The execution of Jesus Christ should have nailed the lid on the coffin of his nascent religious movement. But to the surprise and chagrin of the Jewish religious leadership, Jesus’ disciples became bolder than ever, and within a decade this new Christian movement had become a serious threat. Something had to be done.
Two unlikely allies stepped forward to try to finish what the death of Jesus had not. They were King Herod Agrippa I, Rome’s man in Jerusalem, and Saul of Tarsus. Neither would succeed.
Herod Agrippa I was the first king to rule Israel since his grandfather, King Herod the Great, who ruled at the time of the birth of Christ.
Herod Agrippa I was Jewish and by all accounts a zealous protector of Israel. He was well-connected politically, having first come to power thanks to his friendship with the emperor Caligula. He gained the respect of Jewish authorities when he dissuaded Caligula from erecting a statue to himself in the temple in Jerusalem.
Caligula became increasingly erratic and was ultimately assassinated. The politically astute Agrippa advised Claudius, helping him gain the throne. In appreciation, Claudius expanded Agrippa’s power and territory, leading Agrippa to consider using his power to bring down the Christian movement.
Saul of Tarsus was also a Roman Jew. Like Agrippa, Saul was a man of education and experience, respected by the Pharisees as a zealous follower of the law and the prophets.
When the religious authorities began a campaign of persecution against Christians, Saul joined in as a witness to the execution of Stephen. Energized by Stephen’s death, Saul followed up with a plan to go after Christians in Damascus.
For his part, Agrippa I arrested James, an apostle and brother of John, and had him beheaded.
When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter. (This took place during the Passover celebration.) — Acts 12:3, NLT
It seems likely that Agrippa planned to hold a show trial, perhaps pressing Peter to deny his faith. Peter would undoubtedly have met with the same fate as James, with Agrippa hoping the Christian movement would be thrown into disarray by Peter’s death.
Saul and Agrippa both saw themselves as agents of Jewish purification. They were traditionalists, intent on using their power to rid Judaism of what they saw as a dangerous, anti-traditional movement.
They were both on the wrong side of God, as it turns out. And in this I find a significant difference between the two.
Agrippa seems to have been more enamored with the voices of the crowd than God. He set his sights on Peter after receiving applause for the execution of James. Later, he was feted by officials from Tyre and Sidon in his coliseum at Caesarea. The event was ostensibly a celebration of the Emperor, but in his absence, Agrippa happily accepted the adulation of the crowd, which cheered, “Agrippa is a god, not a man!”
Both the historian Josephus and the New Testament agree on what happened next: Agrippa became grievously ill and died within days. Acts attributes Agrippa’s death to his lack of humility before God.
On the way to Damascus to terrorize the Christians, Saul was stopped by a bright light and a voice from Heaven.
[Saul] fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting Me?”
“Who are You, lord?” Saul asked.
And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink. — Acts 9:4-9, NLT
Saul asks, “Who are You, Lord?” Kurios, Lord or Sir, was a term of respect. It suggests that Saul was humbled, not combative. After finding himself blinded, he spent the next three days praying and fasting, seeking God’s help understanding what had happened to him.
Both Agrippa and Saul had things wrong. Both zealously came to the rescue of Judaism by attacking Christianity, not realizing that God was doing something new in their midst. But the key difference between them seems to be that Agrippa spent more time listening to the polls than to God. Saul, on the other hand, misdirected as he was, wanted to know God’s heart. He prays. He fasts. He reconsiders and wonders where he got it all so wrong. Within days Saul had reversed himself, going on to become one of Christianity’s greatest leaders.
The lesson, and the question we all need to ask ourselves is this: Who are we listening to? God, or the crowd? God, or ourselves?
God always has something to say. Are you listening?
Photo credit: Stockxpert.com