They led Stephen to the temple and had him stand in front of the Sanhedrin.
Saul sat to the side, looking at his friend.
The guards standing to either side of Stephen were ready to pounce as if Stephen were going to attempt to run.
The Sanhedrin looked at each other, waiting for someone to speak.
Stephen just stood calm…
Tears still drying on his cheeks…
He moved his calm eyes from one to the next, looking each member of the chamber, one at a time.
Every time he made eye contact, there was as stir of discomfort.
“Are these things true?” Annas, the new the High Priest, asked.
Stephen shifted his feet, looked at Saul, looked back at Annas.
“The truth, to me, will not be something that you want me to speak of.”
“Are these things that you have been saying and doing true?” Annas asked again, with a little impatience.
“My actions bear witness of what is true, and what is true does not depend on who believes. True is true.”
Annas sighed, “Stephen, please, we want to reason with you. Won’t you share with us why you believe the way you do.”
Stephen paused…well, they asked for it.
“Men… (a pause while looking at most of the council)
“Brethren…” (a glance at Saul, a sideways nod of the head)
…”and fathers” (now looking directly at Annas)
“…please, please listen to me.
“God appeared to our father Abraham, and commanded him to leave his home country, and move to a new place, where He could create a nation that would serve Him…”, and as Stephen began to teach, the men of the council couldn’t remove their eyes from him. Stephens face glowed more as he grew in excitement.
Stephen slowly explained to these men the significance of Jewish history. As he spoke, it seemed that an invisible wave of emotion was building behind his words.
Saul felt himself constantly nodding his head in silent agreement. So far, Stephen had remained true to the history and beliefs of the Jewish scripture.
Stephen was not speaking as a man defending himself. To Saul, he seemed to be using this opportunity to tell others of his message, but this was a message that everyone here knew well.
The conviction in Stephens’s voice and manner burned deeper. The emotion was building in his words. He started to explain the scripture that foretold the coming of the Messiah.
He quoted sacred scripture reverently and clearly, and Saul silently mouthed each word along with him. Still, there was a churning undercurrent of feelings that Stephen was resisting. Saul could tell that Stephen really believed that he could draw these men closer to the truth.
Saul was proud of his friend for doing so well, for speaking so clearly the truth.
…and then he spoke of how many times God had tried to draw close to his people…
Oh no…please no. Saul thought to himself. He looked to the others and noticed the tension was building…
Stephen continued “…and how many times have we, his people, turned Him away.”
Saul now held his breath.
“- as they have now.”
Stephen had been walking a very fine line.
Until this point…
…and the churning wave of emotion that had been restrained broke free through his words.
Stephen began to cry, to weep, and through his tears he spoke softly but firmly…
“You stubborn men, you have done it again, you have not listened to His Spirit, and you have turned him away!”
Saul froze. He couldn’t move. This man had just accused the men that were closer to God than any other men of turning their backs on God.
Still a quiet reprimand, “You are clean and holy on the outside, but you are filthy on the inside, just like your fathers before you!”
Saul knew these men. They were the standard by which cleanliness and holiness were measured.
Now, raising his voice, growing more authoritative…”And just like your fathers before you, YOU have persecuted, betrayed, and MURDERED the Just One!”
He had gone too far!
“Ugh!” Saul let out a wail of anger and frustration. He looked at the others in the room.
Anger ran unchecked. The tension and frustration they had held in check for the past few months ran free. They were pulling at their robes until they tore. They gritted their teeth and snarled at Stephen like rabid dogs.
Stephen stopped talking.
Slowly his head lifted up toward the ceiling. His eyes were wide with wonder. His face was glowing.
The priests and Rabbi stopped and waited, filled with hate and anger.
He opened his mouth, and spoke to the Sanhedrin reverently with awe,
“Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God”.
Saul’s disappointment in his friend, and it was replaced with hatred that could not be contained.
This man has just committed heresy. He screamed an unintelligible sound, then realized that they all had screamed.
These proper, just, upright men yelled with all of their breath. Then they lifted their hands to cover their ears.
Saul rose from his seat to grab Stephen himself, and remove him from this room. He looked up and saw that the others were already starting towards Stephen.
They ran. All of them, at once, at him.
Stephen flew backward from the force, and sailed through the doorway, out into the street.
All of the priests ran through the streets toward the nearest exit while Saul followed, still in shock over the speed that the events had turned him to begin to hate his friend.
It took five of them to carry Stephen. Not because he was trashing and kicking, like any normal criminal would.
It took five men because he remained still.
He refused to stop speaking to the men. As they carried him, he was pleading with them to listen.
They cleared the temple gate and turned right down a small street.
He was proclaiming that Jesus had risen, as He had said that He would.
They dragged him to the left, and forced their way through the crowds along the wide street called “Via Dolorosa”, moving past several Roman soldiers as they looked on.
Normally, this type of public form of punishment would not be accepted without prior approval of the local Roman procurator, but none of the soldiers were willing to stand in the way of these men, and risk starting a riot.
Stephen was serene and calm, in spite of being carried awkwardly by the men.
He factually explained that Jesus would return to establish his kingdom, as they carried him toward the edge of Jerusalem, past an unfinished section of the wall around the city that would later be called the Lions Gate.
Stones are plentiful on the fields of Palestine. By the time Stephen was carted out of the city, many of the Pharisees and Sadducees had already collected rocks and formed several piles of small boulders.
They brought Stephen to the edge of a small hill and tossed him over the side.
He fell awkwardly down the slope, tumbling several times head over foot, finally stopping against a large mound of dirt and stone at the bottom.
Saul was running and pushing his way through the mob. Saul had just emerged through the last group of spectators stepped into a small clearing. The men waiting to throw the stones removed their outer robes, and tossed them at the feet of young Saul. The significance of this was not lost on Saul. They all held him responsible for instigating this event with Stephen.
Saul stood by, his eyes wide with wonder. A mixture of sorrow and regret slowly gave way to contempt for his friend.
He completely agreed with what was happening here.
In fact, not only did he agree, he made a decision that his time to make a difference has come. He would no longer stand idle. He would not tolerate anyone that stood in the way of truth, or blasphemed the God that he knew.
The crowds looked on, as these upright, peaceful, priests of the Lord were driven to pick up rocks and boulders.
The priests began their assault.
Saul watched as the event unfolded.
Every movement was exaggerated.
A swirl of robe, arms extended backward. Long hair and curls spinning with the motion.
One man holding a boulder so large that it was raised over his head with both hands.
Anger flowed from their eyes as they glared at Stephen. Their lips pulled apart to show their grinding teeth full of hate.
One at a time they shifted their weight forward to their front legs, and followed through with every ounce of strength in their arms and chest that they could muster.
In a blur the stones left hands and flew in a calculated arc.
All eyes focused on one target, with one goal in mind. Death.
…the rocks began their decent on Stephen.
He was still speaking clearly, asking the Lord to receive his spirit…
…the first rock whistled by Stephens ear. He didn’t move, but as the rock slammed against the ground it created a loud thud. Saul cringed.
The next rock made contact with his leg. It was about the size of a man’s fist and left a gash.
Then two more, both larger than the first hit him in the chest at the same time.
Stephen flew off his feet and landed on his back.
Another hit his ankle, his wrist, his thigh.
He started to rise, up onto one knee.
The largest boulder yet, thrown by two men, smashed Stephens left shoulder, spinning his torso sideways. He collapsed again, face landing in the dirt.
He yelled “Lord, don’t lay this sin to their charge”…
…several more rocks and sharp stones cut at Stephens’s neck and arms.
The same two men hefted another boulder. They swung it back and forth to create the momentum it would take to reach Stephen when they released it.
This one stone was the size of a man’s chest in itself. As they released it, it rose slowly and reached the top of its arc. It turned over slowly and seemed to hang in the air before it began its decent. Then as if gravity had reached up and pulled on the boulder it dropped with amazing speed.
Stephen still lay on the ground, head turned sideways, mouth uttering words of forgiveness for the men above him.
The massive rock landed directly on Stephens head and his world went black.
Rocks continued to rain down upon his body, until all that could be seen was the hem of his robe, barely visible beneath an pile of grey and brown stones at the bottom of a hill.
The crowds dispersed.
Their job being finished, the priests returned to the meeting hall of the Sanhedrin. Everyone but Saul.
Saul stood and pondered what drove his friend, and these men, to be so fiercely loyal to this Jesus of Nazareth. He had just lost a good friend to foolishness.
He could only understand one thing. That they honestly believed that they were right.