“And Saul approved of their killing him.”
(In regards to the murder of Stephen)
This most recent Sunday we looked at the last part of Acts chapter 7 and all of chapter 8. As I write this, I don’t know what conversations we had yet.
I reread these texts for Sunday, and Saul’s name kept jumping out at me. It’s an odd interjection at this point in the story of the early church. We just learned about Stephen’s life, ministry, and tragic death, and the writer wants us to know that Saul was integral in this man’s death. Not only did Saul approve of it, but Saul then ravages the early church, “dragging both men and women” to prison.
But villains in the Bible (or in the present day for that matter) are nothing new, the Old Testament has the serpent, Cain, Goliath and the Philistines, Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and so on. And then the Gospels had plenty of antagonists. Herod, Pharisees, Saducees, Pilate, Satan/Adversary, Judas, etc.
And so it’s not surprising that the early church in Acts has adversaries, antagonists. I am not surprised to find villains here.
And as the writer of Acts gives us the name of one of these anti-church people, the writer makes sure that we understand that this guy Saul was no joke.
First Saul is introduced in Acts 7:58, because the witnesses (and presumably the executioners) who were there when Stephen was dragged out of the city put their cloaks at Saul’s feet. Historians believe this was because the cloaks would have been heavy and expensive – not something you want to be wearing while you’re about bludgeon someone to death. And so instead of participating in the execution, this young man Saul stands over the cloaks.
Saul was trusted by the witnesses and the executioners of Stephen.
And as we move into chapter eight, the writer gives us the verses mentioned at the beginning of this post – this Saul guy approves of what is happening. And as the shift begins, Saul is at the forefront of the persecution of the early church.
Then we move into Philip’s story.
The author gives us a glimpse of what’s going on in Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem church’s worrisome state, and then takes us to Samaria to see what Philip is up to.
Luckily, we already know a bit of this story. And we know that Saul will be back, and something new will happen.
For the most part, antagonists, villains, “bad guys” in the Bible don’t come to a happy end. The serpent loses his legs, Cain is banished, eventually bad guys lose, and it often ends in their death or their ruin. New Testament villains tend to get a slightly better deal (apart from Judas), they often seem to just disappear into the backdrop of the story. They are bit-characters, moving forward the plot with their antagonism.
But Acts is something new – Acts is post-resurrection.
And in a post-resurrection world, even the villains are changed.
The writer is giving us all this information about Saul and then moving on to another part of the narrative, so that when we come back to Saul in chapter 9, we can see this new thing.
We may have assumed that this Saul guy would just fade away like so many of the bad guys from the Gospels did. Or maybe Saul would find an ironic and untimely end because of his cruelty.
But instead, Saul comes back, and he is changed.
In a post-resurrection world, there is hope for new life – and that’s exactly what Jesus gives to Saul. Jesus calls to Saul, and Saul is blinded. Jesus directs him to find Ananias, and sets in motion a new kind of villain story – a villain’s redemption.
Ananias recognizes Saul and is in shock, he speaks to Jesus through a vision, “Hey Jesus, this guy is like, literally the worst. Are you sure about this?”
And Jesus? Jesus says “he is an instrument whom I have chosen”.
Jesus chose Saul. Jesus chooses the villain, the bad guy, the broken person who thinks they know what’s best. And Jesus gives Saul a new life. Saul is the one who will bring those outside the Jewish faith to faith in Jesus.
In just a few short lines at the end of Acts 7 and beginning of Acts 8, the author hints, points, foreshadows one of the most incredible miracles in the book – this is a post-resurrection story, and it’s filled with new life.
What are some unexpected ways God has acted in your life? Has God used someone wholly unexpected to guide you in your life? What are some redemption stories that speak to you? How might God change you?