“And when your witness Stephen was killed, I was standing there agreeing. I kept the coats they laid aside as they stoned him.” (Acts 22:20 NLT)
Paul spoke to the crowds who were ready to kill him. He gave his defense, which is to say he defended Jesus instead of going along with the crowd. His defense was good. “I learned to follow our Jewish laws and customs very carefully. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just as all of you are today.” (Acts 22:3 NLT)
Paul was a Pharisee who obeyed the law and took it to the “necessary” extreme, killing and persecuting Christians in his effort to follow God. Somewhere in all of his intense training, he missed some of the key ingredients in honoring and following God.
The crowds were pleased with him when he was doing as he was trained to do, killing and persecuting Christians. The crowds weren’t so pleased with him when he had a change of heart and started letting the outsiders in. The outsiders were anyone who wasn’t Jewish, or in Bible terms, the outsiders were Gentiles. The crowds had missed some of the key ingredients as well, which only makes sense seeing as how they had been under the church leadership that Paul was a part of, the one that wanted to erase the name of Jesus and anyone that spoke it.
On Paul’s way to kill and capture more Christians, he encountered a bright light that stopped him dead in his tracks and blinded him. Unlike most lights, this light had a voice and a name. It was Jesus, revealing himself to Paul. Leave it to Jesus to reveal himself to someone only to blind them. But Jesus didn’t blind Paul as a defense mechanism. While Christians were spared by Jesus interrupting Paul’s mission, it was not a defensive move to stop Paul because Jesus felt threatened. It was an active move. Blinding Paul wasn’t an attempt just to stop him, Paul was blinded as a direct result of a sinful life encountering Jesus, a life that Jesus wanted to be His. Jesus wanted Paul; a blinding truth for such a sinful man.
We see Jesus addressing the importance of a single life to Him earlier in the gospels, “suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4 NIV)
I think the road to Damascus, the road on which Paul found himself when he encountered Jesus, we see what it looks like for the shepherd to go after his one lost sheep, no matter how far gone that sheep has wandered off. Paul mattered to Jesus, and so Jesus went after him, not just to stop him from doing something, but to make him His.
It seems obvious to us today, “don’t kill people,” but to Paul in that time and culture and way in which he was trained, he was doing the right thing. Without a real Jesus encounter of course Jesus would seem like a dude with a bunch of dos and don’ts and too much grace for those who do or don’t. Jesus was the worst in the eyes of Paul. And while it might be an extreme example, the heart and the mindset of Paul is not too far off from how people feel about Jesus today, even people in the church.
If Jesus were solely about doing and don’t-ing, he would have stopped Paul from persecuting and killing Christians and left it at that. He would have saved the masses and lost the one. I think a lot of people (without the context or the whole picture) would say that Paul’s one life would have been worth losing for the sake of saving the masses. But Jesus wasn’t just trying to save people from Paul, Jesus was trying to save Paul from Paul. Jesus was trying to give Paul life because for whatever reason, the one life of Paul mattered to Jesus.
I truly believe that when a life encounters Jesus, like really encounters Jesus, they cannot walk away the same. Encountering Jesus might not mean they choose to follow Him, but I certainly think the encounter would haunt them, and like anything that haunts us, paranoia and anger set in over time. I think people who have a hatred for Jesus have either been terribly scarred by the church, or they’ve encountered Jesus in a way they refuse to accept.
Paul encountered Jesus and it changed his life, not just because it blinded him for three days, but because of what it did to the nature of his heart. I think for a law-abiding, rule promoting guy like Paul, what he felt in his encounter with Jesus was love, and upon realizing that he was loved, his cold heart broke, warm blood pumped through his body, and in his blind state he saw his own humanity and his need for a Savior. I think Paul was driven to surrender the life he had been living as a devout Pharisee not because Jesus offered an easier set of rules to follow. I think Paul surrendered his life to Jesus because he felt something he hadn’t learned in all of his Bible training… love.
I don’t think Paul would have been the same man if Jesus met up with him and merely said “stop killing my people.” Even if Paul would have stopped, that would have been great for those people, I don’t want to discredit that, but Paul would have still been a rule-abiding guy without a change of heart or conviction to live from. He wouldn’t have been Paul, he would have been a shell of man with great potential who didn’t make much of a difference. Paul’s encounter with Jesus didn’t just keep Paul from killing people, it thrust him forward to save the lives of countless people, not just in the physical but in the spiritual.
Jesus doesn’t just want to encounter us to stop us from our sin, I mean, sure, that’s a part of it and I think it happens by default more than anything else. Jesus wants to encounter us so that we can finally start living. Jesus wants us to know Him because of what knowing Him does for us.
And so back to the crowds and Paul’s defense. Paul had a heart change, one that involved following Jesus, and the Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus, the very group Paul was once a part of, did not like this… so much so that they, once like Paul, wanted to kill this follower of Jesus. Paul is now the man he once tried to kill.
Paul is being threatened with death and so he gives his defense, his testimony. We all have a testimony of some sort. Paul’s was one of those “I once was lost but now am found” sort. Paul talked about who he used to be before meeting Jesus and who he is now as a result of meeting Jesus. This is the testimony of all of us who have met Jesus, in one way or another. Even having been raised in the church, it is my testimony… I once was lost but now am found. Much like Paul, I understood the rules, but I didn’t know Jesus. I knew about Him, and while I didn’t actively hate Him the way Paul did, my actions might as well have told the story of hate in my heart… hate for myself and hate for other people, which I think is just a mask for hating God.
It only occurred to me this morning just how similar I am to Paul. I always thought he was at a different level than me and just a good example of an extreme situation. I don’t kill Christians, or anyone for that matter, and so in that sense Paul and I are not the same. Fair enough. But this morning I read one sentence that changed the way I saw myself.
“I kept the coats they laid aside as they stoned him.”
Paul was recounting the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. In this instance, Paul was not actively killing Stephen, he didn’t pick up a stone and throw it at him. All he did was hold the coats of the men who were stoning Stephen. By all appearances you could have been there and said Paul had nothing to do with Stephen’s death, other than standing there agreeing, keeping the coats.
I thought about this in a recent situation in which I felt someone was misrepresented. Instead of defending that person’s character, I said nothing. It was easier to say nothing. I didn’t want to get involved and I was already in an uncomfortable situation that I just wanted to be over, so I let someone stone this person’s character as I stood by. I kept the coats. I didn’t say anything against this person, I didn’t throw any stones, I didn’t slander or gossip, but I also didn’t do anything. I didn’t do the right thing. And you could say I didn’t encourage it either, but not discouraging is encouraging it. Holding the coats of the person who is actively killing someone else is assisting in the death of that person, even if passively and silently. I don’t know if Paul was yelling or not when he stood by and watched Stephen get killed, all I know is there is enough evidence there to suggest that he contributed to the death of Stephen… he kept the coats. The blood of Stephen was on Paul’s hands in the form of the killers’ coats he held.
And again, while my situation might not involve a physical death, it’s the condition of the heart that is the issue. Just because the times and the culture are different doesn’t mean I’m not capable of the same type of hatred as Paul and the same ability to stand by and watch someone die, be it physical or spiritual, all because I did nothing.
To stand by and let someone’s character be attacked because it’s more comfortable than getting involved is to support the attack. To stand by and watch is to persecute that person. And to persecute that person is to persecute Jesus. Never would I have thought of myself as someone who persecutes Jesus, mostly because that seems so large scale. But for someone who speaks so highly of the little things mattering, it’s in the little things that I find myself persecuting Jesus, which make them really big things. And math will always be right, little things add up to be a really big thing. I have to address the little things, the condition of my heart is at stake, and if left unattended to long enough, my heart is capable of becoming as cold as Paul’s pre-Jesus.
Yesterday, I kept the coats.
I don’t want to keep the coats anymore, but it has to start with admitting the fact that I am holding them. I don’t know where to go from here. Holding the coats was kind of comfortable, I felt like I belonged. Going along with the crowd always feels like you belong, but the feeling of belonging is not worth the life of another person being cast out.
Father, forgive me. May I have wisdom and discernment to know my part in this messy world and the courage to live it out.