Since its inception, the Church has experienced persecution on various levels, beginning with the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the faith.
"On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at
Acts 8:1 (NIV). Jerusalem
A young up-and-coming Pharisee, Saul of
took the lead. With zeal and determination he sought to wipe out this growing
sect of heretical Judaism.
"But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house he dragged off men and women and put them in prison." Acts 8:3 (NIV).
Judaism has always had it factions with divergent beliefs. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were split over the issues of the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels and spirits. Paul used this to his advantage when brought before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23. Don't forget the Essenes who considered everyone apostates, except themselves. Diversity was normal, so why pick on those now labeled, "The Way"?
Peter (Acts ) and Stephen (Acts ) both referenced the illegal process that led to Christ's crucifixion. Blasphemy, in Judaism, was a capital offense, but not under the Roman judicial system. To involve the Romans, false charges of advocating tax evasion were concocted. The religious leaders probably realized that if their plan failed, and a riot ensued, it would be better for the crowd's rage to be directed at the soldiers and not at them. If Jesus was really risen and word of their questionable behavior that forced Pilate to execute an innocent man got back to him, the pro-consul's wrath toward the Jewish leaders for jeopardizing his position with the emperor could be severe. The solution - stamp out the sparks before a firestorm could erupt.
The church has contended in the past with its arch-enemies in the flesh, and will continue to do so going forward into the future.
"It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the anti-Christ." 1 John (NIV).
For the fledgling Church, Saul of Tarsus was the anti-Christ du jour. Fortunately, they had an indefensible weapon which they effectively wielded...love.
Saul desired to expand his reign of terror and the leadership, happy to have someone else do the dirty work (and suffer any fall out from it), gladly sent the young zealot to Damascus. The Church's secret weapon ruined everything.
Hauled off to jail, believers lost everything: family, homes, possessions and even their lives. Never once did they mount either an offensive or a defensive campaign of resistance against Saul. We should be thankful they didn't.
What if they'd plotted to kill him or fervently prayed that God (or someone else) would wipe out this threat? If they had, the Church would have lost one of its greatest evangelists and the author of a large portion of the New Testament. Unbeknownst to them, their actions were having an impact on their persecutor. Despite his hate-filled public persona, Saul was internally conflicted. Acts 26 details Saul's encounter with Jesus on the
"And I heard a voice say in Aramaic, ' Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'"
Study notes in the NIV bible read that the phrase "to kick against the goads" was a Greek proverb describing useless resistance. Goads were used to keep oxen in line and on task. The ox that kicked against the goads only hurt himself.
I believe the Church prayed for Saul's conversion, not his death or removal. According to the book of Hebrews, when persecuted, believers offered no resistance.
"You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions." Heb. (NIV).
Faced with terrorism on several fronts, perhaps we can learn from them. For their efforts, the early Church got back in return more than they could have ever imagined. That's God's modus operendi. Perhaps the next Saul of Tarsus is waiting in the wings for an encounter with Jesus. Praying for our enemies will open doors of opportunities for them that we might find hard to believe.
"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us," Eph. 3:20.
How about you? When reports of terror attacks come out, what's your first reaction? How should believers respond since history clearly demonstrates the transforming power of prayer in a person's life? Could the Church and the world as a whole benefit from another Apostle Paul?