Saul of Tarsus first appears in Acts as one involved in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58) and then in connection with the more wide-scale persecution that broke out in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1–5). Peter, Stephen, Philip, and Paul play a significant role in the book of Acts because they were involved in events that led to the spread of the Christian faith beyond the Jewish world. Stephen is of particular significance because his preaching and martyrdom appear to have had a profound influence on Saul of Tarsus.
Stephen himself was a Greek-speaking Jew, and one of the original seven deacons (Acts 6:3–6). According to Acts, a group of foreign Jews who had come to live in Jerusalem (vs. 9) entered into a dispute with Stephen over the content of his preaching about Jesus. It is possible, maybe even likely, that Saul of Tarsus was involved in these debates.
The fierce hostility toward Stephen’s preaching appears to have resulted from two different things. On the one hand, Stephen drew the ire of his opponents by not placing primary importance on the Jewish law and the temple, which had become the focal point of Judaism and were treasured symbols of religious and national identity. But Stephen did more than merely downplay these two treasured icons; he vigorously proclaimed that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, was the true center of the Jewish faith.
No wonder, then, that he angered the Pharisee Saul (Phil. 3:3–6), whose zeal against the early Christians indicates that he probably belonged to a strict and militant wing of the Pharisees, one full of revolutionary fervor. Saul saw that the great prophetic promises of God’s kingdom had not yet been fulfilled (Daniel 2, Zech. 8:23, Isaiah 40–55), and he probably believed it was his task to help God bring that day about—which could be done by cleansing Israel of religious corruption, including the idea that this Jesus was the Messiah.
Convinced he was right, Saul was willing to put those whom he thought wrong to death. While we need zeal and fervor for what we believe, how do we learn to temper our zeal with the realization that, at times, we just might be wrong?