Saul: Paul in the Acts of the Apostles
The Acts of the Apostles mention Saint Paul for the first time in chapter seven. The young Saul was one of those Jews who heard the testimony of Protodeacon Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” who “did great wonders and miracles” (Acts 7:5, 8) and spoke with eloquence, conviction and courage of Jesus of Nazareth, beginning with Abraham’s migration from Mesopotamia (Iraq) to Haran and thence to Palestine. He expounded to his hearers their Jewish history, linking all the events of the Torah to Jesus Christ, whom Stephen sees “standing on the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55, 56)
Provoked by Stephen’s faith in Jesus, they dragged him out of the Holy City of Jerusalem and stoned him to death. The witnesses to that bloody tragedy laid their clothes at the feet of the young Saul, who was not only present at that criminal spectacle, but was also in agreement with Stephen’s being killed. Saul heard Stephen ask forgiveness for those who were stoning him, calling upon Jesus in these words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” (Acts 7:58-60)
These were the first words, news and comment that Saul had heard about Jesus. Saul knew the Torah, the sacred scriptures, and knew by heart all the events, but now he heard them in another context, in relation to a person about whom he knew very little.
But this sight only increased Saul’s hatred and “he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison… And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.” (Acts 8:3, 9:1, 2)
The fact that Damascus is mentioned in this chapter of Acts shows how important was the first Christian community in Damascus, which received faith in Jesus Christ shortly after Pentecost, through Jews and others who had been present at the events surrounding the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. Thus they formed the first nucleus of the primitive Church outside Palestine, once faith in Jesus Christ had spread throughout Samaria, Judea, Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea in Palestine. So Damascus preceded Antioch, where “the disciples were called Christians first” (Acts 11: 26) and to which faith arrived later, through Paul, who had recently started on the Christian way.
That means that news of the faith of the first Damascene Christians had reached Jerusalem and that the faith of the Damascenes was so strong as to arouse the hatred of Saul, who was defending Jewish traditions and Mosaic Law with all the strength of his conviction. Thus the faith of the Christians of Damascus had provoked the ire of Saul who sought to destroy this first Damascene Christian community. In fact the very strength of their faith became the driving force behind Saul’s persecution of them. However, we see that Jesus was the catalyst for changing both the ardour of the Damascenes’ faith and that of Saul’s hatred into a new, divine power that spread throughout the world from Damascus, thanks to that same Paul, who as Saul had sought to extinguish that burning faith by his hatred and jealousy.