Acts 8:1 – From Death to Life
And Saul was consenting to his death.Acts 8:1a
There is hardly anything more curious in the book of Acts as the incidental reference to Saul which Luke makes in order to close his account of Stephen's noble death. Why does the camera recounting the monumentous events of the beginning keep focusing on this young man at this point? After all, he was only the slave of the persecutors, one sitting by and minding their garments.
Yet for those who confess that the Holy Spirit is also responsible for the order of the accounts, and that He always has a reason for how He has things done, this sentence is not simply a curious, passing note. In fact, short as it is, it keeps echoing like a sounding bell throughout Paul's life, and permeates all his actions and his letters. We can also see that although this account of Stephen's martyrdom ends on the note of death, it is full of life. The Holy Spirit has already set one apart who will follow Stephen's footsteps. And this short sentence tells us where he comes from, and what forms the key to his whole ministry, life, and work.
To see this we only need recall that with Stephen's trial, the Lord makes His final appeal to the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. This was now the third time that one from the circle of the new community of the Nazarene stood before their council. Yet also with this final, forceful appeal, they respond with the same hatred and hostility against the Lord Jesus and His servants. Stephen's death represents, in effect, the total rejection of the Lord Jesus in Jerusalem. This is the point at which the final decision falls, and wholesale persecution sets in. And Saul is clearly marked on this side – he, too, chooses for the side of the obstinate, and hardened, totally rejecting the Messiah and His apostolic representatives.
So we meet with a curious situation as this young Hebrew man is introduced to us. He is young, full of energy, full of life; Stephen is the older man, at the point of death. Saul's life is ahead of him, while Stephen's life comes to an end. Yet in actual fact, matters are reversed. Stephen enters eternal life, but this young man is pictured as totally dead – with a heart as dead as a stone.
Yet the great reversal, the change from Saul to Paul, from death to life, is already anticipated here. The description of that change in Acts 9 builds on what Saul saw and heard here. He saw Stephen crying out in anguish. Above all, he heard the Word which Stephen administered. When, some days later, Stephen's vision becomes Saul's, these events still live with him, and they continue to live with him throughout his ministry. Indeed at his own trial in Jerusalem, he can only recall the moment with sadness in his heart, Acts 22:20; yet it is precisely at that moment that he is cut off and the assembly rises up in a furious rage against him! Stephen's end is as it were repeated here.
Paul's own aborted trial at Jerusalem is descriptive of the pattern that set in after the great change in his life. From one consenting to the death of the believers, he became one who willingly submitted to a similar death time and time again. From the first day a life of suffering was announced to him, Acts 9:16, to the last moments of his life on earth, 2 Timothy 4:6,17, the rule was the same: "I die every day," 1 Corinthians 15:31. Yet through all the descriptions of this continual existence of suffering and hardship, 2 Corinthians 4:6, 11, the theme of resurrection and the power of a new life keeps breaking through. Dying daily, he continually rose victoriously in Christ Jesus the Saviour.
And the key to it all rests in the few closing words at Stephen's death. For he belonged to those who had resisted the Spirit and hardened themselves in unbelief against the anointed King. He belonged to the circle of total rejection! Yet the Lord spared him – miraculously delivering him from the stupor of blindness that hung over him. He was like a "brand plucked from the fire," like one risen from the dead. So he also calls himself "one untimely born," 1 Corinthians 15:7.
All this puts one stamp on Paul's whole life and ministry: grace alone! And this theme fills his life and letters. Indeed, it is only one like Paul, a "brand plucked from the fire" that could write Romans 9-11, describing the rejection of the Messiah by the Israel of the flesh. He writes it all with Stephen's prayer in his heart, Romans 10:1!
How the love shines through – both to his countrymen, and to the Gentiles! Only he could address his brothers, according to the flesh, with such compassion and love. And in Him, Christ continued to speak! In Paul we have our example to follow. For are we not all as brands plucked from the fire? Nothing can take away this starting point in our own lives. Yet it should drive us to a similar life of self-denial, a life of self-sacrifice, so that while the physical dies in us more and more, the spiritual, tried and purified by fire, rises up with ever new and greater strength in Him – and that still, at the end of it all, the whole is stamped by the same words: by grace alone!