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57. Persecution of the Christians by the Jews. The First Martyr St. Stephen.

The glory and victory of Christianity and its rapid spread gave a rise to fear and envy among the Jewish leaders. They began to pursue the Christians, to arouse the simple Jewish people against them and to accuse them to the Roman authorities. The Jews seized Christians, threw them into prisons, and killed them.

The first one to suffer at the hands of the Jews in Jerusalem was St. Stephen, one of the first deacons. He is called the first martyr since he was the first among all tortured for Christ.

For preaching about the Saviour, the Jews cast him outside the city and began to stone him to death. He prayed saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," and then with the words, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them," he died.

By killing St. Stephen and many others of the faithful, the Jews were still not able to weaken faith in Christ. On the contrary, by doing this, they greatly kindled its spread among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Because of the persecution, Christians dispersed into Judea, Samaria, and other countries; and everywhere they went, they preached about the Lord Saviour and His teaching. No power in the world could stop the victorious spread of Christianity, for faith in Christ is the true faith. The teaching of Christ is divine teaching, and life according to the faith and teaching of Christ is a true holy life, the Kingdom of God. The Heavenly Father strengthened the faithful, the Saviour was with them, and they were comforted by the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

Note: See Acts of the Apostles 6; 7; 8:1-2,4.

The Conversion of Saul.

When they stoned St. Stephen, the first martyr, one Jewish youth by the name of Saul, who guarded the clothing of the people stoning St. Stephen, approved of this murder. Saul was against Christians and took part in persecuting them. He entered Christiansí homes, seized them and delivered them to prison thus tormenting the Church of Christ. Not satisfied with persecuting Christians in the land of the Jews, he asked the high priest for a permission to go to the Syrian city of Damascus to search for Christians there and to take them bound to Jerusalem to be judged and martyred.

While Saul was going to Damascus and drew near the city, he was suddenly overcome by a light from Heaven. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?"

Saul asked, "Who are you, Lord?"

The Lord said, "I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting. It is difficult for you to kick against the spur."

Saul in fear and trepidation said, "Lord! What are You ordering me to do?"

The Lord said to him, "Rise and enter the city to which you are going; there you will be told what you are to do."

The men who were travelling with him stood speechless hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground. When his eyes were opened, he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. He spent three days in prayer and neither ate nor drank.

Now, there was at that time a disciple at Damascus, one of the seventy apostles of the Lord, named Ananias. The voice of the Lord ordered him to go to the house where Saul was and to lay his hands on him to restore his sight. The Apostle Ananias went to Saul, and when he laid his hands on him something like scales fell from the eyes of Saul; and immediately, he regained his sight. Then, he arose and was baptized by Ananias. The baptism of Saul took place in the year 37 A.D.

Saul took the name Paul and became an outcast by preaching faith in Christ. Then, the Lord Jesus Christ again appeared to Paul and ordered him to go to the pagans and to preach the Christian faith.

The Apostle Paul ended his life as a martyr. For his great apostolic labours like the Apostle Peter, he is called by the Church foremost among the apostles.

Note: See Acts of the Apostles 8:1-3; 9:1-30; and 22:17-21.

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