SAUL THE PERSECUTOR
1. How does Luke describe Saul and the persecution that was carried out against the church in Jerusalem?
The question arises both with regard to the stoning of Stephen and the general persecution that followed as to the legality of such actions on the part of the Jewish Sanhedrin. In 6 AD when Judea became a Roman province, the Jewish Sanhedrin was deprived of capital jurisdiction--only the Romans could sentence anyone to death. There was one exception, however, to that rule. The Sanhedrin could sentence someone to death when the sanctity of the temple had been violated by word or action. This no doubt is why at Jesus’ trial false witnesses attempted to accuse Him of saying He would destroy the temple. Stephen was accused of blaspheming the temple in Acts 6:13. While it would appear from the account of Stephen’s stoning in Acts 7 that Stephen was not formally condemned, the Sanhedrin could no doubt have justified itself before Pilate on the grounds that Stephen had threatened the sanctity of the temple.
This would not necessarily have been true of all the Christians who were persecuted, although one could take Paul’s words in Acts 26:11 to mean that Paul forced the Christians to blaspheme the temple and so to come under the judgment of death. Two suggestions have been presented to explain how this persecution could have gone on even to the point of murder: 1) Pilate simply closed his eyes to the matter with the hope that thereby peace would be maintained. 2) Pilate was absent during the months that the persecutions took place. This would be plausible because the Roman governors spent most of their time in Caesarea on the Mediterranean seacoast rather than in Jerusalem.
2. What additional information can we gather from the words of Paul himself?
Was Paul a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin? Some have suggested since Paul says he cast his vote to condemn the Christians to death, that he must have been a member of that high Jewish court. Others suggest that Paul’s statement merely implies his agreement with the decisions made by the court.
3. Against whom were these persecutions directed?
One might think this question unnecessary, however, Bible scholars are divided over the question of whether this persecution was directed at the Christian church in general or simply against the Hellenistic branch of the church. Stephen was a Hellenist--a Greek speaking Christian. It seems that the real trouble began when Stephen disputed with Jews in a Hellenistic synagogue (cf. Acts 6:9). This has led some to say that the persecution was limited to this branch within the Christian community. Does the evidence of the Scrip-true passages cited support such a position or not?
4. Read Acts 5:34-40. In view of the fact that Gamaliel had recommended a "hands-off" policy toward the Christian community, a recommendation accepted by the Jewish Sanhedrin, why was the church being persecuted?
It should be noted when considering why the Christian community was being persecuted that the simple belief that the promised Savior had come, or that Jesus was that promised Savior, was not sufficient reason for persecution. Notice that Peter and John had already asserted to the Sanhedrin that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised Savior, before the Sanhedrin agreed to follow the advice of Gamaliel (cf. Acts 4:11). Down through the ages Jews had and would continue to identify various religious teachers as the promised Savior.
5. What effect did the persecutions have upon the church?
1. Approximately three years passed between Jesus’ ascension, at which time He issued His commission in Acts 1:8, and Stephen’s death recorded in Acts 7:60. Had the early church faithfully carried out Jesus’ commission during that time? If not, what might have prevented the early church in Jerusalem from carrying out Jesus’ commission? (Review Acts 10:1-11:18)
2. Can we see the hand of God using the persecution for the furthering of His will? If so, how?
3. Is the church today suffering from the "Jerusalem syndrome"? If so, in what ways? If so, what can we do about it? If so, how can we prevent it from happening again?
4. Persecution most often leads to growth, not decline in the church. Can you cite examples from church history where this has proven to be true? Why do you think that is the case?