A Stone and a Baton
by Jack Wald | August 30th, 2020

Acts 7:51-8:1
Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, was chosen to be one of seven men to help lead the growing number of followers of Jesus. He was intelligent, able to articulate the truth of what Jesus had done. He performed many miraculous healings and deliverance from possession. He was a strong leader and therefore a great threat to the ruling Jewish establishment.

So he was arrested, put on trial, and illegally murdered, stoned to death. It is in Luke’s account of Stephen being stoned that we are introduced to the lead character in the rest of the book of Acts. (Acts 7:57–8:1)
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
8 And Saul approved of their killing him.

Who was Saul? Saul was his Hebrew name; we are more familiar with his Greek name, Paul.

Listen to this description of Paul by Frederick Buechner:
He wasn’t much to look at. “Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose.” Years after his death that’s the way the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes him, and Paul himself quotes somebody who had actually seen him: “His letters are strong, but his bodily presence is weak” (II Corinthians 10:10). It was no wonder.

“Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one,” he wrote, “Three times I have been beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked. A night and a day I have been adrift at sea. In danger from rivers…robbers… my own people… Gentiles. In toil and hardship, in hunger and thirst… in cold and exposure” (II Corinthians 11:24-27). He also was sick off and on all his life and speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” that God gave him “to keep me from being too elated” (II Corinthians 12:7). Epilepsy? Hysteria? Who knows? The wonder of it is that he was able to get around at all.

But get around he did. Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Galatia, Colossea, not to mention side trips to Jerusalem, Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Athens, Syracuse, Rome – there was hardly a whistle-stop in the Mediterranean world that he didn’t make it to eventually, and sightseeing was the least of it. He planted churches the way Johnny Appleseed planted trees. And whenever he had ten minutes to spare he wrote letters. He bullied. He coaxed. He comforted. He cursed. He bared his soul. He reminisced. He complained. He theologized. He inspired. He exulted. Punch-drunk and Christ-drunk, he kept in touch with everybody. The postage alone must have cost him a fortune, not counting the energy and time. And where did it all start? On the road, as you might expect. He was still in charge of a Pharisee goon squad in those days and was hell-bent for Damascus to round up some trouble-making Christians and bring them to justice. And then it happened.

It was about noon when he was knocked flat by a blaze of light that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name twice. “Saul,” it said, and then again, “Saul. Why are you out to get me?” and when he pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, “I’m Jesus of Nazareth, the one you’re out to get.” We’re not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish off one bowlegged Christian-baiter without even noticing it, and Paul waited for the axe to fall. Only it wasn’t an axe that fell. “Those boys in Damascus,” Jesus said. “Don’t fight them, join them. I want you on my side,” and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterwards, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world.

Everything he ever said or wrote or did from that day forward was an attempt to bowl over the human race as he’d been bowled over himself while he lay there with dust in his mouth.

From his letters and Luke’s account of the early church, we know that Paul was born in Tarsus, in Cilicia. This is an area on the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea in modern day Turkey, but in that day was a Greek-speaking area. This would make Paul a Greek-speaking Jew – except that he seems to have been in a family that chose not to assimilate into the local culture.

In Acts 23:6 when Paul was on trial before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, he said
My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees.

When he talked to the crowd at the temple in Jerusalem, before being brought to the Sanhedrin, he told them (Acts 22:3)
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.

From these hints it seems that Paul was born in Tarsus and lived in that city until his teenage years when he came to Jerusalem and began his studies under the famous Pharisee, Gamaliel. Even in Tarsus, it would seem that his family worked hard not to lose their Hebrew roots. They may have spoken Greek in the streets but spoke Aramaic at home so Paul would not lose his Hebrew identity.

So what was Paul’s mother tongue? What was his heart language? He was equally adept in Greek and Hebrew and probably the local dialect in Tarsus. He was multilingual as are many in our RIC community.

I ask people who are fluent in several languages what language they dream in, what language they can read most easily in. Truly bilingual or multilingual people float in and out of languages depending on what they talk about.

I suspect Paul was like this, but there is a hint about what was Paul’s mother tongue. In Acts 26:14 when Paul was recounting his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, he said
We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’

When Jesus spoke to him, he spoke to him in Aramaic and it seems that the resurrected Jesus would know which language to speak that would most effectively reach his heart.

In fact, Paul went out of his way to identify himself as a Hebrew. In Philippians 3:4b Paul listed his credentials.
If anyone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

His name, Saul, was the name of Israel’s first king and the greatest man in the history of Israel to come out of the tribe of Benjamin.

His Hebrew roots were important because in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, he was making a giant step out of traditional Judaism and needed to reassure people that he was doing this as a Jew. So Paul reminded Jews over and over again that he was one of them.

In the same way in this country, there are Moroccans who broadcast Christian programs over the television and share their stories on Youtube. The fact that they speak Moroccan Arabic without an accent gives them a credibility that a non-Moroccan does not have.

For similar reasons, to help bring a radically different message to the Jews of the time, Paul emphasized his very solid Jewish roots.

There were about 32 years of Paul’s life, from his conversion to his death and he was probably between 25 and 30 years old when he was leading the crusade against the followers of Jesus.

This means that Saul and Jesus were about the same age and it raises the question in my mind, did Saul ever see Jesus in Jerusalem? Did he ever hear Jesus teach in the Temple? Was Saul in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified? Did Paul ever see Jesus before his resurrection?

It is tempting to engage in this speculation. Saul was a student of Gamaliel who argued against killing the apostles when they were brought before the Sanhedrin. But this happened a year or two after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Where was Saul in the three years of Jesus’ public ministry? Where was Saul when the Jewish leaders conspired to have Jesus crucified?

If Saul had seen Jesus, wouldn’t he have said so? Wouldn’t he have told Luke? Wouldn’t Luke have included this in his gospel or the history of the church?

Whether or not Saul saw Jesus and whatever Saul thought about Jesus, when Jesus was crucified it became clear to Saul that Jesus was not the Messiah who was promised. How could he be so sure? When Jesus was crucified, he was revealed to be a cursed man and it was impossible for the Messiah to be a cursed man.
Deuteronomy 21:22-23
If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, 23 you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.

The crucifixion of Jesus was positive proof for Saul that Jesus had not been who he claimed to be and that those who were following him and claiming he had been raised from the dead were following a lie.

There were many discussions about Jesus before he was crucified and many discussions afterwards when his followers made claims of his resurrection from the dead, backed up by miraculous signs and wonders.

In these discussions, Saul’s mind was set. The miraculous signs and wonders did not sway him. Jesus had been a false prophet and the followers of this false prophet were threatening Judaism and so needed to be eliminated.

When Saul stood as witness while Stephen was being stoned to death, he did not know it but a baton was being passed.

In a relay race four runners run a distance, perhaps 1500 meters. As the first runner nears the finish line the second runner takes the baton that was carried by the first runner and races off to complete his or her 1500 meters. Then the baton is passed to the third runner and finally to the fourth runner who completes the race.

The runners practice how to pass the baton smoothly. The first runner is sprinting to the end of his or her 1500 meters and the second runner begins to run so when they meet the baton can be passed and the second runner is already in racing stride.

But sometimes the baton is dropped and both runners have to stop, pick up the baton, and go on with the race. In the process they lose valuable time and most often lose the race.

The passing of the baton between Stephen and Saul was a messy pass. It was a dropped pass. In fact it took a long time for Saul to realize that the baton had been passed and that he was to carry it on, continuing the race Stephen had run.

What did Saul know of Stephen? And how did his death impact Saul?

Saul probably heard Stephen teach. There were lots of discussions going on and Saul undoubtedly wanted to hear for himself what Stephen was saying. Because the Synagogue of the Freedmen was composed of Jews from Cilicia, Saul’s birthplace, he was likely among those who discussed what to do with Stephen. And when debating Stephen did not work, he probably was among the ringleaders who brought false charges against him and brought him to the Sanhedrin.

We know for sure that he was present at the stoning of Stephen because Luke wrote that he stood and acted as the official witness of this execution.

Gamaliel, Saul’s teacher, had urged a course of tolerance but his pupil was not inclined to obey his teacher. There is a Talmudic reference to an unnamed follower of Gamaliel who displayed impudence in matters of learning and tried to refute his master. If this is not a reference to Saul, then it could be.

Saul’s mind was set against Jesus and his followers. He was absolutely convinced that he was doing the right thing when he set out to arrest the followers of Jesus and bring them to prison.

His conscience was not disturbed by the stoning of Stephen. He had a job to do and he had done well with this leader of the followers of the false prophet, Jesus. He went on from the stoning of Stephen determined to completely eradicate this menace to Judaism.

But then came his Damascus experience and in the days following, his memories of what he had seen and heard from Stephen came back to him. What we read in Acts about Stephen’s defense and stoning came from Paul as he and Luke talked about this part of the early church’s history. What Paul remembered about Stephen tells us what he seemed to think was important.

In the three days after Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul could not see, but his mind was still active. I suspect Saul’s mind was racing, trying to understand what all this meant. Jesus was Lord and he had resurrected from the dead. What were the implications of this? I suspect that while Saul’s mind was racing his thoughts went back to the teaching of Stephen.

Saul received his sight when he met Ananias. Ananias undoubtedly told him what Jesus had said to him about Saul. (Acts 9:15–16)
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Saul received his sight, was baptized, picked up the baton Stephen had dropped when he was stoned to death, and set off on his part of the race.

Luke tells us. (Acts 9:19–20)
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.

There are three highlights in Paul’s memory of Stephen. First there was his teaching.

Stephen took the teaching of Jesus and moved to a deeper understanding of it. Most followers of Jesus took the teaching of Jesus, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days,” to be a reference to his death and resurrection and nothing more. But Stephen saw that this was more than a metaphor.

Stephen understood that Jesus had superceded the temple. He had replaced the temple. Stephen understood what the Hebrew believers were slow to understand and perhaps never understood. Later on when Peter went to the house of Cornelius, the Hebrew believers did not understand that the temple had been superceded. When the Jerusalem council was convened twenty years later, they still did not understand. The Hebrew believers were tied to the temple and could not let go.

Stephen taught that the temple and law had been gifts from God, meant for good, but now they had found their fulfillment in Jesus and had been passed over. The Hebrew Jews were still tied to the temple but Stephen began the huge step away from the temple to a living faith not bound by buildings and rituals.

I have long admired the brilliance of Paul’s mind but Stephen also had a brilliant mind that was able to see, like Paul, the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Stephen began blazing a trail that Paul took to the Gentile world.

Stephen ran a brilliant race and he passed the baton on to Saul. Neither Stephen nor Saul knew the baton had been passed, but later, after Saul met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul began to understand the teaching of Stephen. He reflected on what Stephen had taught, picked up the baton, and continued the race.

The second highlight Paul reflected on after his Damascus experience was the serenity of Stephen during his trial and stoning. One night when Paul and Luke were sitting around the fire, Paul told Luke about Stephen and key observations in Luke’s account seem to come right out of Paul’s mouth. At the time Paul had seen only a man who was a threat to the Law, teaching that the Law had been superceded by Jesus. Stephen’s serenity had meant little to him then, just something he had seen and tucked away in his memory.

But now Paul remembered, as if he was there, the image of Stephen standing before the Sanhedrin. With all the might of the Sanhedrin against him, Stephen stood there with a face like that of an angel.

Now with the new understanding that came to Paul as a result of being filled with the Holy Spirit, he saw how it was that Stephen was able to be so at peace in the midst of conflict. What had been a slight curiosity now became filled with meaning. And when Paul faced hostility for preaching the Gospel of Jesus, he experienced the same peace of Christ that had given Stephen serenity in the midst of the storm of the Sanhedrin.

The third highlight Paul reflected on was the forgiveness Stephen offered as he was being stoned.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Who was in a better place to observe and hear the last words of Stephen than Paul? Was Paul impressed with this at the time? Paul was so headstrong and so determined to destroy this movement that no brave death was going to deter him from doing what he knew was right. But after his encounter with the risen Jesus, Paul remembered Stephen’s last words and understood that Stephen had forgiven him and Paul reflected on what it meant to be forgiven by someone he was killing.

In a WWII movie titled, Saving Private Ryan, a platoon of men are sent to bring Private Ryan out of the front lines of the battle to safety. At the end of the movie there is a battle scene and the captain says to Ryan as he dies, “James… earn this. Earn it.” The scene changes and now Ryan is an old man at the cemetery standing by the captain’s grave. He salutes the grave and says that he hopes that he has been able to live a life good enough to repay the debt he owed to the captain and the others who died to bring him back. Ryan was obligated to live a good life because of the sacrifice that had been made for him.

Did Paul live his life in an attempt to live the life he had taken from Stephen?

I think Paul carried with him the painful memory of how he had persecuted the followers of Jesus. When he told his story about coming to faith in Jesus he always talked about how he persecuted them. When he spoke to Agrippa he said, (Acts 26:11)
Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.

So I suspect Paul thought about the people he had thrown into prison, the people he had sent to their death. Paul remembered the scene as he stood looking down on Stephen as he died. But that was not his greatest motivation. When Paul wrote about his motivation for pressing forward through adversity this is what he wrote (Philippians 3:14)
I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, did Jesus ask him, “Saul, Saul, why did you persecute Stephen?” No. He asked,
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

When David wrote his psalm of confession after committing adultery with Bathsheba and covering up the resulting pregnancy by murdering her husband, he said to God (Psalm 51:4)
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,

Jesus taught a parable about the end times and that we would be judged by how we cared for the poor, the hungry and the strangers and he said (Matthew 25:45)
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Once again we are reminded that the Christian life is not about us, it is all about Jesus.

Paul lived his life motivated by the fact that when he deserved to be struck down on the road to Damascus for persecuting the followers of the risen Jesus, he was extended mercy by not being killed and grace by being recruited to work for Jesus. As Buechner wrote:
Paul waited for the axe to fall. Only it wasn’t an axe that fell. “Those boys in Damascus,” Jesus said. “Don’t fight them, join them. I want you on my side,” and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment.

Paul worked for Jesus with a deep sense of gratitude for the undeserved grace he had received but he never forgot what he had done. Twenty-two years later when he wrote I Corinthians 15:9 he said
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

If you were here at RIC this morning, I would be giving you a stone marble to carry with you. Since I cannot do that, I encourage you to go for a walk, find a small stone that catches your eye, and put it in your pocket or perhaps a coin purse or pocketbook or pencil case. It is meant for you to keep with you and from time to time you will see it or feel it and take it out and hold it in your hand and think about what it means.

If Paul had carried this stone marble with him, this is what I think it would have meant to him and this is what I think it means to us.

Paul would have lifted up the stone and placed it in his hand and remembered the stones that had been thrown down on Stephen. He would have remembered the ugliness of the blood and smashed flesh and he would have remembered the words that came out of the lips of Stephen, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” reminiscent of similar words that had come out of the mouth of Jesus as he hung on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Paul would have remembered that moment on the road when he expected execution and was instead offered an invitation: I want you on my side.

Like Paul, Jesus wants you on his side.

We talked in the study of Romans this past Wednesday about our sin. Most people think about sinful actions: stealing, cheating, killing, sexual immorality, and so on. But the greatest and most primary sin in our lives is our pride that insists on our being first. This is the root of all other sinful acts.

It is not so much our actions as it is our preoccupation with ourselves that condemns us to eternal death. But if you have submitted to God and accepted the gift of salvation offered by Christ, then like Paul, you have been forgiven and you have been recruited. God has come to you and asked you to be on his side.

You may be discouraged about your Christian life, but this stone reminds you of the mercy and grace of God in your life. You have been forgiven. You have been accepted. You have been recruited.

As I look back on my life I see, with regret, how often I have wasted time, energy, and money pursuing things that have no heavenly value. I look at all Paul accomplished and see the poverty of my own life.

I may not be a star member of the team as Paul was, but this stone reminds me that I am on the team, that I have been forgiven and recruited to work for Jesus.

When you face temptations, pull out this stone, hold it in your hand and remember who you are and on whose team you work.

When you are discouraged, pull out this stone, hold it in your hand and remember who recruited you to be on his team.

When you are terribly distracted by the busyness of the world and you put your hand in your coin purse to pull out some money and feel the stone, remember that the team for which you have been recruited is working for what money will not buy.

Like Paul, you have been forgiven and recruited.

What were the first words Stephen and Paul exchanged when Paul arrived in heaven?

“Stephen, I am so sorry for what I did to you.”

“And Paul, I am so sorry for the ways you suffered. But look around you, wasn’t it all worth it? Look how God used us. Look at all the people here because of how God worked in our lives? It is like you wrote in your letter to the church in Rome
‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.’”

You are on God’s team. Some day, sooner rather than later, you will be on the heaven side of eternal life. Let the stone remind you to live your life for Jesus. God chose you to be on his side.

As you run your race you will be passing on the baton to those who come after you, people you have encouraged to follow Jesus, people who have learned from you about how to life a life pleasing to God.

For each one of us, there is someone who passed us the baton. Pick it up and run your race with determination and joy.