STEPHEN AND PAUL’S MEETING IN PARADISE
According to sacred Scripture, the first person to die for the faith of the gospel was a man by the name of Stephen. Stephen had first been chosen as one of the seven men to look after the neglected Grecian widows in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-7), but he went on to become an able and courageous defender of the faith. His preaching stirred up the anger and animosity of several groups of Jews in Jerusalem, and he was eventually brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin Council to defend himself (Acts 6:8-7:53). Stephen’s words “cut to the heart” of his audience and so enraged them that “they gnashed at him with their teeth…cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:54-58a). Standing by and holding the clothes of those who stoned Stephen and consenting to his death was a young man by the name of Saul (Acts 7:58b). What an ugly, ugly picture of religious prejudice and what it can do to people!
The young man who consented to Stephen’s death was known as Saul of Tarsus because he was a native of the city of Tarsus in the province of Cilicia in southeast Asia Minor (the modern day country of Turkey). For some period of time following the stoning of Stephen Saul continued to make “havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Acts 8:3). He developed a reputation of having done “much harm” to the Lord’s people in Jerusalem and of one who had authority from the Jewish officials to bind and imprison those who followed Jesus (Acts 9:13-14; Acts 22:4-5). He himself would later confess that he thought he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 26:9). He confessed that he had punished the followers of Christ, compelled them to blaspheme, and was exceedingly enraged against them, persecuting them even to foreign cities (Acts 26:11). At a later time in his life, he acknowledged that formerly he had been “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man, but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (II Timothy 1:13). And indeed he did obtain mercy! Ironically, this young man—Saul of Tarsus—saw the error of his way and was converted to Christ. He went on to become a bold preacher of the gospel of Christ, a dedicated missionary among the Gentiles, and an outstanding apostle of Christ, “not a bit behind the most eminent apostles,” and “in nothing behind the most eminent apostles” (II Corinthians 11:5; 12: 11). He converted many to Christ and established numerous churches of Christ (cf. Romans 16:16). The one who formerly persecuted the people of God turned from his hatred of Christians to being a proclaimer of “the faith which he once tried to destroy” (Galatians 1:23). He became the author of thirteen (if not fourteen) of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Following his conversion to Christ we know him as the apostle Paul. In his own service to Christ, Paul would become the object of great persecution and would suffer much for the cause of Christ. In II Corinthians 11:23-27, he recounts some of the many things he suffered for the cause of Christ—including being stoned and left for dead (cf. Acts 14:19-20). Paul, like Stephen, would eventually suffer martyrdom, likely being beheaded at the command of the Roman Emperor Nero in c. A. D. 64 (see II Timothy 4:6-8).
Stephen had suffered martyrdom many years before Paul suffered the same fate. Can you imagine the look on Stephen’s face when Paul joined him in Paradise? I wonder if Stephen, pointing to Paul, said to the Lord, “What is that man doing here? He consented to my death and held the clothes of those who stoned me. Why is he here? He does not deserve to be here.” But no one can possibly believe that was the reaction of Stephen at all. At his death Stephen had prayed for those who stoned him, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60). We cannot imagine Stephen possibly saying such things about Paul to the Lord. Instead, we can only imagine that Paul sincerely apologized to Stephen for the role he had played in Stephen’s death and that they had a grand old time visiting, talking, and reminiscing about their lives as servants of Christ and what they had been able by the grace and mercy of God to accomplish for the cause of Christ. They were only too glad to see each other in Paradise and to have the opportunity to rejoice together. Both men knew what it meant to practice the teaching of their Savior and Lord who had taught, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). The last time Paul had seen Stephen on earth Stephen was Paul’s enemy and Paul was consenting to Stephen’s death. What a different yet great and happy reunion they must have had in Paradise and what great visits they must have had with each other! Wouldn’t we all like to have been able to sit in on their conversations?
(Note: I am indebted to Andy Baumberger, a 2020 English and Bible major graduate of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, TN for the idea behind this article. On July 19, 2020, in the Sunday morning assembly of the Nashville Road Church of Christ in Gallatin, TN, Andy delivered an excellent sermon on “Loving Our Enemies.” I was impressed with both his message and his spiritual maturity).
September 8, 2020