. . .they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes 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. 8:1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. (NIV) Acts 7:57-8:3
Saul, named after the first king of Israel, grew up in Tarsus, a Roman city. Saul was also called Paul, which was his official Roman name. Tarsus was 400 miles due north of Jerusalem. It was a prosperous city that housed a university and a school of philosophy. The city had an academic atmosphere. Strabo a first century scholar said: “The people at Tarsus have devoted themselves so eagerly, not only to philosophy, but also to the whole round of education in general, that they have surpassed Athens, Alexandria, or any other place that can be named where there have been schools and lectures of philosophers.”
Growing up in a Jewish family meant Saul was well trained in the Jew Scriptures. At an early age he entered synagogue school, where he learned to read and write by copying select passages of Scripture. Every Jewish boy also learned a trade. Paul’s trade was tentmaking. Sometime between 13-18 years old, Paul went to Jerusalem to study under the famous rabbi, Gamaliel who was the best Jewish teacher of that day. Paul, a Pharisee, became committed to the study of the Old Testament laws and enthusiastically embraced the teaching and customs of his people. Years later he described himself as “advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). Paul was a young up and comer with promise of a great future. He was intelligent and strong in his beliefs. Paul’s diverse background resulted not only in his complex personality, but also in his amazing ability to relate to many different people from various cultures and backgrounds.
We are first introduced to Paul at the execution of Stephen, who opposed the very foundations of Judaism that Paul embraced. Paul knew the law: “…anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23). In Paul’s mind a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms. It was against all reason. Paul thought that in making the claim that Christ rose from the dead, one was either being deceived or was self-deceived. Stephen’s sermon apparently further stimulated Paul’s intense persecution of the church. In his own words, Paul said: “… I went after the Christians mercilessly, hunting them down and doing my best to get rid of them all” (Galatians 1:13). Threats and slaughter become the very breath of Saul. His fury included the arrest, imprisonment and death of Christians.