. Trudging through the important book I found myself up against a wall. Doing my best not to, but reacting quite strongly nonetheless to Paul’s words, I found myself frustrated with him, sometimes annoyed and angry.
I realized I was reading in a spirit of familiarity, assuming I knew Paul well enough and that assumption kept me from hearing his heart. His words of wisdom were indeed pearls, and I was the proverbial swine, ready to run him over, not for anything he had done, but because my own preconceived ideas about him created a block to receive the treasure he had for me.
Occasionally, in conversation with others, I sense similar responses to Paul. Not only does he seem ‘up there’ spiritually, at a level of discipline, love for God, and theological understanding that few can grasp, quick scripture readings, especially of ‘controversial’ passages in his letters result in suggestions that Paul is a hypocrite, a fanatic, a homophobe and a misogynist. Believers and non-believers react to him like many do to the religious right or the moral majority who, whether they are or not, always already seem like Pharisees.
In preparation for the Galatians teaching I decided to do my best to get to know Paul again, because whatever my feelings toward him, I knew I needed to hear what he had to say. I needed to pare away my pre-conceived ideas of him – the good, the grey, and the bad and try to hear him for the first time.
My unnamed aversion to him was resolved by another man: Stephen.
We know Stephen as the first recorded Christian martyr in the New Testament record. A young man loved and respected by the whole church in Jerusalem, chosen by the Twelve Apostles to help oversee an urgent ministry to widows among the happening and bursting-at-the-seems church: full of the Spirit and of wisdom, grace and power he did great signs and wonders among the people.
Stephen’s public display of spiritual power and goodness upset the religious authorities. Unable to come to terms with Stephen or his message, they pulled the blasphemy card and charged him as a hater of Moses and of God. Stephen faced similar accusations and charges that Christ faced from the establishment, with a similar outcome.
In the face of life-threatening charges, Stephen did not balk or run, but beautifully outlined the history of Israel and it’s faith, walking the Scribes and Pharisees through the story of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses – the big names of the faith. He highlights a continued theme: the moral failure of God’s chosen people, and her habit of turning from God and his ways.
Stephen finished his argument in Acts 7:51 – 53, an act of bravery, for the words meant certain death:
You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears, you always oppose the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors did. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.
As I read the account of Stephen’s stoning, his words and their fearlessness, his confidence and the spirit that he delivered them with reminded me of the apostle Paul in his language to the Galatians.
Thoughts of Paul in the passage about Stephen are, ultimately, inevitable. Perhaps the most astonishing part of the account is that as Stephen is bloodied and crushed by the rocks and stones hurled by his accusers, Stephen repeats two phrases Christ spoke from the cross: “Receive my Spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Those reading the book of Acts for the first time will later experience another shock. The man Saul, overseeing Stephen’s death, the sinister anti-Christ “ravaging the church” and “breathing threats and murder against disciples” is but chapters away from a radical conversion to the very faith he meant to stamp out in his religious fervour.
We know the rest of the story. The road to Damascus, Christ’s blinding call to Saul, the persecutor’s complete conversion to become Paul, the great apostle of the early church. The very man who described himself as foremost among sinners. A man with the blood of his own brothers – his own Lord – on his hands.
That man, the religious fanatic, the hypocrite, died on the road to Damascus and a new person was born. He became a man, like Stephen, full of wisdom and grace, full of the Spirit and power to bring amazing signs and wonders, an able communicator who proved Christ was the Messiah again and again, and suffered greatly for it, ultimately becoming one of many first century martyrs for the faith. How ironic and tragic, even, that oftentimes when people read Paul they confuse him with Saul – a fanatic and hypocrite hell bent to be right when, really, he must be wrong.
How would Luke, the author of the book of Acts, known what Stephen said before his death? How would Luke know what prayer was on Stephen’s lips? Perhaps the same way he learned so much about the early church: through his friend and constant travel companion Paul.
I suspect that God heeded the prayer of Stephen as the stones were flung and tore apart his flesh. I wonder how much Stephen’s selfless prayer unlocked Saul’s own spiritual destiny. How Stephen’s words must have dug deeply into Paul’s heart in the years that would come once he became a servant of Christ. Imagine what it would have been like for him, how those words would have echoed in his soul, when he was accused falsely, or when he himself was stoned in Galatia (Acts 14:19) when he suffered for Christ.
I imagine that throughout Paul’s ministry he remembered Stephen’s prayer. And I imagine that in hardship, and even in the good times, Paul was brought right back to that day outside the walls of Jerusalem, when he watched Stephen die at his feet. Ultimately, the memory of Stephen and the prayer he uttered in his dying breaths brought Paul to the foot of the cross, where his Saviour cried the same prayer.
When we read a letter from Paul, we carry a lot into the reading with us. We have impressions of him. We react to his words. We assume things about him. I find it important to remember that whatever our ideas about Paul are, as we sit to read his letters, we need bring his personal history into our reading of the text.
To hear Paul, we must remember the great persecutor, radically changed. The murderer, forgiven. The Jew zealous for the law transformed by grace. We must remember Saul as we read Paul, and having done so, will find that we have new ears with which to hear what he has to say.