Not long after my new birth experience, I waded into the waters of the Word of God with the apostle Paul and the Holy Spirit as my mentors. God used Paul’s words in the book of Galatians (the first of his 13 letters) to begin to put my puzzle together – one piece at a time. The first small piece of the puzzle, ultimately leading toward the big picture of the new heaven and new earth, was through the testimony of Stephen and his providential meeting with Saul of Tarsus. Stephen was said to be a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5). He was one of the first deacons. God used Stephen in a dual role. The Lord Jesus had instructed the church to leave Jerusalem and carry the message of the gospel throughout the world. The little band of believers and the disciples had grown comfortable with home cooking. They found it difficult to let go and begin to spread the gospel.
God used Stephen in a special way to begin to motivate them to leave quickly. He also used Stephen to become a prick in the heart of this man Saul, who was to become a major grace champion. In a special sermon given by Stephen to group of religious leaders, Stephen reminded the Jewish crowd of their rebellious hearts against the living God by recapping their history. He recalled how they had persecuted and killed the prophets that God had sent to them. The sermon ended with these scorching words: “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised of heart and ears, you do always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51).
The mob hated the truth of this message so much that they began to stone Stephen. Before they began to pick up the stones, they laid their cloaks at the feet of a young Pharisee named Saul (Acts 7:58). Saul had become a notorious religious leader who was at the top of his religious game. He was educated in the Mosaic Law. In fact, he sat under the best legal mind of his day, a Jew named Gamaliel. From Gamaliel he learned to know and love God’s law and to defend it at all cost.
Saul was aware of a small group of nobodies called simply “The Way,” who were following a strange Rabbi named Jesus Christ. To Saul this was nothing less than a religious cult set on destroying the law of his God – the law that Saul’s father had taught him to live by his whole life. Note carefully how God began to put the pieces of His puzzle together. Again, Saul was on hand to participate in the tragic murder of Stephen. Saul, the lover of God’s law and a hater of anyone that he felt stood against it, was on hand to witness the whole scene. Just before Stephen died, he saw the heavens open and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. He cried out before he died, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit” (Acts 7:59). Young Saul must have been amazed and emotionally moved. What did Stephen see and who is this Jesus who could motivate people to love Him so much that they would gladly die for Him? Stephen’s death worked to perfection. A great persecution broke out against the church, causing them to run for their lives, leaving their happy homes in Jerusalem, and in a most amazing way, they began to obey their Lord. This put into place God’s first way that He used Stephen’s death. The seed of the gospel was being scattered. It is interesting that during the times of the persecution the gospel seed prospers.
The second way that God used Stephen’s death was to change Saul’s life. Saul’s love for God’s law quickly plunged him back to reality, and he continued his relentless attack on the church. He had grown to hate this small band of no names so much that he attempted to kill or imprison them all, thinking he was doing God’s will. He found himself on a horse heading to the city called Damascus. Then Saul, breathing out threatenings and slander against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and received letters to go to Damascus synagogues and arrest and bring Christians to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2). It was through this trip to Damascus that God began to change the world.
Saul had in his possession a written indictment from the authorities to continue his demolition of this small group of antagonists. What happened next was a miracle! God in the person of Jesus Christ performed a single person flash mob right in front of Saul’s face. Christ’s glorious presence shot a blinding light right into the eyes of this arrogant Pharisee; it was a light of God’s presence and power knocking this arrogant Pharisee off his horse. The piercing words coming from the light were right on target. “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads’” (Acts 9:4-5).
One glimpse of our Savior in His resurrected glory immediately deflated Saul, leaving him quivering and shaking to his very soul. Saul at once addressed the risen Christ as “Lord,” recognizing that he was standing in the presence of God. The Lord Jesus compassionately asked Saul why he “kicked against the goads.” A goad was a small stick used to prod livestock along. In this context, however, goads symbolized the little pricks or stabs in the conscience of Saul used by the Holy Spirit to convict him of his sin and need of grace. The stoning of Stephen along with others who had died for the cause of Christ was no doubt used by the Holy Spirit to provide the goads pricking Saul’s conscience.
The Holy Spirit still uses the testimony of faithful believers today as goads to convict lost sheep of their need of His wonderful grace. The Lord Jesus changed Saul’s life and the mystery of the church began to unfold. From this one meeting, the truth of the gospel began to spread all over the world. The Lord Jesus Christ led Saul into the desert and there met with him. He began to teach Paul the message of grace, face to face. Later, Paul would simply write, “And called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me that I might preach Him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:16a). Now for a meeting with a man named Ananias.