Caiaphas was furious as he sat alone with his thoughts in the court of the Sanhedrin at the Temple complex. In the past few months, all these signs and miracles of healing by unlearned Galileans had stripped him of his power over the Jewish people. It was as if Jesus was still alive; and he was right, totally unaware of how close he was to the truth. Christ, in the form of the Holy Spirit, was working through his apostles!
The high priest now faced an even greater problem with the Nazarenes disciples than he previously had with their Teacher. It was as if Jesus had multiplied himself; and he was right again, so close to the truth, yet unable to see it. Two members of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had defected, and even some of the priests; how many more would there be? These thoughts put him into a jealous rage, and he could no longer tolerate it. Another fire he must stamp out; but this fire was of Pentecostand it could never be extinguished!
Filled with envy, Caiaphas arrested Peter, John, and other apostles who were teaching and healing, and placed them in the public jail. When the Sanhedrin convened in the morning, he hoped to use the courts decision to put an end to all those who followed Jesus teachings.
But the high priest hadnt counted on Gods intervention. Late that night, an angel of the Lord came to the disciples, opened the gates of the jail, and brought them out. Then he told them, Go stand in the Temple courts and give the people the full message of this new life. About daybreak, the excited apostles entered the Temple and immediately began spreading the good news.
Most Embarrassing Moment
Completely unaware of the miracle, the next morning Caiaphas arrived in the courtroom with members of the Great Sanhedrin. They sat on benches in a large semicircle extending from one corner of the room to another, with the high priest in the middle, facing those who watched the proceedings. In addition to scribes, students, and scholars, there were distinguished rabbis and other leaders who exerted great influence upon interpretation of the Law. Because of the astonishing reports by the people, this would be a landmark caseeither for or against followers of the Way.
Everything was ready and all were waiting for the trial to begin. Caiaphas sent orders to the jail, Bring the followers of the Nazarene into the courtroom.
When the officers arrived at the prison, they could not find the disciples in their cells. A thorough search of the prison was made, but they were nowhere to be found and had mysteriously vanished through locked iron gates and stone walls. But how?
After a period of time, the high priest became restless and increasingly embarrassed. What was taking so long?
The officers returned empty-handed to the courtroom and reported, The jail was locked at every point, with the guards standing outside, but when we opened the gates no one was there!
After the captain of the Temple guard and the leading priests heard this, they were perplexed, wondering what would come of it. For the first time, Caiaphas was speechless.
Just then, a spy burst through the door with the startling news, Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the Temple courts teaching the people!
A most humbling moment for the Sanhedrin, and the high priest was in danger of losing control of this whole situation. Go get them! he ordered.
Members of the Sanhedrin and distinguished leaders waited in the courtroom, while the captain immediately took guards to the Temple and arrested the apostles without violence, fearing the people would kill them if the men were mistreated. Finally the prisoners were brought in before their accusers and the trial began.
Apostles Defend Themselves
Peter knew they had much to gain from a hearing before the full court and such distinguished teachers. If the Sanhedrin refused to convict the leaders of the congregation as malefactors under the Law, they would be able to spread the Gospel without persecution.
While formal charges were being stated, the apostles eyes swept the chamber casually, and he was encouraged to see that not all of those facing him appeared to be hostile. Then suddenly his gaze riveted upon one man whose eyes stared back at him with a burning look that seemed almost one of hatredthough Peter was sure he had never seen him before.
Who is that young man at the end of the court, beside the scribe? he whispered to Nicodemus, who stood with him and the apostles as their lawyer.
The crowd had filled every available space in the room and it took Nicodemus a moment to locate the man Peter had indicated. Meanwhile, the apostle studied him, puzzled that his attention had been so diverted to this young man. His eyes did not waver when they met Peters, but continued to burn with the zeal of a fanatic.
That is Saul of Tarsus, Nicodemus whispered. Until a few months ago, he was Gamaliels most brilliant pupil, but lately he has become an agent of the high priest.
Peter had no chance to inquire further about the scholar. But all during the trial he was conscious that Sauls eyes hardly ever left him, though he could not know the reason why.
Caiaphas now launched the attack, At your initial hearing, we gave you explicit orders to stop teaching in the name of Jesus of Nazareth; and what has happened? You have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine and intend to make us responsible for that mans death! Why did you intentionally disobey us?
Again Peter spoke for all the apostles using the same defense, We must obey God rather than human authority! After you crucified Jesus, the God of our ancestors raised him up and put him in the place of honor at his right hand as Prince and Savior, to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins. We are witnesses to all this, as is the Holy Spirit who is given by God to those who obey to him.
As Peter spoke, the Spirit of Truth penetrated the accusers hearts. But Caiaphas, Annas, and other Sadducees were too furious to listen any longer. Blasphemy! they shouted. Then they discussed the verdict among themselves.
While they were waiting, the apostles were heartened to see that at least one teacher, Gamaliel, appeared to be interested in their defense. He was studying them thoughtfully and pondering carefully what had been said. The Pharisee and grandson of Hillel was the most influential teacher in Jerusalem, and could sway the courtif he intervened in their behalf. However, Gamaliel remained silent.
Deliberating had ceased and Caiaphas prepared to call for a verdict of death. Suddenly, Gamaliel rose to his feet. I would speak, noble Caiaphas, he said quietly.
Rabban Gamaliel may speak in any council of Israel, Caiaphas said grudgingly. We wait to hear his words of wisdom. The title of Rabban, higher than any rabbi, was conferred on very few Jewish leaders, so Gamaliels opinion weighed heavily in the verdict. Saul waited anxiously for his former teacher to give esteemed advice in settling this matter once and for all.
Before Gamaliel spoke, he had the apostles put outside the courtroom while he addressed the assembly. Men of Israel: be very careful in deciding what to do with these men. Some time ago Theudas came forward making claims for himself, and about four hundred of our people joined him. But he was killed and his whole movement was destroyed and came to nothing. Judas the Galilean came after him at the time of the census; he induced some people to revolt under his leadership, but he too perished and his whole movement was broken up.
Now, my advice to you is this: keep clear of these men; let them alone. If what is being done by these followers of Jesus is of human origin, it will collapse; but if it is from God, you will never be able to stamp it out, and you risk finding yourselves at war with God.
The court was silent. Not even the high priest would dare overturn a Rabbans judgment. Convinced by this statement, the Sanhedrin sent for the apostles and had them flogged. Again they ordered them to give up speaking in the name of Jesus, and discharged them.
The disciples went out from the council rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer for the sake of their Masters name. Every day they steadily went on with their teaching in the temple and private houses. The word of God spread even more widely, and many of the priests became believers.
There was just one thing Peter found hard to put out of his mindthe man called Saul of Tarsus and the burning intensity with which he studied him; and the strange conviction that the paths of the unlearned fisherman and the brilliant scholar of Jewish Law would somehow cross again.
First Christian Martyr
It was now circa A.D. 36, about six years since Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified. Stephen, one of the deacons in the early church, had become the most eloquent and faithful of Christs followers. Fluent in Greek and an inspired speaker, he was able to move large audiences with his fervor, backed up with great signs and wonders.
Leaders of the Greek-speaking synagogues saw their members slowly falling away and joining the followers of Jesus. To stop the daily defection of their own members, the leaders joined in a common cause with Caiaphas, who gladly seized any opportunity to persecute followers of the Way. Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin on a false charge of having spoken blasphemy against Moses and God.
His speech in front of the Sanhedrin was not designed for acquittal, but an eloquent defense of pure Christianity as Gods appointed way of worship. It began with a summary of the Law and Gods covenant with the Jews, and ended with a searing condemnation of those who murdered the prophets and their Messiah. Stephen knew the end was near, and his last words before the court were, Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at Gods right hand!
It elicited a furious response. The raging mob immediately dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death before Pilate could give his consent. Because of this, and combined with his other inept mistakes, Pilate lost control of the people and resigned as procurator of Judea. He was recalled to Rome to account for his actions, and later exiled.
Without a Roman governor to hold him in check, Caiaphas could persecute followers of the Way without restraintand he had just the man for it. His personal agent Saul was one of the official witnesses to Stephens stoning and approved it wholeheartedly. When the high priest saw his fanatical devotion to Judaism and unrelenting zeal for stamping out the fire of Pentecost, Saul was immediately assigned to devastate the church. Gamaliels advice was rejected, and Peters worst fears about the young man with the gazing eyes had come to pass.
Spreading the Gospel
When the apostle heard about Stephen, the Holy Spirit gave him a new and radically different direction. Christs teachings were to be spread widely abroad. No personnot even Saulcould stop the Gospel!
Peter called a meeting of the congregation and revealed the next phase, Do not be dismayed or fearful. Stephens martyrdom was not in vain. He has saved us from the same fate and proved we must now carry the good news elsewhere, perhaps to the far reaches of the earth.
But there must always be a home church in Jerusalem. You James, as brother of our Lord, should head it; we all respect your commitment and your administrative skills.
What about the apostles? John asked.
We should stay here for the moment, though later I think all of you should go out as Jesus sent us to teach and heal during his ministry.
Who will go now? James inquired.
Those who have been strong in the faith, and as many who are able and willing. I shall stay in Israel, or until other churches have been established enough where I can visit and strengthen them.
Since the only alternative seemed to be imprisonment or worse at the hand of Saul, most of the congregation seemed eager to plant the seeds of faith in new soil. Those who were of the Diaspora were encouraged to return to their own cities and preach to the Jews there, establishing new churches wherever they could. Some were to go Phoenicia, others to Egypt, still others to Damascus, Babylon, Petra and other population centers where there were substantial Jewish colonies.
As the Jerusalem church gradually grew smaller and less important to Saul, the intensity of persecution began to decrease. But it would soon be directed toward another cityDamascus.