Self defense

Paul’s attempt to fit in with the Jews in Jerusalem resulted in him being arrested in the temple where he was trying to fulfill a purification vow. It says in Acts 21:27-28, “And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him, crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place.” The false accusations that were made against Paul were probably meant to deter him from speaking publicly in Jerusalem. Instead, Paul was given the opportunity to defend himself and capitalized on the opportunity to share his testimony in front of a large crowd of people.

Paul began his defense by stating, “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous towards God, as ye all are this day” (Acts 22:3). Paul identified himself with the Jews and let them know that he had always been a faithful supporter of the Mosaic Law. He went on to say, “And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (Acts 22:4). The way Paul was talking about was Christianity and his mention of his role in persecuting the early church was probably intended to gain the confidence of the Jews who thought he was involved in Jesus’ ministry from the beginning. Paul’s reputation as a persecutor of Christians had most likely been forgotten since he had been involved in preaching the gospel for almost 20 years.

Paul’s detailed account of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus was the centerpiece of his self-defense. Paul wanted the Jews in Jerusalem to understand that he had been appointed to preach the gospel by Jesus of Nazareth, a man that he had been fervently persecuting up to that point. Paul told them:

“Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ “And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me. So I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do.’” (Acts 22:6-10, NKJV)

Paul argued that he had been ordained by God to do a specific work and he could not avoid his responsibilities. Paul added that he had even tried to relinquish his commission because of his previous involvement in persecuting Christians (Acts 22:19-20), but the Lord told him, “Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21, NKJV). In spite of his fervent explanation of how he had been involuntary recruited into Jesus’ ministry, Paul’s audience was enraged by his admission that Jesus expected him to preach to the Gentiles and so they condemned him to death (Acts 22:22).

The first martyr

Stephen’s appointment to oversee the business of the church in Jerusalem was based on his reputation for accurate testimony about Jesus’ life; as well as the fact that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and had the spiritual gift of wisdom (Acts 6:3). Luke identified Stephen as being “full of faith and power” and noted that he “did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8). As a result of his notable achievements, Stephen’s activities were opposed by certain synagogue members that were most likely jealous of his promotion to a position of leadership (Acts 6:9-10). Stephen was falsely accused of blasphemy, a crime that was punishable by death. When he was brought before the Jewish council to defend himself, Stephen chose to use his trial as an opportunity to preach the gospel to the high priest of God’s temple (Acts 7).

Stephen began his defense by recounting the history of God’s chosen people. With amazing clarity and detail, Stephen reminded the Jewish council that God had been faithful in keeping the covenant he first made with Abraham and then,  later reaffirmed with Abraham’s descendants just before they entered the Promised Land. As he transitioned to his explanation of the New Covenant that was formulated through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Stephen focused on the analogy Jesus used when he was asked for a sign of his deity (John 2:18-19). Stephen declared, “Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands” and then he turned the table on his accusers by stating, “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (Acts 7:48, 52-53).

Stephen’s abrupt accusation caused the Jewish officials to be “cut to the heart” (Acts 7:54). In other words, they became fed up and took immediate action to silence Stephen regardless of the consequences. Stephen’s stoning made it look like he had been found guilty of blasphemy, but in reality, he was murdered by an angry mob. Luke said of this incident, “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul” (Acts 7:56-58).