We’re watching what the Apostle Paul is going through in order to finish the race and complete the task the Lord has given him; the task of testifying to the Gospel of God’s grace. Last week, at the advice of the church leaders in Jerusalem, Paul underwent a rite of purification to prove there was no truth to the rumors that he had been telling Jews to abandon the Law of Moses and stop observing Old Testament customs. This purification actually lasted seven days. As we pick up the story this morning, Paul is coming to the end of this purification ceremony.
Acts 21:27 – “When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the Temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him.”
Well, so much for brilliant ideas and good intentions. Obviously, their plan didn’t turn out the way they’d hoped. There was a small group of people who hated Gentiles and hated Paul because he was working with the Gentiles. They just didn’t like the idea of having to share their Messiah with Gentiles and nothing Paul said or did was going to change that. It didn’t produce the results everyone was hoping for, but Paul still did the right thing and he could stand before the Lord without regret.
Paul is seized by an angry mob that wants to kill him. But there was nothing unusual about that. Believers who dared to speak out for Jesus the way Paul did, all risked death at the hands of angry mobs like this. This wasn’t the first time an angry mob tried to kill him. But I’m sure every time it happened it must have stirred up some pretty awkward and unpleasant memories.
I’d like to look back and relate this to something that happened to Paul before he became a believer; a time when he was doing all the seizing and the persecuting. I’m sure it made a lasting impression on Paul that he was never able to forget.
Let’s turn to Acts 6 and look at what happened to a man named Stephen, a man the Bible says was “full of God’s grace and power and did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.” The Lord is using both of these men to bring many people to faith in Jesus and it’s making some people furious.
Paul – Acts 21:30 – The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the Temple and immediately the gates were shut.”
These are Jews from the province of Asia. They’re from outside of Jerusalem. They came and stirred up the crowd. The crowd seizes Paul and drags him out of the Temple, into the streets.
Stephen – Acts 6:9-12: “”Opposition arose…from the members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) …They secretly persuaded some men to say. ‘We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God’”
Members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen, a group that is also composed of Jews who don’t live in Jerusalem, begin to argue with Stephen and they get the people of Jerusalem all stirred up. They seize Stephen and bring him to the Sanhedrin; the Jewish Supreme Court who tried and prosecuted criminal cases. Here are the charges and accusations being made against these two men
Paul – Acts 21:28 – “” This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our Law and our place.’”
Stephen – 613-14: “They produced false witnesses who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the Law. For we have heard him saying that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.’”
Paul and Stephen both have the same charges made against them. All of these allegations are false. People were paid to lie. But the accusers all know what hot buttons to press to get people angry enough to kill somebody.
Let’s see how these two men defend themselves.
Paul – Acts 22:1-2: “Brothers and Fathers, listen now to my defense. When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.”
Paul proceeds to tell them his personal testimony. He was born in Tarsus but was raised in Jerusalem. He was thoroughly trained in the Law by Gamaliel. He was as zealous about the Law as anyone else in the crowd at one time. He goes on to tell them about his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus and how it completely changed his life.
Stephen – Acts 7:1-2: “The High Priest asked him, “Are these charges true?’ To this he replied, ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me.”
Stephen begins to dazzle the crowd with his love for and his knowledge of Jewish history, starting with God’s call to Abraham. Stephen doesn’t miss a thing. He had such a grasp of their nation’s history; he spoke with so much power and authority, no one could argue with him. The Bible says the crowd became silent when Paul was speaking.
Both of these men had the crowd hanging on their every word until Paul said…
Acts 22: 21-22: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go, I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ The crowds listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him! He is not fit to live!’”
Stephen said… Acts 7: 51-54: “You stiffed-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears!…They even killed those (the prophets) who predicted the coming of the Righteous One, (the Messiah) and now you have betrayed and murdered Him – you who have received the Law…but have not obeyed it.”
That seemed to be the turning point. A good preacher should know when to sit down and stop preaching. So far, these two situations are identical. But let’s see how they turn out.
For Paul… Acts 22: 23-26 – “As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered Paul to be taken into the barracks. He demanded that he (Paul) be flogged and questioned…As they stretched him out to flog him. Paul said to the commander, ‘Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen?’ When they find out that Paul was a Roman citizen, they stopped immediately and eventually let him go.
But for Stephen… Acts 7:57, 59-60 “Yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him…While they were stoning him, Stephens sprayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ The he fell on his knee and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he said this, he fell asleep.” (He died.)
Paul was spared. Stephen was not. Paul lived. Stephen died. Why does God seem to step in to let one person live but stand back and watch another person die; rescue one, but not the other; provide a miracle for one, but not the other?
Stephen was a young man. He was a good man. He was full of God’s grace and power. Why did God let him die? Why didn’t God save him like He saved Paul? Was Paul special? Was Paul more important to God than Stephen was? Why is it God’s will for one person to die and another one to live?
Lord willing, we’ll try to sort that all out next Tuesday.