Paul and Stephen

If you had to name five people who made you think, who would they be? Or five people through whom you heard God speak to you? Hopefully they wouldn’t all be preachers – perhaps none of them would be. We think of St Paul as a person with a lot to say, but he also listened, reflected, and was inspired.

The earliest indication we have of this is at the martyrdom of Stephen, recorded in Acts 7. Stephen was a radical preacher in the early Jerusalem church and attracted vehement opposition from non-Christian Jews. They pulled him before their council on charges of blasphemy and then dragged him out to be stoned. Luke tells us “the witnesses” (who were by law the first to throw their stones) “laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”

This was Paul. We don’t know why he changed his name, but most likely it marked a transition from his “Jewish” years to his work as a missionary among Gentiles.  The effect that Stephen’s martyrdom must have had on Paul has often been noted, but usually in connection with what immediately followed: his own conversion. Without doubt there is a strong connection, but it goes far beyond Paul’s immediate guilt at murdering such an obvious saint.

As a strict Jew, Paul would have been well aware of the great Maccabean martyrs of history, but actually seeing Stephen stoned, his eyes fixed on Jesus in heaven, seems to have made a lasting impact. Much later as he thought about the many beatings and punishments he’d had for Christ, Paul wrote, “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen.” (2 Corinthians 4)  Then, towards the end of his life, imprisoned in Rome he said, “Pray for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains.” (Ephesians 6)

Paul probably thought of Stephen throughout his life. As the most outspoken “Apostle to the Gentiles” he took up the baton he’d forced Stephen to leave, and was prepared to do so whatever the cost. Inspired by Stephen, he became an inspiration to others.

This article first appeared in Sunday Link, Redemptorist Publications

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